As focused as I was on my own life, events conspired to put me in my place. Germany had invaded Poland a few days before my fourteenth birthday, and by the time my father knocked me through the screen door, Hitler controlled much of Europe and had aligned himself with Italy and Japan. Our country was ramping up for war. My oldest brother, Pete, who was now a master plumber, had volunteered for President Roosevelt’s one-year draft program so that he could get his service out of the way and come back and make money in the event more and more men deployed. He had joined the Army and was stationed with the 25th Infantry Division at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Mama was in the kitchen cooking, and my daddy and I were listening to the radio as news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor hit the wire. The announcer said that the nearby Hickam Field and the Schofield Barracks had also taken a direct hit. Mama turned pale at the stove. “Cut that damn radio off,” my father yelled.
There was so much confusion at first. It was days before we knew that Pete had been at church that morning, safe in the chapel, and survived. With war declared, my brother Donnie was called up from the Army Reserve, and Manny joined the Navy. Papa wanted to enlist also, but they said he was too old. Me, I was sixteen and still too young for action abroad.
Construction work on area bases shifted into overdrive, and the Navy rushed to build Camp Peary in the boondocks outside of Williamsburg. The Camp, which would later morph into a CIA training ground, was built as a training facility for Seabees to learn how to construct makeshift mobile command units. The units were critical, especially in the Pacific as the U.S. hopped from island to island. My father worked for Doyle and Russell, a huge government contractor that built bases, all on cost-plus jobs. He was assigned as a labor foreman, working with water and sewer pipes and manholes. Oakley and I followed the work there as well. It was one hell of a muddy, backwoods place to work, but everyone felt such urgency and purpose. All of us worked long hours, through the cold and the dark, whatever it took to get the job done.
Oakley bought a brand new ’42 Dodge, and we’d drive it over to the Peninsula where the headlights failed to cut through the fog that rolled in heavy from the Chesapeake Bay. Oakley and I would take turns riding on the car fender with a flashlight, tracking the lines on the road and flashing the light to the right or the left to direct the driver. Working the fender was tough duty on a cold night. Once, I literally had to pry Oakley off the front when we arrived. He’d frozen to the metal fender and had icicles hanging from his beard.
Oakley was a big man, which I appreciated as we worked together way out in the woods. He was great to have around for protection. Everything was rationed during the war, so it was hard to buy tires, whiskey, gas, most anything at all. Transients from everywhere came through the woods and would rob you given half a chance, but most people were unlikely to mess with Oakley. Maybe that’s why I took such great pleasure in antagonizing him. I just loved to rile him up. Even with the cold and the hardship, I always knew I was fortunate. My life was unique.
I thanked God that I could always find something to laugh about along the way.
The Navy pushed so hard that we started working seven days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day. There was so much to do and learn. I eventually moved with my daddy to nearby Toano and lodged at an inn that General Lord Cornwallis used briefly as his headquarters before surrendering to George Washington at Yorktown. Old as it was, the inn sure was a hell of an improvement over grabbing catnaps in Oakley’s car. Plus, it was impressive to see my father on the job. No job was too hard or too dirty. One of his workers called him a real piece of work. A sewer line had busted, and the worker didn’t want to get into the ditch with the sewage to fix it. He said my father hopped down into the ditch, grabbed a piece of crap, smelled it, and declared: “That’s mud. Now get your ass back to work.”
“Dirt will wash off with soap and water,” my daddy always said. “It’s no sin to get dirty. It’s only a sin not to clean yourself up.”
After we finished the contract at Camp Peary, Oakley and I moved on to DePaul Hospital, but my heart roamed as World War II raged on. The Japanese took the island of Guadalcanal in July of 1942, and Pete headed there in November with his division, nicknamed Tropic Lightning, to assist in the battle. Donnie was now in the Army, and Manny at sea. I didn’t have to go to war because I was the youngest, but I wanted to follow my brothers into battle. Papa understood and convinced my mother to sign the papers.
Seventeen and ready to fight for the Allied cause, I joined the U.S. Navy in 1943.
By the time I made it to boot camp, Pete had contracted a disease in the jungles of Guadalcanal. He was transferred to San Francisco for the treatment, but the U.S. doctors didn’t understand these exotic illnesses, and my brother grew sicker and sicker. Mama took the train across the country to be at his side. Donnie had yet to be sent to Europe. He met our mother there and convinced the hospital staff to allow her to stay at Pete’s side. I can only imagine what a comfort it was to my oldest brother. In the end, nothing could save him. Pete, a hero and soldier, turned twenty-seven in August, and died in September. I had been recently transferred to the Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois.
Our grief was both personal and national, one more family who lost one more loved one to the war. Like so many young men of my generation, I buried my pain in the overriding determination to fight for the Allied cause. I held the rank of Seaman, 3rd Class. Although I entered the Navy with a good deal of electrical experience, ship work required specialized knowledge of waterproof materials and self-contained circuitry. I wanted to go to work on a sub, but training came first. The Navy gave me an IQ test and said I scored really high, and had me take courses at Iowa State College, which was one hell of a blessing for a kid who’d dropped out of school at the end of sixth grade. I moved to Ames, Iowa, which was freezing cold, but I didn’t care. College was a whole new world for me. I lived on campus and studied hard.
We had civilian teachers and had to do well on the tests in order to stay and advance in the classes. I stayed and took classes all through the winter. I loved physics—atoms, protons, matter. I sat in the front during lectures, trying to grasp as much as I could. I befriended the bright students who would explain the concepts in simple terms until I could understand. When it was time to move on, I received a type of diploma that meant I could come back and officially enroll after the war. I never made it back to Iowa, or to any college for that matter, but I sure appreciated all of them, the professors and students who were kind enough to take a kid like me under their wing.
With the training complete, I was sent to Camp Pendleton in California. From there, I embarked in 1944 on a troop transport ship to Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. I understood the danger. Men died in this war, good men. I grieved the loss of my brother Pete and feared for the safety of both Donnie and Manny far away in Europe. Still the thought of adventure thrilled my teenage heart as I sailed through the exotic islands of the South Pacific.
War or no war, I loved the Navy. The government gave me clothes, food, a place to sleep, even a doctor if I got sick. And I met people from all over our country who were willing to lay down their lives for what they believed. My optimism faded a bit as I neared my assignment. When I told one of the sailors that I was headed for the USS Arayat, he shook his head. “Oh my God,” he said. “That’s Himelfarb’s ship.”
When I left Iowa, I hoped to be assigned to the Pacific, and on a submarine where I could work with the advanced electrical systems. I got the location I wanted but certainly not the vessel. The USS Arayat was a Merchant Marine tanker commandeered by the Navy during the war. The U.S. government took the whole crew, and the Captain, Lieutenant Moe Himelfarb, came along for the ride.
The Captain, when I first saw him, was a sight to behold. He stood short and squat, with his garrison cap angled gangster-style over his head and his shirttail peeking out of his open zipper. I took my place among the ragtag crew of fifty or so, mostly ex-armed guards from the ship’s merchant days. I was supposed to be an electrician in the engine room, but a man with no training had been filling in for that position before I arrived, and it took a while before I could work my way into the spot. Although they lacked military experience, the crew was made up of seasoned seamen.
The Navy brass had sense enough not to put Himelfarb in charge of anything too critical, so our ship didn’t have a glamorous assignment. But we had important work to do, fueling and refueling the warships of the 7th Fleet as they fought island to island, hopping around strategically to cut off supplies and pocket the Japanese forces. We sailed along the New Guinea coast, docking to refuel at the beautiful Milne and Humboldt Bays.
Captain Himelfarb, whose family owned a clothing store in Baltimore, was a nice enough fellow, but a real loss as a leader. We were supposed to respect him and his two and half stripes, but it was near impossible to do. He spent half the time restricted to his own ship, and the other half getting drunk at port. I couldn’t figure out where he got all the alcohol, until the Chief told me that he got it from the Corpsman. “Jugs of medical alcohol,” he said. The pharmacist got the stuff by the gallon and brought it aboard to clean wounds, the lenses on lights, and polish up the gyro compass.
“Won’t that kill him?” I asked.
“We’re not that lucky,” the Chief mumbled. Turned out the medical alcohol was 98 proof, which explained a lot about our fearless leader. The Captain had rank on us, but everybody fought against him. He was just a piece of work.
One time, Captain Himelfarb returned from port on a particularly rough day at sea. The boat ferried him out to the ship, and he teetered over to the Jacob’s ladder. Sailors reached down from the deck, while men from the boat pushed from below. The boat rocked. He lost his grip and fell into the rolling waves. I think it crossed more than a few minds to leave him where he landed, but we fished him out, and he came aboard madder than hell. “You pulled up that rope, you son of a bitch,” he yelled at the officer in charge of the deck before storming off, dripping wet to his quarters.
“Can you imagine this guy is the captain?” I said to one of my shipmates. “He’s supposed to be in funny land, not in charge of a ship.”
My shipmate just shrugged and turned away. We were at war. We were at sea, and we all had to make the best of the hand we were dealt, even if that meant the only real choice was to lead ourselves.