It was the most exciting period of my life. I joined the Navy following graduation from Massachusetts College of Art in 1942. The war was in full swing. Every young man wanted to be part of this high adventure. Most had no idea of the reality and surprise we would soon face.
Boot camp was swift, with hardly time to get a proper-fitting uniform. Newport, Rhode Island, was the training camp for young men captured by the excitement of war. The fledgling sailors slept in bunks stacked three high. At the crack of dawn we were catapulted by the blasting sound of a bugle out of bed into our navy clothes to run around in an endless field, all in the name of exercise and fitness. Food was plentiful and the call for strength, never used before, was part of a daily routine for us. We tied knots, fired guns and took written tests.
Within five weeks we were assigned to ships and out to sea. My fondest memory of that period was winning the second highest rifle score ever recorded at this Newport Boot Camp. On the last field day exercise of my stay, hundreds of boys stood at attention as the top brass and entourage walked past the young sailors for inspection. As they approached me, I stood straight and rigid. The ranking gold-braided officer stopped, flanked by men with clipboards and pencils in hand. He smiled and asked me my name and where I came from, then spoke in praise for my continued naval future. I was amazed, proud and very flattered by this focus of attention.
Following this final Newport training event, we once again found ourselves at attention waiting to hear which ship or destination our next assignment would be. In moments I would hear my name attached to my new home, the USS La Vallette DD448, a brand new Fletcher class destroyer with a future destined for adventure. My heart beat fast as I boarded my ship. I clumsily saluted the quarterdeck, mimicking the proper gesture of naval protocol. I quickly realized my new shipmates came from the deep South. A number of us were so-called “Yankees” and, despite the civil war, we did share one major thing in common. Namely, we were “the good guys.”
Our shakedown cruises sailed past the great monuments of history and pleasure. The Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Newport News, Virginia, then on to Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Trinidad, and Panama. I can never forget traveling through the Caribbean Sea at daybreak watching the dolphins swimming directly in front of the bow, each peeling off as others filled the empty position. As night fell, the blue—black sea would turn into a foaming mass of sparkling phosphorescence. I remember a “flying fish” came up with such force it flew over the fantail (back end of the ship) and caught one of our very surprised shipmates right in the butt. We kept this fish in a bucket for a short inquisitive inspection then tossed him back into the phosphorescence and life.
In recognition of having graduated from four years of art college, the Navy did award me a third-class petty officer rate. My course in fine arts did not warrant a degree at that time, otherwise I would have been eligible for a commission in the Navy. (Ironically, in 1993 I was among five hundred recipients of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree retroactive to the day I graduated in 1942.) Disenchanted with my third-class Painter’s rate, I asked to become a “quartermaster striker”, which meant that I would work on the bridge of the ship learning about navigation, signaling, radio, sonar, and radar. I was given this opportunity and worked very hard to become a proud part of this team.
I could not wait to record all the new experiences playing out before me. I started to make sketches of my shipmates in my spare time. Each effort was not only a test to see what I could do as an artist, but I began finding new story-telling interests in the depiction of the crew through their gestures, dress, and expression. My sketches were done hurriedly. They began to accumulate and before long I was regarded as the ship’s artist. It really felt great. The art work opened many doors for which I was ever grateful. I was given canceled charts to use for paper. The backs were perfect for drawing and painting, and the colorful chart images of the many islands and countries of Asia and the Pacific lent wonderful authenticity to this historic record of the war. I had plenty of paints and pencils to keep me busy for a long time. I could not be happier.
The crew was put through very rigid practice. None of us really knew the vital importance it meant to our survival. Firing on targets was fun and competitive, but hardly the feeling we all too soon would learn that targets often fire back. General Quarters rang out its high pitched beep, beep, beep and we all ran to our battle stations measuring the speed with which we accomplished this task, but no one had as yet experienced the numbing, heightened fear this would generate when being attacked by enemy strafing and torpedo planes.
No one can ever imagine the tingling anticipation of sudden death, the fear of being torn apart by shrapnel, or imagine the enormous fear of being in water covered with the suffocating stench of diesel oil, or the horror of anticipated shark attacks. The consistent practice, although an inconvenience to many, paid off handsomely. We would not realize this until we were in real trouble at a later date under fire.
The weeks of continued training were abruptly interrupted when our ship was ordered to join a huge convoy crossing the Atlantic to Africa. This operation would be remembered as the Tunisian Campaign, our indoctrination into the real war. We zigzagged across the ocean guarding the heavily loaded ships until the first signs of land were detected. Steaming towards us were friendly combat ships to escort the cargo ships to their destination, at which time our ships made a 180-degree turn and headed for home.
The return was uneventful until an unidentified ship appears on the PPI scope of our brand -new electronic radar device. This was it. Our first live encounter with a possible enemy. Our ship sent out a challenge signal to the target ship, which could not respond with the proper friendly reply. Although the target flew a Panamanian flag, our captain ordered and fired a salvo over its bow in preparation to make a boarding inspection. Its frightened crew scampered to the main deck ready to jump over the side. Somehow an answer came up positive prior to boarding the target and the ship was saved from a frightening end.
Although we had the power, those moments of life-and-death threat woke us up to the realities of war. In the meantime, much to our surprise and horror, we learned that the convoy we had just left off the coast of Africa in the safe hands of another circle of combat ships was attacked by a wolf pack of submarines, inflicting heavy casualties. Needless to say we were sad, but very happy it wasn’t us. The realities of war were beginning to sink in. The excitement of adventure was less inviting.