Veterans: Father, Brother, Friend
Veterans Day is November 11, when we commemorate all American veterans living and those who have passed. This essay will commemorate my father, Bill, brother, Doug, and his friend of 50 years, Rich. I asked Doug to tell me about Dad and what he did in World War II.
“He taught radio to combat radio operators. Each unit would have a radio operator who ran the equipment and did all the communications. He was an instructor and taught those guys out of Fort Dix, New Jersey. He saw hundreds of young men coming through, and he always wondered what happened to them. He served three years. He was drafted out of high school and didn’t get to graduate. He was through basic training before his class graduated. He remembered they had an empty seat for everyone from the class who was serving. Some of them were killed in action before the class graduated.”
I wondered if dad felt he didn’t do enough for the war.
“If he did, he never communicated it to me. We talked about his service after I got out of the Coast Guard. We had a shared experience. Before that, he never talked about it. He trained hundreds of guys, and then they were off to Europe and the Pacific.
The Army gives you a series of tests, and they say, well, we think this is the best thing for you. They always do the same thing: ask what you want to do and then give you something else. That was how he got it. He took a few tests and was told to report to radio school. They did the same thing to me. I took a few tests, and they said, we’re sending you to radio school.”
I remark, like father, like son, and say that posting quite literally saved his life.
“Yes. He didn’t have to go to the fighting.”
Doug turned 18 at perhaps the worst time in modern history. In 1968, the Vietnam war was raging. He would be among the thousands of young men all over the country being drafted. He chose to take some control over the situation and enlisted in the Coast Guard.
“Dad and I went to Cleveland on my birthday in March, and I filled out all the papers. I had two goals. The most important was I wanted to get the hell out of Ohio. And I wanted to get on a ship and see the world. Cleveland had the closest Coast Guard recruiter. The Coast Guard seemed romantic and adventurous to me.
I had to wait nine months to see if I was accepted because so many wanted in the Coast Guard. It was the same for the Air Force and Navy to some degree. Back then, you joined the Army, and you knew where you were going - to the jungle.
My draft notice came the week after I reported for duty. My number was 125. The lottery had 366 balls in a lotto, and each ball had a date on it. The date would correspond to your birthday. On New Year’s Day in Northern Ohio, they called up every number up to 200. It was the largest single draft call at that time in Ohio. I got sworn into the Coast Guard on January 4, 1969.
Our family went to Cleveland for the swearing-in. I remember we were on the 4th or 5th floor of a building in Cleveland with the recruiter. We rode down in the elevator together, and the family got off. The Coast Guard guy said nope – you’re staying with us. You’re in the Coast Guard now.
I remember Mom stopped me and gave me advice. She looked me in the eye and said, “Here’s some advice, son, if you sleep with dogs, you get fleas.” This was a perfect example of our pragmatic mother.
I never once had a date, didn’t have time. The first three months, all that happens is people scream at you. We were in Cape May, New Jersey. Everybody tells me it is a glorious vacation destination. I was there in January, February, and March. It was a bitter winter and the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.
We flew from Cleveland to Philadelphia and then caught a bus to Cape May. We got there about two in the morning, and they had to wake somebody up to receive us. Which just ticked them off. There are guys in these perfectly pressed uniforms at two in the morning looking immaculate. The bus pulls up. The doors open. And the screaming starts. Twelve weeks later, the screaming stopped.
They assigned us a bunk, and we slept for two hours. They woke us up and ran us through the chow line, and then we went for medical exams and shots. We got our heads shaved, got clothing. We learned how to march. We learned who was better than us, which was pretty easy because everybody was better than us. There is nothing lower than a seaman recruit.
You go to a lot of classes in basic and learn how to fire a weapon. You learn ship handling and working onboard and on the deck. You learn tying knots. You learn lifesaving techniques and how to jump off a burning ship when the ships on fire. You also learn how to jump into burning water and not get killed. There was a lot of physical training. You’d wake up in the dark, and you’d go outside and exercise.”
I ask, when did you get rheumatic fever?
“Near the end of the twelve weeks. I was feeling it coming on. A lot of people get it through dental work. The first week I was there, the dentist said I had four impacted wisdom teeth. They shipped me off to Baltimore, Maryland, the Public Health Service Hospital. I was there for a week, came back, and got into my training company. Normally when I go to the dentist, I would premedicate. I would take antibiotics. I had this issue since I was thirteen years old. I’ve got a bad heart valve they’ll have to replace one day. I have a heart murmur, and rheumatic fever scarred the aortic valve. I can’t remember if I had told them of this issue. They cut out my teeth, and I went back and finished basic training.
I got my orders and went to radio school as a seaman apprentice. It was at the Governor’s Island Coast Guard Station, off Manhattan. The base is no longer there.
I got into New York all the time. It was the best. Our officers treated us like human beings. You were no longer being screamed at. You went to school and was told you’re going to do this or we’re going to flunk you. We don’t care. It’s like college. But they tell you, if you flunk out here, we’re going to send you someplace terrible. Guaranteed, no if ands or buts, you’re going to a terrible place. I studied hard. The very first thing you learn is morse code. As a junior radioman, I worked most of my job doing morse code to merchant ships.
One of the first times I worked, an actual call was with an old merchant guy. At the end of the message, he sent a really dirty sign-off. Because I was sending so slowly, he would interrupt me and call me another term that can’t be said publicly.
I was there for seven months of learning and working. You clean a lot. You scrub something, and I was always painting something. I wasn’t feeling great, so I spent two weeks at the Staten Island Maritime Hospital and was sent back home for a few weeks. Once back, they put me on light duty, like answering phones and stapling papers.
My boss came in and asked me if I was getting discharged. I said I don’t think so, Chief. It says here you are. Go report to the Lieutenant. I was told because I had a prior condition, I should have never been recruited. I fought the discharge. I did not want to go back to Ohio. I’m in New York City, I’m 19, and I’m single.
It was horrible. I consider it a significant turning point in my life. Everything I imagined doing was snatched away. I don’t dwell on it but still wish I could have stayed.
I met Rich at Governor’s Island, and we became lifelong friends. Rich had been sent to an ice breaker out of basic training. They needed deckhands. One of the big jobs is beating the ice off the ship to keep it from capsizing. We met in radio school, where he flunked out. He went from there to electricians school. After that, they put him on a ship and sent him to Vietnam. It fulfilled the warning about flunking you’d be sent someplace really bad.
The ship he went to was 285 feet long, and he sailed out of San Diego. He did four Vietnam tours. One time, his ship came under attack. They were standing on the fantail, the back of the ship, out there smoking and shooting the breeze, and they saw tracers. They sounded general quarters. Tracers are where every tenth round has phosphorous on it so you could see it so the machine gunners can know where the bullets are going. Something that glows or burns because you can’t see what you’re shooting at. The Coast Guard ships did everything the Navy ships did. He spent the last two and a half years on that ship, in total served over four years.
It took me years to get over the loss of serving in the Coast Guard. I made it up by having boats throughout my life. Currently, I have a 25-footer and can honestly say I have sailed thousands of miles over the years.”