Experiences of a young Seabee in WWII
A month after turning 17, I left the Indian reservation in southern Arizona where I was raised and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Because I was underage, my parents had to sign for me; they did and I entered boot camp in San Diego, California, in July 1943. A long road lay ahead for me.
Two of us in our company were found to be marginally colorblind so after graduating from boot camp, we were transferred over into the Seabees. This was quite alarming to me, but it turned out to be a very good educational experience for this young boy from the reservation.
I reported for duty that September at Camp Perry, a large training base for the Seabees located at Williamsburg, Virginia. About a month later, I was put on a draft, which sent me to Camp Endicott at Davisville, Rhode Island, where I was temporally assigned to the Base Ship Company. Because I knew how to drive a truck, I quickly found myself behind the wheels of a coal truck delivering coal to all of the barracks on base. That was a job that I was well suited for.
Sometime in early October, I was again transferred, into the 28th NCB as a replacement after their return from Iceland where they built an airstrip. The 28th was newly designated as an Amphibious Pontoon Battalion and they began working on various pontoon systems at Quonset Point. Again, I was a truck driver. A short time later, an all-volunteer Causeway Unit (formed as the 2304th Special Detachment) was being assembled from the ranks of the 28th Battalion. The new unit consisted of ten line platoons and a HQ platoon. I volunteered because I saw the opportunity to get overseas faster, which eventually came to pass. Lt. Fred Wise was my new CO.
We trained on and learned about the pontoons for about 2½ months as Lt. Wise brought us together as a well-oiled unit. He had distinguished himself during the landings at Salerno, Italy, and was an excellent officer. In late January, it was time to go; we went by train to Newport News, Virginia, and about the first of February, we boarded an old Liberty ship. (Often called a Kaiser coffin because so many of them had been sunk; the name came from the ship’s builder, Henry Kaiser.)
We became a part of a very large — and slow — ship convoy headed east. Our speed, reported to be about 4 knots, was determined by the speed of the slowest ship in the group. And a couple of those slower ships did pull out after a day or two for another destination.
There wasn’t much room on that ship so the cooks had to make the bread during the night, as the space was needed during the day to cook and serve our two daily meals. I happened to be standing next to the lieutenant when a cook asked for some nighttime help; I quickly found myself to be a “cook’s helper,” making bread. The schedule was tough because I found it impossible to sleep during the day with constant “abandon ship drills” going on.
We were at sea for 21 days before we reached the Strait of Gibraltar. A submarine scare occurred just before we entered the Strait but it was soon diverted by the depth charges from the accompanying destroyer escorts. The big rock was an awesome sight. Another five days found us leaving the convoy and making port in Oran, Algeria. By then I was one wide-eyed 17-year-old who was about to witness a remarkable string of events.
Traveling in Africa
The harbor was full of sunken ships and many of the buildings were nothing more than rubble. I will never forget my first view as we disembarked and I saw a half destroyed building with a Coca Cola sign painted on the side; I didn’t know it was sold way over there.
We were given one day of liberty in Oran to loosen up after over three weeks aboard that cramped ship and the next morning we were went by truck to the rail yard and boarded an old French narrow-gauge train. The rail cars were all old WWI type 40-8 boxcars (40 men or 8 horses). There was no way for all of us to sit down at once, so we traded places regularly with those forced to stand. A handful of men decided to climb up onto the few flat cars attached to the train and sit inside the trucks and other equipment being transported. Our meals consisted of cans of C-rations, enough for two meals a day. We traveled for seven days, crossing the war-torn landscape of Algeria and most of Tunisia before arriving in Bizerte.
One day we passed through an area and encountered a huge swarm of locusts. The sky was black and it was almost impossible to see the few people who were standing along the tracks. We had to cover our faces for a good two hours to keep the flying insects out of our noses and mouths. Being in an open boxcar didn’t help. Finally, we arrived in Algiers and again, the harbor was full of sunken ships.
It was almost dark and the men riding the flat cars were like the rest of us, just trying to get some sleep, but when they awoke the next morning, the train was long gone, leaving them in a strange Arab environment, sitting on flat cars that had reached their destination. With the help of some Army personnel, they began to jump on every train that passed through, and there weren’t many. It took them about two weeks before they caught up to us in Bizerte. We thought it was funny, but the lieutenant felt otherwise.
Upon arriving in Bizerte, we were trucked over to an old French naval base named Karuba at Ferryville, a harbor near Bizerte, the advanced training and assembly point for the future landings in southern France. We saw dozens more sunken ships in the harbor and many destroyed buildings. We merged with the 1040th Causeway Detachment already on station; Lt. Wise remained the CO and I was still in HQ Co. driving trucks.
The situation at the Anzio beachhead, just south of Rome, was critical so one platoon was quickly sent up to assist the Seabees already there. The rest of us remained in Karuba to continue our training. We were put up in a bombed-out building that at one time been a nice place; when we were there, the roof was gone. We could not find the latrines, until we figured out that they were Asian style: just a hole in the floor. Many other surprises awaited me.
Bound for Italy
In late March we loaded on LSTs and sailed to Naples where we were temporally assigned to the 8th Amphibious Force and the pontoon platoons were all assigned to an LST. I was one of seven or eight men in the advanced HQ Company and we were bivouacked in an old foundry in the nearby town of Torre Annunziata; the rest of the HQ people stayed in Bizerte. As soon as we arrived, the ships began landing exercises with our pontoon men. One string of cans came ashore on the beach at Pazzouli, a small town just above Naples, and hit a beach mine that the Germans had placed; we lost some men. I kept driving trucks and witnessed a world of destruction left behind by the war. The lack of water, electricity or plumbing was common everywhere and, even at the age of 17, I felt the hardship of the population. I was growing up fast.
Mount Vesuvius erupted prior to our arrival and the mountain still had a lot of hot spots. One day I drove my weapons carrier as far up the road as was passable, and then found a farm boy who agreed to walk us on up to the top in a safe route. It was a frustrating climb. While we were up there, we witnessed a German plane flying over the harbor in Naples and all the ships were firing at the plane; it was strange to be looking down on it all. We later found the ruins of old Pompeii and took a self-directed tour. The place was mind-boggling as well as historical. All of these experiences formed lasting memories for this 17-year-old boy.
The Isle of Capri, situated just outside the Bay of Naples, had been turned into a rest camp for officers only. As enlisted men, we could not go onto the island but we circled it and threw hand grenades from our amphibious “ducks” to gather fish for our meal back at the foundry. I turned 18 while in Naples.
I never had the chance to fire my weapon, but I was close enough to see what was happening. Total destruction was everywhere. War souvenirs were plentiful and I had a sea bag full to bring home, including a fine German Luger pistol.
On 15 August 1944, our units went ashore at Saint Raphael and Saint Tropez, situated between Toulon and Marseilles on the southern coast of France. I was still driving my truck in Italy. Several platoons remained in Toulon to help clear the dock area where the French had scuttled a number of ships.
Shortly after the invasion of southern France, we all returned to Bizerte and prepared to return to the States for redeployment. Again a call went out for volunteers to stay and assist in the decommissioning of naval bases in Oran and Arzeu in Algeria. I stayed and a new unit was formed and called the 626th CBMU (a maintenance unit). Both bases had belonged to the French before the war, but our Navy had taken over on a lend-lease agreement. No longer needed, they were returned to the French.
In June 1945, we were picked up in Oran by the troopship West Point, a converted luxury liner and we proceeded to Naples where several thousand soldiers came aboard. Five days later we arrived back in Newport News.
My last duty station was at Port Hueneme in Oxnard, California, and I was discharged on 1 April 1946. I had left the reservation as a green young boy and returned a seasoned young man.