“YOU ARE NOW A MEMBER OF A GREAT FIGHTING TEAM”
Rarely has a hotel hospitality room held such a collection of unassuming sea warriors as the one that gathered in San Pedro, California, in August 1982. They had come from Utah and Virginia, Michigan and Arizona, and more than ten states in between. They set aside garage tools and law books, left schoolrooms, farms, factories, and police stations, and made room in packed schedules, because of their shared bond. As shipmates of the World War II destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), they came to honor their skipper, Robert W. Copeland. His command of the feisty destroyer escort thirty-eight years earlier had catapulted him to the ranks of admiral and earned him the rare honor the United States Navy was bestowing that August 7, 1982: naming a warship of the fleet after him. The frigate, USS Copeland (FFG-25), would that day be commissioned.
The aging men, most in their fifties and sixties, had shared the same dangers—some were, in fact, at his very side—in 1944 when Copeland turned his diminutive vessel toward those Japanese battleships and cruisers intent on annihilating his ship. Despite being badly outgunned, Copeland charged the foe in a David-and-Goliath feat that prodded one deputy chief of naval operations to call the vessel “the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.”1 They wanted to be with the Copeland family today, their skipper’s second moment of triumph.
They came out of respect and love, for their commander and for each other. Red Harrington, labeled “the bearded and tattooed Boatswain” by the ship’s newsletter in September 1944, was one of those venerable chiefs that helped every skipper run a ship.2 He was all navy, and his gruff ways and piercing glare had unnerved more than a few seamen, some of whom thought his flowing red beard gave him the visage of a buccaneer of yore rather than a navy chief.
Red had served aboard many ships and worked with various crews, but none topped that of the Samuel B. Roberts. He said that Copeland and his officers instilled a can-do spirit among the crew that “I have never seen excelled in all my years as a Navy man.” When Copeland promoted Harrington to boatswain’s mate first class, Harrington vowed to never let the man down, and he had “tried for the rest of my life to justify his faith in me.”3
He wrote shortly after this initial reunion that after the war he tried to forget his experiences. “Then, at the reunion, after all those years, seeing all who were kids with me, doing such a wonderful job at being men, I felt such pleasure for having had the honor to know and serve with them.” Harrington added, “Those men on the Sammy B. were my family, my home; they were closer to me than I can say.… I now know men do not fight for flag or country or glory. They fight for one another. Any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him is not a man at all. He is truly damned.”4
The tight bond was evident at the Friday evening banquet when, amid laughter and revelry fueled by friendship and a drink, Harriet Copeland and Suzette Hartley, Copeland’s widow and daughter, entered the room. Everyone turned to the pair and broke into a standing ovation, a mark of respect for the family members and of the fondness the men retained for their former skipper. To the aging sailors, Copeland stood for all that was noble in a man, all they had attempted to be during the war and afterward.
One by one the survivors walked to the front and shared a memory about their ship or took a moment to tell the others what the ship meant to them. They laughed—and Jack laughed with them—about Jack Yusen’s comical tendency to be Harrington’s daily target whenever the chief wanted another part of the ship painted, but they also spoke jealously of “Hollywood” Yusen receiving more mail from pretty girls than the rest did combined. They remembered Norbert Brady’s “Fantail Fellowship Club,” a group of sailors who gathered nightly on the ship’s fantail to sing, smoke, and chew over the day’s events, and talked about Jackson McCaskill spending more time in the brig than anyone else. They howled again at Charles Natter’s amiable teasing of everyone in the crew and grinned about the battle Lt. (jg) John LeClercq waged to grow a few whiskers on that baby face of his.
They agreed that on October 25, 1944, they waged a desperate fight against Japanese battleships and cruisers. They recalled the fear, the bravery, the torpedoes slicing through the waters, and the unrelenting screech of incoming shells.
Because of their experience they grasped better than most why William Shakespeare had chosen to forever memorialize another October 25. In the play Henry V, King Henry V of England utters a memorable speech to his outnumbered troops before leading them into the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415. They understood why the famous bard, through Henry, had described the soldiers as “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” for like the British soldiers they, too, over the course of six months, had fashioned a band of brothers, this at sea. Like the British soldiers they, too, had faced insurmountable odds.
They would also privately agree, for most would never admit it publicly, with what The New York Times concluded shortly after the battle, that “the gallant action fought by this group—particularly the short-lived battle put up by the four ships that were sunk—will surely go down in American naval tradition as one of the most heroic episodes in our history.” They would agree with the heralded naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who labeled their actions against the Japanese on October 25, 1944, “forever memorable, forever glorious,” and with the acclaimed novelist Herman Wouk, who wrote that the vision of the Samuel B. Roberts charging through the waters straight at Japanese battleships and cruisers “can endure as a picture of the way Americans fight when they don’t have superiority. Our schoolchildren should know about that incident, and our enemies should ponder it,” for the action is “one that will stir human hearts long after all the swords are plowshares: gallantry against high odds.”5
In 1941, however, neither Yusen nor Harrington had a clue of the momentous events that awaited them. Like most Americans in the carefree days before Pearl Harbor tossed their worlds into disarray, Robert Copeland, Charles Natter, Norbert Brady, John LeClercq, and the rest of the men who comprised the crew of the Samuel B. Roberts had other things on their minds.
“Where Is Pearl Harbor?”
Their journey began with shock and disbelief. In New Jersey, seventeen-year-old Charles Natter walked with his Atlantic City High School buddy John Stinson to their favorite hangout, the malt shop across from school, where the pair heard that the Japanese had just bombed some place called Pearl Harbor. Girls and swimming had dominated their thoughts. Would that somehow change?
Accompanied by his Georgetown University friends, nineteen-year-old Tom Stevenson crashed through the gate at Griffith Stadium, laughing and making wisecracks on his way to watch the Redskins challenge the Philadelphia Eagles. In the midst of the reverie, over the public address system an announcer listed the names of high-ranking military officers in attendance with orders to report immediately to their stations. Tom looked quizzically at his friends, who returned similar glances. When the game ended, Stevenson and the group streamed outside to hear newsboys hawking special editions of their newspapers. JAPS BOMB PEARL HARBOR, screamed the headline. The college students turned to each other and asked, “Where is Pearl Harbor?”6
Across the country in Utah, sixteen-year-old H. Whitney (Whit) Felt was studying for final exams when an announcer interrupted the musical program on the radio with the news of a sneak attack against Pearl Harbor. “I called Mother and Dad who came running to my room to hear the shocking news. Then I telephoned Leah [his girlfriend] to see if she had heard about it. We all began wondering how this sudden change of events would affect our lives.”7
* * *
President Franklin D. Roosevelt pondered the same gloomy thoughts as he sat in the White House study on December 7, 1941, reading messages from his military commanders at the sprawling American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, saying that it was under attack. In two waves of aircraft launched from carriers, the Japanese destroyed 188 American aircraft and damaged another 159. The Japanese sank or damaged 21 ships, including 7 battleships, killed 2,403 Americans, and wounded another 1,178. The navy lost three times as many men at Pearl Harbor as it had lost in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and World War I combined.
Jubilation on the other side of the world contrasted with the dismay that gripped the United States. Admiral Matome Ugaki, chief of staff of the Japanese Combined Fleet, wrote in his diary on December 7, 1941, “The long-anticipated day has arrived at last.” Ugaki added that he “listened with attention to every telegram” and that “enemy consternation is beyond description. It is their breakfast time. While they were at their breakfast table, great masses of Japanese airplanes came like bolts from the blue; I can imagine their utter surprise.”8
Japan’s swift, sudden assault would dramatically impact the futures of millions. Among them were more than two hundred young men and their families, then scattered to every corner of the nation. The officers and enlisted who would comprise the crew of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) left high school classrooms and Civilian Conservation Corps camps, Oklahoma farms and Massachusetts repair shops, to unite in a grand adventure that helped alter the course of the war and, in the process, their lives as well.
“Military Minded from the Time He Was Born”
Robert W. Copeland seemed destined for a career in the navy. Born in Tacoma, Washington, on September 9, 1910, the youth closely followed proceedings in Europe during the Great War, often reenacting famous battles in which, with leggings wrapped around his ankles and a wooden rifle slung over his shoulder, he routed the hated German army. “He was military minded from the time he was born,” said his wife, Harriet.9
When he was not crushing the Germans in his backyard battles, in his room Copeland maneuvered a vast paper navy. Battleships and cruisers exchanged gunfire with imaginary opponents according to strategies the youth concocted in his fertile mind. Copeland even promoted those “commanders” he thought had best executed his moves.
Nothing, though, matched each July 4, when part of the United States Fleet entered Tacoma’s harbor for the holiday festivities. As the warships passed, Copeland imagined being one of the skippers, commanding at his fingertip an arsenal of mighty guns.
During high school he gathered enough courage to meet with the admiral in charge of the visiting fleet. Armed with an introduction from Tacoma’s mayor, one of his parents’ friends, Copeland so impressed the admiral with his knowledge of naval affairs that the officer suggested he try for an appointment to the Naval Academy. The admiral offered to contact Copeland’s congressman on his behalf and gained a coveted appointment for his visitor.
The dream halted due to family concerns. His mother so feared the water that she begged him not to leave. When the family physician suggested that entering the academy might give her a heart attack, Copeland relented.
He and his parents compromised. He entered the University of Washington near home, and at the same time enrolled in the Navy Reserve. On May 18, 1935, Copeland graduated from the university’s law school and received a commission as an ensign.
From 1935 to 1940 Copeland commenced dual careers as a local attorney and part-time naval officer. He practiced general law in Tacoma, spending up to three nights a week at the naval station.
With war erupting in Europe in 1939, the following year the navy ordered Copeland to active duty, a move he saw as a chance to rectify an earlier omission. He might have missed his opportunity to attend the Naval Academy, but he planned to remedy this oversight with aggressive leadership. He would skipper a ship that sought opportunities, not one that waited for a fight to find it. Awash with confidence Copeland, with his ever-present lucky silver dollar in his pocket, joined the fleet.
He skippered three ships before taking command of the Samuel B. Roberts. The USS Pawtucket, one of the last coal-burning tugs in the fleet, was according to Copeland “a humble command, I grant you, but a command nevertheless.” The second ship, USS Black Douglas, had been a sailing vessel before being converted for navy use, but his third, the destroyer escort USS Wyman, vaulted him to what he considered the major league. Now a lieutenant, Copeland labeled it his “first full fledged man of war, a destroyer escort.”10 He exaggerated in placing his destroyer escort in the same class with battleships and cruisers, but he was exuberant that for the first time he commanded a ship that could fire on the enemy.
At each stop Copeland made a favorable impression with his concern for the men, his fairness, and his desire to fight. “He was a man we all liked,” wrote Jack O’Neill, who made many cruises with Copeland. “He had the natural ability to lead men. He not only could lead men but he could make them ‘like it,’ and anyone who has been in the navy knows what that means.” O’Neill claimed that when sailors took a complaint to Copeland, they always accepted his decision as fair, no matter what it turned out to be. O’Neill said that “never once did I hear a sailor say that he had had a wrong deal or a raw deal when he worked through Bob.”11
Copeland had gained valuable experience by the time he received command of the yet-unfinished USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) in early 1944. Recently promoted to lieutenant commander, and in charge of a vessel whose main purpose would be to escort other ships, he nonetheless hoped at some stage to engage the enemy on the open seas.
“He Led by Example”
“I’ll never forget one boy,” Copeland wrote after the war. “His name was Natter.”12
The sea had been part of Charles W. Natter’s life ever since his June 16, 1924, birth to Charles and Lillian Natter in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where beaches and the ocean are everyday fare. A neighbor, Corrine Rosenbloom, said that people on Delancy Place, the affable middle-class street where Natter grew up, nurtured their front lawns and friendships in equal measure. “Delancy Place was a wonderful street back then. Everyone had a little patch of grass by the curb and in front of his house. They cut their lawn with the push lawn mower. They watered with the hose at night, and everyone would talk with each other. We had the beach and the ocean, which was wonderful.”13
Christmases were especially festive in the Natter home. The father and his two sons, Charles and Billy, chopped down a cedar tree for the front room, where the entire family so lavishly decorated it that one could hardly see the branches. Every year Mr. Natter faithfully laid out his Lionel train and accompanying village around the tree, placing mirrors where he wanted lakes and ponds to be.
A good student, Natter served on the safety patrol, performing so well that the principals elevated him to captain at both Richmond Avenue Elementary School and Atlantic City Junior High. A certificate of honor given Natter in seventh grade attested to his “distinction in character, service, scholarship.”14
In high school Natter was named captain of both the swim team and football squad. “Charlie most definitely had leadership skills,” mentioned high school pal Rudy Florentine. “He was the best swimmer on the team. He excelled at whatever he did. He led by example. You were proud to follow him.”15
Natter excelled off the sports fields as well. He joined the Bones Fraternity, an organization of Atlantic City High School’s finest student-athletes, and so earned his fraternity brothers’ esteem that they elected him Worthy Grandmaster, their top honor. The group rallied behind “Damned be he who first cries: ‘Hold! Enough!’” a slogan showing its commitment to action and persistence over timidity.16
After school the boys hung out in the ice cream shop across the street from the school, where, in their black fraternity sweaters, they attracted a covey of girls. “We were young guys chasing girls and thinking about girls,” said John Stinson. Alyce Roppelt Lewis said that her high school pal “would be considered a catch by the females, absolutely.”17 Natter’s sturdy frame, hypnotic eyes, and curly sandy hair made him a popular target.
Though he enjoyed life, Natter took seriously his tasks as a lifeguard on Atlantic City’s beaches, where he often charged into troubled waters and relied on his endurance and strength to help swimmers in peril. “Before the war he had the experience of saving people, he had the training, and he automatically did it,” said Florentine. “You had to know what you were doing just to be chosen for the lifeguards.”18
With the onset of war Natter, like many other high school students, placed his future plans on hold. He assumed that he, like millions, would enter the military after high school. “He knew he was going in,” said Florentine. “There were too many casualties, and you just didn’t think about your future too much. It wasn’t on your agenda.”19 One day after his June 24, 1943, graduation, Natter received his call for active duty in the navy.
“To Protect His Family”
The military was never a part of John LeClercq’s plans. Carefree college days would precede a successful Texas business career, leading in turn to a family with longtime girlfriend Venitia Parrot.
Tall at 6'2" and slender, the introspective LeClercq, born November 22, 1922, in Dallas, balanced the classroom with outside activities at Texas Country Day, an elite preparatory school later attended by businessman H. Ross Perot and actor Tommy Lee Jones. When faced with an important paper for a class or an arduous task, the cheerful LeClercq usually muttered his favorite phrase, “No strain, no strain.”20 He never lacked for girlfriends, but in his final years at the school he settled on Venitia. The two fell in love and nearly married before LeClercq entered the military, but decided to wait until after the war.
LeClercq so loved the sea that he and a group of other students spent a semester of their senior year taking classes while cruising the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean aboard a 90-foot sailing vessel that doubled as an accredited school. Classroom instruction alternated with ship duties, when the students learned how to handle a craft at sea.
LeClercq’s decency impressed friends. He possessed an innocent charm that disarmed people and caused those disinclined to look beneath the surface to dismiss him as a lightweight. That charm, however, masked a gritty interior. The baby-faced LeClercq may have looked like a child, but he exuded maturity beyond his years.
After high school LeClercq attended Amherst. When the war started the following December, he transferred to Southern Methodist University in Dallas and enlisted in an officer program. He left as an ensign, intent upon becoming the best officer he could be for as long as necessary. Afterward, he would return to Dallas, marry Venitia, and begin his career.
* * *
Born in Queens, New York, the same year as John LeClercq, Tom Stevenson was the product of strict Catholic schools. Catholic Mass and the Rosary became staples, but Stevenson invariably managed to inject sailing, laughter, and girls into the gravity of school and church.
At age nine Stevenson entered the Junior Naval Militia, an organization that introduced youth to the regimen of the navy and the ways of the sea. Dressed in a uniform, Stevenson joined other cadets for close order drills and parades and weekend boat outings on Long Island Sound. They participated in musical concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall, where Stevenson’s melodic voice stood out.
He earned decent grades in high school, mainly to please his mother, but athletics, shiny cars, and girls were more to his liking. He starred on the high school swim team, where his lanky build and muscular thrust in the backstroke led them to a national prep championship in the medley relay race held at Villanova. His feats and good looks attracted a bevy of females. Driving around in a series of convertibles—first a 1935 Oldsmobile convertible coupe and then a 1937 Ford convertible sedan—did not hurt either, an image the suave Stevenson nurtured.
Stevenson most loved taking the family boat, a 32-foot antique, on summer cruises with his pals, visiting Block Island, Nantucket, and other fashionable spots along Connecticut’s and Rhode Island’s shores. His affection for the sea came naturally: His father’s firm, T. J. Stevenson & Company, operated cargo ships from New York Harbor, transporting lumber from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Jamaica, where they exchanged the lumber for sugarcane.
In 1939 Stevenson’s father arranged for his sixteen-year-old son and his friend to spend the summer aboard one of the freighters so they could learn what life at sea entailed. “We were thrilled at the prospects of an adventure,” wrote Stevenson, always ready to accept a challenge.21 In Brooklyn he and Allie Wiedlien boarded the MS Herma, a ship bearing mahogany logs bound for Jamaica, and found that the sea, while providing fun and excitement, also offered challenges. Conditions improved when Stevenson and Wiedlien reached Jamaica, where they matched up with the two daughters of the ship’s agent, a native of the island. The beauties arranged island tours and beach picnics almost every day.
After high school Stevenson entered Georgetown University, whose School of Foreign Service offered a shipping-related course. Stevenson joined the glee club, with which, bedecked in white tie and tails, he sang concerts for the university in Washington, D.C., and other locales. He spent time with the comely Virginia Campbell, an Eastern Airlines stewardess, dancing in nightclubs or parking on a cliff that overlooked the fairgrounds, and attended Georgetown’s junior prom with a date from the National Park Seminary, a women’s college in Maryland.
In March 1942 a naval officer spoke to his Georgetown class and mentioned that the navy needed men who had experience with small vessels. With his Jamaica cruise and his family’s maritime connections, Stevenson agreed to a navy physical. The next day he was sworn in as an ensign.
Stevenson celebrated his good fortune at joining the navy. His mother took him to Rogers Peet, a men’s store featuring exquisite clothes, where she had him fitted for dress blues, dress whites, and everyday khakis. Stevenson, about to become one of the navy’s most regally adorned officers, also purchased a new car, a Mercury convertible. Tom Stevenson headed to war with flair.
* * *
Norbert Brady couldn’t care less what he looked like; he left home on account of family. The son of a physician, Norbert, also called Norbie, first met his future wife at age twelve in the small community of Newtonville, Massachusetts. He and Virginia Young, called Ginni, started going steady in high school and after five years of dating married at St. Bernard’s Church in 1940, a ceremony attended only by their families as the couple could not afford anything lavish. “Those were hard times, and they would cash in soda bottles to get enough money to buy gas for Norbert’s car, nicknamed the Bug,” said daughter Judy Bruce.22
They were madly in love, and since Norbert enjoyed the outdoors, they honeymooned along the Mohawk Trail in Massachusetts. Following that brief hiatus they rented a tiny apartment in Newtonville that featured a combination kitchen living room and a bathroom down the hall. In high school Norbert excelled as an auto mechanic, so he supported his bride by working at a local garage.
Two years later the couple moved into a two-room house in nearby Westfield, Massachusetts. Though it was small and the bathroom facilities stood in a garage behind the house, it was their home, and they planned to raise a family and remain on the land to a ripe old age.
“The love between them was overwhelming,” wrote Judy. “The little things that they would do for one another, the care they took of each other seemed to indicate that.”23 Friends could never recall a time the pair argued.
At the same time that Norbert and Virginia Brady were fashioning home and family, ominous rumblings from across the oceans threatened to change everything. Adolf Hitler in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific steadily drew the United States closer to war, until events in Pearl Harbor clamped a lid on dreams for the Bradys and countless other families across the nation.
Though Ginni was almost eight months pregnant, Norbert quietly slipped into Boston to enlist. He did not tell Ginni about his decision because he feared she would talk him out of it, but when he weighed matters, he felt he was doing what was best for his family. He believed he had a duty “to protect his family from the harms of the world” and to defend “his country so that his family could be safe,” said Judy. “He had to know that his family would be all right.”24
Norbert entered the navy on October 25, 1943. After a short time with the Seabees, Norbert answered a call for volunteers to man new ships. His decision would put him aboard the sparkling destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts.
* * *
Born February 13, 1924, on a farm near Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, to Thomas and Minnie Mae Carr, Paul Carr was the sole boy in a family of nine children. According to his sister Juanita Rush, their parents emphasized the importance of education and insisted that the children do things the right way, making them repeat their chores if they were completed halfheartedly. “‘A job worth doing is worth doing well’ was probably not music to his ears but it sunk deeply into his character development nevertheless,” said Juanita. Finally, no matter how difficult the task, the children were never to shy from problems. “Courage in the face of adversity was part and parcel of all our upbringing. Whining and blaming others was never permitted; responsibility for our own actions and not quitting until the job was complete was expected of us all.”25
At Checotah High School Paul participated in the Future Farmers of America and earned varsity letters twice in basketball and three times in football, where he made second team on the all-state squad as a center. Upon graduating in May 1942, Carr worked for Swift & Company for a year. Even though as the only son in a large family Carr could have received a deferment, he felt a duty to defend the nation that had given him so much. On May 27, 1943, he enlisted in the navy.
During a leave after his training, Carr married his high school sweetheart, Goldie Lee Jameson, on October 12, 1943. After a brief visit with his parents and sisters in Checotah, Carr returned to the navy to prepare for duty with a new destroyer escort.
A Life “Strange and Bewildering”
Though the war had arrived suddenly on December 7, 1941, for each member of the Samuel B. Roberts the prospect of battle and the dangers that came with it encroached in stages. Initially a distant event existing on the far side of the world, in incremental steps combat and the preparation for battle engulfed first one, then another part of their lives.
The first step occurred with the enlistment process. The men entered the navy for a variety of reasons. Signalman 1/c (First Class) Orban Chambless, who had worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, joined in February 1941 to improve his life. Ensign John Dudley Moylan signed up because the navy permitted him to finish his education at Duke University, where he was studying to be a college literature professor. When he graduated in spring 1942, he went straight into the service.
The uniform attracted others. When he was a high school sophomore the ship’s executive officer, Lt. Everett E. Roberts Jr., saw a movie starring Dick Powell. “He was wearing a uniform, and the girls were hanging all over him, and I said, ‘That’s for me!’”26 Roberts took the examination for an appointment to the academy, from which he graduated in 1940.
Seaman 2/c (Second Class) George Bray believed if he waited to be drafted by the army he would go straight to the front, whereas the navy offered three hot meals a day and, in his opinion, less chance of being involved in combat. Seaman 2/c James E. Myers figured the navy had fewer drills than the army, an assumption he would later regret, while seventeen-year-old Seaman 2/c Jack Yusen opted for the navy after his father learned from a friend on the draft board that anyone drafted in the coming months would go directly to the marines. Radioman 3/c (Third Class) Richard K. Rohde wanted excitement. “I was so anxious to get in, it was like a big adventure. I couldn’t wait and wondered why they took so long to call me to boot camp.”27
Above all, a sense of duty drove the men of the Samuel B. Roberts, just as it motivated millions of other young men and women. Despite having served in World War I, Chief Radioman Tullio Serafini, an immigrant from Italy, felt he owed a debt to his new nation, a country that had provided home and work. His wife and sisters objected on the grounds that he had already done his part, and Serafini could have easily remained out of the fighting now, but he chose to go where his heart and sense of duty dictated.
Seventeen-year-old Seaman 2/c William Branham—one is struck by the tender age of so many crew—lied about his age to join, not because he was eager to leave home but because it was the right thing to do. “As far as I was concerned, we were being invaded by the Japanese,” Branham explained. “Everybody, no matter who it was, no matter how poor or how rich, they still felt they had an obligation to fulfill. To fight for the country, no matter whether they were sick or able, there was a job they could do.” Rohde agreed. “It was the normal thing to do, the patriotic thing,” he said. “Things were black and white, no grays in those days.”28
Healthy young males accepted that they would be drawn into the war. “All we heard was the war,” said Yusen. “You went to school, but everything was war, war, war. When we got in in 1941 we knew guys like me would go in. We had a job to do and let’s do it. You heard that all over. Let’s get the job over with and free the world and make the world safe again.”29
* * *
Leaving home for boot camp was the second step in the transition from civilian to military. While a handful of the Roberts sailors trained at San Diego, most began at the vast Great Lakes training complex near Chicago, at Sampson Training Station in upstate New York, at Bainbridge Training Center in Maryland, or at the Norfolk Training Station in Virginia.
On the day of their enlistment Natter, Brady, and the others had received Helpful Hints to the Navy Recruit, a booklet filled with points on how to prepare for the service and what to expect in training. During training, Natter learned, each man would wear leggings; these gave rise to the term “boot” for all trainees, as the item made them appear to be wearing children’s boots.
“You are now a member of a great fighting team,” explained the booklet. “You will play your part in the biggest, hardest job that decent men have ever had to face.” It added, “Like most men of your age, you are now subject to military discipline. Take it with a smile. For discipline builds pride in your service and a new pride in yourself. Furthermore, it may save your life when you come to grips with the enemies of your country.”30
The booklet cautioned them that they were about to experience the most rigorous physical tests of their lives and that they should start getting in shape. Someone like Charles Natter, a football player and lifeguard, would have little problem with the calisthenics and other activities, but the majority of men would soon learn how arduous their training would be.
* * *
“At first, you may find your new life strange and bewildering,” the booklet said in what, over the course of the next few months, the men found to be a gross understatement. Natter received a hint on the morning of his first day at training camp when one sailor who had completed the program muttered, “You’ll be sorry.”31
Upon arriving Natter entered the supply room, where he hardly had time to catch his breath as an avalanche of supplies rained down. Belts, blankets, hairbrush, dungarees, handkerchiefs, jackknife, pillow, mattress, raincoat, and more flew off the shelves as men on ladders tossed fifty-one items at the startled recruits. Later that day Natter was outfitted in the boot uniform—baggy blue pants, gray shirt, navy white cap, leggings—and parted with the civilian clothes that had marked a life now quickly fading.
In one room Natter and the recruits received the first of many shots, then raced to another where barbers administered the GI haircut—every head shorn of hair to an eighth of an inch. The recruits, many of whom took pride in their hair as an emblem of their individuality, emerged as navy clones.
The barracks, an unsettling sight to those more accustomed to their own rooms, followed. For the duration of boot camp companies of 100 to 120 apprentice seamen ate, slept, worked, and studied together, another linchpin in the navy’s scheme to turn these individuals into a fighting team. The petty officers harped that the spartan rooms best shine like palaces, shocking the boots the first time they rolled around on the floor in their white uniforms to pick up traces of dirt.
Few, if any, forgot their initial meeting with the petty officer who welcomed them to training camp. Though Helpful Hints to the Navy Recruit advised them, “Heed his instructions. Go to him for help and guidance,” the petty officer’s glare and stern words dispelled that notion in the first seconds.32
Dick Rohde’s petty officer informed the group that he would take care of them like the parents they had just left, then contradicted his words when Rohde attempted to correct him for mispronouncing the recruit’s last name, saying “Road” instead of the properly spoken two-syllable “Road-e.” “That’s Rohde, sir,” the recruit said. “He looked at me and he said, ‘That’s Shithead!’ For six weeks at boot camp, every morning for muster, he said, ‘Shithead’ and I said, ‘Here!’”33
In blunt fashion, the petty officer reminded Rohde and the others that henceforth everyone would be treated the same. Family background, hometown, economic status, or religion mattered nothing; they now belonged to the navy. For youngsters fresh from high school and experiencing their first trips away from home, the introduction to their petty officer became a transformative moment.
“Boot camp was all different from back home,” said Alabama-born Fireman 2/c Adred Lenoir of his time at Sampson Training Center. Seaman 1/c James F. “Bud” Comet felt more at ease in the coal-mining region of West Virginia than at boot camp, where he now mingled with boys from the city, “who I always thought were more educated, had been around, and lived a lifestyle completely different.” On the other hand, the affable Norbert Brady had little difficulty fitting in and gleefully depicted his new mates in a letter to Ginni. “You have to laugh listening to them,” he wrote. “A big Southern kid drawlin’ out his words talking to a little squirt from ‘Joisy.’ They come from everywhere but get along good together.”34
The boots quickly learned the importance of The Bluejackets’ Manual, a 1,145-page instructional guide on everything navy that Natter called “the sailor’s bible.” The book emphasized the value of teamwork to ultimate victory against an enemy equally determined to destroy them. “As members of the Navy team we are all linemen,” it bluntly stated. “We perform our evolutions and duties on signal (orders), hand out hard knocks as necessary to carry out our orders, knowing full well that if hard knocks must be absorbed we must do the absorbing.… Our reward is in the gratitude of our country after victory is achieved.”35
The book highlighted sixteen qualities the navy wanted in a man, including loyalty, belief in oneself, obedience, and self-control. It suggested that the men conduct themselves so “that your home folks will be proud of you, and will tell all of your friends what fine things you are doing in the Navy. Act so that others will want to be like you.” Developing these traits would produce the discipline required to weather the tasks ahead. “A body of men which has good discipline is not subject to panic. It will preserve its order under violent shock and under conditions of great stress it will move as a unit against opposition at the order of its leader.”36
Since the success of the navy required healthy sailors, the manual advised the men to shower daily and wash frequently. “Personal cleanliness is especially necessary aboard ship,” where men had to be cognizant of spreading disease among a crew confined at sea.
The need for physical strength was obvious—they were about to enter combat against a superbly conditioned enemy. “The knowledge that we are engaged in struggle with inspired, well-trained and physically fit enemies, both east and west, who are determined to displace us in our heritage, must inspire us with a solid determination to surpass them and to accomplish their destruction.”37
To this end, the manual cautioned against tattoos and loose women. “Do not get tattooed. Ask any man you see who has been tattooed and he will tell you that he would give anything to have the tattooing removed.” The manual was just as clear about prostitutes. “Bad women can ruin your bodily health,” and promiscuous intercourse can result “in loathsome diseases which not only often leave their effects on your system the rest of your life, but also may be transferred by you to your future family with disastrous results. Sexual intercourse is positively not necessary for health and proper manly development.”38 Not surprisingly, the level of compliance with that statement varied from boot to boot.
Those who carefully read their manuals learned about life at sea, including the various animals they might encounter. It cautioned that “sharks have killed many men. Stay out of the sea and in the boat when sharks or other large fish are around. Many a man has lost a hand or foot by letting it hang overboard.” If sharks drew near, “splashing with an oar or striking at it will usually drive a shark away. The tenderest spot in a shark is the end of his nose. His gills come next.”
While sharks could be a concern, the manual dismissed any dangers of encountering nature’s largest sea creature. “Do not worry about whales. The chances are millions to one they will do you no harm. Metal struck against metal under water will often scare them away.”39
“Another Busy Week”
Once Natter, Brady, and the others had settled in, they commenced the grueling schedule. From wake-up at 5:30 A.M. until taps at 9:35 P.M., the recruits had little time for themselves. Physical training, or PT as they called it, began early in the morning when the men poured out of barracks and stood outside in the dark doing calisthenics directed by a leader on a platform. Throughout the day men climbed ropes, learned the techniques of hand-to-hand combat, scaled wooden walls, boxed, swam, ran, and raced.
“I just saw our next week’s schedule of musts and boy we are going to have another busy week a fifteen mile hike and a lot of other stuff,” Natter wrote to his parents. In the letter he mentioned going to the pistol range, cross-country hikes, seamanship, and regimental parades. “That’s only the musts the rest of the time we drill and drill.” He told them that on one occasion they “ran what seemed all over the base it must have been 5 or 6 miles.”40
They marched everywhere, all the time. Back and forth across the drill field, to and from the mess hall and classrooms, the recruits marched as a unit in a method that had more than madness. “In this way,” explained the navy, “you will soon acquire the ‘feel’ for teamwork and instant obedience to orders which are a part of naval life.”41
Drills and tests had to be passed. George Bray wrote home about taking swimming tests in the nude, or donning masks and going into the gas chamber, leaving some men choking for air and rubbing watery eyes when they failed to properly attach the gear. Different tests required Natter to swim nine pool lengths, to swim the length of the pool underwater without emerging for air more than twice, and to splash and clear the water above as if there were burning oil on the surface, an exercise he hoped he never had to repeat at sea.
Natter learned to tie knots, splice rope, and row. He took tests in mechanical aptitude, mathematics, physics, and other areas and attended numerous classes on seamanship. He once listened to an instructor explain the $10,000 life insurance policy for which he and the other recruits were eligible. He promptly signed on, designating each parent to receive $5,000; “in that way if any thing happens (which it won’t) both of you will get something.”42
The youngsters who arrived as civilians were gradually being transformed into a group, where the unit, not one person, was important. They marched together, ate together, drilled and exercised together. By the time boot camp ended and the standard uniform of a naval seaman had replaced the civilian clothes they wore when they arrived, they had completed their first steps in the metamorphosis from civilian to military, a transition whose tempo would increase with further training and assignment to a ship.
* * *
While training camp introduced the men to military life, the advanced schools, which lasted up to half a year, imparted the specifics of gunnery, radar and sonar, communications, and the intricate machinery that powered a vessel. Adred Lenoir joined others at Norfolk, Virginia, who would work in the ship’s engine room belowdecks—nicknamed the Black Gang—to practice on a dummy boiler. “They tried to get us familiar enough so that we could find our way around when we got to the ship,” said Lenoir. “Boot camp was an introduction to the Navy, while Norfolk familiarized us with the ship itself.”43
As preparation in becoming a ship’s communications officer, for six months Lt. (jg) Tom Stevenson attended the Naval Training School at Harvard University, where he studied Morse code and learned how to read and send semaphore and how to convert coded messages into English. After boot camp at Bainbridge, Charles Natter, on his way to becoming a signalman third class, reported to a signal school. He sat in class or on the bridge of a training ship seven hours a day, where instructors showed him how to use the flags and blinking lights so crucial to semaphore.
Some attended sonar school in Key West, Florida, to learn the intricacies of tracking enemy submarines by sending pings, or outgoing sounds, that bounced off solid objects. Others left for radar school, where they concentrated on locating enemy surface craft and aircraft via an electronic pulse that throws back an image to the ship’s radar screen when encountering an object.
Some of the officers, including Copeland and Stevenson, attended the Submarine Chaser Training Center in Miami, Florida, for an intense program in antisubmarine tactics, the main reason for constructing the Samuel B. Roberts. For two months they endured ten-hour days, seven days a week, training on simulators that duplicated conditions at sea before moving on to actual destroyer escorts, where they hunted training submarines off the Florida coast. Stevenson loved his time at the center, where “I finally felt I was getting closer to the war.”44
Some of the officers benefited from an abbreviated three-month wartime program involving universities around the nation. Called “90-day wonders,” they emerged as officers ready for the fleet. Ensign John LeClercq attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, while Ensign Moylan traveled to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana for his.
* * *
Though loved ones stood hundreds of miles away, family matters followed the men wherever they went during their naval careers. A mother’s illness became a cause for concern to the recruit; a brother’s high school home run a reason to smile. Back home, loved ones discovered that while they had not physically gone to war with their husbands or sons, mental bonds made them one entity. A young man may have departed for war, but the family went with him.
Norbert Brady missed the birth of his daughter, Judy, but explained in a letter that the other recruits helped him with the joyous occasion. “Well, fancy that. Here I sit writing a letter to my wife and family. Quite a new experience in my young life. Very enjoyable for my part.”
Brady had just finished PT, which he said stood for “pulling tendons,” that morning when the instructor hollered his name. Brady stepped to the podium to receive the wire, and as he walked back the other guys hollered, “What is it, boy or girl?” Congratulations greeted him as he returned to his place in the company.
The day meant more for Brady than the arrival of a daughter. While he accepted the responsibilities of a father, he also saw validation. “I still don’t believe it. Today I am a man!”45
* * *
In the spring of 1944 LeClercq and Moylan, having completed their training, traveled to Norfolk with orders to organize a group of sailors assigned to the Samuel B. Roberts. After further instruction with those men, they were to accompany them by railroad to Houston, Texas, where the ship was then under construction.
The crew of the Roberts was about to meet its ship.
Copyright © 2013 by John Wukovits
JOHN K. WUKOVITS is a military expert specializing in the Pacific Theater of World War II. He is the author of many books, including Eisenhower: A Biography; One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa; and American Commando: Evans Carlson, His WWII Marine Raiders, and America's First Special Forces Mission. He has also written numerous articles for such publications as WWII History, Naval History, and World War II. He lives in Trenton, Michigan.