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World War II U.S. Navy Armed Guard
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© 2009 Dale E. Carlson

Vignettes From a Sailor World War II

My dad served in the Navy Armed Guard during the War. That was the force that was composed of Navy personnel serving on the merchant ships carrying war materiale to Europe and North Africa. These sailors manned the guns that were mounted on the ships, mostly Liberty ships, that plied the seas in convoys with their cargo and troops. The Navy contingent was small--only 10-20 sailors on board each ship and the rest of the crew were merchant seamen. They faced the usual dangers of the North Atlantic with its storms and extreme cold and in addition the constant threat of German U-boats and the German aircraft when they got within range. My dad was not a hero and never would have considered himself such. Their life was lonely, cold, gruelling physically and interspersed with those moments of sheer terror.

They had to stand watch on a regular basis. Their stint would normally be four hours but sometimes the cold and weather was so extreme that it was cut back to only two. Standing watch meant you were outside in the elements. Most ships at that time did not have radar or GPS and the best way to watch for danger from bergs or the enemy was the old fashioned method of using eyeballs on the seas. It would take about 20 minutes to get dressed to go outside. There was no Goretex in those days and the gear was leather, wool and heavy. They had goggles but they could rarely be used because they would ice up so fast that they interferred with using the binoculars to scan the horizon. The watches were around the clock. The typical duty roll was for four hours on and four hours off. That is you got off if there weren't other duties to attend to like maintenance on the guns.

On one voyage the convoy my dad was in got close enough to Norway that they were within reach of German aircraft. That happened a lot and they were attacked often but usually the planes missed and made only one or two passes at the convoy and left. On this occasion the dive bomber came in for a run and zeroed in on the ship dad was on. He and others were manning a 5-inch gun firing at the planes. The plane made a strafing run using its cannon and machine guns. The bullets hit the ship and the gun station where my dad was located. He was the crew chief for that gun. A bullet struck the sailor next to my dad and killed him outright and the ricochets and flying debris caused additonal havoc. The decks always were loaded with wooden crates carrying extra cargo and those wooden splinters from shells could be as dangerous as the bullets themselves. Another member of dad's gun crew was hit by a large wooden splinter in the forearm. The splinter went all the way through his arm and stuck out like an arrow. When they knew the first man was dead, dad turned his attention to the wounded sailor and used pliers to extract the splinter from his forearm and then dress the wound. Later he stitched the wound when the attack was over.

The sailor killed in the attack was buried at sea. Yes, they really did that during the war. They cleaned the body of their shipmate. The body was then sewn into a canvas tarp covering and an anchor chain link was added to give weight so the body would sink. The next morning the body was committed to the deep. My dad always felt really bad about his friend being killed within inches of him. I suppose you always have that natural question about why he was struck down and not you. It sure focuses the mind on the important matters in life and what life is about. The wounded sailor healed without permenant damage. Dad was the pharmicist mate on the ship. He was assigned that duty without training other than the Navy medical manual. There were no doctors on these ships. If conditions permitted wounded would be transferred to a destroyer or larger ship but that was always an iffy proposition, especially in the North Atlantic. For medical care you were normally on your own.

On another voyage his ship was again in the North Atlantic and it was cold as always even in the summer because the ships took such a northern route to reach England. The ship had iced up very badly on deck. You have maybe seen some of those old newsreels or History Channel films of those ships all iced over. Sometimes the icing would be so bad that it endangered the ship due to the ice making the ship top-heavy. Those high seas and wave crests were often 40 feet high and the yawing and pitiching could cause ships to capsize. Remember the movie The Perfect Storm? During this ice storm dad had to stand watch. He dressed and went outside. He slipped on the ladder and fell several feet and hit his head on the steel plates and bulkhead. A "ladder" for you landlubbers is a stairway. He was taken inside and he remained unconscious for hours. The time dragged on. They were able to break radio silence and ask for help from a doctor on another ship. It was determined that he had a hematoma, a swelling in the brain, from the accident. The doctor could not come to dad's ship and the weather prevented any transfer of dad to another ship with a doctor. He laid that way throughout the night. The doctor finally told them they would have to operate on his head. He would tell them what to do by radio. The basic tool they would use was a hand-held drill, just like you would use in a wood shop to bore a hole. They were going to bore a hole the injured area to relieve the pressure. They boiled and cleaned all the instruments and the clock kept ticking. As the doctor was going over the instructions with the captain of the ship who was going to do the operation, my dad finally came around. When he learned what they intended to do he was stunned. He didn't like the idea of a novice boring a hole in his head. His shipmates, like men do under those dangerous circumstances, razzed him and even showed him all the clean tools they were getting ready to use on him. Although he was unconscious for about 24 hours all he ended up with was a bad headache and a huge bump on his head. And he got a chewing out from the captain for being careless going up and down the ladder.

No purple heart and he never would have thought of one. Nothing heroic about my dad's adventures in the Navy but dealing with those dangers seems heroic to me. My dad was just one of millions of other very young men doing their job and duty so we could have the freedoms and largesse that we have had since the war. We have been so blessed to have had them as our ancestors.

John Atwood, June 11, 2009

Source: California Chronicle, July 23, 2009

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