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Chapter II – Pearl Harbor Bound

Chapter II

Pearl Harbor Bound

The two weeks between my detachment and reporting for new duty were accounted for by delay and proceed time, plus travel time. This gave me some time with my family, and to adjust to a new situation. Reporting to the District Transportation office, I found that passage to Pearl Harbor would be available in a Navy tanker toward the end of the month, so I was tentatively scheduled to be aboard. There was virtually no air transportation available in those days. During this period between duty stations we took a couple of short trips, visited relatives and friends in Southern California, and had visits in Coronado from friends and relatives, including my Mother and Rosella’s folks from Long Beach. Also there were “bull-sessions” with other chaplains, including my friend Ray Cook, whom I have mentioned previously. So, these were busy days, in spite of the fact that I was free of duty for two weeks.

During these days in San Diego and Coronado we renewed our acquaintance with the two veteran chaplains I have mentioned as having been instrumental in my becoming a chaplain. These were chaplains who had entered the Navy during World War I, and had over twenty years service when I went on active duty. The late H. S. Dyer was District Chaplain of the 11th Naval District, which embraces the Southwestern part of the country, with headquarters in San Diego. Chaplain Dyer’s health became impaired during World War II, forcing him into early retirement not long after the war’s end. After living in his country home in Virginia for a number of years he died several years ago. Harrel Dyer was a good friend, and I, among many others, benefited greatly from our association — from his wisdom and experience. He was one of the keenest men I have known.

The late R. W. Truitt was the other veteran chaplain whom I had met at church conferences, etc. while in the pastorate in the thirties. During my time at N.T.S. he was attached to the U.S.S. Saratoga, one of the early flat-tops, based in San Diego. Razzie and I became good friends during these few months, and our families visited back and forth during the war, since they, too, lived in Coronado, which was still quite a cozy place. Mrs. Truitt and Rosella became real good friends. Nan now lives at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek, California, where we see her frequently, since we live less than five miles apart. Nan Truitt is just as unique (in her own way) as her more widely known husband, and we enjoy her friendship. Razzie Truitt, well and favorably known throughout the Navy, was one of the most unique “characters” I have ever known. I use this expression in its highest sense, for his keen wit and friendliness were of the most genuine nature, born of a deep love of God, and for people.

T.I. Kirkpatrick, another veteran chaplain, whom I met during my “boot” training, was Senior Chaplain at the Marine Base (next door) during this period. Tom will be mentioned later on.

G.L. (Clede) Markle is still another veteran chaplain, who entered the Navy several years after the first World War. Clede was Senior Chaplain at the Air Station on North Island for some time while I was at N.T.S., later having been transferred to the U.S.S. Lexington, sister ship to the Saratoga. The Markles also lived in Coronado, where Mrs. Markle (Eloise) and Rosella became close friends, spending considerable time together while their husbands, together with Razzie Truitt, were overseas. So, these three chaplains’ wives were able to exchange stores, although Rosella didn’t hear much from me for most of the time. One of the most amusing (but potentially tragic) war stories I have heard came from Clede Markle as he was home for a few days between duties after the sinking of the “old Lex” during the Battle of the Coral Sea. My wife, who heard the story first hand, tells it something like this: “After the gallant old ship had been attacked and mortally damaged, Chaplain Markle remained aboard helping others in every way he could until he was among the last to leave the ship. As he prepared to go overboard he saw a pair of good binoculars that had been discarded at the last minute. Clede had always wanted some good binoculars so he picked them up, put the strap around his neck and jumped into the water. As he swam to get away from the sinking ship he soon found that the binoculars were not only excess baggage, but they almost became his undoing, as the motion of the water wound the strap around his neck tighter and tighter.” I am glad to report that he did survive, and lived to tell the story. The Markles now live in beautiful Carmel Valley. I have thought of using this story as the basis for a sermon on “Thou Shalt Not Covet.” That was not really covetousness, of course; all of us are apt to do strange things in emergencies. This evidently is especially true when a ship has almost literally been blown from under your feet. I have never been called on to undergo this experience, but have been in some pretty rough seas, and in a violent storm aboard the last ship I was assigned to, the U.S.S. Pocono, flagship of the Amphibious Forces of the Atlantic.

USS Pocono cap

Ed. – This cap kindly sent from  Joseph Mcelwee (crew of the USS Pocono 1957-1959)

We were bound for our home port of Norfolk, Va., after a six month Mediterranean Cruise. We left Gibraltar expecting to be home in no more than ten days, but it was seventeen long days before we reached the safety of our home port. With the exception of the first day out from Gibraltar and the last day from Norfolk we were in a constant storm, which never let up — some days were just rougher than others. The ship rolled and pitched considerably more than it was built to withstand, and at times we didn’t know what might happen. During one twenty-four hour period we scarcely made any headway at all. Under these conditions there is naturally a tendency to become tense and irritable; what with not being able to eat or sleep properly, and feeling a little “woozy”. One night the ship was rolling so much that without the guard rail on my bunk I would have rolled off onto the deck of my stateroom. So, I took my mattress off, put it athwart-ship on the deck, and was able to sleep a little better.

I have presented the above background in order to tell you one of my favorite true stories. Aboard the Pocono it was my custom each morning at 0800, as the ship’s personnel had been mustered, to get on the ship’s loudspeaker and offer a very brief prayer. The beginning was something like this: “This is the chaplain inviting all hands to stand fast for our morning prayer.” Then I would offer a prayer of just a few sentences. I would try to vary the prayers as much as possible, so one day during the storm I asked all hands to join me in repeating the Lord’s Prayer, and it was reported to me that most of them did join in. During a storm all hands are required to wear a life-jacket when on the upper decks of the ship. Some time later in the day a “salty” boatswain’s mate, a friend of mine, was observed by a mutual friend still wearing his life-jacket down in the “bowels” of the ship. So, he was asked how cone he was still wearing his life-jacket down below. “Look, Pal”, he replied, “When things get so bad that that chaplain of ours has to have help with his prayin’, man, I ain’t takin’ no chances!”.

In mentioning the fellowship among chaplains, I want to emphasize the camaraderie that exists among Navy Chaplains. Perhaps this mutual fellow-feeling among all denominations and faiths was more pronounced when the Navy had a hundred Chaplains before the war than when there were nearly three thousand at the peak of the war in 1945.  A motto of the Chaplain’s Corps, as far as our working together is concerned, is “Cooperation without compromise.” This has reference to difference of belief and practices among denominations and faiths.

During the war qualified representatives of religious groups without ordained ministers (such as Mormons and Christian Scientists) were commissioned as chaplains. While each chaplain retains his religious affiliation, and must receive periodic endorsement from his religious body, he works with other chaplains and personnel, and endeavors to see that the religious needs of all groups are met. One physical evidence of working together is found in a number of our chapels built with three-way revolving altars, each segment of which is “rigged” behind the scene for a particular service, and turned accordingly.

One of the stories Chaplain Gatlin used to tell the recruits in one of our early indoctrination lectures to Protestants might illustrate the fact that we are not primarily interested in denominations, as such, as far as our work is concerned. The story is that. In filling out one of many questionnaires, Bill and John (from the same town) were sitting next to each other. When they came to the question of church affiliation, Bill looked over and noticed that John had put down “Methodist”, and asked him why he had indicated he was a Methodist. John’s reply was that he couldn’t spell Presbyterian!

I have known of very little, if any, proselytizing (or stealing sheep) by Navy chaplains, which reminds me of another incident while on duty at Parris Island, South Carolina, soon after World War II. At that time the Chaplains center was the distribution point for magazines all over the Base. In charge of this (under the direction of the Recreation Department) was a young ex G.I., a native of South Carolina, whose name was Charlie. I never learned his last name, but I used to enjoy chatting with Charlie, who lived with his wife in a little town near our Island Base. Subsequently Charlie’s brother-in-law came to be the pastor of a small church in this little town, and our Charlie became the superintendent of the Sunday School. He was quite proud of this honor, so, I would make it a point each Monday to ask him how his Sunday School was doing. His usual reply was something to the effect that it was doing fine,and growing right along. After a while Charlie had two or three weeks leave. When he got back I asked him whether his Sunday School was still growing. “Oh yes, Chaplain,” he replied, “It’s growin’ by leaps and bounds!” “By the way, Charlie,” I replied, “You’re not doing any proselytizing over there, are you?” “Why Chaplain,” he replied, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself; you know I’m a married man … I stay home every night!” Well, I haven’t seen Charlie in more than twenty years, but I suppose he still thinks the chaplain was awful for even suggesting such a thing — unless he has consulted a dictionary.

The tanker on which I was booked for passage was the U.S.S. Kaskaskia, and we were to sail on Saturday, morning, 28 June. Navy tankers are named for rivers, and this ship was given the name of a river in downstate Illinois. This was to be my first cruise at sea. The only time I had left harbor had been on a couple of excursions on smaller ships to Catalina Island, a distance of twenty miles or so from San Pedro Harbor. The Kaskaskia was anchored in San Diego Bay, and I went aboard by water taxi a time or two before the end of the week to take my gear aboard, and to orient myself a little bit. Since there were to be only a half-dozen passengers aboard we were assigned nice, spacious quarters on this ship, which was one of the tankers recently built for the Navy, with a capacity of 125,000 barrels. Passengers were required to be aboard the night before sailing (so that nobody would “miss the boat”), so I went aboard late Friday afternoon, had supper (good chow) in the officers’ mess, saw the movie “Escape”, and spent my first night at sea in San Diego harbor.

After shoving off the next morning, as we were leaving San Diego bay and rounding Point Loma, I remember San Diego and Coronado fading from view as the ship headed West. Rosella and our boys were on the beach at Coronado, and although we were not able to see each other they could see the ship fading into the distance, not knowing when we would be reunited. We had never been separated for more than a couple of weeks since our marriage in 1926. It doesn’t take you long, under such circumstances, to develop a little feeling of homesickness, which, in some respects, is as bad as seasickness.

The Skipper of the tanker asked me if I would conduct a service aboard on Sunday morning, and I had told him I would be glad to. I enjoyed my breakfast and dinner on Saturday, but during the afternoon I developed an aversion to food, and had to send word to the Skipper that I was afraid to try to conduct that service Sunday morning. This was rather embarrassing, and I was in for some good-natured kidding, but those who had been seasick knew that it’s not “just in the mind.” So, I spent a rather quiet Sunday, and by Monday morning had recovered my sea legs and was able to enjoy the rest of the cruise. I began to realize what a “big pond” that old Pacific really is. Although the sea was not especially rough the first few days out, it began to be quite calm as we approached the area of balmier weather. The nights at sea, even in the dark of the moon, are something to make a believer out of the rankest so-called atheist. I stood in awe as never before as I looked up at the moon and the stars, hearing only the swish of the water as the ship’s bow plowed through the mighty sea. The thought of the smallness of man and the greatness of God Almighty came to me through such scripture as: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork,” (Ps. 19:1). “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou has ordained; what is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the Son of Man that Thou visitest him? For Thou has made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.” (From Psalm 8).  Also in the Genesis story of Creation (Chapter I) we find that the sea is mentioned prominently:

“And God called the firmament Heaven,
The dry land earth,
and the gathering together of the waters, called He seas.
And God saw that it was good.”

A verse in another Psalm has not only helped me greatly, but many years ago I used it as the basis for a High School Baccalaureate sermon: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters … these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.” The subject of the sermon was “Glorious Gamblers”, which, I think, at least got their attention. It is not for me to say whether or not I continued to hold them, but I don’t believe any of the lads and lasses went to sleep on me. The central thought, that I tried to drive home was that the real, meaningful, lasting prizes go only to those who have the faith to risk all for God and His children. After having been to sea I probably could have preached a better sermon on this theme than before I hadn’t ventured any farther than to Catalina Island.

Whenever I have been at sea, or looked out from the beach, I have remembered the Navy Hymn, which we often use to close our Divine services. Note the words to the first verse:

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
whose arm doth bind the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep.
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.”

In spite of the roughness of many seafaring men, both in the Navy and in merchant vessels, many are men of faith — a faith bolstered by the mightiness and beauty of the sea and the heavens, and the realization that God’s all-powerful hand is behind it all. “In the beginning God created_____ .”

Our last night at sea (July 3) aboard the Kaskaskia, my diary reads, “Got ready to disembark early tomorrow morning. Sat out on deck in the moonlight, and wished Rosie were with me. We must take this cruise together sometime.” I might add that we did take that cruise together twenty years later. It was a luxury cruise on the SS Matsonia, and we enjoyed it immensely.