Monday, July 23, 2012

"Heirlooms we don't have in our family. But stories we've got." ~ Rose Cherin

Although he passed away from a heart attack before my second birthday, I can not remember a time when I did not know about the man my mother called Dad.  

Born in a time when horse and carriages outnumbered automobiles on the road, he lived to see the Apollo Missions.  He was born to a good-sized middle class family.   He had two sisters, one elder and one younger, both of whom were very involved in my life while growing up.  

Growing up in the Roaring Twenties, he was in high school when the crash came and the Great Depression hit.   According to family stories, my great-grandfather had passed on early in his life. When the hard times came he did what he could to help keep food on the table.  Up to and including- ahem- extra legal means.  

Most people remember Prohibition as part of the Roaring Twenties that ended with the Crash of '29, but it wasn't until 1933 that the 18th Amendment was actually repealed.  Bathtub gin, moonshine and other hard liquors were commodities that people wanted for the cachet at first, and then, the comfort found in alcohol during hard times during those first years of the Great Depression. 

More than one illicit still was kept busy and profitable during this time, and according to the stories, my grandfather was part of the trade as a bootlegger.  He (allegedly) smuggled sugar over state lines to avoid the various taxes assessed against cane sugar by the revenuers.  Being a suspicious sort, I would not be surprised if there was also some deliveries made of the final product and cigarettes as well.  

Fortunately,  he either never got caught or his best customers were among the local law enforcement; because he graduated High School, went into the Merchant Marine and from there the US Navy.

Now, as I may have mentioned, I am suspicious and nosy by nature.  I very rarely take things at face value and prefer to dig until I find some sort of actual fact at the root of the story.  I like to think of it as being a good Devil's Advocate, my siblings have been known to choose other adjectives.  

Still, barring any diaries or court records coming to light; the entirety my grandfather's childhood and teenage years are just a great story.  Without any documentation to back up the family this point I don't put too much faith in their accuracy.   

 Not that I won't cheerfully repeat these stories to anyone interested or pass them down to my son. Even if the only truth was that he bought some sugar for his mother in high school, it's too good a story to not tell.          

The stories from his naval service were easier to accept growing up as we had pictures of him in uniform and artifacts from his career like his naval dress sword and extremely moth bitten uniform.  All things that made it more real.   Growing up, my mother would tell a very impressed little girl about how her grandfather had been in command of one of the only oil tankers in the Pacific Theater during WWII.  

As an adult I've occasionally wondered if  this was true or were these just a few liberally edited war stories that he had deemed acceptable for his Little Dear's ears?    Without ship names or dates, who knew? 

This past weekend, my aunt came across some of his medals and papers which she passed along to my brother. The papers were photocopied from what looked like a book with what I can only describe as a resume detailing his education and work history.

Finally, we had some ship names and dates to try and match up with the stories.  My brother and I spent a few hours this weekend digging through Google to see what information was available on the ships he served on.  Unsurprisingly, some of the family stories had been mixed up a bit.  Either from time or because he wanted to impress his bright eyed children.

During WWII and the '40s my grandfather served on: the USS Santee (AO-29), served as the executive officer on the USS Millicoma (AO-75) 1943-44, commanded the USS Sylvania (AKA-44) 1945-46- He's named in the Wiki as her first commander!  So cool!- and commanded the USS Stag in 1946.

The USS Millicoma was the oil tanker of my mother's stories.   The naval war in the Pacific theater was a dangerous one, an extremely dangerous one for those on board the floating flammable fuel ships like the USS Millicoma.  One of 500 tankers built during this period and desperately needed to refuel naval ships all over the Pacific, she couldn't just sit in a safe harbor and let the ships come to her.   

These ships were often ordered into active combat areas, risking Japanese submarine and bombing attacks to refuel Allied ships.  The Millicoma earned eight battle stars during the war and was a major refueling and resupply ship for the US Navy during the Battle of Iwo Jima.  

One of the stories my mother tells stems from this time: 

The Millicoma was part of a convoy.  One of three tankers, the Millicoma's CO, a Lt. Cdr Ely, was the senior officer of the tanker commanders and was in charge of the tankers portion of the convoy.   The overall commander, an Admiral according to my mother, wanted the tankers to travel linked together by chains.   

My grandfather, Lt. Cdr Ely's XO, apparently told the Admiral that would only happen if he wanted them all to meet in Hell and to GTFO, or words to that effect.   Somehow, my grandfather managed to  not be cashiered out of the service, but was promoted soon after to command of the Sylvania

While practicing some advanced Google-Fu on the Sylvania, I came across an interview transcript from 1989 with a Dr. Eugene Cronkite who had served with my grandfather during his command on the Sylvania!  Here's an excerpt from the interview- which is fascinating and well worth a full read:

"After that I went to sea aboard the USS Sylvania, that ship right back there, as a medical officer, and did the sort of things that a medical officer does. A few traumatic injuries, every time you go into port, venereal disease, respiratory infections and otherwise, a few days back out at sea again. It was just dull and boring. There was just nothing to do except read and the library aboard ship is not a very exciting thing. Actually, duty on the USS Sylvania followed duty in North Carolina, Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station with the 3rd Marine Air Wing.

At the end of World War II - I left one thing out. My first duty station in the Navy was the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and after indoctrination, which struck me as sort of silly-- we were losing ships every day and medical officers were needed-- a group of us had been sent there to learn how to become proper officers in the Navy. It seemed like a nation losing a war that it was a tremendous waste of time to try to indoctrinate individuals in how you're supposed to behave as a naval officer, and how your wife was supposed to behave and so on. But that's the way it was. The Navy was very slow in adjusting to what the realities were.

I was assigned then to the American Red Cross to develop blood banks, not blood banks but mobile blood transfusion units that traveled around Virginia and Maryland collecting blood for plasma, since at that time the technique for preserving blood had not been developed to the extent that blood could be shipped. At this first duty with the Red Cross, I made acquaintances with Captain Lloyd Newhauser and Eugene Lozner. Lozner had his training in medicine at Harvard and then Boston City Hospital with Dr. Castle and others. He was an assistant to Captain Newhauser in developing the plasma program for the Navy. After this, I had regular duties in one place or another, and lo and behold in the latter part of 1945, the ship that I was on came to Port Hueneme, California and we picked up chains, anchors and buoys. And everybody wondered what in the hell was going on. The Captain of the ship didn't know and went then from Port Hueneme, California to Hawaii. When we left Hawaii, out in the Pacific, these secret orders were opened, and Captain Forbes Bryce (Grand-Dad!) with whom I had become good friends, invited me to his cabin, and said we’re taking the buoys, chains and anchors to Bikini to moor the first target ships for the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini. 

Q: B-R-Y-C-E

Cronkite: Yes. Forbes Orville Bryce; a good Irish Bostonian. And went out there, and that was sort of an interesting experience because we were the only ship, the first and only ship to enter the Bikini Lagoon. There were no maps for it and the Captain did not trust the fathometers so he issued an order that nobody understood except, fortunately, one bosun's mate, "Man the chains” and I wondered what the heck that meant. There are two little platforms off the bridge and a seaman is supposed to get up there and just like on the Mississippi River, throw the lead weights like Mark Twain, so that they actually measured the depth as we went into the lagoon. It has nothing to do with research in medicine but it just popped into my mind.

And then orders came for me to make a medical survey of the Marshalles that were at Bikini. There was somewhat of a language barrier. There was no English spoken but I did make a trivial survey, did blood tests and so on. And then the natives were moved from there.

And about this time, another set of orders came in, "Do not disturb the flora and fauna but clear up the debris that the natives have left." And the Captain told me to do it. I took my hospital corpsmen ashore, knowing nothing about what happens when coconuts are aflame. We decided to burn the latrines and some of the other things down. Until you've seen exploding coconuts-- when they exploded then the fire started to spread. From the ship they could see that something unexpected was happening on Bikini, and our signalman signaled back that we needed help to try to put the fire out because we were supposed to protect everything for reasons that we were not aware of. And fortunately they brought the pumps ashore and fire hoses. It was finally put out. But the captain was wondering whether there'd be a court of inquiry as to the damage that was done. About that time, another ship came in with Sea Bees to put in a camp on Bikini for the personnel and they were sort of pleased at what had been burned down, they didn't have to take care of. So one of those fortuitous things. I then received orders to report immediately to the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. When you're out in the pacific, an area where there are no flying fields and so on, you just can’t report immediately. And it took me about two weeks to get to Bethesda, Maryland.

When I arrived in San Francisco, my wife met me and she said, "Oh, you're going to be the hematologist for Operation crossroad.” I didn't know what Operation Crossroads was. I said, “How in the heck do you know?” She said, “Well, Mrs. Lozner called me and told me." This is what's called in the Navy “the wife line."

When I got to Bethesda, I was ushered into the commanding officer's office and he told everybody that was about that we had very secret orders. We were going to participate in the upcoming atomic bomb tests. I fortunately kept my mouth shut. I didn't let the cat out of the bag, but I already knew what I was going to do. But it was all explained to me. This hot, super secret.

Q: How much did you know about the upcoming atomic bomb?

Cronkite: I didn't know a thing about it. My wife knew more about it than I did. Lozner is the guy that I met first in Bethesda with the American Red Cross. And he had become ill and would have been the hematologist for Operation Crossroads. And when he couldn’t go, he was asked is there anybody in the Navy that could do it. And he suggested me, and they issued the orders. You know, suddenly you are the hematologist whether you're competent to do it or not." 

So amazingly cool- it was by complete chance that Dr. Cronkite recalled that memory during the interview and in such detail!   

Grand-Dad retired from the Navy in 1960.  He worked at first a research assistant and then later as an assistant professor at UNH in Sociology, where my mother used to roller skate up and down the hallways of T-Hall in the summer outside his office.   

One of my chemistry teachers had him as an instructor shortly before his retirement from the university.  Apparently, he liked to see how well his students were paying attention to his lectures.   Occasionally, he would start his lecture by informing the class about what he had for breakfast that day and the exams would often include a question or two about his breakfast.

He was married twice, had three children (one from the first marriage, two from the second), raised pedigree Doberman Pinchers for a time and threatened to make my mother a widow if my father ever dropped me. 

He passed away in 1982 of a heart attack and was never able to meet his other 6 grandchildren or great-grandson.  

As I said at the beginning of this extremely long winded post, I can't remember a time when I haven't known of my grandfather through the stories my mother and uncle passed on to us.   Although I may doubt their veracity at times, I will always enjoy them for the way they continuously bring him to life for us.  

Honestly, I think the stories are better than an heirloom.  Especially since the revenuers haven't figured out how to collect an inheritance tax on family stories.  Yet.  

1 comment:

  1. It's very cool when you get actual historical evidence to back up the family stories. This was an interesting piece to read.