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Where Were You In WWII?

ISSUE:  Winter 1993

In 1942 I had a new job, an infant daughter, good reason to believe I would not be drafted, an older brother at an overseas Army base, and a bad conscience. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor messed me up for fair. On that Sunday December Seventh Nineteen Forty One I slapped together, as weekend strawboss of a newspaper I despised and was escaping, an EXTRA! edition that I imagine you could still find if you scoured enough bureau drawers and attic trunks. The next morning at home I got a telephone call from the managing editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, asking me to report there right away instead of the first of the year as we had agreed; with the United States at war he needed my experience on the wire desk. I replied, abashed, that I was fixing to ask him for a two-week delay; the doctor had just told my wife that the baby we had expected to arrive at Christmastime would be a little late. The managing editor grumbled this and that and finally said I simply had to be in Norfolk by January 6.

I made his deadline. And upon entering the Pilot city room that day at noon after a night drive of 350 miles I was notified to call the hospital in the town I had left. Our daughter had been born while I was on the road.

That was my start on a job I had been trying to get since 1937, which was the year I began the last one. I was 30 years old, ten years out of Chapel Hill, and for the first time a father.

By late that year, with the drafting of several young staff members and the call-up of three or four older hands who were Reserve or National Guard officers, the Pilot was beginning to hurt for manpower. The publisher asked the congressman for that district, who before the last election had been in his employ, to help do something about it. So the congressman, a member of the Naval Affairs Committee, talked Selective Service into exempting from the draft certain essential news personnel now employed in Norfolk, a Naval center where the daily dissemination of information is vital to the war effort, provided however that any such personnel upon voluntarily entering the armed forces will forfeit all statuary guarantees of reemployment upon release into civilian life— language close to that. I was covered; after a few months on the wire desk I had taken over the naval reporting.

Meanwhile my brother Walter, a math graduate working in textiles and turning 32, had received greetings from Washington. He married the girl he had been courting forever and went to Texas for basic training. There he applied for Officer Candidate School. When his acceptance came through, he was a staff sergeant in England. That was a good enough deal for the time being, he decided, and stayed put. In North Africa he would receive a field commission.

Before that, though, after landing at Oran and settling into a tent, he wrote me please to send him a pint of Scotch whiskey, a bar of dried figs, and a windproof cigarette lighter, packaged in wood. I was happy to comply, but much less than happy to reflect upon how things were with the addresser and how they were bound to be with the addressee. I remembered “slacker” from World War I, when I was six, and felt like one. On my next days off I went to the Naval Officers Procurement Center in Richmond and offered my services to the ships that go down to the sea—were going every day, brand new ones, even from brackish-water yards, in numbers that still seem phenomenal.


That was toward the end of 1943. The Navy indicated I should expect early orders, then put me on standby. I learned through the Public Information Office at the Norfolk Naval Operating Base, which I covered, that the amphibious ship for which I had been tagged, an attack cargo carrier, was in a class delayed while construction priority shifted to attack transports. The hull matching my serial number was among 79 of its breed to slide down the ways in 1944 and 1945.

So it was in May 1944 that I found in my mail box, along with the usual letters and magazines, Naval Bureau of Personnel orders addressed to LT(jg) R. H. Mason USNR advising that I should purchase one blue uniform and one tan or gray one plus appropriate accessories; have myself sworn in (which a lawyer friend managed for me by having his secretary notarize, in my absence, my signature); and report to the Naval Indoctrination School at Plattsburg, New York. I had a month in which to give up the apartment I had been lucky to find in war-crowded Norfolk; ship our furniture to two locations, an inconvenient but storage-free arrangement; and send my wife and our little girl to live with relatives in North Carolina. They went by train. I had sold our car months earlier when the tires wore out.

The Indoctrination School occupied a row of brick buildings from a World War I Army facility. Fifty or so of us were divided into two companies and bedded down—double-deck bunks—in separate dormitories. An editor I later met at the Plattsburg Press-Republican told me the town had expected an assortment of sports and entertainment notables to be among us, but there was just one: Marshall Goldberg, the University of Pittsburgh Ail-American halfback of the late Thirties.

Most of the others were sports types of about my age, high school coaches mainly, principals among them, and a sprinkling of pleasure sailors, military school old-boys, and two upper-rank police officers. My only qualification was that I lived in Norfolk and seemed to know a good bit about the Navy. Also in the lot were several young fellows who had flunked out of Supply Corps School and were being reinserted in the Line.

On our first day we assembled in an auditorium and heard a lecture on patriotism by Bobby Jones, the old golfing worthy turned Army captain. Damn, I thought, here’s a roomful of men slipping past physical prime, most of us married and with children, ten years or so into our careers, and all entering the armed forces in the middle of a war without the least idea of what’s before us; and there’s a comparative elder renowned only as a prince of sports elitism reciting to us a speech that amounts to a commentary on the Pledge of Allegiance and Boy Scouts Oath. Does this make sense? Then I found myself reflecting upon the complexity of circumstances and loyalties, the need for me to change my newsroom mentality, and the waywardness of my approach and chip shots.

Our leader was a three-striper—a commander. He introduced the Indoctrination School’s department heads, all lieutenants except the medical officer, who also was a commander, and a psychiatrist to boot. That got my full attention.

We were told that for the next 60 days we would be “student officers” without acknowledged rank, would take orders from petty officers as well as commissioned personnel, and would be kicked out if caught with liquor. Back at the barracks, in my suitcase stored in the attic, was a pint of Mattingly & Moore, a fusel-oil blend of last resort in the Virginia ABC system in the amount my last rationing coupon would afford. I had brought it along as an auxiliary to what I might sip at the Officers Club bar, which it had not occurred to me would be off-limits if indeed it existed. What if my baggage were searched? I worried about that for two or three days. Then I slacked off.

We spent the mornings in class and in the afternoons drilled. One day an unfriendly chief petty officer gave us a mass boxing lesson in a grassy field. We trotted around a track on maybe half a dozen occasions. Just one foray into town was permitted. But toward the last we were allowed to dress in our graduation whites, shoulder boards and all, and take the cars to Montreal for the weekend.

Our courses were navigation, seamanship, naval orientation, ordinance, and recognition, taught by ensigns. None amounted to much. Nevertheless, a red-headed student officer I liked did poorly in all despite having an IQ that ran off the chart. Back home in Georgia he taught English and coached the girls field-hockey team at a private school. At night, instead of putting his nose in Bowdich’s American Practical Navigator and Knight’s Modern Seamanship and the Bluejacket’s Manual like everybody else, he would occupy himself with Lovette’s Naval Customs, Traditions and Usage, reading aloud and howling over such as:

In clubs where an officer has been a member or guest for a long period of time, such as is the usual practice for “China coast sailors” and the gunboat officers, and the officer is about to leave for other duty or home, it is customary to leave on the card board before his departure a “p. p. c.” card (pour prendre congé). This is an ordinary visiting card with p. p. c. written in the corner. By this card, a rule of etiquette is utilized to bid good-bye to all members. One, of course, calls upon one’s personal friends and bids them good-bye.

Some passages he memorized and recited, in cadence, at the mess table.

The Supply School castaways bunked in a corner of our dormitory. Chancing to pass near one evening, I realized that they were amusing themselves by picking on a man who was clearly distressed. I managed to usher him off, although I didn’t know him.

“You all right?” I asked him. “Those little S. O. B. ‘s bothering you?”

He was near tears. Here is about what, with difficulty, he said: “This happens every night and it’s got me down. In my town back in Nebraska I’m a high school principal. If I have to manage an incorrigible I don’t have any trouble doing it, and here the incorrigibles manage me. This constant reversal of roles, in the classes and drilling and everything else, is something I didn’t expect. I don’t mind telling you that back home I’m looked up to. If somebody gets up a duck hunt I’m the first one invited. If there’s a committee at the church or delegates to an educational convention, I’m a member and probably chairman. The Rotary Club gave me a big send-off to here. And I’ll say this: I’ve earned my status by my conduct and example. I just can’t stand much more of this harassing and humiliation I’m getting all the time.” He put his hands over his face.

I told him I didn’t believe the Navy expected him to. It understood very well that there were persons who wouldn’t compromise their dignity or position, else it wouldn’t have installed a psychiatrist as senior medical officer at this station.

“No, no, I won’t see him,” gasped the school principal. “Part of my profession is counseling. It’s this forever switch of roles that’s got to me.”

If he gave counsel, I said, he must believe in it. He ought to take advantage of what the Navy extended to its officers, especially when in a situation like this it would cost a month’s pay somewhere else; and besides, he was in an excellent position to evaluate it and maybe do a paper on it sometime.

He looked up. “I’ll go if you’ll go with me,” he said solemnly. So the next afternoon the school principal and I went to see the shrink.

The shrink was in. Guarding his door was a nice-looking WAVE with a pharmacist’s mate, second class badge on her sleeve. I told her our mission and she said to wait, she’d be right back. She was. Doctor would see me first, she said. Alone, please.

Behind his closed door I related to him what I had observed and been told. No, sir, I knew nothing of the school principal beyond what he’d half-sobbed to me, and I couldn’t tell exactly what was going on. Yes, sir, he was pretty upset, no doubt about it. Well, no, I’d had no special study or experience in psychology but I’d been on newspapers long enough to believe in behavioral screwups. He thanked me and I left. The PhM-2 was all business as she steered the school principal past me.

It didn’t surprise me that he didn’t show up at the barracks that evening. I had expected the shrink to put him in the infirmary and give him a pretty good working-over. But I thought it odd that he was gone the better part of a week.

Then just before an evening chow-down the school principal reappeared, carrying a suitcase and contriving to limp and strut at the same time. The Supply School refugees were in their usual off-duty corner. He greeted them exuberantly.

“Carry on, m’lads!” he shouted. “I hate to tell you, but you’ll have to get along without Buddyroo from now on. Your loving Buddyroo has been ordered home. The medical people have discovered what I subconsciously had been trying to suppress—that my old football knee has reacted poorly to so much drilling and running. The pain’s subtle but constant and has seeped into my nerves.” He kept yacking away as he emptied his foot locker into his suitcase. From where I was lounging on my upper bunk two aisles away I couldn’t hear it all, but “old football knee” was repeated a lot. And suddenly the school principal was gone.

“Biggie” Goldberg, sound of temperament and spry of knee, was the next to leave. Weeks before we were to graduate he vanished while his company was in class. Scuttlebutt was that he was being rushed to the Pacific to take part in a dangerous mission against the Japanese. Afterward someone said oh, no, the Navy Department had lent him to one of those traveling war-bond promotion vaudevilles.

Just before examinations the red-headed Lovette devotee, who couldn’t have been expected to pass them, was dispatched to a desk job in Norfolk. Evidently the Indoctrination School command recognized that he was too bright to be sent back to Georgia in embarrassment. I gave him a list of my Norfolk friends to call. And on his last night I broke into the attic, recovered my pint of M&M, and polished it off with him as we sat in the head, as we had been taught to say, leaning against the tile bulkhead, another term from our nomenclature education.

Somewhere along the line we lost a Chicago banker who, it was understood, owned a yacht on Lake Michigan. He had despaired of occupying one of the head’s two commodes, totally exposed, usually with a line of four or more japers facing him, and a line equally callous before his neighbor: scatology daily practiced and endured by the two-dozen student officers in each of our two barracks, of which all of us, sooner or later, should have protested to the secretary of the Navy, as was our guaranteed right.


The only one of my Plattsburg mates I ever saw again had established himself in the South Carolina Legislature, to which he first had been elected as a returning veteran of indistinct heroics. My orders were to the Naval Precommissioning Center in Newport, Rhode Island, where I joined the ship’s company being assembled for my tardy unit of the Pacific Amphibious Force: an attack cargo carrier designed to haul invasion equipment—tanks, artillery, trucks, and, for cleanup, bulldozers—and offload this with its own gear into its own landing craft, which would place it on the beach in coordination with the arrival there of operating troops from the attack transports. That was the idea, anyhow.

We were under command of the executive officer, a lieutenant from the Merchant Marine who, for a couple of weeks, saw more of a Navy dentist than of us. The captain and a nucleus team were with the ship as it neared completion at the Charleston Navy Yard. We met him at a reception at the Viking Hotel in Newport, the station commodore having closed the main Officers Club to transients, just before entraining for Charleston.

While he was the captain of our ship, his rank was commander, and new—his reward for having been in the Naval Reserve since World War I and lately having served without unduly offending the admiral in an Atlantic flagship converted from a passenger liner. That evening, with his matronly wife sharing the honor we paid him, he seemed nice enough. But once we were aboard ship, even before shoving off, he became a tyrant.

Books and movies, I know, have made a stereotype of the commanding officer of an auxiliary ship. Authors and directors have had little need for imagination. Our Old Man probably was typical: ineffectively schooled and totally inexperienced in directing people he did not know and managing equipment he did not understand and meeting crises he had not foreseen. From time to time he would say, usually to an officer of the deck whose civilian accomplishments were known, that as a General Electric engineer in New Jersey he had hired and fired Annapolis graduates. Enlisted members of the watch, overhearing his boasts and pondering them in the way of their calling, concluded that he had been a lightbulb salesman.

But that would come later. Newport was a good place to be. My little family joined me there for a month. We lived, much like our contemporaries, in a great old house loosely divided into apartments linked by a common kitchen that overloaded the fuse box every evening. Our bed bore a plaque attesting that Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, vice president under James Madison, had slept there. In its depths I snored through the September hurricane that banged up much of New England, which distressed me, I having been soaked and chilled as a reporter covering the wreckage of less stormy nights.

As for the Precommissioning Center, it was run with a minimum of nonsense.


In October our company of 400-plus went out to sea. The exec, with his jawline either restored to unevenness or misaligned by his dentist’s artifice, made up for the captain’s incompetence; while our voyage was his first in a Navy uniform, he held a master’s license and had sailed as chief mate in merchantmen. Of the 40 officers aboard, 13 ensigns under a lieutenant junior grade were assigned to the 24 boats. Only one officer was in the Regular Navy, a former enlisted man who had applied for a gunner’s warrant and, with misgivings, accepted an ensign’s stripe instead. Our navigator had received a Bronze Star for untangling, when a boat officer, a flotilla of invading landing craft caught on a reef. Six other officers had been in combat, a ratio of experience to inexperience that was approximately the same in the crew. Two other JG’s were in my age and procurement classification; all were suspect by the shellback bo’sun’s mates until we acquired some green on our hat devices. I was a deck-division officer, stood bridge watches underway from the outset, and would be promoted a grade (and, in 1963, frocked by an admiral to commander on the Naval Reserve retired list, where my name had been for 10 years).

We reached the Pacific in time for the Philippines operation’s finish. We lent a hand at Iwo Jima and were in the Okinawa invasion, where we took a rattling of shrapnel and close call from a Kamikaze that went through the booms of a merchantman next to us in the transport zone.

“A well-executed amphibious assault is as beautiful a military spectacle as one can find in modern warfare,” wrote Professor Samuel Eliot Morison in his multivolume history of the World War II Naval operations. He had Kwajalein in mind, but almost any island invasion would have served as well. He recalled “the glorious setting of deep-blue white-capped sea, fluffy tradewind clouds, flashing gunfire and billowing smoke over the target, gaily colored flag hoists at the yardarms of the ships and on the signal halyards of the control craft. One thought of the thundering hoofs and gleaming sabers of a cavalry charge, or of the chariots and horsemen of Israel.”

One thought too, if one were wise, of keeping the hell off open decks. Yet there is a good bit to what the historian said. The deck ape as well as the poet might be stirred by the splendor of a full-scale strike from sea. When I reflect upon those months, though, I tend to remember not a panorama but incidents in sound bites: a United States sailor hanging to a life ring and bobbing in heavy seas between our column and the next while our convoy holds its zigzag course and our escorts busy themselves with a submarine alarm a thousand yards off; and a Japanese youth’s placid face as he stands for better vision while steering his stripped-down Zero parallel to our wheelhouse, bearing on a line of OBB’s—old battleships—positioned for coordinating their 16-inch guns with on-shore artillery, and his being blasted by ack-ack into a fireball that drops a little trash pile on Karama Retto; and my making, as officer of the deck, a security check at night in a crowded harbor, where the enemy has been known to send out suicide boats, and coming upon the fantail watch, a sallow kid I don’t recognize, sorry-looking in rumpled dungarees and chambray shirt, sound asleep with his M-1 loose on his lap, and finding myself unable to put him on report. . . .

Meanwhile, we plowed much of the Pacific, from the Solomon Islands to the China Seas, hauling cargo for occupation and warring forces. We went below the Equator three times and luxuriated in the brisk air above the 30th Parallel. High-priced stevedores loaded us at San Francisco and Honolulu piers, and our deckhands offloaded us in tropical lagoons; off” a black-sand Philippine beach Army Transportation Corps people abused our winches and ruined our wire. In a millpond sea we steamed three days in the track of a jeep flattop before sighting it. And we pitched and rolled in the lee of Saipan, where shelter is poor, during the 1945 storm that broke the bow off the cruiser Pittsburgh and shortened the flight decks of three aircraft carriers, including the mother of them all, the 1925 Saratoga.

When the war ended we were back in San Francisco loading for Japan. I was appalled by our country’s use of atomic weapons, and remain so.


The executive officer had been sailing since his teens. He started during the Depression as a deckhand playing baseball for a shipping line that liked to field good teams against enthusiastic locals in Japanese ports. In time he attended maritime school in Pennsylvania, where he lived, and earned a third mate’s ticket, which he improved with experience to unlimited master’s. A Japanese gunboat fired a shell across his first freighter’s bow soon after Japan’s invasion of China in 1932 and a German U-boat sank his last one off Guba in 1943. The U. S. Navy did not particularly impress him over the years. He transferred into it out of admiration for some Reserve officers he met upon arriving at Guantanamo Naval Base in a lifeboat with other survivors, and also at the prospect of undergoing without cost the mostly-elective dental work that occupied him for a fortnight at Newport. Long before then he had determined to quit the sea and buy a neighborhood movie house that maybe would lead to a chain. He was crazy about Hollywood.

During my first month back at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk I came upon him on a downtown street. He wore civilian clothes—a too-tight brown suit and a dinky green hat. I was astonished. “I thought that by now you’d be at least a junior-grade movie mogul,” I said.

He shrugged and smiled his crooked smile. “Takes more money than I thought,” he said. “I’m first mate on a grain ship bound for Yugoslavia, hoping to earn enough to get started. We’re sailing today and I’m in a hurry.” The grain piers were half a dozen miles away, near the Naval Operating Base.

My return to Norfolk had been without ceremony. Although under the terms of my departure for the Navy I had no guarantee of recovering my job, I had assumed it would be waiting. One thing favoring me was that I could qualify as resident Naval expert. While at sea I had, with my newspaper work in mind, taken correspondence courses in Naval regulations and administration, and after Plattsburg I had attended schools at Newport and Hampton Roads.

But instead of resuming the Pilot’s military-affairs beat I was made swing editor, working a different desk each day or night, relieving people on their days off and taking my own at split times. I hated it. Pretty soon I was transferred to the night city desk, but during my absence that job had been downgraded and I had to answer to a man not much older than I who had stayed home and was a worse martinet than I had come upon in uniform.

The managing editor, a World War I mariner whose English-born father had fought with the Union in the Civil War, had lost a son in Italy and gone into a decline. The news editor had appropriated most of his authority but made poor use of it, mainly from an inability to form quick judgment when breaking news demanded it. Meanwhile my ears were assaulted regularly by Louisiana-swamp war stories from the copy-desk chief, a National Guard lieutenant colonel mustered out early because of a bad heart.

As difficult as new automobiles were to acquire, through a relative I bought a ‘46 Plymouth that turned out to have, unfortunately for street and highway travel, leftover characteristics of the truck or tank it had replaced on the assembly line. Right away it was stolen off the newspaper parking lot, to be recovered in Florida with its back seat missing and that space crammed with golf clubs. The police theft-squad sergeant who notified me at my door of its return practically put his hand in my pocket for a $10 tip.

I explored applying to Chapel Hill or the College of William and Mary for law school but couldn’t work out the logistics. A friend of a friend offered me the publicity directorship of a trade association in Richmond, and that made me all the gloomier because I couldn’t bring myself even to discuss it, however wise that might have been.

Often I would think of the executive officer in his tacky civvies. To me he was the Everyman of returning veterans, all with great expectations and all getting reamed. If some of us had done little enough that merited reward, what had we done to deserve our discontent? I don’t mean I had a bad dose of it—like, say, these Persian Gulf legionnaires who so excited television’s newest entertainers, the medical reporters; but it didn’t take much to make me sneer.

Late one afternoon, just as I was settling into my routine, a woman from the society office (society office: was there ever such?) dropped by my desk in unpersuasive casualness. “Certain ones,” she said, “have got to wondering what’s the matter with you. Or is it us?”

She was a gentle person, half a dozen years into old-maidenhood, who owed her employment more to her mother’s ancestry and her father’s failures than to her writing style. I’d never known her to be cross.

Nothing was the matter, I said, and I didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Well,” she persisted, “it’s occurred to me and a few others I won’t name that if you’re going to be such a grouch around here maybe you ought to go back into the Navy. Good Lord, the Navy? You like that stuff better than your old friends?”

Unable to say anything I’d put much stock in, I leaned over my desk and kissed her nicely-boned cheek. She said: “Don’t change the subject, you bastard.”

Right there was enough therapy to start me back on track—that and my appointment at the close of the 40’s, when newsprint supplies improved, to Sunday editor, which was the best job I ever had. Well, surely the one with the most fun.

From 1962 until late 1978, when I retired, I was editor of The Virginian-Pilot, the principal newspaper of the largest naval community in the world. Drawing heavily on my Navy sea and postwar experiences, including six years in a Reserve unit and innumerable seminars, demonstrations, and exercises from Virginia Beach to the Arctic Circle, I wrote often and confidently on Navy topics. If I developed a specialty it was the Navy’s awkward transition from traditional concepts of shipboard authority, responsibilities, and discipline, founded more on precedent than document, to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Thomas B. Buell, biographer of Admirals Raymond A. Spruance and Ernest J. King, wrote in 1980 that I probably knew “as much about the Navy and its people as any man alive.” Much earlier Samuel E. Morison, a retired Naval Reserve rear admiral as well as a Harvard history professor, credited me with writing “a much better analysis” of his World War II Navy series than “some of the reviews that have appeared in the so-called big-time newspapers and magazines.” During the Cuban missile crisis Admiral Robert L. Dennison, commander-in-chief of the U. S. Atlantic Fleet, telephoned from his secret headquarters to discuss with me, in connection with an editorial I had written in that morning’s paper, the peculiar place in maritime history he expected for the blockade of Russian shipping he was directing.

I am no Navyphile. I have not courted gold braid, although I have enjoyed many Naval friendships. I schooled myself in the sea service because of its importance to the city and area of my work, just as elsewhere and earlier I had striven to understand agriculture, textiles, and tobacco, and the trade unions.

But then, I never would have chosen to punch the time clock in a cotton mill or cigarette factory, or to market the products of either. I would rather read my way into the intricacies of parity, allotments, and subsidies than to plant and harvest fields.

If there was to be on-the-job training in any subject of my reporting and editorializing, and maybe along with it a small contribution to human freedom, I am delighted that I could take a whack at it in a blue double-breasted uniform and black shoes.


On Sept. 8, 1974, 1 met my older brother Walter at Wrights-ville Beach in North Carolina, where he and his wife were entertaining five couples at a house party. The date is easy to remember because on it President Ford pardoned Richard M. Nixon.

Having lived far apart, my brother and I had seen relatively little of each other through the years. As we lingered at the breakfast table the next morning I asked him a question that would come to mind every so often, but never before when he was at hand. It was:

“Did you ever get that liquor I sent you to Algiers?”

“Liquor?” my brother echoed.

“Yeah, a pint of Scotch, 35 cents worth of dried figs, and one of those old tubular brass cigarette lighters. All taped up in a cigar box.”

“M-m-m-m. A pint of Scotch.”

“You wrote asking for it,” I said. “Not a fifth, but a pint. I borrowed it from a neighbor, found the figs at the A&P, but had to scrounge for the lighter.”

At length my brother replied, “Well, you know how it was with APO mail. Some got through and some didn’t.”

It was clear that he remembered nothing of the sad little package that shamed me out of my World War II safe haven and into the U. S. Navy.


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