(Author’s note: This is an excerpt from my most recent book. To order a copy, please turn to The Dunery Press page on this blog.)
Life with a Laryngectomee
Chapter Twenty: Shipmates
As I write this, I am looking at a photograph of Utility Squadron Fifteen.
I mounted it over my desk so I could gaze daily at the unit that was commissioned 23 June 1943 at U.S. Naval Air Station, Brunswick, Maine to help prosecute the War in the Atlantic against the Third Reich’s dreaded wolves under the sea, or U-boats. And there in the back row is Lt. (JG) McKelvy. My Dad, was by far the most handsome officer in that squadron of dashing men in dress blue. He had already served in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army by the time he earned his commission in the U.S. Navy, and he talked often of his wartime experiences, and we will too, but first to two other framed objects on my wall:
- I have only to shift my gaze slightly up and to the left from the black-and-white photograph of Utility Squadron Fifteen to see my Honorable Discharge from the United States Navy Reserve in 1979.
- And then, if I drop my eyes from my discharge, I see a photograph I took of Honorably Discharged Lieut. Cmdr. James S. McKelvy, U.S.N.R. aboard a U.S. Navy frigate that was visiting Chicago in 1978 as part of a goodwill tour of the Great Lakes.
I have run the thread of my life with my father through these three frames, and I can tell you now that it was the U.S. Navy that brought my father and me together.
We were bound by the Navy from my earliest childhood.
Permit me, if you will, to quote from an article I wrote for WORLD WAR II Magazine in March 2002:
Although Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, I thought they were still at war with us in September 1954 when I was all of 4 years old and living on the south side of Chicago. My peculiar belief arose from the fact that my parents and their friends had taken me to the Museum of Science and Industry, where they were in the process of rolling a captured German submarine, U-505, across Lake Shore Drive to its final resting place outside the museum.
I remember hearing my parents and their friends joke about the “Submarine Crossing” sign posted along the drive, and I distinctly recall one of the adults solemnly telling me that “the Germans are invading Chicago, and there are German sailors hiding aboard that U-boat.”
Alarmed, I told my parents we had better high-tail it out of there as fast as possible. They laughed and reassured me that their friend had been joking with me, but I was not so sure. In fact, when my wife (Natalie) and I paid a recent visit to the U-505, I looked behind every bulkhead just to be sure the boat was truly free of Marinesoldaten. Although my return to the submarine was perhaps a little less terrifying than it had been when I was a young boy, I found the museum’s account of its capture by a carrier-destroyer task force commanded by Chicagoan Daniel V. Gallery as compelling as ever.
And I still find it compelling because I know my father and his shipmates in Utility Squadron Fifteen helped make it possible for Captain Gallery’s aircraft carrier Guadalcanal and accompanying destroyers to cripple the U-505, capture it and, well, back to my narrative from WORLD WAR II:
According to the museum, Captain Gallery and his task force of six ships on patrol off West Africa hit the jackpot just a month after sailing from Norfolk, Va. On June 4, 1944 (when my Dad was on patrol elsewhere in the Atlantic with Utility Squadron Fifteen), the destroyer escort Chatelain made sonar contact with U-505, which in its 404 days of service had become a terror of the sea, sending eight freighters to the bottom.
And, as an editorial aside, be it known that my father saw ships torpedoed by U-boats as he was standing on the beach in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Dad saw, heard, and smelled how real the threat was and how absolutely essential it was that the U.S. Navy launch such effective countermeasures as the carrier-destroyer task forces commanded by the likes of Captain Gallery.
Chatelain fired again and again at the sub as Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters from Captain Gallery’s aircraft carrier Guadalcanal circled overhead, marking the sub’s position with machine-gun fire. Six and a half minutes after Chatelain’s first attack, the U-boat surfaced and her crew surrendered. But the excitement was far from over. The attack had jammed U-505’s rudder; the sub was out of control, and the German crew had already jumped into the water. Waves washed over the sub’s deck as she slowly began to sink.
The Americans did not know how long U-505 would stay afloat or whether she might be booby-trapped inside. Undaunted, a volunteer boarding part of nine men from USS Pillsbury—only one of whom had ever been in a submarine before—tumbled down the hatch.
Water was pouring in from a 10-inch sea strainer. Thinking quickly, Engineer’s Mate Zenon Lukosius searched for the scuttle valve and secured it. For the first time in 129 years, Americans had captured an enemy warship on the high seas.
In capturing U-505, Gallery’s men also seized the submarine’s addressbuch (code book), which provided the Allies with the information they needed to keep shipping lanes open in preparation for D-Day, just 48 hours later.
I share all this because I am so very proud of my father for his role in what he always called the Battle of the Atlantic.
He often said that after he became what he called a ninety-day wonder, he hoped to serve aboard a ship like Captain Gallery’s aircraft carrier Guadalcanal.
He joined the Navy to serve at sea.
But the Navy would have him serve above the sea with Utility Squadron Fifteen doing everything that a utility squadron did from 1943 until the war’s end in 1945.
Meaning that my Dad and his fellow officers searched for the likes of U-505 and flew supplies to the Royal Navy in Bermuda and just basically did whatever was needed to open the shipping lanes and keep the materiel flowing to embattled England and Russia.
If I didn’t say it before, I’ll say it again:
So I grew up listening to my Dad talk about his war in the Atlantic and looking at pictures of him in his dress blues with Utility Squadron Fifteen and hearing him sing the praises of Captain Daniel V. Gallery and Winston Churchill and the U.S. Navy in general.
Dad presented the Navy in such a positive light that I positively resolved to follow in his footsteps and serve as an officer in the U.S. Navy after graduation from college.
To that end I took the Naval-ROTC qualification examination during my senior year at Morgan Park. My plan was to earn a NROTC scholarship to Northwestern University where I would major in Journalism. I would be commissioned as a Naval Officer upon graduation, serve my active and reserve duty time in this man’s navy, and then work as a reporter for, oh, the Chicago Tribune would do.
The self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Newspaper was what Dad read every morning, so I would report for the Tribune, probably as a foreign correspondent in Beirut and Saigon and Moscow and Peking (yeah, Beijing was called Peking in those days before political correctness).
Well, I should have known from the location of the NROTC exam at Illinois Institute of Technology, or IIT, that my bold plan was, as Bobby Burns penned in his ode To a Mouse: apt to: gang aft a-gley.
I was done with math and science by my senior year and walked into that exam without a slide rule and minus even a rudimentary understanding of ship’s navigation.
I took one look at the other applicants and realized that I was a flounder swimming with the sharks.
I am sure they all aced the test and went on to become brilliant naval officers, probably serving in and around the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam.
All I know is that the Navy was not long in informing me that I had failed miserably.
I was no ship driver.
I couldn’t navigate my way out of a paper bag.
And then Northwestern dropped the other shoe by curtly informing me that the best I could hope for from them was to be put at the end of an endless waiting list.
Dad said it was time to get real.
Time to pick a state university in Illinois and apply there.
No chance of following in his footsteps to Penn State, because the out-of-state tuition was too high.
A state university in Illinois would have to do, and it did:
Illinois State University in Normal.
Or, as we fondly referred to it: Abnormal.
Illinois State University, ISU if you will, accepted me, and I went there, and Dad loved it.
He loved driving me back to school on old Route 66, and I must say that we had some great times together motoring back and forth between Chicago and Normal on that iconic American highway.
We were very much on the same political page my freshman year of college in 1968-69. So much so that when some recruiters from the U.S. Marine Corps appeared at the student union one gray day, I gladly glad-handed them and took the test they offered to qualify for the Platoon Leader Class, or PLC. They said that if I qualified I would receive intensive training during the summers after my sophomore and junior years and then be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marines upon graduation.
I aced the test that very day, and I was as gung-ho as they come and quite willing to go to Vietnam as a Marine second or first lieutenant.
I bought the whole Domino Theory deal and believed that the Red Horde would be landing on California beaches in no time flat if we didn’t stop Ho Chi Minh and his pals in South Vietnam.
So of course Dear Old Dad and I were on the same political page as he drove me up and down Route 66. We were getting our kicks on 66 all right, but when I broke the news of my acceptance into the Marine Corps officer-training program, he was less than enthused.
Quite a bit less, and then I remember him telling me how he had been in Marine boot camp before he was accepted by the Navy as a candidate for officer training. The drill sergeants were drilling Dad and his fellow recruits for hand-to-hand combat with the Imperial Japanese Army on the islands of the South Pacific.
Remember the name of Captain Gallery’s aircraft carrier?
Guadalcanal ring a bell?
Yeah, well, that ship was named for that island where Dad was headed with his fellow Marines before he washed out due to a thyroid deficiency.
I wouldn’t be here right now writing this or any other chapter if Dad’s thyroid hadn’t gone haywire on him in the early days of America’s involvement in World War II.
He was headed for Guadalcanal, and if I have to spell out what it was like to be a U.S. Marine on Guadalcanal in 1942 then you need to take U.S. History again.
Suffice it to say, Dad dodged a whole hive of Jap bullets, and he never forgot that. He was haunted by the fact that his boot camp buddies had gone to Guadalcanal to meet the Japanese in some of the worst fighting of the campaign to take the island, and he never even considered buying a Japanese car as a result.
Dad seemed to think the Germans were fair fighters because they were fellow Europeans, while he considered the Japs, and he never called them anything better than Japs, to be barbarians, bound by no civilized code of warfare.
And although he didn’t say it, I think he feared that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong would do to me, as a freshly minted lieutenant in this man’s U.S. Marine Corps, what the Japs would have done to him in the South Pacific.
So Dad did not say much about my enlistment in the Marine PLC program.
He was, now that I think of it, strangely silent.
But his brother-in-law, Booth Mattson, was not.
Uncle Booth had served as an officer in the Marine Corps, and he took great pride in being a Marine, for after all one is always a Marine. He took pride in showing me the sword he had been presented at his commissioning and said it was earned, not given.
So naturally I wanted to earn my own sword, and I wanted so much to share my good Marine Corps news with Uncle Booth that I told him straight away of my exciting news.
Rather than look pleased, Uncle Booth looked alarmed and said: “Can you get out of it?”
“Well, sure, but—“
Uncle Booth had served between the wars in Korea and Vietnam. He had been a peacetime Marine, but he knew what the Marines were up against in South Vietnam. He knew from friends in the Corps how ugly and dangerous and totally deadly it was becoming over there in the jungles of Vietnam.
So he told me to quit, if I could.
And, shortly thereafter, I was at a party in the neighborhood bragging to anyone who would listen about how I was going to be a big, bad-ass Marine officer in Vietnam, and—
A friend who had just returned from serving in Vietnam grabbed me by the shoulder and hauled me outside and hollered in my face: “How long do you think you’re going to last over there with that stripe on your helmet?!? If the Vietcong don’t shoot you in the face, your men are going to shoot you in the back when you give them some dipshit order to attack some position they can’t possibly take.”
His advice was the same as Uncle Booth’s: quit as soon as you can.
And so I did, eventually.
That was a journey worthy of a separate book, but suffice it to say I changed my thinking about the war in Vietnam and the Domino Theory.
Okay, I was a 19-year-old who didn’t want to die, for his country or anyone else.
I didn’t want to die, period.
Quite simple, really.
And I am really sorry to say I wasn’t able to have that conversation with my father.
When I began to speak out against the war in Vietnam, he spoke all the louder for it.
We argued in the living room and at the local watering hole where we would drink together.
I was a hippie pinko and he was an Archie Bunker redneck warmonger.
Ne’er the twain shall meet.
But it did, eventually.
After my successful attempt to stay out of Vietnam played out at the seminary that had given me a 4D deferment, I enlisted in—you saw this coming miles back—the U.S. Navy.
Yep, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and I let that recruiter sweet-talk me into a hitch in this man’s Navy over beers and billiards at some gin mill not far from the seminary I was falling out of for lack of funds for tuition and for lack of a real order to Holy Orders.
My life was a mess, and the Navy was looking good, and when I came home from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in my dress blues, my old man hugged me so hard my eyeballs are still popping.
So there’s your full circle, down to that third picture of him aboard a U.S. Navy frigate in 1978 and looking out to sea.
The sea might have only been Lake Michigan, but it was a sea change for both of us to be on that ship with him a proud veteran of the U.S. Navy and me still serving in the United States Navy Reserve.
And what did we do that fine day after being aboard ship together?
Why we cemented our nautical bond by doing what sailors do the world over: we went and had ourselves copious measures of grog at a public house in the Loop worthy of our salty patronage.