The euphoria that I felt when I learned that rivet-rattling USS EAGLE 19 was to be decommissioned and scrapped was short lived. That holdover from World War I, used mostly for training student officers in anti-submarine measures, operated out of Key West, Florida. There were also assignments to guard the entrance to the main ship channel, and to escort surfaced allied submarines in order to keep hotshot American pilots from attacking them.
A few times there were wild-goose chases in response to reports of German U-boats trying to passage the Straits of Florida. USS EAGLE 56 had not yet been torpedoed by a U-boat within sight of Portland, Maine with the loss of four of its five officers and forty-two of its fifty-four enlisted men. To the unmarried bucks in EAGLE 19, the duty was boring, boring, boring¦.
I was eagerly looking forward to a larger ship and return to the Western Pacific. Thus, when orders arrived for me to report to EAGLE 32 that performed similar chores out of San Diego, I felt as if I had been kicked in the belly. However, a few of the experiences I had while traveling from Key West to San Diego provided some consolation and are memorable.
My orders allowed ten-days leave in addition to nine days specified as travel time. When I mentioned to the WAVE in charge of such paperwork that I was going to visit my family in Brooklyn before heading for San Diego, she surprised me with a priority for travel on civilian airlines. Thus, I was able to rely on scheduled airliners and was relieved of the uncertainty associated with hitchhiking on planes operated by the Naval Air Transportation System and the Army Transportation Command. I planned to cut travel time to the bone and spend at least fifteen days in Brooklyn.
The next break came when an officer who had made a last-minute dash from Miami to Key West in order to join his ship, asked me to return a 1941 Buick Super Eight Convertible to Miami. The car had to be back early the next morning.
The opportunity to travel in style fit in with my schedule, saved me a boring four-hour bus ride, cost me nothing, and was most enjoyable. I was twenty-one then and just the thought of driving one of the newest cars available during those wartime days of gasoline-ration coupons, was exhilarating. With the top down, in bright moonlight and with no other nighttime traffic in the Florida Keys, I crossed the then new straight-as-an-arrow seven-mile bridge in four and a half minutes.
I arrived in Miami during the early morning of 23 February 1945, returned the car as requested, and bumped a civilian off of a loaded-to-capacity Eastern Airlines flight scheduled to make a number of stops before reaching New York. Then my luck changed. After the scheduled stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, takeoff was at first delayed and then cancelled due to fog. Eastern provided buses that hauled the passengers to a hotel in downtown Raleigh for a long wait pending the 9:00 p.m. arrival of a northbound passenger train.
There was only one other serviceman in the group, a Navy enlisted man my age with whom I commiserated about our travel predicament. At the same time, I had an opportunity to size up the other passengers who were mostly older men. Some seemed to be well-heeled snow birds who had to interrupt Miami Beach vacations in order to take care of some business in the north.
When my fellow Navy man and I walked into the hotel’s dining room together a few of the men insisted that we sit at the same table with them. They were strangers to each other and, as attempts at conversation indicated, seemed to be of different political and religious persuasions. They were not at ease in each other’s company and directed most of their comments at the other serviceman and me. Afterwards they had a little flap because each wanted to pay for our meals.
When we finally boarded a coach at the Raleigh Train Station, our luck took another dive; all seats were occupied. Many, mostly servicemen, were sitting on luggage or on the floor. Others were standing. The swab jockey and I were resigned to a miserable night, to say the least. After about twenty-five minutes of just standing and wondering if any seats would vacate during the overnight run to New York, the Conductor came by and said, “Are you the two guys that got on in Raleigh?”
When we nodded he said, “Come with me.”
The Conductor led us through a couple of coaches and then through some Pullmans. We continued into a car that was fitted with compartments where he knocked on a door. The door was opened by one of the gents with whom we had dinner. He invited us in and for the first time introduced himself. He was Doctor Frank Lahey, whom I later learned was the founder of the Lahey Clinic in Boston. He pointed to the upper bunk and said, “If you two don’t mind taking turns, you can sleep here tonight.”
Since the horror of the alternative in the crowded coach was fresh in our minds, his offer was gratefully accepted. Then the doctor performed another miracle. He produced an unopened fifth. I don’t remember if it was Scotch whisky or not, but I do remember that it was expensive; definitely not one of those common blends. He said as he broke the seal that he didn’t want to drink alone.
Before long the atmosphere was like it would have been if all three of us were sailors on liberty happily swapping tales. The swabbie and I exchanged sea stories for those the doctor told about the medical profession.
When the bottle was a few shots from being empty, Dr. Lahey suddenly became serious. What he said was all the more ominous because of what was then going on in Europe and in the Western Pacific.
The other twenty-one year old and I, as most our age, were aware of the war’s progress, but we did not concern ourselves with trying to understand the implications of certain military and political events then in the news. Planning what to do while on leave and how not to report to the next duty station any earlier than necessary, were the kinds of things that were foremost in our minds. The doctor, however, was burdened with special insight into an alarming circumstance. What he then disclosed was sobering, particularly in the context of what was public knowledge.
American and British troops were then attacking on German soil from the west while the Russians were racing toward Berlin from the east. A U.S. amphibious operation was underway on Iwo Jima, an indication that the war in the Pacific was beginning its last phase. President Roosevelt, who had started his fourth term a month before, had just returned from Yalta where he conferred with Britain’s Prime Minister Churchill and Premier Stalin about what the world would be like after Germany and Japan surrendered. Knowledgeable observers were concerned because they knew that President Roosevelt’s goals included the United Nations and freedom in all nations whereas Churchill’s objective was preservation of the British Empire and Stalin’s was expansion of communism.
In the gravest manner, Dr. Lahey told us that he had been one of a small group of doctors who were brought in to assess the President’s health. He explained that the President was seriously ill, that he could not possibly live much longer and that the medical report was purposely withheld from the public in order to insure his reelection for a fourth term.
At times Dr. Lahey spoke with anger. He accused those who derived power from their relationships to the President with purposely keeping the true condition of his health secret. He also spoke with heartfelt compasssion for the President who, Dr. Lahey said, was dying while continuing to be subjected to extraordinary physical and mental pressures. Afterwards there was no joy in telling sea stories.
One-day shy of seven-weeks later, aboard EAGLE 32 while I was making an entry in the engineering log for 12 April 1945, huge Ensign Collins, with tears streaming down both cheeks interrupted and said, “President Roosevelt is dead.”
19 February 1945: Detached from duty in USS EAGLE 19
13 March 1945: Reported for duty in USS EAGLE 32
23 April 1945: USS EAGLE 56 was torpedoed by the German submarine U-853 within sight of Portland, Maine
7 May 1945: Germany signs unconditional surrender
15 August 1945: VJ Day
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo