Stories my Father Told Me About World War II

By Thomas F. Swezey (originally written 02/05/1989)

My  father,  Benjamin Franklin Swezey, Jr. was a Navy  veteran  of World  War  II  and  saw action in both the Pacific and North Atlantic Theaters of war. Here I am trying to remember and recount some of the many stories of that period that he had told me over the years. I realize that my memory and his may have been faulty, and I apologize for not being able to tell a story as well as he could, but I will try to be as accurate as possible.

Each paragraph is a different story and the order is my own, some may be out of actual historical sequence.

Before the War

My father was a amateur "ham" radio operator since the 1920's and ran  a  radio repair shop with his friend Clyde Reynolds in the 1930's in Buffalo Minnesota where he had grown up.

When   Clyde  got  married,  my  Dad  wanted  to  break  up   the partnership,  he said he didn't want a married partner.  He  sold his  interest to Clyde and went to Iowa State University in  Ames Iowa pursuing an Electrical Engineering Degree though times  were hard  in the depression and he was forced to drop out.  Later  he moved  to  Minneapolis  and worked as a regional  sales  man  for Northwestern  Electronics  selling radio parts  to  radio  repair shops in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Boot Camp

As  World  War II approached, and the draft was  reinstituted  in 1941, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve. He was called up and went through  a combined boot camp and radio school which he said  was the easiest route at the time.

He had been dating my Mother but had said he didn't want to leave her a widow especially with children, if he didn't come back, so they didn't  marry until near the end of the war. I've always thought  that  the war was an excuse for one  last  fling  before taking the responsibility of marriage.

There  is a minor history of diabetes in our family, and he said that  when he took the physical he was just over the  line. The doctor told him to drink a lot of water and had him just sit  and wait.  He had to go to the bath room real bad when they finally retested him and he was just under the limit.

At boot camp they asked for volunteers for high frequency school, he  thought that was for walkie-talkies and signed up for it.  He had heard that they might drop a guy behind enemy lines and  have him radio enemy positions. Instead it was for Radar which was top secret  at the time. He went to a radio school  in  Indianapolis, Indiana for it.

Applying for the Far East

On  graduation, he requested to go to the far east,  they  called him in to ask him why and he said that he wanted to see it before it  was  to late (remember the Japanese were at  war  in  China). Actually, he'd heard the dregs of the Navy were out there and  he thought he would stand out in contrast. So he was assigned there.

He  always told the story of how a lazy chief had probably saved his  life. He had orders to report in San Diego by midnight on  a certain  date. When he arrived in San Diego, he ran into a  bunch of his buddies from school and they went out drinking and  showed up just before midnight. a chief there who was suppose to cut him orders  to the far east was mad that he was there so late  saying that  if he'd been there earlier he would have cut his orders  to go  out with the next group the next day, instead they  held  him over  in transit. My Dad thought that that group of  guys,  which were bound for Corrigidor probably never made it back.

a  few days later, when he and a buddy were on their way off  the base, a staff car roared up to the gate while they were about  to leave and closed the base ­ Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

Paranoia  and war nerves were very strained at that time, he  said everybody expected an attack on the west coast to follow shortly, they  took  everybody out and had them walk sentry duty  out  all along the coast. He remembered walking a very lonely post up  and down in the dark imagining there was a Jap behind every bush.

Within a few days he was transferred out to Pearl Harbor, he said it  was  still  burning when he got there,  and  was  temporarily assigned to a tender and then to the destroyer USS Clark 361.

When  he  reported on board, there radar was  out  of  commission because  of  a burned out part. None of the old radiomen  on  the ship  could fix it and it would take awhile to get the part.  The ship  was  one  of a few with radar and was  about  to  leave  to support  the fleet. My Dad said he thought he could fix the  part and did jury rig one and got it going again. As a result of  this he  had  gotten  in  good with the Captain.  He  said  the  other radiomen  resented him for this and he made most of  his  friends among other sailors on the ship.

After Pearl Harbor, the government worried that Hawaii could be captured by the Japanese. As a result they called in all of the cash and printed the word "Hawaii" on it. That way if Hawaii was captured, they could void the money and deny the Japanese of its use.

The Battle of Midway and Early Pacific Raids

The  battle of Midway, was just about to happen, and the  Admiral had ordered that no one go ashore. The executive officer needed a radio tube for his radio and ordered my Dad to go ashore and  get it, my Dad had to go all the way across town to pick it up and in the  mean time the ship was ordered out to sea. The  Captain  was furious with the executive officer for sending him, but to  cover disobeying a fleet directive, they gathered up all my Dad's  gear and  officially transferred him over to another ship. When my  Dad got  back  his stuff was piled up on the dock and  the  ship  was gone.  He still received a star for the Battle of  Midway though because the battle area officially included Hawaii. He returned to his ship when it came back in a little later.

At  one  point, right after Pearl Harbor, his ship was  sent  out with  an aircraft carrier for some 65 days (I think  the  numbers are right) but with only 30 days rations on board. After 20  days they  knew  they  were going to run out so they  cut  to  partial rations and cut again after 45 days. My Dad said that for a while they  would  get a few provisions from the carrier  but  after  a while  that  stopped too. He said sailors on  the  carrier  would throw  a  candy bar down on there deck and watch sailors on  his ship fist fight for it, but after a while the carrier was just as bad off and they stopped doing that. My Dad lost about 30  pounds during  that period and he wasn't all that big to begin with.  He said  they  issued side arms to the officers on watch  fearing  a mutiny. When they got back to Pearl, the Captain had a big buffet set up  on the fantail of the ship and had everybody eat to their hearts content.

His ship was then assigned to the South Pacific.

They  were  on  the wrong side of the  Great  Barrier  reef  near Australia and so missed being in the Battle of the Coral Sea. His ship  visited Brisbane and later Wellington, New Zealand. And  he always wanted to go back there to visit but never did.

His ship carried out a raid on Port Moresby, they sailed in  fired some rounds, sank what they could and got out.

He ship was one of the support ships at  Guadalcanal  when  the marines landed there.

Once his ship encountered a  Japanese  merchant ship and they went on board and set explosives and blew it up.

My Dad recalled a suicide mission that his ship was suppose to go on, in fact his Captain had pulled rank to go on it, but his ship carried the fleet's mail and they thought the loss of that  would be  bad for moral. The ship that did go was sunk with  only  nine survivors, none of them from my Dad's part of the ship.

Another  time, his and several other ships were going to go on  a suicide  mission but the Japanese spotted them too soon and  they were recalled.

He said that while they were sailing in the Pacific in the middle of  the night, they suddenly started hearing thumping  all  along the side of the ship. Fearing some kind of secret  weapon  they came  to a dead stop and waited till morning, as far as  the  eye could see there were blocks of pumice, volcanic rock, floating  on the surface, they pulled up a block on board and then pulled back and sailed around it.

Another time, they saw something on the sea coming at them in the distance, they turned toward it and as it got nearer they saw  it was about a three foot high tidal wave. They cut though it  okay, but had it hit them unawares it could have been very damaging.

There was a space under the torpedo tubes  that provided shade from the tropical sun and let the sea breeze  blow through  and was one of the more comfortable places to sack  out. He  said that once he saw a sailor twirling the arming  lever  on one of the torpedoes and asked what the heck he was doing, he was just playing with it, he notified the Captain, as that armed  the torpedo  after so many turns and the sailor didn't  remember  how many  times he turned it, they dropped the torpedo over the  side and sure enough it exploded, the sailor had nearly endangered the ship.

They had a drink on board called torpedo juice, where they took pure alcohol out of the torpedoes and drank it. It  was probably  like Everclear 190 proof and I think he said  it  had quite a wallop though I don't think they drank it very often.

Once  (or twice?) some of my Dad's clothes were stolen by other sailors. When he found out who, he proved they were his clothes because he had his name in them in indelible ink in Morse  Code.

My Dad never saw a Bob Hope USO show but he always wanted to,  he said  he'd  heard  that they always did two shows,  one  for  the cameras for back home and the other just for the troops, he said he'd heard the second was really blue (dirty).

They had an  initiation  ceremony  when  they crossed the Equator, he never mentioned much about it except  two little things, one that they made a phoney pair of binoculars  by taping  two  bottles together to see King Neptune coming  on  the horizon  and second that there were some kind of no  slip  strips for the deck that they folded over to whip everybody on the  rear end with, that really stung when they cracked them. In any  event he always kept his papers from it proving that he'd been  through it (we still have them) because he didn't ever want to go through it  again (and also I think because he was proud of  having  done so).

Once in a while they would just stop out in  the middle of the ocean and go swimming, he said there were no  fish or anything in some areas and the water was beautifully warm.

My  Dad  never  had a tattoo, but he said that once  one  of  the younger  sailors got a great big American Eagle  tattooed on  his chest when on shore leave and drunk, they were only staying there that  one day and the sailor had it all done at one time  against the tattooist's recommendation. When the ships doctor saw it when the  sailor  came back on board, he immediately put him  on  sick leave and said he'd be very, very sick. He was. His entire  chest was  covered  by  one  big scab but when it came  off  he  had  a beautiful big eagle there.

One of the other sailors had two flies  tattooed  on his chest and when the guy was laying on his bed in the dark  you swore they were real and would try to swoosh them away.

One of the older sailors had  been  in  Teddy Roosevelt's  great white fleet that had said around the  world  at the turn of the century.

One of the sailors on his ship had a glass  eye and had memorized the chart and that the doctors looked the other way  because  it  was  war time. He  shouldn't  have  passed  the physical.

Some of the older sailors who had  been  around quite awhile  had said that prostitutes in the ports sooner or later ended up in Singapore when they got older no matter where they  may have started. They didn't know why but were quite certain in this observation.

My Dad said that my Grandfather had sent him a letter saying  that two FBI agents had shown up in Buffalo looking for him  thinking he was dodging the draft, they asked my Grandfather where he  was and  he told them he was in the South Pacific fighting  the Japs and one said to the other that this was another screw up.

They would be at sea for along time and so saved up a  lot  of pay and then would blow it during a  few days of drinking and partying once in port.

Rotation to South America

Later  his ship was assigned to a flotilla of ships which  sailed up  and  down the west coast of South America. There  were  fears that  German immigrants in Chile might be pro Nazi and also  that German raiders or submarines might strike. My Dad said that  once they were on alert because a German Raider was coming around  the Cape, but it was sunk before it got to them. But mostly, it was a diplomatic "show the flag" mission.

My Dad said that Chile was pro German until Hitler made a  speech promising that the Pacific would be a Japanese lake. The Chileans were a little put off by this to say the least.

On  there way there from the Pacific, they stopped in Panama  and as they were approaching they were warned off, they were sailing right into a mine field. It turned out that the sailors in charge of maintaining the maps didn't bother to keep them up for regions they weren't sailing in. The Captain was furious and made them go through every update and correct the maps before any of them  got any shore leave.

One time when they were in the port near Lima, Peru he was out drinking with his buddies and they got in a taxi cab to go to Lima proper. They were pretty drunk and didn't realize the speedometer was in kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour and were scared and started screaming at the driver to slow down. Unfortunately they didn't speak Spanish and he didn't speak English.

I  think they spent most of their time in and  around Valparaiso, Chile (the sea port for Santiago).

He dated the daughter of the British Attaché while there.

He was in charge of the main radar, but there was also radar for aiming the guns. Someone ordered him to let the other guys run the gun radar. They had a special demonstration for some high ranking Chilean officials where they were going to show off the radar guided guns, but instead of shooting at the target, they shot at the destroyer pulling it. The shells narrowly missed it zooming right over it. The captain was furious at my Dad until he found out he wasn't involved and then was furious at the others. After that ALL radar was put under my Dad's control.

My  Dad  never smoked but he said cigarettes  were  so  valuable, especially  to  the civilians (in trade)  that  he  pretended  to smoke. He would light a cigarette and leave it burn in an  ashtray whenever the Captain was around so that no one would ever question it.

He said he distinctly remembered buying cigarettes from his ship's store that had marked on them "Donated to the Red Cross to be distributed free of charge to American service men". He was always very cynical about donating to the Red Cross after that.

'Fred S && Me on Shore Patrol Chucabaca St. Valpro 1943' (My Dad is on the right)Photo: 'Fred S & Me on Shore Patrol - Chucabaca St. - Valpro 1943'
(My Dad is on the right)

Once when my Dad was on shore patrol, there were frantic screams from one of  the whorehouses. They rushed in, and one of  the whores was screaming in one of the rooms. He said there was a sailor in there totally unconsciously drunk  with his penis straight up and hard, the whore had been performing fellatio on him,  my Dad couldn't figure out why the girl was screaming and then a gigantic bug the size of a tarantula crawled out from under the bed and up and out the window.

My  Dad said that with that when ever their ship came in, there would be a lot of beautiful women waiting at the dock, but that all these South American women were loaded with venereal  diseases and you didn't want anything to do with them.

He  said that with the advent of penicillin, none of the  sailors were  taking any precautions and the sick call swelled with  clap cases.  He  said  the  old  treatment  was  some  kind  of  sharp instrument inserted in the penis which would cut out the disease, because  there were so many cases the Captain ordered  that  they would  go  back to the old treatment. The cases quickly dropped off.

My  Dad had told my Mother that if he didn't come back clean,  he wouldn't come back to her. She told him not to worry about it and that she understood if he was out with the boys.

For  a long while my Dad didn't write home, either to my  Mom  or his parents. My Mother became quite concerned and wrote a  nasty letter  to  the  Star and Tribune to a Mr. Fix  it  type  column, complaining  that the mail wasn't getting through.  Somehow  this ended up in his Captain getting the word and he ordered my Dad to sit  down  and write a letter immediately. I don't think  my  Dad ever  knew she had done this, I ran across the news clipping  in some of our family pictures along time ago.

My  Dad converted to Catholicism while in South America because my Mother was Catholic, he never said that was why, he said he  saw the light, but he told me once later that when he was in Buffalo, he went to what ever church his girl friends went to, so I'm sure that's why.

Reassigned to the North Atlantic

My  Dad said that several sailors from his ship started fooling around with several Chilean Senator's wives. As soon as word  got back  to Washington their ship was immediately reassigned to the North Atlantic.

When  his ship arrived in New York it was a spring day  in  about the  50's  Fahrenheit,  everybody in New York considered  it  a beautiful  warm  day,  but after spending several  years  in  the tropics  all  the crew of his ship were freezing and wore their heavy pea coats in spite of heckles from the shore crews.

He  said  there was a chocolate factory near where his  ship  was docked  and  that  even if you just ate  and  were  stuffed,  you immediately  felt hungry when you went outside and  smelled  that chocolate.

One  time my Dad was in a bar and several "Zoot-suiters"  started to  swarm  around him as if they were going to rob  him  when  he left. He broke a beer glass for a weapon and told them that  they might  take  him but he'd kill the first one who  moved  if  they tried  anything. They backed off and left him alone, he  said  in that  situation,  you can't over come all of them but  you  could make sure you got one of them.

My Dad said that soldiers and sailors would get in fights all the time  in bars, but if any of the civilians started anything  they would all join together.

He said that when ever two sailors were caught fighting, each was charged with damaging government property (the other sailor)  and not with fighting.

One  time when his ship had reached London on convoy, one of  the officers ran the ship aground and bent the propeller shafts.  The Captain was furious, and they could only make about six knots. It was  too much to repair it there so they assigned his ship  to  a slow convoy going back to the U.S. so they appeared to be  giving it protection but were much to slow to do anything if attacked.

My  Dad  said he was in London during the night of  the  last  V2 rocket  attacks and that two of them fell within a few blocks  of where he was.

My Dad said that when he was in Cardiff Wales, that they had  the mandatory  death  sentence  for  statutory  rape  and  that   any serviceman  even seen with a girl under age was charged. He  said there  were  several awaiting sentence who had just  been  caught being in a bar with some, while he was there. And that they  were in very sorry shape.

My Dad said that once when they were crossing the Atlantic,  they started picking up ships in the distance on the radar, the ships would appear to move in closer and then suddenly jump out a  ways and  then  come in again. The Captain called him  to  the  bridge to find out what was happening and my Dad told him that the ships were very far away and that there was a weird radio skip  causing them to pick up very distant ships.

My Dad said that he was in charge of the Loran position equipment which was brand new and that he guided the ship within a  mile of where  they  were going after crossing all the  way  across  the Atlantic.

My  Dad visited Londonderry Northern Ireland on one of the  trips and  on shore he saw some old canon with an old man sitting  next to  it  telling  how  the Protestants had  used  it  against  the Catholics in some famous battle hundreds of years before. My  Dad told him he was Catholic and the old man got mad and shut up.

Once his ship cornered a German U boat  in  the English  Channel, and that he had some kind of device that could detect  where  it was and when they were right over  it,  he  was suppose  to signal for the depth charges to be fired, he did  and that  forced the U boat to the surface and they finished  it  off with their deck guns, there were no survivors. I think he felt he was  responsible for their deaths and I think this  bothered  him more  than  he ever let on, based on the way he talked  about  it just after his stroke.

End of the War - Times Square

My  Dad  was in New York and saw Times Square on both VE  and  VJ day.

On  VE day, he went bar hopping with a girl friend he had in  New York. They drank Champagne at each place saving the corks. At one bar he reached down and pulled off one of her shoes and filled it with champagne and drank it, saying he always wanted to do  that. At another bar they bought a warm bottle and when they opened  it most of it spilled out. They bought a little statue of Buddha  and nailed the corks to the base of it when they got to her apartment uptown  that  night.  Calling it "The Happy Buddha  of  the  seven champagne corks" or something like that.

On VJ day my parents were still on their honeymoon, his ship  had been reassigned to Philadelphia to be reworked in preparation  of the invasion of Japan, when the A-bomb was dropped and the  war's end  was  near, they went up to New York as the place to  be.  My Mother remembered looking down from a restaurant window at all the people celebrating in the streets below.

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My Dad in World War II

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