CHAPTER 11

PUERTO RICO--MID YEAR 1946 TO MIDYEAR 1947

The USS San Carlos (AVP 51) in which I was Gunnery and Communication Officer was designed to set up seadromes in remote areas, guide seaplanes in for landing and support their flying operation. Specifically the plane's mission was to do reconnaissance to determine weather conditions and other facts which would assist our Island Hopping invasions moving toward to the heart of Japan. To elude the Japanese the airdromes might be moved after just one flight.

It was now mid 1946 nearly a year after VJ day. Rapid demobilization found us short of personnel. It seemed the only people who wanted to make a career out of the Navy were Lieutenant Commanders, Officer's Mess Stewards, Chief Petty Officers and post war teen-agers.

Included in our personnel allowance were I Chief Commissary Steward and 1 Chief Motor Machinist Mate. We had on board 10 Chief Commissary Stewards and 10 Chief Motor Machinist Mates. In some ratings we had no personnel at all. My job was customarily filled by a Lieutenant Commander.

San Juan had a Naval Air Station but no sea planes. We had no legitimate military mission except to show the flag and be available. Consequently our efforts were directed to restoring the war weary neglected ship to a thing of beauty and maintain battle readiness.

For my part it was good experience preparing me for future assignments particularly being in charge of handling the ship one fourth of the time while at sea.

Then came the great earthquake of 1946 in the Caribbean.

Morena and the children had not yet arrived. I was in San Juan that Sunday morning walking through a park. Suddenly the island began to shake so violently I was thrown to the ground. While being tossed around I crawled to a concrete bench and lay down on my stomach and wrapped my arms around the bench. The motion continued until I felt like I was seasick. A Puerto Rican saw what I did and tried to imitate but he was so busy crossing himself he never got a grip on the bench. The Island is surrounded by deep water (2000 fathoms) which made the Island sway like a treetop in a strong wind. Little damage resulted.

But the neighboring Island occupied by Haiti and the Dominican Republic was hit hard. Reconnaissance planes flying over the empire of "Papa Doc" saw camps with red crosses flying over them. These were interpreted as distress signals.

A mission had arrived. We loaded our ship with food and medical supplies and a Doctor and hospital Corpsman and couple of nurses. We also took the District Intelligence Officer who was fluent in Spanish and a Public Information officer to be sure the world knew of any glory we earned.

As we cruised the coast, the Captain called me to the bridge. '1Mr. Downing you are in charge of the landing party."

We searched the charts for a place to land. The captain didn't want to get the ship too close to land not being sure of how deep the water was. With our binoculars we could see a speck of white which might be a beach.

The Dominican Republic was a closed and unfriendly country about which the world knew little. I did not know how hospitable our reception would be.

In the hearing of all of the personnel on the bridge, I told the Captain I felt we should be armed with rifles and side arms.

In a loud voice meant for all in earshot he yelled, "Mr. Downing you know you can't land an armed force in another country. It could create an international incident."

As I left the bridge he followed me and whispered in my ear, "That boat is United States property and you are United States citizens. You are the Gunnery Officer. Take what ever arms you need to protect yourselves and the US property in your custody.” We have since learned from Oliver North that "deniability" is part of the game in accomplishing the mission. If an international incident resulted I knew I would be the fall guy.

Our party consisted of the boat crew and the four of us already mentioned. In rank I was junior officer but being a line officer I was in charge. We had rifles and 45 caliber pistols. We all put on life jackets. As we approached land we saw dozens of natives, who had seen the boat leave the ship, head for the beach. We couldn't tell how friendly they were. Some were in military uniforms and carried rifles.

As we got closer to shore and in shallow water sharp rocks could be seen. I was afraid we would hit one and tear a hole in the boat. I ordered the coxswain of the boat to back down and the throw out the anchor. told the landing party we would have to swim the rest of the way. The other officers didn't think that was the most brilliant idea they had ever heard. But my orders were to land and land I would.

Armed only with a pistol and fully clothed I jumped over the side and ordered , "Follow me."

Upon getting ashore we were greeted with cheers by the two or three hundred who had gathered there. Even the armed soldiers were friendly.

One of the nationals told us there was a river channel and boat landing about three miles down the coast. I asked him to swim out to the boat with the Hospital Corpsman and guide the boat to the landing which he did, The other four of us spent two or three hours surveying the situation and determining what food and medical supplies were needed. We were trailed by several dozen of those who came to greet us.

The greatest need was for bandages. We saw a lot of injured people with green leaves over open wounds. The leaves had already dried and were stuck in the wound.

After gathering the information we needed we went to the boat landing and returned to the ship. It took several boat trips to unload the supplies we turned over to them. Mission accomplished we headed back to San Juan.

A few weeks later we got a new Captain. In Gunnery Exercises we scored some new records for accuracy. I also helped him solve some difficult problems. He requested that the Chief of Naval Personnel spot promote me to Lieutenant Commander. But the war was over and now promotions came the hard way.

The remainder of the time aboard the San Carlos was routine. We soon got orders to proceed to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for decommissioning.

I received orders to report to the USS Nespelen at Norfolk, Virginia. My job was to be First Lieutenant and Gunnery Officer.

FAMILY AND MINISTRY

When the plane from New York arrived bringing Morena and the children the first shock was the difference in temperature. A lady who sat next to Morena had on heavy woolen clothing and begged me to find a place where she could change her clothes.

Our house was not yet ready. We spent the first night in a luxury beach front hotel. It cost $15.00 for the night for all four of us.

I had arranged a few more nights in a Puerto Rican family's second floor apartment. Jonathan kept throwing Marobeths shoes out the window. Children in the street returned them a few times but eventually we lost them

If we suffered culture shock upon moving to Puerto Rico it was precipitated by seeing so much poverty and how that some of the people react to it by appropriating someone else's property.

Though our home was in a fenced in compound it wasn't exactly secure. We as well as the others living in the complex hired a maid for a dollar a day. Too late we learned that the maids often cased the home for valuables and passed the information on to their men friends who would rob at night.

One night our neighbors house was being robbed. I phoned the guards at the gate and told them to apprehend the robbers as they came out. My neighbor and I drove down to the gate. The guards who were apparently co- conspirators denied that anyone had gone out the gate.

As Gunnery Officer I issued each of our officers a rifle and pistol to display conspicuously on the wall. There were no robbery attempts of ship's officers after that. One of our officer’s wives had her bathing suit stolen off the clothesline in broad daylight. We were warned not to leave our cars to a local garage unless we were prepared to observe the mechanic while he was working. Otherwise they would remove the battery and other easily removed parts and replace them with old and worn parts.

Morena drove our maid home one-day. She lived on the waterfront where thousands of families had erected shacks on stilts. When the tide came in they had a couple of feet of water under them. This was a blessing and helped the sanitation problem.

Morena noted that the only decorations on the wall of our maid's shack were some Christmas cards she had retrieved from our wastebasket.

Children didn't wear clothes until they started to school. Jonathan and Marobeth gravitated to this cultural distinctive and it was challenging to keep them dressed. Marobeth was 2 years and old Jonathan just past his first birthday. They were still vocabulary building and when they saw each other in the nude they would say "Puerto Rican " which was a synonym for nudity.

Some of the children they played with spoke only Spanish which they picked up rapidly. We would hear them our two children talking to each other in Spanish. They soon realized we couldn't understand them and that stimulated them to use it all the more.

We never got an uninterrupted night's sleep. At daylight every morning a crop duster type plane from the Naval Air Station flew over the house at tree top level to release an anti mosquito spray. It saturated the vegetation and filled the house. The smell was like an overturned gasoline can produces. Apparently it was not injurious to our health.

The Navy had its customary Base Exchange and Commissary so we were mostly self sufficient in that way. We were furnished gasoline for seven cents a gallon.

Morena was frustrated a few times when she went shopping in San Juan. She would arrive down town about 11:30 only to find that at 12:00 every shop door was unceremoniously slammed shut as it was siesta time until 2:00 o'clock.

Downtown traffic made driving an unforgettable experience. Local traffic laws, which probably dated back to the time the first dozen cars hit the road, required the driver to sound the horn at every intersection. If there was an accident and the driver had not blown his horn he was automatically at fault. It is difficult for a non participant to imagine a situation in which every driver blows his horn at every intersection. (What a contrast to Paris where horn blowing is forbidden and a driver gives a warning by flashing his lights)

Records show that year round the temperature never gets above 80 or below 70 unless a hurricane makes it cooler. Tropical showers are frequent.

This kind of climate stimulates the growth of more species of insects, bugs, and crawling things than you can imagine. Our windows had no screen and with no sheet rock or insulation there was no way to keep them from moving in with us. There were numerous lizard like creatures who lived on the ceiling. At night the males were on one side of the ceiling and the females on the other. They communicated using a lizard vocabulary which consisted of loud shrieks as the males tried to entice the females into a relationship. Unfortunately for those of us who considered the night the time to sleep they thought it was for courting.

Our windows were the tilt out kind. One evening Morena put her hand on the latch to close the window. Her fingers wrapped around a slimy creature. She screamed and would not let go. I had to pry her hand loose. I guess she was afraid the creature would attack her when she released it. No cause for worry. She had squeezed it to death.

On weekends we sometime took drives around the beautiful countryside. Puerto Rico has many historically famous sites including the Fort at the entrance of the San Juan harbor.

There was no church nearby. We had a weekly community Bible Study in our home and co labored with another resident with Sunday School and worship services using one of the former hospital buildings. We had some couples and individuals with whom we spent quality time.

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James W. Downing
2650 Stoneridge Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80919
Ph/fax 719 598 1461
E mail jimmorena@aol.com

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