1943 TO 1946 : MILITARY DUTIES IN WASHINGTON , D.C.
The memories of this period will be about my military activities. Will write about family and ministry covering this period in the next chapter.
Class hours at the New Construction Gunner's Mate school were 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM. Little study was required. Much of the courses were lab work. Up to this point in Naval history guns aboard ship were controlled from the site where the gun was mounted. The newest dual purpose surface and anti-aircraft gun was the 5 inch 38 caliber single barrel weapon being installed on all new ships joining the fleet. The power drive for both the vertical and horizontal plane was controlled from the forerunner to the computer which we called a director. We had to learn to learn the theory of the electric-hydraulic system, how to calibrate and adjust it and how to diagnose and correct all malfunctions.
Upon graduation I was supposed to go aboard a new ship. Therefore Morena and I did not do any long range planning but tried to make the most of our short time together. Since Morena was pregnant, her next move if and went I went to sea was a source of anxiety. Near the end of the course, the instructional Department Head called me in to his office and told me that if my final examination was passed with a high mark, he wanted me to join the instructional staff. I scored high enough to suit him so I was assigned to the school as an instructor.
After a few weeks, I was assigned to teach an abbreviated course to new officers. One of my students was Ensign Bill Starr who later succeeded Jim Rayburn as president of Young Life.
When that assignment was complete, I was given the job of teaching the graveyard shift, 12:30 to 7:30 AM Monday through Friday.
We needed to graduate 1200 students per class and only had classroom facilities for 400. That means we had to teach around the clock. The older students had the day shift, the next oldest the swing or 4:30 to 12:00 PM, and the younger students the graveyard shift.
That was a tough one. When I got home Friday morning I would go to sleep for a few hours and then participate in weekend activities. That was long enough to foul up my sleep habits and when it was time to start teaching Monday night I felt like going to bed instead.
We had seven 50 minute periods with strong coffee available at every break.
Mastering the material taught might mean life or death in combat. There was no problem of having to motivate the students. They were for the most part veterans of battle so it was a no nonsense approach to learning. If a student got sleepy he would stand on his feet until he got wide awake again. The fifth period ended at 5:05 AM. Often when the bell rang for that break, no one stood up but cradled his head on the desk for a 10 minute nap.
One of my friends I had known in the fleet, Archie Archuletti, took the course I was teaching. One noon hour I went with him to the Base Exchange to make some purchases. He asked the young female clerk for some Gillette blue razor blades.
She gave him a haughty rebuke. "Gillette blue blades? They haven't been available for months. Don't you know there is a war going on?
Archie mumbled a Thank You. "So that's the reason the Japanese have been shooting at me and bombing my ship."
One of my associates was a Hollywood electrician turned actor who had organized his own road show. His act was acrobatic in nature. He told me a Hollywood secret. A successful show is 50 percent music, 35 percent costuming, and 15 percent acting. He was performing in Washington or neighboring cities every night. He had to be back to start classes at 12:30 AM and had no time to nap before coming on duty and was often exhausted. He would sometimes fall asleep while lecturing. When he was about to pass out his voice slowed like a record player with a run down battery. We had two brawny students sit at the front. When his voice started to slow down they would stand up and catch him. However, having been around Hollywood, he had the flare of an actor and was an excellent instructor while awake.
In due time I became the Department Head of the small and medium caliber guns instruction, a position requiring a Lt (jg) U.S. Navy which I was filling as a Chief Gunner's Mate.
One day my Officer in Charge sent for me. I sat down in his office. He got to the point at once. "Do you want to be an Ensign or a Warrant Officer?" I responded, "I don't recall expressing any desire for either."
"How old are you?"
My reply, "31"
"That will be Ensign. Report to Building X for a written examination."
I took the two hour examination which had a lot of matching up different geometrical shaped blocks I apparently passed OK and was sent to be interviewed by the Navy Captain in charge of all the schools.
The interview was short.
"Who works the hardest, enlisted men or Commissioned Officers? I probably had my doubts but answered, Officers." It was the answer he was looking for. I found out during the next eleven years that I had guessed correctly.
On February 15, 1945 I was sworn in as an Ensign maintaining my current job.
A Chief's uniform has eight brass buttons on the double breasted uniform coat and commissioned officer has six. (My father in law, railroadman Frank Holmes, told me that rank distinction was also a part of railroad tradition. A brakeman has eight buttons on his coat but is outranked by the conductor who has six buttons.)
I took my spare uniform to the tailor ship, had the old button holes sewed up, and six new ones made. I exchanged my rating badge and hash marks for gold braid and my cap for a commissioned officers cap and was in business as an officer.
One of my jobs was to take offenders to Executive Officer's mast every day. Although some offenses were serious, my job was to tell the Exec that they were brilliant students who had heroic combat records and should be treated with leniency. A combat veteran himself, the slap on the wrist given was generally a few hours extra instruction which was advantageous to the man and to the Navy with his increased proficiency.
The first day I showed up as an officer, the Executive Officer stood up and introduced himself and shook hands. He then said, " Haven't I seen you some place before."
I told him I was the Chief Gunners Mate he had seen every day for several months.
Going about the base was now more of a chore. There were hundreds of men in the various schools which meant returning dozens of salutes every time I walked outside the building.
In the days when military men wore armored helmets it was impossible to know whether the steel covered warrior approaching you was friend or foe. As they approached each other one and then the other would reach up and open the visor covering their eyes for recognition. This evolved into the military salute. In those first few days, I would have been content to let my uniform insignia be adequate recognition.
My problem was almost solved for me. I received orders to report to the Battle ship USS SOUTH DAKOTA for duty as an officer in the Gunnery Department. It was a shock. We had roots and a good ministry going. We prayed. When my Officer in Charge got word of the orders, he made some phone calls. The orders were canceled and I continued in my current job.
Since a retired officer is entitled to the same courtesy and respect as an active duty officer, I am still returning salutes every time I go past a military sentry displaying my officer's sticker on our cars.
As a Department Head, I also had watch officer duties. I was assigned regular rotation as officer in charge of the swing (8-12) shift at the school. I had the duty the night it was announced over the radio that President Roosevelt had died. At the first class break after hearing it, I made an announcement over the PA system. Instead of the usual loud talking in the halls during the 10 minute break, there was absolute silence and grieving. Military men had a great deal of confidence in Roosevelt to lead them to victory. His successor was an unknown. There was a real deep concern about how the war effort would be affected.
I drove past the White House on my way home after midnight. Although his body had not yet arrived from Warm Springs, Georgia, there were many men and women walking up and down in front of the iron fence on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House. In a previous chapter I related how I commanded a company of sailors lining the streets from Union Station to the White House as his body was transported on the caisson accompanied by riderless horse.
I was on duty a few months later when the news was released that Japan had agreed to the terms of surrender and that hostilities were to end. I made the announcement over the PA system during the next break. When the bell rang to resume classes only a few responded. They were not in a mood to burn out their brains on technical knowledge they would never use. I was lenient and didn't require them to go back to class but kept them in the school building until midnight. I was ready to celebrate with them.
In subsequent weeks we reduced the classes to "regular Navy."
My officer in charge ordered me to teach a class on the Atomic Bomb, now a part of our Weapons course. He arranged for me to get a Top Secret clearance. I was given access to the records at the Atomic Energy Office in Washington. I studied enough to put together an hour long lecture. I was forbidden to use notes or allow the students to do so.
A few days after the surrender of Japan, (VJ DAY) military men and women were again allowed to wear civilian clothes. After more than four years of wearing a uniform when ever outside the home, it was a short lived privilege. The clothing manufacturers objected violently. It would take a year to build up an inventory for all of the new customers. So the order was reversed and we had to wear our uniforms another year.
The emphasis in the military was now demobilization. A point system was established to determine the priority for those to be released. The main topic of conversation was always: "I have "X" points. How many do you have?":
There were many glitches in the system and many eligible to be released were delayed while less eligible were discharged. One disappointed serviceman went to the chaplain for sympathy. He found a sign on the office, Closed. Released on points.
My military service now totaled thirteen and one half years.
Morena and I felt we had had enough uncertainty in stress in our four years of marriage in the military so decided we should end my military career and look to the Lord for the next step.
I wrote a letter resigning my commission and requesting discharge.
But the Lord had other plans.
My Officer in Charge kept close contact with the Personnel Officers at the Navy Headquarters. Our School was a good source of manpower for specialized needs.
Venezuela had just experienced a military coup. A group of young officers got rid of the older Naval Officers and were proceeding to rejuvenate their modest fleet. Since Navy ships are designed to be platforms for guns, their most important task is to shoot accurately and effectively.
The young officers asked the American ambassador for help. Since I was supposed to be an Naval Gunnery expert, I was asked to take the job. I canceled my request for discharge and took a crash course in Spanish. But the assignment didn't materialize. There was another change of government which did not pursue the request for my services.
Soon thereafter a similar opportunity was presented. During the war the U.S. helped Brazil build up a small modern fleet of US built destroyers, destroyer escorts and auxiliary vessels. This Brazilian fleet operated as a part of the United States Sixth Fleet. It's operations were in the Mediterranean, and South Atlantic. We had a large Naval Operating base at Rio De Janeiro. When the war was over our ships returned home. The Base in Rio was reduced to a skeleton.
During the war with the Americans provided logistical support for the Brazilian Navy.. They were not t taught how to maintain their, guns, diesel Motors and sonar gear. They requested a contingent of Americans to help them, not only with these special needs, but to modernize their logistical system and set up a Medical and Supply System.
I was chosen to be the Gunnery Expert and shifted my language study to Portuguese.
There was no air transportation available so I was given orders go to New York to wait until a ship was found going to Rio. I commuted to Washington on weekends. Morena and Marobeth and Jonathan moved in with our friends, Floyd and Kay Robertson in Annandale, Virginia..
(Kay was the sister of Walt Stanton, the man with whom Dawson prayed in the six week prayer meeting known so well by the Navigators.) Their intended two week stay, after which Morena and the children would join me in Brazil, lasted four months. They joined me in Puerto Rico instead.
Eventually I went on board the SS Southwestern Victory for the 13 day voyage to Rio with one stop at Trinidad.
The ship was equipped for 12 passengers. (If they carried more than that they were required to have a Doctor on board.) Nine of the passengers were soldiers who had been discharged from the French army. They had been drafted from French families living in Brazil and spoke no English. The other two were American business men who had brought along a good supply of liquor and playing cards. The long voyage where I had no responsibility but to eat and sleep got rather boring. I made friends with the ship's Union Steward and got educated as to how his union worked.
If an officer changed a burned out light bulb, a protest was filed against the Captain. If a Captain got too many black marks, union members refused to sail with him. An Electrician had to be called and if it was after working hours he was paid overtime.
When the ship tied up at Rio, I was met by a Naval Officer who took me to my quarters, the Victory House. It was a luxurious residence on CocoCabana beach which had been leased to the US military for housing. I was on my own for meals. Good restaurants don't open until 9:00 PM in Brazil so I was waiting when they opened. Until I learned to read the menu I feasted on the only item I recognized, filet mignon, which was very cheap..
It took me a few days to realize I would never get my baggage from Customs until I paid a bribe which I eventually did.
I contacted the Brazilian Fleet Gunnery Officer to get started on my job. We made several appointments which he never kept. In fact I never met him. Now that the war was over the military men were back to a life of leisure. The military equipment readiness could wait for the next war.
I made an appointment with the US Naval Attaché on the staff of the American ambassador to discuss my frustration. He shared his own experience and advised me to be thankful for the best assignment I would ever have and take advantage of my Diplomatic Passport and live it up..
In the meantime the military was unable to find air transportation to Brazil for the family. They stayed on and on with the Robertsons. We had considerable baggage since had been briefed on the things unavailable in Rio. Among the things we had a couple of years supply of were children's shoes and other scarce items..
The Naval Operating base had 60 chauffeured sedans and six DC3 passenger planes. Since traffic was so hazardous Americans were not allowed to drive. My chauffeured limousine was available 24 hours a day seven days a week. (In Rio not too many tickets were handed out to less than careful drivers but to park a dirty car on the street was an enforced offense and the owner would be given a ticket.)
One of my roommates at Victory House was a pilot. He had to get in his weekly flying time in to maintain his efficiency so on weekends we would fly to Montevideo, Uruguay or some other glamorous city.
The most frustrating aspect of the otherwise luxurious Victory House was the lack of water. Every house had a storage tank in the attic. By noon the water pressure had failed and the water in the storage tank was soon used up. No water was available, not even to flush toilets until the pressure was built up during the night.
Like other immigrants I had long sieges of "Montezuma's Revenge." I was careful to drink only bottled water and eat bananas for breakfast. One night I discovered the house boy filling up the water bottles from the kitchen faucet. Then I knew the source of the continuing infection.
There was an international church nearby. Most of the attendees were Europeans. About all I remember was their complaint about Americans who would hire away from them the servants they had trained. The Europeans expected the servants fix breakfast and serve the family until bed time seven days a week. Brazilian women would go home late at night, care for their own family, and then be back at work early next morning for what seemed to be a small wage.
The Americans would give their servants Sunday off, higher pay and shorter hours which created some tension in the community.
During World War II, money for the military was easy to get from Congress. By 1946 the services had to cut back on questionable expenditures.
One day we got a message from the Navy Department. "The Naval Operating Base at Rio De Janeiro would be decommissioned as of 1600 hours our time this date." The commanding office sent a message protesting the abrupt closure citing the diplomatic consequences. The reply was, "The Naval Operating Base at Rio De Janeiro was decommissioned as of the date and time cited in the previous message.
I phoned Morena to cancel plans to come to Rio. Next I got orders to report to the USS SAN CARLOS (AVP51) as Gunnery and Communications Officer. I was to meet the ship in Panama as it was coming from the Pacific to be based at the Naval Air Station, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In a few days a vacant seat was found for me on Pan AM's luxurious 18 passenger DC3 bound for Panama. .The plane had two propellers. The trip took two days. Navigational aids were few in 1946. We would land in the cleared our jungle to refuel about every three hours. We overnighted in Belem. The next day we proceeded to Panama stopping at all of the South American countries enroute to refuel. (A few years later Morena, and daughter Joy, born in 1960, and I made the flight from Rio to Miami in 8 hours.)
I boarded the San Carlos at Panama and a few days later we got underway in the stormy Atlantic for San Juan.
I arranged for government housing at San Patricio, (a wartime Naval Hospital compound). A few weeks later Morena and the children arrived by plane from New York to settle into our new tropical home. Our Chevrolet soon arrived from New York as well as my personal effects from Brazil. We were back together as a family with our possessions for another delightful year.
In Puerto Rico the annual temperature hardly ever falls below 70 degrees F. or rises above 80 degrees F.
All rights reserved
James W. Downing
2650 Stoneridge Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80919
Ph/fax 719 598 1461
E mail email@example.com
May be reproduced for entertainment
or educational purposes but not for
Copyright ©2000-2022 James W. Downing and USSWestVirginia.org. All rights reserved.