Vets' old war stories aren't always bloody

Among my Dad’s old war stories is a tale of self-effacing humor from his service in the Coast Guard, a branch he chose when drafted in September 1943. He knew someone else who had been in the Coast Guard, so he decided to try it, too.

He wound up first on a patrol base at Pascagoula, Miss., and for two weeks was assigned with another seaman to house-sit an abandoned base on Petit Bois Island, 12 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. The base had been established to guard against German submarines, but was vacated as enemy sub activity subsided.

When their two weeks were up, Dad and his comrade waited for a boat to pick them up, but it was late. So Dad got on the radio and asked, “Is the boat coming?”

“Affirmative,” came the response. Then an 18-year-old from rural north Alabama, the young Otto Worley Chitwood was entirely unfamiliar with radio lingo. He had no idea what “affirmative” meant.

“Is the boat coming or not?” he asked again.

“Affirmative,” came the reply, again.

Now 85, my dad over the years has developed the reputation of an infinitely patient man. Apparently that was not his teen demeanor.

“The hell with affirmative!” he yelled into the radio. “I want to know if the boat’s coming!”Storytellers

Dad told that story again Tuesday as we sat with my brother at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., taking a break with about 80 vets who’d come there on what may be the last chartered West Georgia Honor Flight for World War II veterans.

It was a day for storytelling, which I thought was the best part about the five Honor Flights this year that brought together veterans in their 80s and 90s. Listening to their anecdotes reminded you there was more to their lives than World War II, and more to World War II than combat.

Ninety-year-old M.B. Guy of Manchester, Ga., told me he volunteered for the Army Air Corps the day after Pearl Harbor, though he wasn’t sworn in until Dec. 29, 1941. In 1942 he was in North Africa, serving as a master sergeant in charge of rations and quarters.

He got to know local landowners because he had to move with the front line and make arrangements to use their property. That’s where his past paid dividends.

As a teenager he had worked in a Manchester drug store’s soda shop that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt liked to visit while at Warm Springs, he said.

When the foreigners found out Guy knew Roosevelt, they gave him standing invitations to dinner, he said: Knowing a world figure made him a celebrity.

James Hardy of Lanett served in the Army Air Corps in Okinawa, but not in combat. He had been in basic training in Texas when the nuclear bombs fell on Japan and brought the war in the Pacific to an end. By the time Hardy got to Okinawa, the fighting was over, but the work was not.

“We were there for cleanup,” Hardy said. Among their duties was guarding Japanese prisoners, who had not yet been released. That wasn’t much trouble, he said. More worrisome was the risk Japanese soldiers coming out of caves wouldn’t know the fighting had ended.

After the war, Hardy worked for the Lanett school system, where later he retired as a teacher and coach. Some folks still call him “coach” today. He’s 84 years old.

Anchor away

Among my dad’s Coast Guard duties was working on a former shrimp boat that had been painted blue and equipped with two depth charges on the stern. The idea was that if the seamen encountered an enemy submarine, they would motor over it and drop the charges.

They never had to do that, which my father thought fortunate because he didn’t think the boat could move fast enough to escape the explosion. It would have been a sort of kamikaze shrimp-boat submarine assault.

The crew called the shrimp boat the Blue Goose. Once they had to take it up a river to dry-dock to get the barnacles scraped off the hull. After a week or so, they headed back to base.

They were chugging toward a railroad bridge when they signaled for the bridge to lift so they could cross under. Apparently a train was coming, because the bridge didn’t open. So they circled around and came back.

On the second approach, the boat’s engine shut off, and would not restart. They drifted toward the bridge.“Let go the anchor!” the skipper ordered.

A young seaman eyeing the anchor hesitated, and began to hem and haw: “Uh .”“Damn it! I said let go the anchor!” the skipper yelled.

The crewman grabbed the anchor and heaved it overboard, and it sank — with no line connecting it to the boat. The line had been removed during maintenance. The boat banged into the bridge.

Life goes on

Most of my dad’s time in the Coast Guard was spent not hunting enemy subs but working on a buoy-tender named the Rambler. Based in Mobile, it maintained navigation aids on the intercoastal waterway from New Orleans to Apalachicola, Fla.

When Dad got out of the service, he moved with his parents to Seale, Ala., and went to work in civil service at Fort Benning, where he decided to retire as a budget analyst at age 55, having worked there 30 years.

He since has outlived everyone in his immediate family and many former coworkers. But they live on in his stories, including one fellow known as a loudmouth.

On the Honor Flight back to Columbus Tuesday night, Dad told the story of his old buddy riding on a commercial flight on which one of the plane’s two engines went out.

The pilot came on the intercom to reassure the passengers, telling them not to worry, the airplane would fly just fine on one engine.

“That SOB is lying!” my Dad’s friend exclaimed. “If this plane could fly on one engine, it wouldn’t have two!”The anticipation of an untimely death was what prompted Dad to retire as soon as he could. His father had died in 1951, at age 65. His brother James died on Easter Sunday 1964, at age 54.

So, deciding he had little time left to enjoy life, Dad retired — 30 years ago.

Today people in their 80s and 90s have a lot to remember. I heard guys on Honor Flights talk about losing brothers in the war and losing wives decades later. They mourned their losses, but loved talking about the lives they led after the war, their wives and careers and experiences and the different places they’d lived. They volunteered no regrets.

My dad could have made more money, had he stayed on at Fort Benning. So as I drove him home Tuesday, I asked whether he was glad he retired when he did.

Affirmative: “Yeah,” he said. “I never looked back.”