On December 7, 1941, we (Mom, Dad, Alvin, me, and Flois) were visiting Uncle Clint and Aunt Ethel at Tulia, Texas. The Bells were moving to California, and this was sort of a last family reunion. The Kurths were there from Minnesota and the Hearns from Pueblo [Colorado]. I don’t recall if the Jennings brothers Frank and Lee were there or Nina. [My grandfather is referring to the families of his mother’s sisters — Bells, Kurths, and Hearns — and her brothers — Jennings; Nina was his father’s sister.] We were stunned at the news of the attack of Pearl Harbor. All us boys just knew it would be a very short war, as all we had to do was start a fire and all the Japs’ towns would burn down. Yeah, sure.
I rode a bicycle to school when I was in high school. The school was on the west side of town. I can still remember when we would have those terrible dust storms — always from the southwest. Many days the wind and dirt were so furious that I didn’t have to peddle the bike to get home. Strictly wind power!
Back in the Depression days the Beacon newspaper formed this jigsaw puzzle club. You had to bring a puzzle and could check out another. This was welcome relief for the long evenings.
I joined a “French harp” band when in grade school. Yeah, I know the correct name is harmonica. At that time a Hohner harmonica cost 50¢. I think there were at least 50 people in the group. No, we didn’t have a kazoo band.
Back when I was in grade school we (grades 1-7) were assembled in the auditorium about once a month for programs. Usually announcements, safety rules, and sometimes some entertainment. At one such assembly, it was normal and then the principal Cannon Blount led this girl out on the stage, bent her over his lap, and whipped her with a large stick. I do not know what his so-called excuse was — but I was extremely shocked, revolted, and disgusted. I have remembered this event to this day. I think this event will never cease to disgust me. I remember this girl as nice, quiet, and from an extremely poor family. I cannot find any reason possible to give the principal the right to so humiliate that girl. I don’t know if Texas allows such to go on now.
This same principal was my teacher in the seventh grade math. One day I used the dastardly word “ain’t.” He jumped up from his desk and said, “Udell, go to that dictionary in the back of the room and don’t return to your seat until you find the word ‘ain’t.'” Well, he thought I would be there forever, but I was in the seat in about a minute. He really blew his top and said, “How dare you say there is such a word in the dictionary” — well, it is in there, but states you should not use it.
Old Blount used to step outside and furiously shake this bell when the electricity failed to ring a bell for school to take up. Well, old Udell stole that bell and put it in a water tank that flushed the toilet. In those days the tank was about 6 foot above the toilet, fastened on the wall. A chain hung down for you to pull, flushing the toilet. After I graduated to high school, I told old Cannon where the damn bell was.
It is quite strange, but Ted Thurman [my great-grandfather and Udell’s father-in-law] went to school at Brady, Texas, and old Cannon Blount was a teacher there. When I arrived at Lowry [AFB in Denver, CO., where my grandfather was stationed for many years] to be a photo instructor, I saw a reserved parking space at the school for “Cannon Blount.” I inquired about him and was told he had cancer and probably would not return. No, I didn’t go see him. I could still see him whipping that poor girl.
Back when I went to Texas schools we had “grade” school for grades 1-7. High school was 8-11. Yes, only 11 years then. Grade seven was very tough. Too many subjects were crammed in one year. There was no kindergarten in public schools. The schools also had the rule that you must be six by the 1st of September. School started on the first Monday in September, and the school term usually ended in the middle of May.
I can claim the distinction of getting a whipping on the very first day of school. Yeah, my very first day of school. Everything went great until recess. We first graders were told to play on the east side of the buildings, near the swings and see-saws. Well, Alvin [my grandfather’s older brother] was on the west side, so I went over there. The school was unloading supplies off a horse-drawn wagon. Now I thought that would be a nice place to play, so I climbed on the wagon. A mean-spirited sixth grade teacher thought otherwise. She dragged me in the building and set my ass upon a heating radiator about four feet tall and told me she was going to tell my teacher about me. She went to the corner of the hall and stepped aside in another hall. Well, I could still see her fat ass protruding — she then returned and said my teacher told me to get back where I belonged. I told her, “Don’t lie to me, I saw you down there at the corner.” Well, I got my butt warmed — and another when I got home.
I had a 30-day leave upon return to the States in May ’45. I was then sent to Camp Parks, California. This place was inland from Oakland at a town called Shoemaker. I looked at a map the other day and Shoemaker does not exist now. Parks was later an Air Force base and then it was closed. Later I discovered that it is now a Federal penitentiary. In July I was put in and O.G.U. outfit (Outward-Going Unit) this is kinda like quarantine. They later bussed us to Treasure Island. This is in the bay between Oakland and Frisco. You are put there with no contact with the world — no telephone, etc. Letters were held until your ship was far at sea. I was there when the first A-bomb was dropped. I was on ship when the second was dropped. Our ship was en route to the southern Philippine Island of Samar. I was no longer a Seabee but was training to be an underwater demolition man or later called Frogmen. We were in the unit scheduled to be the second wave of invasion of Japan. Our target was Tokyo Bay. Anyway, the end of the war placed us back in the Seabees as they no longer needed Frogmen. We then were moved to Cavite Navy Base at Manila. When we were there on Cavite, those recently liberated prisoners were there [I think he is speaking of the POW’s who were forced on the Bataan Death March, but I will ask him for clarification]. We had to be very quiet as not to disturb them. Shortly we were trucked to the Naval base of Subic Bay. At that time the town of Olongapo was very small — no docks for ships. My job there was working in a lumber yard unloading trucks of lumber. I was a rigger on a mobile crane. I would wrap a steel cable around the pallets of lumber and signal the crane to lift the wood. We had Philippine workers to sort and stack the wood. I played a lot of card games.
When on Samar we were near the town of Tubabao. One day a few of us went to town — a friend found a parrot he wanted to buy — he was broke so I loaned him $20.00. He never repaid me so I guess I own the damn parrot. I should stop in Chickasha, Oklahoma and get my parrot from old Pablo Martinez. Yeah sure. $20.00 was a lot of money in those days.
You may not believe me, but in those days during WWII a carton of Camels or Lucky Strike cigarettes cost 50¢ at the ship store. You could get Pall Mall, Chesterfield, Wings and some others like Cools for a whopping 35¢ a carton. Our K-rations had a small box of 5 cigarettes enclosed. Seldom did we have to eat K-rations. Seabees usually had the best chow around a base.
About two weeks after I arrived on Attu they found a rubber raft on the shore. Naturally if was assumed that it had been used by Jap infiltrators from a submarine. Panic! They placed us new greenhorns about a hundred yards apart all along the beach. After about four hours, we were relieved and taken to a guard shack. They immediately told us to unload our weapons. We told them that we didn’t have loaded weapons. We were never given any ammo. We were so new we didn’t dare tell them — we were told to keep quiet and speak only when spoken to. They never found any Jap intruders. The group that was shipped out from Seattle were classified as replacements. They had assumed that there would be casualites in the invasion and they would need replacement workers. Well, we were surplus to the Seabees already there. When we arrived there were five battalions of Seabees. They were the 22nd, 23rd, 68th, 138th, and the 8th Special. They divided the appx. 200 replacements to the existing units. A battalion was 1000-1200 men. We lived in metal quonset buildings — 68 in our buildings. So many and so close that we had to share beds between the day crews and the night crews. I was in the 23rd bn. Later moved to the 68 when the 23rd moved to the US and then later to the 138th. Because of the terrible weather they called 6 months a tour of duty — I stayed there 26 months. The bright side was I wasn’t being shot at. Most of the furious fighting was going on, and all I was doing was putting in pipes and freezing my butt off.
I was on Attu for 26 months. For the first 18 months we dug the ditches for pipes by hand — shovels. Later they “found” a backhoe to dig the lines. They had heavy equipment all along but never let us use them. They were new and had W.P.A. markings on them. If you don’t know, W.P.A. was an organization that Roosevelt organized to provide work during the Depression. I believe this equipment was amassed to use in the coming wars. I know that they didn’t use construction equipment during the W.P.A. years. Other activities of the W.P.A. [were] sewing-rooms and canneries for employing women.
My dad worked on the W.P.A. He rode a truck to Lubbock where they were making what turned out to be Lubbock Air Field. It is now the municipal airport. Reese Air Base was 10-12 miles west of Lubbock. One day while going to Lubbock, they encountered a rainstorm. Lightning struck the truck and injured several men. Dad was O.K.
Many crude jokes circulated about how lazy W.P.A. workers were and how you could tell if the worker leaning on a shovel was alive. They later hired Dad and his ’28 Chev. truck to haul dirt there in Lockney [Texas].
Seabees were mostly older men with construction skills. These old carpenters, plumbers etc. were tough old no-nonsense types who tolerated no B.S. And then there were the young kids as helpers. When in “Boot” training, we had Marine drill instructors, but they pretty much went easy with us as the old men (some in forties) just wouldn’t take the usual crap that you see in the typical movies of basic military training. While on Attu I worked with a pipe-laying crew. My pipe fitter associates were old plumbers from Philadelphia. Boy could they relate some tales. This may seem odd to you but we installed wood pipe. Yeah these pipes were large diameter consisting of curved wood staves with tongue and groove sides. They formed a circle and were wrapped with large wire. The sewer pipes used wrapping about 3-inches apart. The high pressure pipes were about 10-12 ft. long. They had a cuff to join the individual pipes together. The wood pipes leaked initially but swelled and stopped leaking later. Oh, they were coated with creosote. They said these pipes withstood the wet environment better than iron pipe that rusted out. They knew we wouldn’t need them very many years. I’ll bet they are still there.
In November of ’43 I became very ill. I went to the “sick bay” and because I had 104° temperature they put me in the hospital. Well, it was actually a quonset hut but they called it a hospital. They had two doctors. The older one was a gynecologist in civilian life. Then there was this young dude fresh out of Harvard Med. School. The young doctor thought I had meningitis and performed a spinal tap. You guessed it — I had cerebrospinal meningitis. I was in bed for three weeks on sulfa diazine pills. When I was in the hospital three troop transport ships came into Attu harbor to carry the Army 7th Division to the States for Xmas leave. I later found out that because I had the meningitis, and they didn’t know how many others might be infected, they sent the ships out — empty. When I was declared cured the Navy put me in an ambulance and took me to the Army Hospital for examination. Those Army doctors said to me “So you are the son of a bitch that kept us from going home.” I have often fantasized about going to a 7th Division reunion and telling them that I was the reason they never got home then. This Army division was kept on Attu for awhile and then to Hawaii where they got ready to invade Okinawa. I guess you can say I was a spoil sport. No, there were no more cases of meningitis on Attu. Might add that I got a special visit from the censorship office telling me that I could not write home and tell them I had meningitis. I told them [his parents] that I had the same problem that Dad had in France in WWI. They [the censors] never caught it. I should add that my dad was one of only two that survived the meningitis in France. The other man was from Little Rock [Arkansas]. They exchanged Xmas cards for many years. When I was in the hospital we had about 3 air raids. They couldn’t move me to the air raid shelter — I might contaminate the other patients. Luckily the planes bombed other places far away from the hospital.
The reason the Navy gave for assigning me to the Seabees was that they could repair my eyeglasses if needed. Well, I was trying to play basketball in the Gym on Attu and broke my glasses. Naturally no facilities existed closer than Seattle. They advised me to write home and have my original optometrist make me a new pair from existing records. Oh, better get two pairs — that got me in trouble. I wrote Dad a letter asking for “two” pair of glasses. All letters were read by a censor and they had this iron-clad rule that you could not tell where you were, what you did, and never use a “number.” Yes I got my ass chewed, but when they saw my scotch-taped glasses they relented and let me order two pair of eyeglasses. This brings up a question… You see these books compiling “letters from the Battle Zone” etc. Just how in hell could these letters be genuine if all mail was censored?
Mother decided that if I went overseas she preferred to know where I was. Then when something happened, she would know if I was there or not. Well, we decided that I would use a code word to let her know that if that letter was encoded to let her know where I was. In the letter we used the second letter of each paragraph to spell out the location. Using the first letter of the first word of the paragraph was too easy to see. When I was talking to a chaplain later he said that he had a system to tell his wife where he was. Before embarking they got two large world maps. Across the top he placed Bible book titles. Along the side he placed numbers to signify chapters of the Bible. Thus when you said the subject of your sermon was Chapter 80 of the book of Matthew [yes, I realize that it doesn’t go that high — my grandfather was just being illustrative] you could go to the map and find the place. He said he was always afraid he would use a large chapter number that did not exist in some Bible books. I never asked him how he got away with using the dastardly forbidden numbers in his letters. Officer privilege I guess.