By Bob Butler
If I don’t write now about my activities during World War II, I never will. Be realistic — I’m 95. I will tell of some experiences of a young man, who, like other young men, got caught up in a horrible war.
To begin: I was a student at the University of Florida and, by early 1943, I knew I would get drafted into the Army any day. I didn’t want anything to do with the Army. The entire concept was drab. The Navy was clearly my choice. I had spent my early teens fooling around with boats. It was around this time that the Navy announced that a test was scheduled for admission into Midshipman School (not the main school in Annapolis). I passed the exam, but the event was a most unpleasant one. You see, I was a skinny kid and was afraid I would not meet the minimum weight requirement. So I gorged myself with bananas shortly before the test began. I became sick, but since the test was timed, I could not take a break. Ironically, we applicants were not weighed.
Back to the university for another five or six months. Now these were unsettling times and required a highly disciplined student to succeed in his courses. This I was not. I skipped several classes and didn’t spend much time studying. I thought, however, that if I reviewed the material thoroughly during the final two weeks of the semester, I would get by. I was wrong. I failed two finals and did poorly on the others. The university placed me on academic probation and at the same time, the Navy summoned me to report for duty. “Report for duty” indeed; I was to go to the University of Miami and enroll as an ordinary student, and live in student housing — four students to a suite. I had a great time at the university: enrolled in two wonderful English literature courses, among other benefits, and got to spend the weekends at home. This lifestyle continued for two semesters. True, we had to march back and forth five afternoons a week in the Florida sun. But when we returned to our suites, we had a cocktail party. One of our suitemate’s father was the distributor of Ron Rico rum in the Miami area. In short, we were in a happy mood by the time we lined up for evening chow. Then one day we heard that a member of our class in the adjacent building was sent to Boot Camp — a training center for enlisted men. He was caught drinking a beer. Needless to say, our cocktail parties ended abruptly.
Next stop: Midshipman School. It was located in Plattsburgh, NY. We were quartered in a building that had housed sailors during World War I. One of my early concerns was whether I could compete successfully against students from the prestigious New England colleges. After all, I had a spotty academic record at an undistinguished southern university. But my apprehension soon faded. Success in Midshipman School was almost a given. All in all, classes at the school were dull. What seemed to matter was exhibiting the proper behavior in the presence of officers. I did get the opportunity, however, to play in a dance band. The guys were talented and we put on a weekly radio show. That was fun.
An aside: During those three months at the school, my beautiful blond southern girlfriend wrote to ask for the return of her photograph. She had fallen love with an air force pilot. I was upset and showed her letter to my closest friend, Vinnie. He was in no way sympathetic and merely commented that the letter was poorly written. Vinnie, aka Vincent Canby, must have been born a critic. He became the chief film critic for The New York Times and remained there for 35 years.
My mother and sister came up from Miami to attend our graduation ceremony. I was granted a 10-day leave. The three of us spent the time in New York City. It so happened that my brother, a captain in Gen. George Patton’s tank corps, was aboard a transport ship in New York harbor preparing for departure to Europe. Fortunately, he was able to get a one-evening pass. Now we all could have dinner together for one night. We “dined,” rather than ate, at the Waldorf-Astoria, one of the leading hotels and restaurants in the city at that time. What remains in my memory is that our conversation centered exclusively on inconsequential topics. Here we had the opportunity to talk about our life together as a family; our joys as well as our disappointments; the broad foundation of the support we received from one another. We either didn’t know how to do this or we were afraid to mar what might be the last meeting of our intact family. Whatever: My brother survived to lead a successful career in politics, ultimately joining the Nixon group as the head of the Small Business Administration in Florida.
With my leave over, the Navy had scheduled me to take a passenger train from New York to Chicago and a troop train from Chicago to San Francisco. On the passenger train, I shared a compartment with a Navy captain and a one-star general. Someone in Transportation surely screwed up by assigning an ensign to bunk with such august company! I did learn something about recognition of rank. Never had I seen such deference paid to one person (the general) by another (the captain). This may be how all officers of the “real” Army and Navy interact during peace time. I then took a troop train to San Francisco. We arrived at midnight and I registered at the St. Frances Hotel. I woke at dawn and looked out on a thrilling scene: the beautiful city of San Francisco. I had heard that some people with orders similar to mine actually stayed in San Francisco for as long as three weeks before being shipped out. I remained for three days. So what. The bars were filled with soldiers, sailors, Marines and nurses. A good time was had by all.
Another phase of my “war years” was over. To start the next, I, and some of my midshipman classmates, boarded a Transport ship heading for Tulagi, an island off Guadalcanal. On our way we crossed the equator. Crossing the equator for the first time is “celebrated” by the entire ship. It goes this way: Before crossing you are a Pollywog. After crossing you are a Shellback. During the transition from Pollywog to Shellback, the participant must be “inconvenienced” in one way or another — an old naval tradition. I have read that a passenger on a cruise ship might be asked to merely wear his shirt backward during dinner. Our ship’s crew, however, had concocted quite a different “inconvenience” for us. This was their opportunity to retaliate for any real or imagined injustice they had experienced from an officer. We were required to crawl, naked, down the deck through successive piles of the ship’s garbage. Crew members, on each side of the line, beat us with short pieces of hose. The officers in my group crawled as fast as they possibly could. At the end of the line was a large tank filled with water, which we had to climb into. Two crew members were there to ask, “What are you?” You were dunked until you came up with the correct answer, “Shellback.” It took me a while to catch on — maybe someone yelled out the correct answer. One member of our group was hospitalized from this ordeal, but only for a day.
In our Midshipman School was a handsome young man, tall with curly blond hair, and to top it off, a student from Yale. He was a loner and noticeably effete. At our school I used to hear him practicing Tchaikovsky’s First Violin Concerto. I was curious how he would react to this period of degradation, so I waited until his turn came to go down the line. He crawled slowly through the first garbage pile. And then to my surprise, and probably to the others’, he stood up and walked slowly to the next pile. Those sailors who stood just beyond the first pile had the chance to hit him several times and they did. When the rest of the crew saw what was happening, they laid down their hoses. I was much impressed by the poised displayed by the young officer and the respect shown by those who could have, but didn’t participate in the beating.
Finally, our ship made port, Tulagi, one of the Solomon Islands. There we were housed in a large tent, waiting for our respective ships. It was hot, hot, hot. We laid around most of the day rarely talking to one another. Then at 4 p.m. each of us received two beers. Suddenly the scene resembled a fraternity party. Laughter abounded.
Within three days our ships arrived. They were landing craft infantry — LCI’s — designed originally for the war in Europe. Given their flat bottoms, they could proceed right up to the beach and settle on the sand. Soldiers would exit by using the ramps attached to the ships’ sides. The landing at Normandy by these crafts was well publicized and photographed.
In the Pacific, however, coral reefs intervened between ocean and beach. This changed completely the role of the LCI. Rocket launching apparatuses were positioned along the side ramps. The ships were now designated LCI(G)’s with “G” standing for gunboat. My ship was LCI(G)81. It was indeed small: 150 ft. long and 23 ft. wide. Because many men were required to handle the rocket-loading operation during an invasion, the LCI(G) was allotted 65 men. Without modification, the LCI was allotted only 23 men. In brief, my ship was obviously overloaded. This crowded condition took a toll on everyone on board. I was to be cooped up in it for many months.
Upon boarding the 81, I reported to the commanding officer. He was a pleasant man who formerly sold insurance in New York City. Next I met the executive officer. He was sitting naked in the Ward Room with his penis bandaged up. Apparently he was going to get married as soon as he got back to Maine. I assumed that the wrapped penis had something to do with sex, but I didn’t inquire. I met the other three officers and then took my belongings below deck to my living quarters — a double-decker iron bed and a small table.
A day or two later I was up in the Conn (Conning Tower) with the C.O. when we ran into a floating object. It made a small hole in the bow just above the water line. In no time several members of the crew rushed to the bow and started jumping up and down. The C.O. kept yelling, “Get back to the fantail! Get back! Get back!” They did, but not immediately. And I wondered, “Oh God, what am I getting into?” The hole was patched promptly, and we continued on our way to join the convoy headed toward a small island named Peleliu. We would invade on July 24, 1944.
Bob Butler raised beef cattle in Iowa County for almost 25 years after retiring as a highly regarded professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. He lives on his family’s farm near Dodgeville with his wife, Caroline. Read Part II of this series in the June issue of Voice of the River Valley.