VAN STOCKUM: Peace and War, The Path to World War II Part 1: Despite harbingers, life did just go on

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The days leading up to the start of World War II may well have had hints of what was to come, but they life went along naturally too. This is the first of two parts of what the world was like in those days.

By Ron Van Stockum

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Van Stockum Collection, Filson Historical Society, Louisville


USS Panay sinking after Japanese attack on Dec. 12, 1937


Van Stockum Collection, Filson Historical Society, Louisville

USS Tennessee off Cape Hatteras on May 3, 1939 in a 62-knot gale. The photos were taken by the author from his battle station at the top of one of the cage (or basket) masts that characterized the Tennessee-style battleships at that time.

redit: Van Stockum Collection, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

There were early signs of the coming cataclysm.  While in high school, I delivered the SeattleTimes.  We were called “carrier-salesmen,” in the hope, usually dashed, that while on our routes we might pick up a new subscriber or two.

In those days, with radio news insufficient, TV non-existent, and the Internet not even a dream, breaking news was hawked on the streets by men selling special editions, called “extras.”

While on my route one afternoon, I heard the cry, “EXTREE, EXTREE, LOOKS LIKE ANOTHER WORLD WAR.” 

This was the news of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria on Sept. 18, 1931.   There was little reaction to this “Manchurian Incident,” other than discussions in the League of Nations and diplomatic protests by the United States, but it seems the hawker’s pitch might have been prescient.

Because the world was spiraling on a path toward war.

That was apparent to me not too many years later.

In 1937, upon graduation from the University of Washington, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the regular Marine Corps and ordered to Philadelphia to join others for a year of instruction.  There, we were impressed by the tales of Captain “Chesty” Puller, a hero of the “Banana Wars,” in Haiti and Nicaragua, and winner of two awards of the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.  Not having experienced combat, we looked forward to an opportunity to “prove our metal.”

It seemed we might have that opportunity when, on Dec. 12, 1937, Japanese aircraft attacked and sank the USS Panay, an American gunboat, in the Yangtze River, outside Nanking.

However, the Japanese government declared the bombing to have been unintentional, formally apologized, and paid an indemnity. An open break in relations between U.S. and Japan apparently had been averted.


‘Peace in our time’

My next tour of duty was as an officer of the Marine Detachment aboard USS Tennessee (BB-43), a battleship of the US Fleet, stationed off San Pedro, Calif. 

Here I heard the news that on Sept. 30, 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of England had returned from a visit with Adolf Hitler, brandishing a piece of paper and declaring, “Peace in our time!” 

The next day Germany invaded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, and I recorded this event in the hand-written journal I kept during my first five years in the Marines, now part of the Van Stockum Collection at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville:

“And now for a little timely news.  Hitler’s attempts to take over Sudeten German part of Czeckoslovakia have resulted in European unrest, unequaled since the war [World War I].  If Hitler is appeased now, he will no doubt want more later.  I am sure only memories of the last war have saved Europe from another war at the present time.  .  .  . It looks like war is inevitable, with G. B., Fr., Cz., Russia fighting against Germany, Austria, and Italy initially.”

The following year, in April 1939, the entire U.S. fleet, including the Tennessee, was ordered to leave its base in San Pedro and steam through the Panama Canal to New York for the opening on May 1 of the World’s Fair.

The Tennessee arrived early in New York and anchored in the North River (Southernmost portion of the Hudson) in order to send its 14-inch projectiles up the river to the Naval Ammunition Depot on Iona Island for reconditioning. 

I quote again from my journal.

“U. S. Fleet Returns to West Coast

20 April 1939

Today, the rest of the U. S. Fleet leaves Norfolk en route to the West Coast, without having seen New York.  The Tennessee, having ammunition to take on, could not leave and apparently will stay in the [North] river until after the Fair.  The troubled European situation caused by aggression of the dictatorship powers (Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain), had a great deal to do with President Roosevelt’s decision to return the fleet to its bases.  Saturday, the same day that the fleet received its orders, the President sent a dramatic plea to both Italy and Germany, asking them to guarantee peace in Europe for ten years, at least.”

As a result, the Tennessee, to the delight of our crew, was the only fleet battleship to represent the Navy at the Fair’s opening.



New York World’s Fair

On the evening of May 1, I went ashore with my fellow officers, resplendent in the Marine Corps evening dress uniform of the time, which was embellished with gold braid.  First there was Mayor LaGuardia’s banquet at the Commodore Hotel, addressed eloquently by the mayor and by Charles Francis Adams, former Secretary of the Navy who proclaimed: “The great day may come when sea power will come to bring safety back to the world, and you boys may be called on to do your part.”

At 11 p.m. we left the mayor’s banquet to attend the Fleet Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria, where New York society, replete with debutantes, turned out to greet the officers of the fleet. The March of Timecovered this event for its  forthcoming newsreel, O’er the Ramparts We Watch.

After a memorable evening, next morning at 4:30 a.m., utterly exhausted, we returned to the dock at lower Manhattan to catch a boat back to our ship.


Peacetime warm-up

Upon the return of Tennessee to its base in San Pedro, I was detached and ordered to report to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines (regiment), stationed at the Marine Barracks in San Diego, then a medium-sized city of only 150,000.

My tour of duty in San Diego from July 1939 until November 1940 was typical of life on a military post in the period before World War II.

There were only about 1,100 marine officers on duty in the entire Marine Corps, and they were known to one another by reputation, if not personally. Thus, there was a spirit of comradeship within with the Corps, reinforced by association and friendship.

Rivalries did exist, however, as every officer was on a lineal list, which established seniority, and there was a selection process, based upon performance, for promotion.

This was not an immediate concern for us second lieutenants, for we were practically assured of promotion to first lieutenant after three years total service.

When I joined the 6th Marines, all the officers were regulars and all known to each other, from 2nd Lt.  Van Stockum to the brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Barney Vogel, and there was a group of lively and attractive daughters of officers living on the post (they were called “Navy Juniors;” in the Army their counterparts called themselves “Army Brats”).

I dated the general’s oldest daughter, Peggy, and must admit I would knock on her door, hoping that the gruff old general would not open it.


Britain declares war

I have never forgotten taking Peggy to the base theater on the evening of September 3rd.  We saw The Wizard of Oz, one of the most enjoyable and uplifting movies in my memory.  When I returned home, I turned on the radio to hear King George VI of England declare war on Germany.

This was a watershed moment.

The officers’ club was the focus of social activity.   Second lieutenants were not allowed to marry before completion of two years of commissioned service, so we brought our dates to dances, where we joined the more senior officers and their wives.

One memorable costume ball was held in October 1939.  Four of us lieutenants, with our dates, attended as seven convicts and a “keystone kop.”  We brought down the house when, brandishing my “Billy club,” I marched the “prisoners” into the club in lock step.

2nd Lt. Loren Fraser, inappropriately called “Tiny,” a mountain of a man with an intellect to match, arrived at the party dressed as “Earthquake McGoon,” wearing a bearskin and carrying a two by four with a spike.  His date was dressed as the dainty “Daisy Mae,” another character in the currently popular Li’l Abner,Al Capp’s comic strip.

I recall on this occasion that Maj. John W. Thomason, a hero of World War I, dressed in the costume of a Russian Cossack, stood unsteadily on his chair to offer a toast.

He was famed nationally as a military artist and author.  He had written and illustrated several bestsellers, carrying titles such as Fix Bayonets, and Jeb Stuart, and had published a number of his stories in theSaturday Evening Post.

His magnificent painting of a Marine rifleman, for which his orderly had posed, hung in the club at that time.  I wonder where it is now.

Next: Ready for war