VAN STOCKUM: Part 3: Recollections From A Marine Corps Career

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A military officer isn’t always fighting, and there’s plenty to see and learn in the downtime. In a continuation of a previous series, a new lieutenant takes a battleship ride around the U.S.

By Ron Van Stockum

My 2-part series has been expanded to four parts. In the first two parts of this narrative, I have described my wonder, as a young Marine second lieutenant, upon visiting the East Coast for the first time.


Upon my completion of officer training and indoctrination at the Marine Basic School in the Philadelphia Navy Yard in May 1938, I traveled to my next duty station, the USS Tennessee, a battleship then anchored off its home port, San Pedro, Calif.

Between the two duty stations, I spent a month’s leave, with my parents in Longview, Wash., and with friends in Bellingham and Seattle. While in Longview, my Dad drove me to a nearby logging camp, operated by the Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company, where trees were then felled by primitive implements – handheld saws and axes.

I then took the train to Los Angeles, where, by coincidence, my friend Florence Epler and her family from Seattle had moved. They drove me to the Long Beach, where I caught a boat to the Tennessee, at anchor in the harbor.

In October, by good fortune, Tennessee was ordered to the Bremerton Navy Yard for maintenance and overhaul, just a ferryboat ride from Seattle and the University of Washington, my alma mater. Shortly after its arrival my parents met me on the dock and came aboard for dinner in the Junior Officers’ Mess, a novel experience for them.

While at the yard I took a couple of trips to Paradise Lodge at Mount Rainier for an introduction to skiing. Had many a fall while skiing downhill on a slope that was well-named “Devil’s Dip.”

During the year that I served aboard Tennessee, there was intense competition in sports and in gunnery among the 12 battleships of the U.S. Navy. With a pulling boat crew composed entirely of Marines, Tennessee won the prestigious Battenburg Cup. This cup originally had been presented to the US Navy in 1905 by Prince Louis of Battenberg, a rear admiral in the Royal Navy, as a trophy to be awarded to the winning pulling boat in competition between the two navies. In 1917, during World War I, German-born Battenberg anglicized his name to Mountbatten.

His son, Lord Louis Mountbatten, became the last Viceroy of India, transferring independence to India and Pakistan at midnight on August 14-15, 1947 (see Collins and Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight).

Tennessee led all battleships in the excellence of its gunnery. Morale was high, and in Navy terms Tennessee was a “happy ship.” Sailors shipped over (re-enlisted) to continue serving aboard.

Upon departing the Navy Yard after a 3-month’s stay, we headed for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, stopping briefly in San Francisco Bay and at our home port, San Pedro.


Bumpy ride

On Feb. 6, 1939 we transited the Panama Canal, a fascinating experience, and headed for Gonaives, Haiti, where we joined naval forces, including aircraft carriers and other battleships in the anchorage.

Five days later we anchored in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where we received good news, which I quote verbatim from my military journal, now in the possession of Louisville’s Filson Historical Society:

“Just last night we learned that the Tennessee is to reach N. Y. about the middle of April, two weeks ahead of the rest of the fleet to receive some alterations. That means more time in New York.”

One of our most interesting ports of call was Ponce, Puerto Rico. I quote further from my journal:

“We headed for the Guarnica Central Sugar Refinery whoseprivate beach had been offered the officers of the California and Tennessee. The worst part of the thirty-mile trip was the town of Ponce which is very filthy. Out in the country the road, lined with trees whose branches meet overhead, winds through rolling hills. Our driver drove with his horn – the traffic consisted of automobiles, oxen carts, numerous children, dogs and chickens.

“The managers of the sugar plantation were very cordial, no doubt being glad to see a few of their countrymen. One of the men took us to the beach which is wired in to keep the sharks without. Our Spanish driver sang [a] . . . little song about the lawyer of the plantation who had been bitten by a barracuda.”


On to New York

Tennessee then headed for New York, and on April 13, 1939, moored in the Hudson River off 59th Street, anchored both stem and stern to prevent swinging with the tide.

Our main battery 14-inch shells, each weighing about 1,400 pounds, were then off-loaded and ferried up the Hudson to the Iona Island Naval Ammunition Depot for reconditioning.

Accompanied by a fellow officer, I went ashore in one of the ship’s motorboats, which transported officers. The crew used open motor launches, 40 or 50 feet in length, which could accommodate 100 or 180 sailors, respectively.

We attended the annual Easter Pageant at the Radio City Music Hall. The Rockettes, those 36 precision tap dancers, were as usual the main attraction. I quote from my journal:

“We ate dinner at an ‘Automat,’ the nickel in the slot cafeteria. With a pocket full of nickels in this town, one can travel far and wide and help himself to chow at the nearest ‘Automat.’”

In the evening, we attended the Broadway musical hit, Leave It To Me, starring Mary Martin who added to her fame with a signature song, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”


Staying over

My Journal entry for April 20, 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 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.”

Opposite this entry I pasted the following: message from OPNAV (Naval Operations), dated April 18, 1939:


On May 1, I attended the Mayor’s Banquet at the Commodore Hotel with about 1,000 in attendance, including 500 Naval officers. I met many new and old Marine friends and had a genuinely good time. It was the finest dinner I had ever attended. The decorations were beautiful, the wines splendid and the food delicious. I quote from my journal:

“Mayor La Guardia’s short talk was up to my expectations – spontaneous and witty. Charles Francis Adams [former Secretary of the Navy], a very fine looking gentleman, spoke more like a preacher and was a bit long-winded.”

Here I had pasted a clipping from a New York newspaper of May 2, 1939, which covered Adams’ and the mayor’s speeches in detail. Mr. Adams was quoted: “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.”

His remarks were prescient.

At 11 p.m., with my companions, I left the mayor’s dinner and proceeded to the Waldorf-Astoria for The Fleet Ball. Again, from my journal:

“New York society turned out to welcome the officers of the Fleet. It was so easy to become acquainted. Happened to meet up with . . . the chairman, who was feeling slightly ‘high.’ Through him I met Admiral Johnson, Commander of the Atlantic Squadron, one of the Morgan family, and several other socialites of whom I had never heard. They all seemed quite natural despite their wealth.

“’Whitey’ Mehlig and ‘Colonel’ Hunnicutt [Shipmates from Tennessee] had two pretty girls at their table with whom I danced. Incidentally, there’s no doubt about it, a Marine evening dress uniform attracts the girls. The March of Time took several ‘shots’ of the ball for their coming ‘Ramparts We Watch’ program to be included with the fleet scenes. A deb [debutante] and I posed for the camera some ten minutes.”

With our reconditioned ammunition 14-inch shells back on board, we left New York, re-transited the Panama Canal, and returned to San Pedro later in May 1939.


Next: Hooray for Hollywood


Ron Van Stockum’s latest book, Remembrances of World Wars, as well as his others, Kentucky and the Bourbons: The Story of Allen Dale Farm and Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, may be purchased at Terhune Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center or from Amazon.com.