The small size of the Spence and all other destroyers and destroyer escorts served to foster a certain informality in naval custom. When planning for the Spence, the bureau of personnel or BuPers, allowed just about 11 square feet per man or roughly three feet by three feet nine inches in which to sleep, store uniforms and personal items.  In peacetime this allowed minimal but ample room for the crew but in wartime the complement went from roughly 226 men to 329 which strained accommodations to the limit. The crew “hot bunked,” sharing racks with sailors on duty while another slept. Very tight quarters. For their size, these warships carried very large numbers of crew. This was necessary in order to operate the ship at a high level of readiness when in a war zone. If you couldn’t bear to be bumped or jostled about by others you were in the wrong kind of ship. It took about two hours waiting in line for chow which you had to eat in fifteen minutes, crewmen did this three times a day. Tiny shipboard spaces coupled with very large crews wasn’t conductive to spit and polish. Oil, grease, tarred ropes and hawsers made it impossible to keep the summer uniform of whites clean on these small ships. The common uniform of the day was dungarees, a light blue chambray shirt, denim bell bottom dungarees and naval working shoes fondly referred to as“Boondockers.” Heavy duty work shoes, suitable for any job which never wore out, or as some sailors say, never broke in either. Dungarees were stored between the thin mattress ticking and the wire racks in crew quarters, giving them the appearance of laundry that was never, ever ironed. Scruffy in looks, comfortable to wear and eminently serviceable, sailors took a great deal of pride in their appearance and spoke of their belonging to “The Dungaree Navy.” “Tin Can” sailors were intensely proud to be a part of it and looked down on the swabs that rode around on immense flattops and mighty battleships with legions of “four striper” captains and Admirals looking down on them from sky bridges, ever critical and more powerful than the God himself. Is it any wonder then that Tin Cans had the highest casualty rate of any class of ship in the navy. They went to the sound of battle, always.  The Small Boys were the one ship that led the way, sacrificed for the safety of the glamorous carriers and battleships. Everyone in the Dungaree Navy knew what was expected of their ships and crews and they did it.

Sailors have long considered the Fletchers a very sexy ship with her raked stacks and aggressive profile it is easy to see why. With all of her boilers on line she could top out at 38 knots or roughly 44 miles and hour. The captain could ring up flank speed, the engineers would tie down the pop off valves to increase boiler pressure, the air intakes or blowers as sailors called them would begin to howl like hurricanes as they forced massive amounts of air to the burners in the boilers and the ship would begin slicing through the sea like a knife, shaking like a dog trying to pass a peach pit as the old saying goes, clouds of spray coming back over the bow hard enough to sting the face.  The ship would grab a bone in its teeth, settle at the stern as the twin screws pushed so much water out from under the keel that it partially sank. Swabbies loved them. Perhaps more after the fact than during, but still they were special ships manned by prideful young men.

USS Spence off Guadalcanal 1943 with a bone in her teeth.

Bigger warships called them “Small boys.” A term that was both envious and derisive. There is a story told that in the Fall of 1944,  a destroyer escort, smaller by nearly 80 feet than Don’s Spence, limped into Pearl to have extensive battle damage repaired, she received a semaphore signal from a massive battleship moored to Ford Island. The battleship division Admiral’s query? “What type of ship is that?” No doubt this accompanied by the admiral’s staffs little snickers as they peered down from the flag bridge high above the little DE as it passed. The Captain of the USS Tabberer, (DE-481) a Butler Class Destroyer Escort, Lcdr Henry lee Plage commanding, a ninety day wonder Naval Reservist, cheekily signaled back, “What type of ship are you?” to howls of delighted laughter from the sailors on the little Tabby’s bridge. The little “Tabby” just a fraction the size of the BB had won a Navy Unit Commendation, 4 battle stars and her captain, the Navy’s Legion of Merit awarded by Admiral Halsey himself who passed on Admiral Nimitz’s congratulations for tweaking the nose of the high and mighty battleship Admiral.

Typical of the officers that made the Navy great in WWII, Henry Lee Plage started his military career as a member of ROTC at Georgia Tech. He joined the Navy in 1937 after his graduation. Like many college grads during the depression his options were limited and a Naval officers career was appealing because the pay was steady and there were some options, though advancement was very slow. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Commander Plage immediately requested sea duty. As a reservist officer his chances of an important command were slim but by May of 1944 when he took command of the Tabberer, the naval service had discovered that these essentially amateur officers often outfought and out thought the Naval Academy boys who were often driven by career objectives and internal politics. The great strength of America lay with it’s amateurs.

LCDR Henry Lee Plage

The crews called them “Tin Cans,” for they were so lightly built with less than a half inch of steel plate that hard service would dish the hull between frames so the sides would look like waffles. They were the thoroughbreds of the fleet. They suffered more casualties than any type of ship during the war. Early in the war, the Navy took horrific casualties in the battle for Guadalcanal. Heavy cruisers were decimated by the Imperial Japanese navy and the roles they would normally have played were filled by the little ships which were forced by high command to take on not only IJN destroyers, but cruisers and battleships.

The sailors who rode these ships were men like Henry Plage and Ernest E Evans. Ernest Edwin Evans, a half-Cherokee Indian and one-quarter-Creek Indian, was born on 13 August 1908 in Pawnee, Oklahoma. He graduated from Central High School in Muskegee, Oklahoma and May 1926 and enlisted in the US Navy. After a year’s service as an enlisted man, he was appointed to the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, from the Navy at large. Enlisted personnel take a written exam and present evidence to the examiners as to their fitness. Evans entered as a Midshipman on 29 June 1927. The Academy yearbook, “The Lucky Bag,” described him thus:

As a plebe, Chief thought his military life was just “one bust after another”, but coming through that year with a philosophy of “life is what one makes it”, he established himself in the heart of every Middie. 

Endowed with an exceptionally brilliant mind, he advocates and practices a minimum of study and a maximum of reading and pleasure. This policy has enabled him to develop a shining personality and pleasant nature, together with a knowledge of psychology, religion, philosophy, love, or most any subject about which one desires to converse. 

As a wife he is reliable, big-hearted, and consistent, full of good jokes, “lend me two bits, pal, so I can call Baltimore,” laughs and sorrows, never gripes, always ambitious.

The Big Chief graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Science and commissioned Ensign in the US Navy in June 1931,

During the commissioning ceremony of the Destroyer Johnston, DD-557 in September 1943, Commander Evans a made his mission clear to the Sailors assigned to his ship: “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now.” No one did.  They did go too. In the battle off Samar, Philippines, Lcdr Evans, without waiting for orders flung his little ship against a Japanese fleet of 8 cruisers, 20 destroyers and 4 battleships including the two largest and most powerful ever built, the IJN Musashi and the IJN Yamato. The Imperial Navy’s Yamato weighed more than all the ships of the American task force, more than two hundred forty time than the Johnston alone. The Yamato fired a projectile that weighed over a ton. The Johnston fired one that weighed 55 pounds. The little ships from Taffy 3 that attached the IJN fleet had to run for over seven miles under fire before they were close enough to shoot. The men of the Johnston, the Hoel and the Samuel B Roberts fought their ships until they were destroyed. In a battle lasting over  two and a half hours the Johnston and the other destroyers of his group, Taffy 3 savaged the Japanese fleet. At the end, Evan’s and the Johnston were beaten to a pulp, nearly dead in the water, topsides blasted into a smoking ruin. As Capt. Bob Copeland, the commanding officer of Samuel B. Roberts, describes the moment, he watched Johnston limp slowly by, with Captain Evans standing on her fantail, calling orders down the hatch where her sailors were trying to turn her rudder by hand. Captain Evans was stripped to the waist and covered in blood. His left hand, missing two fingers and wrapped in a strip of his shirt. When he saw Copeland, he grinned and waved.  At the end, the Johnston rolled over and sank taking 186 men down with her including Capt. Evans. Not long after, the Sammie B. was also gone, blown to pieces by shells from the battleships weighing almost 1,500 lbs each. LCDR Evans was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Lest we think Evan’s action was a rarity, Bob Copeland who waved back at Ernie Evans wrote in the after action report of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, “The crew were informed over the loud speaker system at the beginning of the action, of the Commanding Officer’s estimate of the situation, that is, a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected, during which time we would do what damage we could.  In the face of this knowledge the men zealously manned their stations wherever they might be, and fought and worked with such calmness, courage and efficiency that Captain Copeland felt that no higher honor could be conceived than to command such a group of men.

Medal of Honor, the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal and Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon, *

This is the Navy Donald Polhemus entered, the Tin Can Navy. His ship was to go in harm’s way too. More than once.

Spence had just returned from convoy escort duties to Casablanca, Morocco with a brief stop in New York for a brief refit.. Leaving Newport News, she headed for the Naval Training Area located between the Outer banks of the Carolinas and Bermuda. At a distance of over 700 miles across, this area was chosen because it gave sailors, particularly new ones an opportunity to get their sea legs. You see, the gulf stream traveling north off the east coast of the US bounces off Cuba and Florida, accelerating around the curve of the coast at Cape Lookout, North Carolina and is compressed between the Cape and Bermuda. This makes it a place where rough water is sure to be found. Running gunnery, overboard, anti-sub drills in these water is meant to test crews limits under some pretty harsh conditions. With perhaps two thirds of the crew staggering seasick, training forces men to perform under very rigorous conditions. Not the least of which is showing them the importance of getting along and helping each other. They learn they must operate the ship no matter how many bumps and bruises or buckets of vomit they toss over the side. Running at flank speed of 38 knots a Fletcher class destroyer in a tight, hard over turn can roll up to 60 degrees, surely a terrifying experience to young farm boys or city kids who have never been to sea. A turn like that puts the lee rail underwater and causes anything on board not tied down to careen across the deck. Crockery in the galley is sacrificed, open lockers spill their contents, unsecured depth charges spill out of their racks, crashing against bulkheads, altogether a frightening experience for the new crew but eminently satisfying to the veteran seamen aboard who know how to move around with one hand for the ship and one hand for themselves. They have practiced walking down a corridor with one foot on the deck and one on the bulkhead, a trick demonstrated by Fred Astaire in his movie “Royal Wedding where he dances on the wall and the ceiling. The cuts, bumps and bruises will eventually seem like nothing to these boys getting their initiation to sea life. It’s a highly instructive object lesson for the crew on the value of securing anything not in use. A good master can forge a tight knit crew only by forcing them to be proud of the hardships they must endure. They learn the old seaman’s adage about seasickness, “First you think you’re going to die, then you hope you’ll die soon.” 

Steel ships are not built with comfort in mind. Everything below decks seems to be designed to poke, scrape and cut the unwary. There are no cushions or bumpers on anything. Passageways are festooned with thousands of electrical wires left exposed for ease of maintenance. A ship built in Bath, Maine will have had all it’s welds ground smooth which is not the case with vessels from other yards. The Boiler room is hotter than Hell on a summers day. Live steam leaks from pipe fittings, the deck is slippery and there is a cloudy haze floating in the air. The engine rooms are nearly as hot and the sheer number of fittings, gauges and control wheels boggles the mind. There is a constant oily haze in the air and the engine room crew is liberally coated with it. The noise is deafening, the big turbines produce a high pitched whine, the reduction gears grind and the sound of the forced draft from the blowers sounds like a hurricane when the ship is traveling at a high rate of speed. Blowers are a constant. Ships did not have air conditioning in WWII and the constant sound of the blowers trying, without much success to cool the air is deafening. An off duty sailor in his rack can hear the water gurgling and hissing as it flows over the hull.

Worst of all, for the new kid it all happens at once. The rolling gait of an old seamen is hard earned. Of course there is a method to this madness, taking a ship into the roiling Gulf Stream. There is no time for coddling. Junior officers, Chiefs and veteran rating push, shove, shout and lay the hard word on confused young sailors until they finally begin to resemble a functional crew. Almost nothing they learned in boot camp applies to their new jobs.

Chief Quartermaster Harlan Carrigan, a black haired Irishman from Maine man was in charge of teaching the seamen who actually steered the ship. Peter Paul Manghisi from New York was a seaman who was “Striking” for Quartermaster, at just five foot three and 120 pounds Peter must have been quite a contrast to Chief Carrigan who stood six two and weighted in a 200 plus pounds. Nevertheless Harlan Carrigan saw something in the diminutive Manghisi worth cultivating.

Striking is a naval term for a sailor who has qualified through study and experience for a rate, but has not yet become a petty officer. The Chief himself, might not be the best steersman. Qualifying as a Quartermaster takes much more than just mastering the nuts and bolts of the skill. The man who steers a ship must develop a sense that anticipates the movements of a vessel. Its an intuitive skill which involves all the senses. Seeing the sea state, reading the instruments before you and feeling the movements off the deck under you are what makes a good helmsman.

A Fletcher class destroyers primary wheel is located on a console mounted to the deck on the bridge. The console also has two compasses, a gyroscopic which indicates true north and a magnetic which indicates magnetic north. The north pole, magnetic north tends to drift with the movement of the universe and can be unreliable. It’s never used unless there is some failure of the gyroscope. There is always a rudder repeater which tells the man steering two things. One is the angle of the rudder caused by turning the wheel and the other is the true angle of the rudder. There is a time lag between turning the wheel and the rudder responding and there is a much longer time before the ship begins to turn. This is where intuition comes in. A helmsman must be able to anticipate what the ship is going to do in any sea state. A Fletcher is 376 feet long and only 39 feet wide. Its like a floating pencil. Being long and thin the expectation would be that they want to move in a straight line but that was not the case. Sometimes it simply defied reason to determine why she wandered of course.To be a good helmsman required very sensitive physical senses and a keen mind. It was necessary to predict what she is about to do in the next several seconds and take corrective action before it happens. Once the ship slides off course the rudder cannot be moved quickly enough to avoid wandering. A good helmsman has to be able to second guess constantly. The worst sea state is when the swells are abaft (Behind) the beam. As the swell begins to lift the stern the bow buries itself and the stern begins to slide off to one side or other. In a very heavy swell the ship can broach, or turn sideways to the swell and possibly capsize. As the ship slides sideways the helmsman must correct. If he overcorrects the ship will roll as well as pitch. All over the ship you will hear, “Who the Hell is on the wheel?” Peter Maghisi began his instruction in calm seas for obvious reasons.

Spence in heavy weather

Soon after completing at sea training, the Spence was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and sortied through the Panama canal and up the west coast to Mare Island Navy Yard Annex at Hunters Point, San Francisco, for a three week overhaul. Don was able to take the train down to Anaheim to visit his parents and get the family news. His brother Henry and his brother in-law CB Cotton, who had married his older sister Evelyn in 1933 were both Naval officers and in the Pacific. Evelyn was living with her parents while her husband was at sea and it must have been frightening to have two family men in the war zone and the youngest, Don, soon to be on his way.

Anaheim like most towns in mid 1943 would have exhibited a curious quiet. There were very few school friends about, most were in the service. Not just the boys either. Married men, men with children and those that failed physicals in ’41 were now considered healthy enough to serve were being caught up in the draft. Women entered the Waves, WACs and the Women’s Marines. There was almost no unemployment on the west coast. The industries that produced war material operated 24 hours a day sven days a week. When Don left his parents house to walk around town it would have seemed almost like a ghost town.

It is so hard to imagine today what it was like for mothers to have one eye out the window all the time looking to spot the boy delivering telegrams on his bicycle, coming up your street, praying that the sadness he was bringing was for some other poor mother and not you. There is a magnificently poignant scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the Ryan’s mother sees the sedan coming up the drive and seems to float out to the porch waiting for what news it brings. When the family’s minister opens the door, she slowly collapses, floating to the floorboards to slump heavily as if weighed down by impending grief. It’s heartbreaking to see. It happened 1,089,918 times in WWII. Read it again, one million, eighty nine thousand, nine hundred eighteen telegrams for the dead and the wounded and the missing. All those parents, brothers and sisters, wives, children, grandparents and friends, they were casualties too. 

 Spence left San Francisco and Hunter’s Point for Pearl and the western Pacific theater on 25 July and steamed into Pearl Harbor on August 3rd, 1943. She was slated for further training. In fact the training never stopped, she was headed into harms way and she could never be prepared enough. 

Spence leaving San Francisco 25 July 1943

chapter five

Rounding Oahu, slipping through the Molokai Channel and turning Northwest, she passed Diamond head, Honolulu and came to the entrance of Pearl Harbor. She lay off the entrance until the harbor pilot came aboard and steered them through the minefields, torpedo nets and in towards the Destroyer anchorage in the Middle Loch. As they slid past Ford island the destroyed Arizona, BB-39 stood as mute testimony to the savage attack of December 7th just two years before. Just forward, the massive salvage operation to raise the capsized Oklahoma BB-37 was still underway.* Rounding Ford Island to their designated anchorage they pass the old Utah, BB-31 rolled over and rusting away. Some of it’s crew still entombed inside.

The crew, dressed in crisp whites stood at attention and saluted. Tears flowed unashamedly from both sailors and their officers. Prewar servicemen almost certainly knew some of those lost men.

To Be Continued Friday October 2nd.

*One of my high school classmates father was trapped below decks on the Oklahoma for four days until salvage crews managed to cut through the bottom of the ship and get him out.




Exhausted from the 120 hour ride in old passenger cars just taken out of the boneyards of railroad storage and so crowded that soldiers and sailors had to sit on the floors, or sit together in threes and fours on old seats made for two, Don like the other passengers stood in shifts or tried to get some shut eye by crawling under the seats and stretching out on the floor. The aisles were stacked with seabags and their other gear was stuffed in every nook and cranny the could find. For Naval recruits straight out of Boot Camp, it must have seemed crowded beyond belief. They were about to find out to their sorrow that their discomfort was just beginning. 

The going was slow. Military trains were often sidelined because war materials took priority over troops. Brief whistle stops gave the boys an opportunity to get off, stretch their legs and maybe get a quick bite to eat at the train stations set up along the way. If they were fortunate perhaps they might find long tables set up by the Red Cross where coffee and donuts were served by volunteer girls. Often all they had were sandwiches and maybe an apple passed through the windows when the train stopped to water or coal. It was still a long hard trip even for young men in the physical prime of their lives.

North Platte Nebraska Canteen officers pose for a publicity photo, including (left to right) Helen Christ, Mayme Wyman, Jessie Hutchens, Edna Neid, and Opal Smith. Used by permission.

Don’s train arrived in Newport News, Virginia on the 19th of May, 1943, where the sailors joining their ships were processed. The entire group spent the night in a temporary barracks built for WWI. The receiving center was jammed with sailors waiting for ships or transportation to other parts of the country. Boot camps were turning out roughly five thousand new sailors each and every week and still couldn’t keep up with demand. New construction was outpacing crew. The Navy was using it’s prewar sailors to polish up the Boots when they came aboard  but there weren’t nearly enough to keep up. The learning curve for the new kids was going to be very steep.

 Trying to catch whatever sleep he could and anxious about what tomorrow might bring Don slung his seabag on an available bunk and headed for the galley with other sailors he’d met him on the train. Most of the new crew were not assigned to specific ships and were at the mercy of clerks or yeoman as they are rated in the Navy. The would have had stacks of chits from ships at Newport listing requests for Able Seamen, Cooks, Gunners Mates and a myriad of other ratings. The navy was madly scrambling to man as many ships as it could and many crews in 1943 were made up primarily of boots. Experienced seamen, petty officers and commissioned officers were being shuttled from place to place in order to provide some level of experience but for the most part the navy was being manned by amateurs. 

Hours standing in line, following the lines painted on the deck and dragging his seabag with him Don finally got to the Yeoman’s desk. Taking Don’s personnel file he noted his rating, storekeeper, shuffled some mimeographed chits around until he found a ship requesting a storekeeper. He filled in the chit banging away on his typewriter handed Don his file and a new set of orders, and said, “Portsmouth Yard, Spence,” He said, “next in line.” He never looked up, just held out his hand to the next man and said,”Orders?”

When the United States started preparing to send troops overseas in World War II, no other place in the nation could match Hampton Roads Virginia’s record as a military port. The city had multiple rail connections and it had an excellent deep-water, ice-free port. It also had several WWI camps that could be reactivated very quickly and reused.

In addition to the deep water off Newport News Point, there were excellent anchorages just up the James River, around Old Point Comfort on the York River and inside Cape Henry at Lynnhaven Roads, giving the port commander ample room to assemble vessels and organize hundreds of ships. You could bring ships into this harbor  and they would all be protected by the mine fields at the mouth of the bay and the Hampton Roads channel, the coastal artillery at the capes and at Fort Monroe. The air cover at Langley Field and Naval Air Station Norfolk made Newport News impregnable.

Beginning Dec. 2, 1942, and continuing through the war, nearly 1.5 million people would pass through the gates of the giant complex on their way to or returning from war.

Getting off the bus, Don stood a moment looking up at the ship that would be his home. It was a uniform gray with its number picked out in white on it’s bow, 512 which identified it as the Spence. It was nested with three other, the Edison DD-439, Schroeder DD-501 and the Foote, DD-511.* Towering over the pier they were sleek and deadly looking vessels. He walked down the pier to the gangway, shouldered his seabag, stepped onto the Foote, threw a salute at the Ensign on the fantail, saluted the Officer of the Deck and requested permission to come aboard. “Reporting aboard Spence sir.” The Foote’s OD replied,”Permission granted, come aboard.” Don then crossed the Foote’s deck and onto Spence’s. The Spences O.D. returned his salute and directed a seaman to take him to the personnel office for assignment. Every sailor who ever served knows this routine. The Navy is like an old maiden lady set in her ways and things must be done just so. Don was carrying his orders in the tan colored envelope that followed him everywhere and had a life of its own. Without his service file, he literally didn’t exist. He would be an orphan until it was found or a new one was cobbled together. He followed the sailor through a maze of passageways before arriving at personnel to be checked in. Don was fortunate to have a specialty. Without one he was liable to be attached to whichever division needed the most bodies. He might have gone to the engine room or deck division. As a recent boot he would have been at the mercy of the four winds as most new sailors were.  

Don’s ship, Destroyer, DD-512, Spence, was a Fletcher Class and just a little less than a year old. Built in Bath Maine, she was laid down on 18 May, 1942 and slid down the ways into the sea, wetting her hull for the first time on the 25th of January, 1943. At 376.5 feet stem to stern she was built for speed. With a beam of just 39.5 feet, she was most definitely not built for comfort. Crammed into her interior were all the machinery that made her go, boilers, turbines, reduction gear, fuel tanks, ammunition store stores, crew space, in short, so full of necessary things that there was barely any room for the 329 souls that made up her crew.   That number was necessary to allow around the clock manning of gun mounts, repair parties, and other watch stations. By necessity most crewman held down more than one job. Being a storekeeper, Don had what you might call a day job, keeping records, disbursing various supplies needed to run the ship and working directly with his the supply officer. The supply officer, a Lieutenant nearly as young as the sailors he commanded was in charge of S division. The Supply Officer also had department head status. Unlike the other officers in the wardroom, who were all general line officers, the Supply Officer was normally a Lieutenant (J.G.) or Ensign in the Supply Corps. Supply officers were all referred to as “Pork Chops” because of the shape of their insignia. This officer stood no underway watches. But he had a good deal of responsibility. Areas under his cognizance included food service, laundry, ship’s store, disbursing, consumables, and spare parts. He was directly accountable for all expenditures of government funds.

Supply Department ratings, the navy word for those trained in a specialty included Storekeepers which were responsible for ensuring that the required quantities  of spare parts and consumables were on board and maintaining the required records. This was Don’s rating. In wartime rating’s often rise in rank very quickly. From the time Don reported aboard until he achieved the rank of Storekeeper First Class was just over a year. This meant that he rose five full ranks in that short time, a testament to his hard work, intelligence and the fact that the Navy was expanding very rapidly and the need for qualified personnel was extreme. 

The Supply Officer was in charge of more than just the Storekeeper clerks. He also supervised the Commissary men or CS ratings who were the ship’s cooks. Obviously they were the people who were most likely to take heat from the other crew members for their efforts, or lack thereof. Good cooks and bakers were so valuable that senior officers from other ships would forcibly transfer superior sailing cooks to their own vessels. This led to the occasional serving of lousy dishes to visiting dignitaries. Amongst the cooks was the Baker whose only job was providing fresh bread daily and that wonder of wonders, cinnamon rolls.

Charles Robert Craver, Baker Third Class was already aboard. He had reported to Spence when it was first fitted out. This made him one of the few “Plank Owners” on the ship. Plank Owners were members of the very first crew to go aboard a brand new ship. Sailors took great pride in this honor as you might imagine. Some ships presented these men with small plaques  with a strip of wooden deck and engraved with their name and date that they reported aboard.

BK3 Bob Craver was from Miami, Florida where he had been working as a baker at the Romeo and Juliet Bakery. Perhaps looking ahead, he left work on December 5th, a Friday, 1941 and marched himself down to the local Navy recruiter and signed up. After recruit training in “Great Mistakes,” Naval Training Center in Chicago he was ordered to his first ship. The USS Bowditch AGS-30 was a Naval Survey ship. She was first launched in 1929 as the Santa Inez. She was later purchased by the Navy in 1940 and was outfitted as a surveying vessel by the Portsmouth Navy yard in Norfolk Virginia. A type unknown to most, survey ships accompanied the fleet into every war zone. Their purpose was to chart ocean areas to improve navigation. He must have joked that the Spence was a far cry from the Bowditch, which was a spacious former passenger liner. 


The SH rating were the ships servicemen. They were the laundresses and operated the ship’s store and barber shop. They washed and ironed uniforms for over 300 men and they did it in a tiny room with only a single tumbler washer, dryer and a steam mangle iron. Sailors were to be clean at all times and the laundry did a land office business. They could never keep up with demand and sailors learned to hand wash uniforms in buckets while on deck. They made do, which was the watchword in the naval service, particularly in small ships.


The Disbursing Clerk Assisted the Supply Officer in performing his paymaster functions. This was a job held by Don “Poley” Polhemus. Crewmen treated the pay clerks with a great deal of respect. The Lieutenant who ran supply was nicknamed “Pay,” though he wasn’t called that to his face. Pay disbursements were made in cash, typically the old two-dollar bill. Sailors rarely drew actual pay beyond what they could spend on gedunk or gambling. The tiny ships store bar was usually open for longer hours than the Galley. They were stocked with a wide variety of consumables such as snacks, soft drinks and fresh coffee. Sailors refer to the snacks themselves as “gedunk”. The money raised went to the ships enlisted fund and was used for recreation and other things that benefited the crew. 

The Stewards ran the Wardroom, the officers mess and provided valet service for the officers exclusively. In Don’s Navy they were nearly all Filipinos or Black. The Navy being far from integrated in WWII. They were the only enlisted men allowed in what was known as officer country. Though crowded into a very small ship, officers and enlisted men maintained very careful distances from one another. The stewards also served as crew for the ships guns but were typically segregated in their own compartments.

Don Polhemus was quickly promoted to 3rd class petty officer. In the rush to fill crews promotion for enlisted personnel was very fast. The Chief Petty Officer, SKC, was the senior enlisted man who ran the day to day operations of the supply department. The Chief being in charge of all the departments in S division. The supply officer, Lieutenant Alfonso Stephen Krauchunas was Don Pohlemus’s department head. Operating from cramped compartments below the after 5 inch 38 caliber gun mounts, they were responsible for the ordering, storing and disbursement of all ships stores. This included gunnery, engineering, deck division and officers mess funds. Basically their job was to run a warehouse, a very small but extremely busy one. One of the prime considerations for any sailor is to learn to get along with almost no space in which to live and work. The supply office was the size of a average walk in closet. All of the work needed to maintain and operate a ship the length of a football field with a crew of over three hundred men was done there by an officer and his men, often working literally shoulder to shoulder. A the officers mess the supply officer customarily sat at the foot of the table where he was in full view. The looks and comments he received were in direct proportion to the quality of the job he was doing.


There is an interesting custom in the Navy. Through the supply department, the service that provides the nuts, bolts, clothing, food, cleaning supplies and all of the other necessaries to keep the ship operating at an efficient level. What it doesn’t do is provide the critical luxuries that keeps crew happy. There is a somewhat different process for this. “Cumshaw,” a word owned by the underground Naval service. Underground, meaning it’s practice of and operation of is frowned upon, but enthusiastically practiced by the lowliest seaman to the Admiral of the fleet. The only basic consideration is; don’t get caught. It was probably British Navy personnel who first picked up cumshaw in Chinese ports, during the First Opium War of 1839. Cumshaw is from a word that means “grateful thanks” in the dialect of Xiamen, a port in southeast China. Apparently, sailors heard it from the beggars who hung around the ports, and mistook it as the word for a handout. Since then, U.S. sailors have given cumshaw its own unique application, for something obtained through unofficial means (whether deviously or simply ingeniously). Sailors are known to bend the rules a just a little, to outright bribery. Don wouldn’t learn this in Storekeeper school, but he would certainly be introduced to it by the senior ratings and chiefs of long naval experience. Whenever the Spence was in the yard or tied up to a destroyer tender or other supply ship, things of value tended to migrate from one ship to another. Things of value might be “Cumshawed” in the dark of night only to be replaced by an item of equal value from the ship alongside. Quid Pro Quo you might say. Don and the other ratings in supply made sure that naval records were squared away and ready for inspection at all times. Perhaps certain surplus items from the Spence might, just might, fall over the side and have to written off as lost or destroyed. This practice allowed for a basic and somewhat bare bones ship to be customized.

You might think a bare bones ship would have nothing to trade. That would be far from the real story. The Navy went to great pains to see that their ships were well supplied, particularly with food. Don and his mates, under LT. Krauchunas would typically put aboard and store a quarter ton of bread, 300 or more dozen eggs, 30 gallons of milk, 100 pounds of butter, 50 pounds of raisins, 150 pounds of tomatoes, 75 pounds of melons, and 200 pounds of bacon. They also loaded many cases of Life Saers and Spearmint gum. Furthermore, they loaded one of the most valuable of trading items, cigarettes. A typical load would be in the neighborhood of 5 cases each of Lucky Strikes, Camels and Chesterfields and 3 cases of chesterfields. This amounted to 180,000 smokes for a crew of 329 men.

Encouraged by cigarette manufacturers, the military made sure that soldiers and sailor were well supplied. To begin with, most men smoked to begin with. Pipes and cigarettes would have been considered a necessity by most of the crew. But beyond that it was known that smoking climbed nerves and suppressed appetite both seen a positive outcomes particularly in combat zones. In the Navy smoking was limited to specific locations on shipboard and further, limited to situation. On deck smoking after dark was prohibited, smoking while working was also forbidden. This led to the idea that being allowed to smoke was a treat, which in a way it was. The idea that it was a special thing was beneficial in a cramped, stressful and very hard life that. It became something to look forward to in a situation that offered little outright pleasure. If some boys didn’t smoke when they joined the Navy they likely took it up before long.

Chapter Four

The small size of the Spence and all other destroyers and destroyer escorts served to foster a certain informality in naval custom. When planning for the Spence, the bureau of personnel or BuPers, allowed just about 11 square feet per man or roughly three feet by three feet nine inches in which to sleep, store uniforms and personal items.  In peacetime this allowed minimal but ample room for the crew but in wartime the complement went from roughly 226 men to 329 which strained accommodations to the limit….

To Be Continued Next Friday September 24th.

* The photograph of the four destroyers was taken at the Portsmouth Naval Yard, Newport News, Virginia on the actual day Donald Pohlemus reported aboard, May 23rd 1943. Dept of Defense Photo




Home with his family, after a long six day week at Douglas, Don was sitting around with his dad Dean. Flopped in a chair, Don was lounging in the way only teenage boys do, draped all over the big Morris chair, half listening to the big Philco radio in the corner. Just another .Sunday afternoon. Nothing much else to do, they had just finished reading the Sunday LA Times. A nationwide welders strike was slated for Monday, San Quentin prison was being accused of being a hotbed of red plots. Members of the state assembly were protesting the parole of three former Seamen’s Union of the Pacific organizers who had been imprisoned for communist activities, stating that, “These Commie thugs are a danger to the citizens of California and ought to be kept in prison instead of going free.” The Russian Army was desperately trying to stop the German armies advance just outside Moscow, feeding untrained conscripts into the meat grinder that was the eastern front. The new Russian ambassador, Maxim Litvinov, just arrived in San Francisco vowed that the Soviet Union was unwavering in its struggles against the Axis. In Washington the State Department had just announced the takeover of all Finnish Merchant ships docked in American harbors. Taken into protective custody, the crews will be interned while negotiations with the Finnish government are underway. The headline at the top of the page; “Roosevelt Sends Note to Mikado, final peace move seen, Chief Executive Believed to Have Expressed Dissatisfaction with Japan’s Premiers Reply to Protest Against Continental Aggression.” On the same page a statement from the Japanese press, detailing Japan’s dissatisfaction with Roosevelt’s insincerity in pursuing the peace process and stating that “All of East Asia will arm in case of American Aggression.” Japan’s Ambassador to the United States, Kichisaburo Nomura was, that Sunday morning on his way to the White House to deliver a note to the President replying to Roosevelt’s demand for a non-aggression pact in China and southeast Asia. He would be too late.

In Anaheim, Don’s mother Christine was in the kitchen preparing Sunday supper. The radio was tuned to the Mutual Radio Network. Everyone in the house was listening to “One Man’s Family,” the longest-running uninterrupted serial in American radio history. It told the story of the Barbour family of San Francisco and its 15 minute radio show came on every day. On this day,  the  announcer had declared, “One Man’s Family, brought to you by Fleischmann’s Yeast,” and “dedicated to the mothers and fathers of the younger generation and their bewildering offspring,” The father, Henry doles out wise advice, Fanny plays the supportive and submissive wife, and the children do their best to make their parents proud.

Suddenly, there was a crackle of static and then a scratchy voice coming from the radio cabinets speaker,

We interrupt this Mutual Radio broadcast for the following important announcement. One, two, three, four test, test. Hello, Hello, NBC. Hello, NBC. This is KGU radio in Honolulu, Hawaii. I am speaking from the roof of the Advertiser Publishing Company building. We have witnessed this morning a distant view of a brief full battle of Pearl Harbor and a severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes, undoubtedly Japanese. The city of Honolulu has also been attacked, and considerable damage done. This battle has been going on for nearly three hours. One of the bombs dropped within 50 feet of KGU tower. It is no joke. It is a real war.The public of Honolulu has been advised to keep in their homes and await results from the Army and Navy. There has been fierce fighting going on in the air and on the sea. The heavy shooting seems to be — one, two, three, four. Just a moment. We’ll interrupt here. We cannot estimate yet how much damage has been done, but it has been a very severe attack. And the Navy and Army appear now to have the air and the sea under control.”

And just like that, in that instant life for the Polhemus family and all Americans changed forever.


For citizens at war, particularly those kept at home by rationing and blackouts and the impossibility of travel, radio became a window on events, sometimes as they transpired. They war was to come into the Pohlemus home on a daily basis. Edward R Murrow had broadcast from London live. From atop various rooftops he described the nightly german bombing of London, opening with “This is London calling” and closeing with”Good night and good luck,” a phrase used by the citizens of London, never knowing if they would live to see each other again. The family was fully involved. Donald’s older sister was married to a naval officer who was to serve in the Pacific and Korea. His brother Dean, left the bank of America to enlist in the navy. As a graduate of Fullerton JC and later, the University of Southern California he enlisted in officer training in early November 1941. Their father Dean Sr missed WWI but we have a certificate he received for giving fifty cents to the “Remember the Maine” fund while at Orange County Schools in 1898. His father served with the 23rd New Jersey Regiment of Volunteers during the Civil War. Like many Americans they were fully invested in defending their country.

In the lead up to WWII not everyone in the country was in favor of supporting the allies in Europe. The America First Committee (AFC), which was founded in 1940, opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II, and was harshly critical of the Roosevelt administration, which it accused of pressing the U.S. toward war. At its peak, it had 800,000 members across the country, included socialists, conservatives, and some of the most prominent Americans. There were leaders from some of the nations most prominent families, finance, banking and Industrial leaders including Newspaper publishers. There was future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribunes, owned by “Colonel” Robert M McCormick a leading conservative and WWI veteran who hated the president. Also counted among its ranks were prominent anti-Semites of the day including Henry Ford and Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay.” Charles Lindbergh, a leading American firster gave a speech in September 1941 in which he expressed sympathy for the persecution Jews faced in Germany, but suggested Jews were advocating the U.S. to enter a war that was not in the national interest. “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.” 

Three months after Lindbergh’s speech, on December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting the U.S. to enter World War II. Three days later, the AFC disbanded. When war started, the War Department rejected Lindbergh’s offer to serve. He spent the war as a civilian contractor testing airplanes.

Henry Fords German and Vichy French plants continued under company control until August 1942, eight months after the US entered the war. Germany continued to build Ford trucks and cars throughout the war. After surrender, Ford Motor Company sued for damages to its properties in Germany and France. The court awarded them only 1.1 million dollars, noting the hypocritical stance taken by Ford in asking for compensation for damage to facilities bombed by Ford built bombers producing Ford trucks for the Nazi’s.

In April 1942 Don left work at Douglas and went down to the Naval Recruiting station in Long Beach. After talking to his brother  and brother in law he had decided to jump the gun while he still had the chance and enlist. The draft would give him little or no choice where he would end up, Army or Marines likely. He had been a good student and that would perhaps give him an opportunity to attend an advanced school after boot camp. Both his family members were Naval officers in the supply corps and perhaps with a little good advice thats where he ended up. The Navy in 1942 was still gearing up for total war and having two officers in the family certainly didn’t hurt his chances to stay out of the engine room or deck force.

Seaman Recruit John Donald Polhemus, Service Number, 563 03 59, United States Naval Reserve, reported to the induction center downtown Los Angeles and was bussed to the brand new Naval Training Center, San Diego, then as now, Boot Camp. Leave taking would have been typical for families sending children off to war. His father Dean, Stoic and proud, his mother Christine waving, holding back tears as she sends her baby off, Don looking forward perhaps with some apprehension but also with a great deal of excitement. This was to be the great adventure of his life.

The term “Boot” first appeared during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Leggings were worn at the time by all military specialties including the Marines and the Navy. Sailors’ leggings were known as boots and that term was transferred to recruits. Military style Leggings are designed to give extra ankle support and help protect the legs below the knees from sharp objects. They also keep sand, dirt, and mud out of shoes. They were worn by infantry troops in both WW1 and WW2. Perhaps the Navy continued to wear them as they do help support the calves and ankles which helps those who march constantly as Boots do.

The poor recruit is literally overwhelmed by the demands made upon him in the first days of camp. He is pounded with the demands that he must learn in drill, military dress and particularly in the Navy; nomenclature. The ceiling is now the “Overhead”, walls are “Bulkheads,” doors, both in bulkheads or decks are “Hatches” and fastened not by knobs but “Dogs.” Floors are Decks and to make it even more confusing, supports in the overhead are called “Floors.” The bathroom is the “Head” so named from the days when ordinary sailors simply hung their fannies over the bows of a sailing man-o-war to do their business. The front is the bow, the back, the stern, left is Port and right is Starboard. The Kitchen is the “Galley,” food is “Chow,” a Chief is your direct superior and officers are next to God.

The first few days are a whirlwind of furious activity and then; waiting. Waiting in line for uniforms, for chow, or just waiting for no apparent reason. Batteries of aptitude tests are taken. Spatial awareness, mathematics, reading comprehension and physical fitness. There are hours waiting in line for physical examinations. Poking, prodding and looking in places your mother wouldn’t consider. Told to follow the blue line on the deck or the green one, perhaps the yellow one, always carrying your personnel file. Stick out your tongue and say Ahh, read the bottom line on the chart, bend over, grab your ankles and cough. No need to be indignant, you’re all in the same boat. If you don’t like it, well, you sure as hell can’t go home. It’s the first lesson in endurance.

Shots, shots and more shots. The corpsmen almost certainly recruited from death row in some God awful prison. Expressionless, they jab and poke the left arm then the right their assistants reloading syringes at a furious pace. The big guy ahead of you in line takes one look at the needle and promptly faints only to be dragged aside, his file stuffed down his pants and left to recover on his own. The line keeps moving. When a recruit company finishes the line they immediately go to PT and begin waving their arms in jumping jacks, relieves the pain, so says the Chief.

To the recruit it is incomprehensible but the Navy has its ways. Classes are held in seamanship, navigation, and ship handling. Essentials of the UCMJ, Uniform Code Military Justice are studied in which Boots learn about their duties and rights. There are few of the latter. The Captain of a Ship is next to God in authority. Military history is learned, the idea is to make the sailor proud of his service. Admiral Farragut, Admiral Porter, John Paul Jones, Admiral Dewey at Manila Bay, Old Ironsides, and the fate of the Arizona. Every little bit slowly forges pride in service and overall loyalty to those with whom you serve.

With roughly 60 other boys Don’s company worked its way through training. For the most part, was the first exposure to kids from different parts of the country. There were unreconstructed rebels from the deep south, sons of lobstermen from Maine, oil workers from Oklahoma and Texas, cowboys from Montana, some were college boys, some were barely literate. Learning about your buddies was one of the most important things you had to learn. You compared girlfriends or lied if you didn’t have one. You spoke about your jobs and families. You had to share and understand each others languages. The flat nasal drawl of a Maine man, the slow measured drawl of that boy from Alabama, the staccato machine gun delivery of Brooklyn boys and the soft patois of the sons of Mississippi. French Acadians who ended every sentence with a question. Don would have had to learn about “Cooters,” what “Pop” was and the difference between cocks and pussies. See, they mean different things in different parts of the country and woe betide the boy who didn’t quickly learn the difference.

Service on a ship requires two very important things, cleanliness and neatness. A recruit has to learn both. Each article of uniform has a very precise way of being folded and stored. Socks are rolled and each pair fits in a particular place and oriented with the elastic to Starboard, your right. Each article is inspected daily through boot camp, until the entire company can perform the exercise correctly. Shaving, showers, brushed teeth and doing your own laundry were real surprises to many. You had to learn to wake shipmate for watches. You didn’t shake or push a sleeping man, you might get punched. No, you learned to gently hold his nose shut until he woke. Quiet and humane, for you at least. Most homes had no showers in 1942. For some families, bathing was a once a week affair. There were always those who refused to cooperate in the communal ablutions. A quiet word from the Chief to the company recruit leaders would lead to GI showers. Dragged into the showers and held down, the offending recruit would be scrubbed raw with scrub brushes and hard Navy soap until he got the message. Few resisted. The primary lessons of boot camp were not jargon or how to wear a uniform but how to act as a unit and take pride in it.

After graduating boot camp in San Diego, Don was ordered to the storekeeper school training facility.  This where he would have learned Naval procedures for operating procurement and disbursement. He learned typing, filing and all the type of paperwork required to provision a ship at sea. It has been said the Navy doesn’t float on water but on paper. After eight weeks and completion of his advanced trading course he received orders to join the crew of a destroyer stationed on the East Coast.   He was given two weeks at his home in Anaheim. After leave he was to meet the ship in Newport News Virginia.

With two family members already in the service  his mother in particular must have been torn between anxiety and pride. Very little good news was coming over the radio. Newspapers knew little about what was happening in the fleet. With her two boys and son in law gone, Christine must have worried herself sick. Three men of the family serving in the Pacific war would have been almost unbearable to think about when the Los Angeles Times published serious war news. Names of ships were almost always classified as were locations of battles, the news sometimes coming long after actions had been completed. The news she did get, left too much to the imagination. The long lists of the dead and missing published each day must have been agonizing to read. It wasn’t just family but friends and neighbors too. Nearly every family in the country was involved in some way in the fighting. When she hung the three blue stars in her front window, her neighbors must have sensed the Polhemus pride in their boys. To Christine they were a constant reminder of what she had at stake.

Swabs on liberty


Exhausted from the 120 hour ride in old passenger cars just taken out of the boneyards of railroad storage, so crowded that soldiers and sailors had to sit on the floors, or sit together in threes and fours on old seats made for two. They stood in shifts or tried to get some shut eye by crawling under the seats and stretching out on the floor. The aisles were stacked with seabags and gear was stuffed in every nook and cranny. For Naval recruits straight out of Boot Camp, it must have seemed crowded beyond belief. They were about to find out to their sorrow that their discomfort was just beginning. The going was slow. Military trains were often sidelined because war materials took priority over troops. Brief whistle stops gave the boys an opportunity to get off, stretch their legs and maybe get a quick bite to eat from the Red Cross stations set up along the way, flirt with the girls if they had time, but it was a long hard trip even for young men in the physical prime of their lives….




NAQT is the designated Naval signal flag hoist for the USS Spence, Destroyer DD-512.

USS_Spence_(DD-512)_in_San_Francisco _Bay,_California_(USA),_on_9_October_1944_

Department of Defense Photo. Leaving San Francisco October 9, 1944

November,  Alpha,   Quebec,   Tango

naqt spence

“Any man, when asked what he did to make his life worthwhile, can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, “I served in the United States Navy.”

 Captain, Patrol Torpedo Boat-109, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, addressing the graduating class of the US Naval Academy, August 1st, 1961


Today is Memorial day in the United States. It is a federal holiday dedicated to honoring and mourning the military personnel who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. The history of Memorial Day in the United States is complex. The practiceof decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. In April 1865, following the assasination of President Abraham Lincoln, commemorations were widespread. The more than 600,000 soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. On May 5, 1868, General John Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide; he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans.  With his proclamation, Logan adopted the Memorial Day practice that had begun in the Southern states three years earlier. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. In a sense the north appropriated a southern holiday and made it national.

That’s the history of the holiday. This is what it really means. Someone’s life was taken in a battle, a family was devastated. A young man or woman, in the literal flower of their youth was plucked and now is but a memory.  Many euphemisms are used to somehow help the people left behind deal with that terrible loss. “He gave his life,” and “He died a hero,” or; “He was taken from us.” Pleasing things to say but hardly a description of the act of taking that life.

Each of those who are gone has a story. Most we will never really know. Apocryphal story’s passed from generation to generation must suffice. Few events are witnessed by anyone but the participants. Occasionally a person floats to the surface of consciousness and we know. Here is one.

Cousin Donald Polhemus was born in 1922 in Anaheim, Orange county California. His father and mother lived there all their lives and for many years in a little house on Placentia St. was their home. Donald grew up there in the days when Anaheim was just a rural farming community. In the 20’s and 30’s orange groves spread across the Santa Ana river valley and, with a population of just ten thousand, must have been a nearly ideal place to grow up. His father only attended the eighth grade, which was fairly normal for a man born in 1890. When a boy was 13 or 14 he was old enough to work and that he did. His mother kept house and raised a family of two boys, Donald and Henry and a girl, Martha.

Don attended Anaheim Union High school and graduated with the class of 1941. An impending war made it a risky time to be a healthy young man of 18. The handsome, serious boy in the center of the photo below had much to look forward to. With a war likely coming, the promise of adventure would have certainly been on his mind. Seventeen year olds are long on imagination and short on experience. 

anaheim union hs class 1940

Don Polhemus, center, 2nd row. He is flanked by girls, which always a good thing when you are a young man. Like high school kids in all ages they are happy, looking forward to life after school. This is, after all their senior year and they will graduate in June 1941.

The girl to Don’s left is Delfina Pinedo. Her parents were from Morelos, Zacatecas, Mexico and had come to the United States through Arizona to Anaheim in 1919. Her native language was Spanish and along with her brother, sister and parents she worked picking oranges. She would be the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She would live to be 94.

The boy in front of Donald is Clayton Schultz. He is wearing his letterman’ s sweater which has two stripes indicating two years as a basketball player and a star indicating he was captain of his team. He was a Bee basketball and football player. Bee varsity sports were for boys to small for the “Real” varsity team. When he was drafted in 1942, he was working as a tool and die maker at Douglas Aircraft. He may have worked with Don, who also worked at Douglas. Clay did what many young men did then, he considered the odds and promptly joined the Army Air Corps where he was a aircraft mechanic in the 8th Air Force.

The girl on Don’s left is Elizabeth “Betty” Potvin and as you can see by the expression on here face must have been an outgoing and extroverted young woman. We can see that in the fact that she was in many HS clubs, particularly the Drama Club. She is the girl in the photo below. She had the lead in the Junior play “Anybody’s Game”

betty potvin

One of the striking things about the class of 1941 is the number of clubs they had. Some might be considered odd by todays school administrators but were pretty common in the forties. There was a stamp club. My father in law who graduated from Santa Monica HS in 1950 was in the stamp club and left a large collection of stamps. They had a radio club for short wave and Ham radio enthusiasts. Radio being the only way to listen to communications before television and by the 1940’s there was an entire generation of boys and girls who could build and operate home radios. Witness the radios which transmitted from German prison camps during the war. Made of random scraps found around the Stalags they kept POWs in touch with the outside world and provided information for Allied intelligence operators back in Britain.

There were the Girls Athletic Associations, though the girls didn’t participate in anything close to the level they do today. They were restricted to intramural sports only. Girls also had the Domecon Club whose purpose was to prepare them for the joys of domestic life. Another club which has gone by the wayside. There was a Mozart Club, Honor Society, Toastmasters and the first Newman Club in a Southern California High School whose purpose was to foster the Social, intellectual, and spiritual interests of Catholic youth. Speakers that year were Judge White of the Los Angeles Justice Court who lectured on character building, Dr Kersten of Anaheim who spoke on foreign relations and Santa Ana Sheriff Elliot who gave a very impressive talk on Juvenile Delinquency. If there was any problem white JD’s in Anaheim, Hirohito and Hitler would soon take care of that.

There was no problem in finding a job in the summer and fall of 1940 for Don or any other young man who wanted work. The draft, enacted September 16, of that year, was the first peacetime conscription act in United States history. This Selective Service Act required that men who had reached their 21st birthday but had not yet reached their 36th birthday, register with their local draft boards. The country was very divided about the war in Europe and large numbers of citizens were adamantly against any US intervention in the war raging in Europe. Just a month before Don and his classmates graduated, the German army invaded Belgium and France in the first week of May. The French and Belgians were overrun in just 56 days, the British army retreated from Dunkerque, France in an evacuation by the Royal Navy and a citizen flotilla of small craft. The War Office made the decision to evacuate British forces on 25 May, just 15 days after the German invasion has started.

In those nine days from 27 May to 4 June, 338,226 men escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels, of which 243 were sunk during the operation. It is now characterized as the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” but was, in fact a catastrophe of the first order. People in America had been glued to their radios for weeks and for Don and the about to be graduates of high schools and colleges the message must have been very clear.

At 18, all those boys in Anaheim High School knew that by 21 they would all have to register and become subject to conscription. What to do? That was the question asked by young men in every US conflict in which the draft was ever enacted. Go to college, get a job or just wait. For Don, college was likely not an option with the war coming. Although from a working class family, his older brother was studying at USC and was in the Naval ROTC and would be an officer if war came, but with the future so unsettled, work was really the only answer for the time being.  Factories were rapidly tooling up in case of war and jobs were readily available. Don went to work at Douglas Aircraft’s new factory in Long Beach. Just 13 miles from his home, it was an easy hop each morning getting there via the Red Cars. Lunch pail in hand, Douglas ID pinned to his cap, he joined tens of thousands of men and women from all over Los Angeles county building planes. Douglas Aircraft had constructed, in the summer of 1940, an 11-building facility encompassing about 1.42 million square feet of windowless covered work space for the wartime production of military aircraft. from bombers to cargo planes. Initially the plant stepped up production of the famous transport plane the DC-3, but soon added the B-17 flying Fortress to the line  At its peak, Douglas’s wartime employment was 160,000 workers. Don was one.


Home with his family, Don was sitting around with his dad Henry, his brother, mother, the family listening to the radio on Sunday afternoon. His mother Christine was in the kitchen preparing Sunday supper. The show? “One Man’s Family,” the longest-running uninterrupted serial in American radio history. It told the story of the Barbour family of San Francisco and its 15 minute radio show came on every day. On this day,  the  announcer had declared, “One Man’s Family, brought to you by Fleischmann’s Yeast,” and “dedicated to the mothers and fathers of the younger generation and their bewildering offspring,” The father, Henry doles out wise advice, Fanny plays the supportive and submissive wife, and the children do their best to make their parents proud.

…To be continued next Friday September 11