Voices from the Pacific War Voices from the Pacific War

Oral Histories

Norman Stanton: "I hated the war and the navy"

Joe (Lt.)             Norman (Rt.)

Mr. Norman Stanton was born in 1924, in Oakland, California. He was one of six children, four of whom were boys. His two older brothers, Joe and Walt, went into the Navy before Pearl Harbor. His forth brother had a medical deferment, and Mr. Stanton enlisted in the Navy on 7 December 1942. Mr. Stanton’s oldest brother, Joe, was declared missing in action after his ship, USS Asheville, PG-21, was sunk by Japanese forces in the Java Sea on 3 March 1942, with the loss of all hands except for one seaman who later died in a Japanese POW camp. Mr. Stanton’s other brother, Walt, served aboard the tanker, USS Kanawha, AO-1 and two destroyers during World War II, Kendrick and O’Brian, and survived the war.
During World War II, Mr. Stanton served on the tanker, USS Rapidan, AO-18, and a fleet tugboat, ATR-61. He is a retired schoolteacher and lives in Vacaville, California.

My oldest brother, Joe, was an intellectual. When he was a kid he would play with toys like other kids, but he also read books. Joe didn’t go to college because he couldn’t afford to, so he went into the navy in 1939. When he took the test to get into the navy he got one of the highest scores on the West Coast. The navy promised him that if he went overseas he would get two years ashore after that. Besides, he was interested in the world and wanted to see some of it. After boot camp he was assigned to USS Asheville, which was a gunboat operating up and down the Yangtze River in China. He was especially interested in China and the people and his letters home reflected that. He talked in one of his letters about how some of the guys on his ship had bought girls for as little as five dollars. He also talked about the bad feelings that the Chinese had for the Americans because they were seen as usurpers. He said they also had problems with the Japanese in China. They would push Americans off the sidewalk and there were fistfights between American sailors and Japanese sailors they met while in port. And of course the Japanese were at war with China at that time. Joe was a gunner’s mate third class, which is kind of funny because on Asheville I don’t think they had anything but .50-caliber machine guns.
Joe had a girl friend in high school, a Portugese girl by the name of Lillian, and she is still around. She is a very nice girl and still lives in Oakland. Joe and Lillian had decided that Joe would get all of the traveling out of his system, and when he got back they would get married. At least that is the way I understood it. But in March 1942, we received a telegram that Asheville had been sunk near Java and that Joe was listed as missing in action. My father went to pieces, and my mother went into the house and cried for days. But she never gave up hope; she would never admit that Joe was dead and she didn’t die until 1986.

Back when Joe first got out of boot camp he came home on leave and he brought a couple of friends with him. Both of these guys were supposed to go with Joe out of San Francisco for duty in the Pacific. One of these guys was a skinny little redhead kid from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The other kid was from Texas, and he was taller than Joe and the other guy. He was a dark-haired kid--a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. All of them were, because they were about to face the great adventure of their lives, and they were all anxious to get started. I can remember my father standing on the front porch of our house with Joe and his three friends. My father didn’t want Joe to enlist in the navy and he said to Joe, “Okay then, if that’s they way you feel I hope to Christ I never see you again!” And he never did. I have often wondered how many other parents have erupted like that with the same consequences.
The skinny red-haired kid from Pittsburgh went to a destroyer. In maybe April, May, or June 1942, he was back in the States and came to the house and rang the doorbell. I was in the living room and didn’t hear everything, but my mother told me what happened afterwards. My mother said she answered the door and invited him in, but he wouldn’t come in. He was a mess; he was shaking all over. He had come back to tell my mother about Joe and what happened in the Java Sea. She said he was mumbling and crying, and he wouldn’t come into the house, so she took him for a ride in the car and they were gone a couple of hours. According to my mother, this friend of Joe’s was on a destroyer in the same group of ships as Asheville when the Japanese attacked it in March. He told her the Japanese were shooting at all of these ships like they were ducks in water. He said he saw one Japanese ship throw nets over the side to rescue men in the water, but when they climbed aboard the Japs either shot them or hit them over the head with dog wrenches, and they were laughing while they were doing it. He was close enough to see it.

When my other brother, Walt, went into the navy in 1940, I was the oldest still at home. My parents divorced in 1940, and my mother had gone to work in the shipyard in Richmond, so she was gone most of the day. That left me with all of the responsibilities of making breakfast and getting the younger kids off to school. Then the war started and we were thrust into it. There was no escape, and it was a very traumatic time.
Walt was handsome--the tallest of all of us kids. He had blond hair, dark eyes, and lots of girlfriends. He was a relaxed kind of a guy and everybody liked him, and he went out of his way to make sure that you understood that he liked you too. He was that kind of a guy. Walt’s first ship out of boot camp was a tanker, USS Kanawha, AO-1, and he eventually worked his way up to second class boatswain’s mate. All tankers are named after rivers with American Indian names.
Both of my older brothers spent time in Hawaii before the war started and we had an aunt and uncle who had lived there since 1920, right after World War I. My uncle was the city engineer for Honolulu, and they lived on the other side of Pali, near Kaneohe. They had ten acres and two houses. They were class-conscious back then, too. My aunt once told me that until World War II started they didn’t have a week-end when they didn’t have a party to go to. They had over twenty years of partying. Sometimes, those parties would start on Friday evening and last all weekend. On those ten acres, my aunt and uncle owned they had a rifle range, an archery range, and orchards full of tropical fruits. One family had a nine-hole golf course on their property. When Walt was there he said the bedrooms were always full of guests.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Walt requested transfer to a fighting ship and was assigned to USS Kendrick, DD-612. He stayed on that until 1944, when he was transferred to a new destroyer, USS O’Brian, DD-725.

On 7 December 1942, I volunteered for the navy. I went to boot camp in Idaho, then gunnery school in New Port, Rhode Island. After gunnery school and seven days leave I was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, where my ship was. When I got down there I saw a tanker in the harbor with its top blown off, and it was all black. It was a merchant marine tanker that had gotten in the way of an ammunition barge, and only two guys survived off that ship. On a tanker, it doesn’t matter if you are carrying fuel or not, because even without fuel on board there are still fumes. When I saw that tanker my heart fell, because I was supposed to be going aboard a U.S. Navy tanker, Rapidan. I was so scared, and I was seasick for the first three days I was aboard her.
While I was on Rapidan, I made one run across the North Atlantic to Murmansk and the German subs were knocking off our ships on a regular basis. One night, we saw a ship get hit ahead of us. We could see the flames reflecting off the clouds and it brought to mind that shell of a tanker I saw sitting in the harbor at Norfolk. And I saw another tanker get hit when we were in the Carribean. I spent almost four years in the Navy and it was four years of absolute fear. It wasn’t just submarines; we had some really bad weather in the Atlantic, and we had bad weather in the Aleutians. I had the watch in one of the gun tubs on Rapidan one day in the North Atlantic and when I threw a cup of hot coffee overboard the wind blew it back frozen.
One time we got into some terrible weather--forty foot waves that would lift Rapidan up, then drop it down. You know, those ships were designed to bend, but one time we were in a storm out in the Pacific where the ship went up on a wave and the bow bent down out of sight. It scared the hell out of me. The blood drained out of my head and I thought he ship was going to break in half.

I spent almost two years on the East Coast while on Rapidan before we passed through the Panama Canal to the Pacific. That had to be in 1944. We pulled into San Pedro, and I was the only one from California on board the ship. I had relatives in the area and told the captain, so he let me go ashore. My cousin got me a date with a girl he knew. We went out and got a bite to eat, then went to a movie, or something like that. I forgot what the hell we did. I later found out from my cousin that that was the last date that girl had. The very next day she went into a convent.
We went up to Oregon after that because some work needed to be done on the ship. I was given leave and went home to Oakland to see my mother. I’ll tell you what it was like in my house during the war. My mother went overboard to help servicemen. A day didn’t go by when there wasn’t somebody sleeping at her house. By the end of the war four-hundred-fifty servicemen had signed her guest book. When I got home I couldn’t find a place to sit. I had to sit on the floor with my back against the wall. I didn’t tell my mother I was home, and in the morning she got up and made breakfast for everybody in the house. It must have been a weekend, because she couldn’t have done that during the week. I got in line with everybody else for breakfast. I had a little bit of the devil in me, and when she asked me what I would like for breakfast she looked up and dropped everything. I thought she was going to have a heart attack.
After my leave was over we went to the North Pacific. Boy, was that cold up there. We had a boy from Omaha, Nebraska. Norman Nix was his name--strange kid. I never saw him smile the whole time I knew him. He was satisfied to stay by himself. He was a nervous wreck. He smoked all the time. He smoked while he was taking a shower. Every time I saw him he was smoking a cigarette. I was nervous too--scared all the time, but not like him.

Finally, Norman decided that he had had enough. He was going home. He had heard about some black army guys who had stolen a LCT (landing craft tank), barrels of fuel, lots of food, and set out from one of the islands in the Aleutians. I guess they figured they could sail from island to island until they got home, not realizing how terrible the weather was. They didn’t make it. They only got so far before the LCI turned over and they all died and the fish got them. However, before we found out the black guys didn’t make it, Norman decided he was going to take off like they did. When we took muster one morning, Norman was missing and we found a line hanging off the back of the ship. Nobody saw him leave, or how but his body was found about a week later.
We had another kid from Old Orchard, Maine. His name was Robert Janelle. This kid--he could get up in the morning and just look funny. Its not that he had a sense of humor; he was just funny. For instance, he was about the laziest guy I ever met. If it was time for him to go on liberty and he didn’t have anything clean to wear he would walk around the ship in his shorts looking for something to put on. He would go through the dirty laundry and if he found something that looked cleaner than what he had he would put it on.
There was another kid on the ship from East Orange, New Jersey. He was just the opposite of Janelle--very meticulous. I think he even ironed his T-shirts. One day, he had taken a shower and was lying down in his bunk, asleep. Janelle came along and stripped that guy in his sleep. When he woke up all he had was Janelle’s dirty clothes.
Sometimes some of us on the ship would follow Janelle at a distance so he wouldn’t see us. One time we watched him take the shoes off some guy who was asleep. He would look in people’s sea bags, looking for clean clothes. And he never went to Captains Mast for it. He was a likeable guy and I think everybody sensed, “This is the way he is. He’s a funny guy and nobody is going to change him.”

I think we were up in Adak when I broke my ankle, and when the ship pulled into Seattle I had to go to the hospital in Bremerton. The ship wasn’t going to wait for me, so when I got out of the hospital I was transferred to a labor pool, and the next thing I know I am flying to the Philippines and arrived just a few days after the war ended. I landed at Samar Island and I’ll never forget my first meal there. I went into this Quonset hut and sat down. They served homemade bread that smelled delicious. But when I looked at my bread it had all sorts of bugs in it. I pulled the bugs out, and had more bugs than bread. Guys were looking at me and telling me that was high protein. Some guy told me it was a meat sandwich.
All the showers were outside and so were the johns. They had a twelve-holer, and I thought, “What the hell, everybody else does it in the open.” So I went out there to take a crap and a little girl about twelve years old comes buy selling coconut candy and other things to eat. I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t just get up and leave.
I was on Samar only a short while when I was sent to ATR-61 (Auxiliary Tug Rescue). It was 167 feet long and I ran the small boats on ATR-61. We had two boats on board, and one of them was the captain’s gig. The other one was a twenty-seven foot LCVP. I did things like go ashore for mail, materiels, things like that. I also took men ashore on liberty. Our liberties over there were only for six hours at a time, and we had to be back before dark because it was dangerous. We had to worry about Japanese stragglers and Filipino bandits. And not once did I go ashore without seeing a Japanese body floating in the water. I don’t know, maybe they were captured or tried to surrender, but the Americans or Filipinos wouldn’t accept their surrender; and killed them and threw the bodies in the bay. They were all bloated and we picked up two or three a day. We never touched the bodies. We threw grappling hooks on them and dragged them to shore where some Filipinos took them some place and buried them.
One time we saw a hospital ship out in Manila Bay and we went by it and there were these Japanese guys on board and they looked like living skeletons. From what I heard some Filipinos had taken them prisoner, and took them up in the hills and treated them the way the Japanese had treated the Filipinos. They didn’t feed them, didn’t give them any water, and beat them. I guess the Americans rescued them and took them out to the hospital ship.

Manila was almost leveled during the fighting, and there were people living in the debris. If you found a desk you could sleep under it. That was your house. If you had some wood or a piece of metal, that was a roof or a partition. It was that bad for the Filipinos. One guy off our ship bought a girl for a mattress cover. Things like that bothered me.
An ATR doesn’t have very many men. One guy I remember was Treely Yancy. He was the cook and his bunk was right next to mine. He was a real funny guy from Atlanta, Georgia--a black guy. He was the only black guy on the ship and we all got along. When I was a kid in Oakland, there only seven black kids in my entire high school and we never had any problems. The only time I saw any racial problems was when I was back in Norfolk, Virginia.
One time we took some merchant marine officers out to their ship and they invited us on board for something to eat. Steaks, salad--anything we wanted, they had. On board a navy ship you were lucky to get eggs, even powdered eggs. That’s why I hated the navy. That, plus a lot of the senior petty officers were from the old navy, and they could really make life miserable for you.

Once I had enough points to go home I was given the choice of going ashore and waiting for a ship to take me home, which could have taken three months or more, or I could stay on ATR-61, and wait for it to get orders back to the States. And I didn’t want to stay in the Philippines under those conditions, so I decided to stick with the ship and work my way back on it. At the time, I didn’t realize what a job we had ahead of us. There was a civilian dredge with a 100-foot tower on it in Manila Bay that had been on lease to the navy, and we were supposed to tow it back to Hawaii. We weren’t making much headway, and when we finally got to Midway the engines on ATR-61 blew up and we ran out of food. We had to radio for help. A diesel merchant marine tug arrived and pulled both of us, ATR-61 and the dredge, the rest of the way to Hawaii. It took us 105 days to get there from Manila. That’s three months and fifteen days.
When we arrived in Pearl Harbor, I called my aunt and uncle. One of the things I remembered from my two older brothers was the fine times they had at the parties. But that was before the war. I arrived after the war, and it was my first visit to Hawaii and the first time I met my aunt and uncle. There wasn’t a single girl left in Hawaii when I got there. I know, because I looked for them. They had all gotten married or moved to the mainland, and my aunt and uncle weren’t having parties any more. The war wore them out. My aunt and uncle stayed in Hawaii until the1970s, then they sold their property and came back to the mainland--San Rafael. Hawaii wasn’t the same for them any more.

In Hawaii, a bunch of us, including seven us from ATR-61, were put aboard a transport and we sailed it into San Francisco Bay. I hated the war and the navy so much that I have spent the better part of my life trying to forget about both. I put everything I owned that was navy in a sea bag and as we entered San Francisco Bay I threw it over board. I didn’t want anything to do with the navy from there after, and I didn’t keep any souvenirs. I got off the ship within hours and was sent to Camp Parks for discharge, and while I was there I met a guy who had come off O’Brian, my brother’s ship. He told me about what had happened to O’Brian off Okinawa. They had been hit by a kamikaze. This guy I met off my brother’s ship was an ammo handler down in the 40-mm magazine. There was fire everywhere, and this guy was afraid that all of this 40-mm ammo was going to blow up, so he came topside. This guy said to me, “Walt wouldn’t let me come up, but I was so scared that I came up anyway. Walt knocked me down. I got up and started running to the side of the ship, and he grabbed me and knocked me down again. Then he said, “Now, you get back down there and hand the ammunition up to me so we can throw it over the side. And that’s what I did. If your brother hadn’t done that to me that 40-mm ammunition would have blown out the side of the ship and it would have sunk.”
After the war was over and I was awaiting discharge from the navy, I went home to see my mother in Oakland, and I took six buddies from ATR-61 with me, including Treely. When we got off the train near where my mother lived it hit me that I lived in a segregated neighborhood; not just segregated but restricted. Black people weren’t even supposed to walk through there. I was worried that something might happen that would embarrass Treely, and I wasn’t sure how my mother would react to my bringing a black man home. But when I walked in the house she was so happy to see me and meet some of my friends that she smiled and gave everyone of them a hug, including Treely. She made me feel very proud. Later, I took my buddies out to places like 23rd Avenue, where they had a lot of bars back then. We all agreed that if a place wouldn’t serve Treely, then they wouldn’t serve any of us, and we would all get up and go someplace else. So some places wouldn’t serve Treely, and we moved on until we found some place that would.
Walt stayed in the navy for about thirteen years, then got out because his wife was on his case. You know, “Get out and make me some money.” He got out for a while, but couldn’t stand being away from the service, so he went into the marines. They made him the equivalent of a chief petty officer, but he didn’t like the marines and got out after his first enlistment. He died relatively young--sometime in the 1960s. I think he was 43, something like that.

When you jump around as much as I did its hard to keep up with your friends from the war. And even though I hated the war and the navy, there was a bond between me and the men I served with. In 1972, I went to my first USS Rapidan reunion, and in 1980 I hosted one in Reno, and I haven’t been to one since. They’re damn expensive to go to, but I still hear from some of the guys. But now, there aren’t many of us left, and I get the feeling that we are all waiting to see who is going to be the last one.