Future Unknown

Somewhere in the South Atlantic (Winter, 1942):

Aboard ship, especially when on watch, a sailor had lots of time to think. And so in the engine room of the USS Redwood as it cruised from island to island tending the nets that protected harbors from Nazi U-boats, Joe thought.

“If I survive this war,” he asked himself, “what am I going to do?” He knew he didn’t want to stay in the Navy. Once he completed his six-year tour, he wanted out!

He had been promoted to Second Class shortly after his quick thinking had saved the ship’s gyrocompass in the midst of a power outage. Now the engineering officer wanted to send him to school for further training. But school, Joe knew, would put him in line for another promotion. First Class. And with three years more to go in his hitch, the next step would be Chief. At that point, it would be difficult to leave the Navy. He’d be giving up too much.  He knew he didn’t want to make the Navy a career. It just wasn’t his kind of life. So he turned down the opportunity of further training. It was a decision he never regretted.

After he got through pondering what he didn’t want, Joe would daydream about what he did want for his future. He thought back to New York—all those months he was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard waiting for this ship to be built. May. June. July. August. September. October.

Those months had given Joe lots of time to get to know Rosemary. Rosemary was without a doubt the most terrific girl he had ever known. They ended up spending all their free time together. He got to meet her friends—Kay and Anna Mae. The three had attended high school together, and afterwards all three joined the audit department of Best & Company on Fifth Avenue. Joe had even met their supervisor a few times when he picked Rosemary up  for a date after work. He knew what Rosemary’s life was like. She took care of her father; she took care of the house. That was a lot of responsibility. It must have been a difficult and lonely thing for a girl to lose her mother when she was only thirteen. Yet she managed so well. She was pretty, smart, capable and kind. A truly good person. And full of fun.

In these weeks after Pearl Harbor, with the Redwood patrolling the South Atlantic, Joe and Rosemary were corresponding.*

And with each letter he received, Joe couldn’t help thinking about the future. He was realistic. He had seen what the German U-boats had done. He knew there was always the possibility that he would not have a future. But maybe, just maybe, he would. And if he did, he knew what he wanted that future to be.

“I can’t let this girl get away,” he told himself. “I can’t let some other guy come along and steal her away from me.” And so he wrote the letter that would ensure that Rosemary Bartels would be sharing that future with him: “If and when I ever get back,” he wrote, “let’s get married.”

It took a few weeks for Joe’s letter to reach Rosemary, and for him to receive her reply. Finally, when they pulled into port and mailbags were brought onboard there, in her graceful script, was the answer he had been waiting for, “That’s a good idea!”


*Years later Rosemary would accuse Joe of giving out her love letters to his buddies.

“No, I didn’t give them out,” Joe asserted.  “They were looking for them, but they didn’t get them.”

Joe went on to explain: “After a  few weeks out at sea, the ship runs of toilet paper. So of course, any kind of paper is fair game. But I told the guys, ‘Go get yourself your own girlfriend. Get your own paper!’”

Joe would never sacrifice Rosemary’s letters to such an undignified fate. Resourceful as always, he looked for an opportunity to scout for supplies in the most likely places. One day when an errand took him within striking distance of the officers’ quarters, he managed to swipe a roll of toilet paper, which he quickly hid away for his own use.