The Last Chapter: Done! (Well, Drafted at least)

Finally! Chapter 44 of my compilation of Uncle Joe’s Stories just rolled out of my printer. That’s not to say the book is “done.” But it’s starting to be done. And if it never gets published, at least my children and grandchildren will have a big slice of family history (and entertainment) to pass along.

When did I first realize that Uncle Joe’s stories had to be turned into a book? Decades ago. Uncle Joe and Aunt Rosemary were like second parents to me… and my five siblings. They came to our house every Saturday night, were there for birthdays, school plays, and every significant event in our lives. Always, they were with us for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it was sitting at the table after those holiday dinners that Joe would launch into one or more of his stories. His stories always ended with a great punch lines. There were the tales of his growing up years: the day Uncle George got shot, the chickens who all went belly-up in the garage, Grammy’s bookie, the town bootlegger (Four-Finger Toomey). His stories about how he met and married Rosemary: It was meant to be. And his War Stories.

Joe joined the Navy in August of 1940 for a six-year hitch. His War was the Battle of the Atlantic. Prior to Pearl Harbor, he served on USS Wichita, a heavy cruiser that went on to earn thirteen Battle Stars. Being assigned to duty as a Fireman meant his job was to man one of the four giant boilers below decks, mid-ship. This was not the most pleasant place to be when the flarebacks triggered by the firing of the ship’s five-inch guns sent flames out through the shutters on front of the boilers during artillery drills. Thinking ahead to what it would be like in that boiler room during a battle (and everybody knew there would be battles in the not-too-distant future), Joe jumped at the chance to volunteer off the Wichita.

But his next posting, USS Redwood, an Aloe-class net tender, turned out to offer similar concerns to a sailor who was hoping to be one of the lucky ones to make it home in one piece once his six years were up. On the Redwood, Joe was still a snipe (sailor whose work keeps him below deck when on watch). Joe was no longer a Fireman, but an Electrician’s Mate. His job was keeping the ship’s diesel electric engine running smoothly. The danger of this job was obvious to him–and no improvement over his job on the Wichita. By early 1942…just a month or two after Pearl Harbor, “wolfpacks everywhere,” and when a German U-boat took aim, it was always to send a torpedo mid-ship, below deck. For this was the fastest, most efficient way to sink a vessel. And this was the very spot where Joe stood his watch.

Home on leave in March of 1943, Joe donned his uniform and headed over to see what was what on the Naval Air Base that had been built, as Fate would have it, on vast stretch of land (previously, woods and fields) where he had roamed as a boy.

“Your rate can apply for Lighter Than Air training,” a sailor, observing the insignia on Joe’s uniform, told him. Joe wasted no time. And by August of 1943 through the end of the War, he was a land-based sailor—serving as an Airman Electrician’s Mate at the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey, Blimp Hedron Number One.

Joe’s War Stories are not of great battles, but of the experiences, adventures, and (sometimes) shenanigans of a sailor who spent six years doing his small part to contribute to the greatest Victory the World has ever seen.