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Interview with Howard Gilbert [July 11, 2002]

Janet Hammond:

Howard, tell me some things about your childhood; where you grew up, your interests, what your family group was.

Howard Gilbert:

I was, of course, born in Seattle, Washington, and went through public schools; graduated from Queen Anne high school; was in the boy scouts; worked hard as a youngster; carried newspapers, mowed lawns and that sort of thing. Started the university prior to joining the navy.

Janet Hammond:

How much time did you have at the university?

Howard Gilbert:

I just had two -- one and a half quarters.

Janet Hammond:

What were you thinking of majoring in?

Howard Gilbert:

I was taking pre-med at the time.

Janet Hammond:

When you were a child living in Queen Anne, did you spend any time on the ocean?

Howard Gilbert:

Yes, I was always fascinated by the water. When I was about 14, I built a boat and saved my money and bought a used outboard motor. And my parents were good to let me cruise around Puget Sound with this thing. And it was pretty risky -- probably didn't have life jackets or anything else -- but it was fun as a youngster.

Janet Hammond:

You mentioned the jobs you had as a kid, papers and so on. What other kinds of summer employment did you have?

Howard Gilbert:

Summer of 1941, between my junior and senior years in high school, I spent at a fishing resort up in the straits of Juan de Fuca. It was a great job; however, it only paid 30 dollars a month board and room. I learned a lot that summer and did have a chance to fish a couple of times.

Janet Hammond:

When -- where were you when you heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor?

Howard Gilbert:

A couple of us fellows had been skiing up at Mount Rainier, and we were coming home in the evening, and the car did have a radio. And we turned it on about 7:00 in the evening and heard about Pearl Harbor. And none of us, of course, knew where Pearl Harbor was, but we allowed that probably we would be going into some branch of the service.

Janet Hammond:

Now, you were still in high school then? College?

Howard Gilbert:

Still in high school. I was a senior in high school.

Janet Hammond:

So when you entered the military, were you still living at home?

Howard Gilbert:

Yes.

Janet Hammond:

Did you enlist?

Howard Gilbert:

Yes. I enlisted at -- to avoid being taken by the draft. I had hopes of getting into the air force, but that had closed. The enlistments had been closed. And the coast guard was not really an option, so the navy seemed to be the logical place for me to be.

Janet Hammond:

What was your family's feeling about you joining the navy and leaving?

Howard Gilbert:

They felt that was fine. They -- there were no objections.

Janet Hammond:

When you actually did leave, were there any special activities in your leave-taking?

Howard Gilbert:

No, there weren't. In fact, my mother wanted to drive me downtown to get on the train, but I rode the bus instead. And no, there was no fanfare at all.

Janet Hammond:

Where did you go?

Howard Gilbert:

Went to Farragut, Idaho, overnight on the train, and it was the middle of January and very cold in Idaho. I remember we were only issued low-cut shoes, and we'd have to get out in the snow and march and drill, and we were cold most of the time.

Janet Hammond:

How long were you there?

Howard Gilbert:

From January through to about October. The boot camp training was three months, and following that, I joined what they call a ship's company, become more or less permanent at that -- at the navy station. And they put me in a detail of teaching the recruits about knot tying, marlinspike, seamanship and that sort of thing.

Janet Hammond:

The other guys that were in basic when you were in basic, had they gone somewhere else, or were some --

Howard Gilbert:

Yes. The other members of the company had either gone to a service school, for instance, signalman or quartermaster school, or they were shipped out to a receiving center where they would go aboard a ship, probably.

Janet Hammond:

How did it happen that you were kept there to teach this course?

Howard Gilbert:

I don't -- I don't know. Some -- I must have heard about the program while I was there, and it sounded like it would be interesting. So I --

Janet Hammond:

What would you do in a normal day?

Howard Gilbert:

Well, they had a rigging loft {coughs} -- pardon me -- where we would make cargo nets, sew canvas, learn about the various knot-tying. And then after we had some background, then we would spend time each day -- or several days a week -- with a roomful of recruits telling them about knot-tying and various things about a ship.

Janet Hammond:

Idaho seems like a strange place to have a naval training station. Do you know anything about how it --

Howard Gilbert:

It was rumored that Eleanor Roosevelt had picked it. Now, whether that was true or not, we don't know. But it was a strange place because it was on Lake Ponderay, but we spent very little time in the boats. They had just whaleboats for rowing, and that was the only experience a recruit would have on the water.

Janet Hammond:

When you left Idaho, what was your assignment? Where did you go?

Howard Gilbert:

I went to San Diego into gunnery school at the destroyer base. And I don't recall how many weeks that was, but it was pretty intense training. And we would go to firing ranges out on the coast and fire at tow targets and -- with the larger guns, the five-inch guns, and that sort of thing.

Janet Hammond:

The five-inch guns, how far would they shoot?

Howard Gilbert:

Oh, miles. I don't know what the distance would be. I've kind of forgotten. They shot a 54-pound projectile. In the air? I suppose several thouSand feet. And on the surface, a number of miles. You would see one hit the water and ricochet and take off over the horizon. So they had quite a -- quite a distance.

Janet Hammond:

Were you -- when you were there in training, were you already assigned into a group of men? Or did it --

Howard Gilbert:

It was a group of men going through the training at the same time. One of the things we had to do was jump from a diving board that was about 40 feet in the air with a life jacket on, and they did impress upon us to hold the life jacket down so it didn't snap your neck when you -- when you hit the water. And then we did some rowing around the bay in San Diego. And I don't know just what effect that had on us, but other --

Janet Hammond:

Still had no time in a ship at this point?

Howard Gilbert:

No. Near the close of the program, they would -- they put us aboard an old ship that was called the Sacramento. It was a gunboat, I guess. And they had us sleep in our hammocks for the first and only time when I was in the navy. They took us off the coast and cut the power and just drifted all night. And there was a great deal of seasickness. But the ship was prepared for the seasickness because they had these pipes leading through the deck and out through the hull that the sailors would squat around these pipes and be sick together. Those -- real togetherness.

Janet Hammond:

Bonding?

Howard Gilbert:

And the ship's company was funny. If one of the sailors looked like he was going to be sick, they'd say, "Use your hat. Don't get it on the ship." anyway, that was a fitful night sleeping in a hammock. You know, you're right up against the overhead, and it was hot as the dickens, and it's hard to get in and out of those things. They had no spreaders. You know, they close around you when you're sleeping or when you're trying to sleep, so you feel like a -- kind of a banana in a skin.

Janet Hammond:

Were you ever violently seasick?

Howard Gilbert:

Never. Unfortunately. Because at sea, those that didn't get seasick had to watch -- stand several watches. And -- no, it never has bothered me before or since.

Janet Hammond:

When you finished that training, gunnery training, were you then assigned to a ship?

Howard Gilbert:

Then we'd go up to the armed guard center in Treasure Island, at Treasure Island in San Francisco. That was the headquarters for the armed guard pacific. And they had huge barracks. They had a galley called galley k that was at least a square block, and it had entrances all the way around it where lines of sailors would wait to go in to be fed. And they said that -- I think they fed more people in that building than any other place in the country during the war. It was quite an operation.

Janet Hammond:

Did they feed you well?

Howard Gilbert:

It wasn't bad. No complaints. But you would just get out for daily exercises every morning and then line up, and they'd say, "well, you first ten guys will go here, and the next ten there." and you were assigned -- we were assigned our first ship from treasure island. I was probably there several weeks waiting assignment.

Janet Hammond:

What did you do while you were waiting assignment?

Howard Gilbert:

There was very little to do other than your routines in the morning. You'd help clean the barracks out and that kind of thing.

Janet Hammond:

What kind of entertainment did you have when you did get out?

Howard Gilbert:

There was a hostess house, as I recall, and I remember I used to play cribbage over there. And it was -- later, after I got -- became Cox, and then while I would be waiting for a ship, we would be attached to a shore patrol unit in San Francisco and walk the streets at night and try to keep the sailors in line.

Janet Hammond:

Any interesting experiences in that job?

Howard Gilbert:

Well, the interesting thing was that the -- we had the power to close a bar if they were serving alcohol to a minor. They were supposed to check the i.d. when they come in the bar. And therefore, the bar owner or attendant would be very nice to the shore patrol, and they'd kind of wink and give you a motion to go back to the restroom, and back there would be a drink waiting for you on the paper towel rack. So you had to be careful that you didn't imbibe too much.

Janet Hammond:

Now, you've mentioned you were with the naval armed guard. Could you tell me what the naval armed guard mission was?

Howard Gilbert:

The armed guard were the navy gunners aboard merchant ships to protect the merchant ships en route. The theory was our guns were to be used on surface to submarines, for instance; our other guns, for anti-aircraft fire.

Janet Hammond:

If this is the mission, then you have naval personnel serving on a civilian ship. What kinds of special problems arise from that arrangement?

Howard Gilbert:

Sometimes there was a little feeling between the merchant marine and the navy gunners because the merchant marine were being very well paid, and we were getting, what, $54 a month or something like that. There was a little feeling there. But not much. We really, basically, got along quite well.

Janet Hammond:

Do you think there was any laxness to your discipline, say, in the navy as opposed to if you had been on a ship that was strictly navy?

Howard Gilbert:

Oh, yes. We were a dungaree navy, no formalities. Even when I was a bosun mate, I didn't have to use my whistle for various activities. We were well-regimented, but we did have a freedom that you wouldn't have had on a navy ship. I had tried to get out of the armed guard and get onto a destroyer, but I wasn't successful in getting a transfer.

Janet Hammond:

What ship did you first serve on?

Howard Gilbert:

The first ship I was on was called the sea devil. It was built in San Francisco in 1943 as a troop carrier. We picked it up as a brand-new ship in San Francisco; went down the coast to Port Hueneme and picked up army troops, maybe 2500, and then headed into the south pacific.

Janet Hammond:

How many armed guard personnel were on the ship?

Howard Gilbert:

I guess there must have been around 40 of us. We had two commissioned officers, no chiefs. There were a couple of ratings, and the rest were just seamen.

Janet Hammond:

How many guns?

Howard Gilbert:

We had quite a few guns. We had two three-inch 50s forward. Two three-inch 50s aft, a five-inch 51 on the stern, and -- 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 -- at least twelve 20-millimeter anti-aircrafts in gun tugs. And then when we went in for an invasion, the army came aboard once and put fifty .50-caliber machine guns on the railing all the way around. We were kind of an armed raider there for a while. It was semi-reassuring.

Janet Hammond:

If you were manning all of the guns, then were all of the personnel occupied?

Howard Gilbert:

Yes. All of the navy were, and sometimes the merchant would help loading, passing ammunition and that sort of thing.

Janet Hammond:

Did you feel that your training with these guns was adequate?

Howard Gilbert:

Yes. We -- when we would come in between trips, we would go out to the firing range at the ocean, and we would compete with fleet gun crews, and we always came off very well. The armed guard gunners did a very good job.

Janet Hammond:

Go ahead and tell me about the first cruise you were on.

Howard Gilbert:

It was interesting. Going under the golden gate bridge was kind of a mixed emotion; you know, you wonder if you're going to come back under it again later. And after loading the troops, we headed south, and we had Christmas, of course, at sea near the equator. And I remember we had an army band on board, and they played "White Christmas." it seemed very out of place. It was an uneventful trip. It took us a number of days to get down there because, at that time, we had to make a big circle around the -- this was a fairly fast ship -- I think it cruised at about 16 knots -- and I suppose it took us 14, 15 days, something like that, to get to Australia. And we landed at -- I don't want to say Glasco. Gladstone, I think it is. And then went up through the barrier reef, which was very interesting to me. That reef must be, oh, a thouSand miles long. But we liked it because we could smoke on deck at night and have lights on because you're well-protected behind the reef. That trip, we stopped in Townsville, Australia, and were lucky enough to get ashore and look around the town. And they were -- I don't think they were bombed. Darwin was. But they had Sandbags at the entrance to the buildings and the shops and all. And one thing of interest was they had a swimming beach, but they had shark nets across the outside of it because there were so many sharks in that area. In fact, I thought, gee, it would be great if we could catch a shark. So I got a meat hook out of the galley and a piece of wire and some line and put a chunk of beef on it and towed it behind the ship. And at 18 knots, it didn't work. We never did catch a shark. From there, we headed to Milne bay, and we spent 61 days anchored with -- troops went off right away in the first 24 hours, probably, but then we had cargo, ammunition, and all kinds of stores aboard. But there were several ships in there, and we had to wait our turn to be unloaded. The west point, the -- was the America before the war, was a large troop ship. It would come in. they would unload their crew, the sailors, rather -- pardon me. They would unload the army troops, be out of there, go back to San Francisco, get another load and come back while we were still waiting to get out of the harbor. And there was one funny episode, though. The number five hole, we found out, had booze in it, and one night, a DUKW came alongside -- one of those vehicles, you know, that it was both land or water -- and the fellows had mp badges and said they wanted the hard liquor for the officers' club. So they loaded up the DUKW and took off, and they never found the DUKW again. It disappeared. And while they were unloading onto a barge alongside, we found there was beer. So we would -- we climbed down a ladder on the stern and swam over to the barge. And we were under the counter of the ship, so they couldn't see us in the water. And we'd raise our head up and say, "Kick off a case of that beer." and they would. And we'd swim back, and we'd stop on the rudder and get our breath for a minute and then finally take it up the ladder and have a beer.

Janet Hammond:

During those 60 days you were there, did you ever -- were you ever given shore leave?

Howard Gilbert:

I got ashore once was all. I remember going in a -- the Australian women had a -- like the USO thing set up that I could go in and get a cup of tea. Another thing that struck me funny about the -- there were many, many troops there, both Australian and U.S., waiting to go up. And -- for their facilities, they would -- they had a walkway out onto a platform on pilings in the water, and people would line up and do their thing. And -- the bay, of course, was the recipient. The U.S. facilities, they faced seaward, but the Australians faced inward towards the shore. So you'd go along these roads and see all these Aussies lined up doing their thing. It was rather interesting.

Janet Hammond:

During the times that you had no special duty for a day, what did you do to keep from boredom?

Howard Gilbert:

We would chip paint on our gun tugs. We would chip it and wire brush it and then prime it and put on paint. Another week later, we would chip the paint off and prime it and go through the same routine. Clean our guns constantly, take them apart. We did swim. We'd have a fellow up on deck as a lookout because there were these sea snakes. We called them coral snakes. I don't know if that's what they were. But they were a banded snake with yellow and black and white stripes, cross stripes. And there were a few sharks. But the salt water was so saline down there that you could just float for hours. It was so easy to swim. And of course the water was warm. And as you got near shore, you could look down, and the drop-off was just straight down. But you'd see all these colorful coral all the way down, you know, 30, 40 feet down. Those were the good days. And one time, we had the USO come aboard; a couple of gals, john Wayne, seventh fleet band. That was pretty exciting. I remember I was standing gangway watch when Wayne came aboard. And he flicked his cigarette over the side. And I just noticed that we were about the same height. We didn't speak or anything. He may have nodded, I don't know, but anyway, that was exciting, you know, for a kid from Seattle.

Janet Hammond:

What did john Wayne do?

Howard Gilbert:

Oh, they entertained. I guess they were singing and dancing, and I don't recall just what his act was, but . . .

Janet Hammond:

How was your time as a navy man different while you were in at port as opposed to the merchant seamen that were on the ship?

Howard Gilbert:

They kept them busy working. They would be -- of course, when they were unloading, they're handling the cargo, the cranes that lift the things off. I remember we were unloading a barge -- I guess it was there -- and it was swung out from the cargo boom way out over the side of the ship, maybe 20, 30 feet in the air. It was rather a tall ship. And something happened, the wire broke, and the barge hit the water, and the engine went right through the bottom of the barge when it hit, and they sunk. So they lost one. On another occasion, when they bring the booms up to a working position, they have to change the wire from one drum through a block, or -- it's a procedure. Anyway, they put a chain around that wire to arrest it, to hold it while you're making this change. And the wire slipped, and the boom fell. And it came down through one of the life rack -- racks on the side that held the racks for launching. Two soldiers were under it, but luckily, it hit right behind them, so no one was killed. But it's pretty exciting to listen to that boom fall and the wire screaming through the blocks as it unwove.

Janet Hammond:

After you had got yourself unloaded there, got the cargo unloaded there, where did you head to, the ship?

Howard Gilbert:

I think we went back to Australia, probably Brisbane, and picked up more army troops and then brought them up the -- started around the coast. You know, Macarthur, going up that New Guinea coast, they were kind of skipping from one place to another and passing up pockets of Japanese. So we hit just all the way up that coast. And this was not a landing. We were just -- they were -- these troops were probably replacements or something. And we'd drop them off. They'd send out barges and take them ashore. Some of the places were pretty active, especially at night, you'd hear the fighting. The daytime was quiet. The guys were cleaning -- on the beach were cleaning their guns and digging their foxholes a little deeper, but then at night there'd be a firefight. And the beach was held with no depth at all. In fact, when the artillery spotting plane would take off the beach, you'd no more get two, 300 feet in the elevation -- in elevation, make a turn, and then he started spotting for the artillery. So it was quite noisy at night. Occasionally they would have a larger gun, the Japanese. And I remember in one bay, we were there about a week after we unloaded our troops, and you'd be sitting out on deck and looking around and hear a big geyser in the water where they'd lobbed a shell down into the ships. But in the week we were there, no ship was hit. They had very poor accuracy. But I think this was where there were some -- they had left some 60,000 Japanese in the mountains -- what was that -- the Owen Stanley range, I guess. But they just would leave them and then move on up and keep going up the coast. The invasion, going up Wadke Island -- I guess that's how you pronounce it -- of course, we had no maps. We didn't know where we were, what we were going. It was just all hearsay as to where you were. And going up there was interesting, though. We had four transports and four destroyers escorting us, one on each flank. So it was -- we were well-protected. But as we came in the bay, we came in the wrong end of the bay, and there was a lot of confusion getting back down to the part where we were landing and taking up our troops. There was still Japanese at that other end of the bay. But they were busy building a strip. The Japanese had had a strip there, but they had bombed it -- we had bombed it so heavily, they had to repair it and put down mats. And it was working by the time we left on the island. I remember some p-38's came in crippled and would crash and burn, and we would bring those casualties back from Lae. There was a big field hospital in Lae. So coming back to the states -- {coughs} -- excuse me. We would be kind of like a hospital ship, bringing back all those casualties. And some of the kids, the pilots, were badly burned, their whole faces destroyed except a band across their forehead where their flight helmet had covered them. But they were pretty sad. And some amputees. And it was a bunch of sad people we brought back.

Janet Hammond:

Well, what did you have on your ship for a medical facility?

Howard Gilbert:

We had a medical crew. We had a little surgery; we had a medical staff, so -- a couple of surgeons. I suppose there were 30 or 40 army medical. And I always chuckled, because in that area, the -- there was enough going on that the army got to put a star on their service -- their campaign ribbon. But the navy didn't. We figured the army handed out a lot more awards than the navy received. We did have a bombing there one night. The Oyster Bay was a pt boat tender, and it was hit and badly hurt. And so we had pt boats come over, and they would raft up alongside or behind our ship and use us for headquarters while we were there. And they would go out on patrol every night up and down the coast trying to draw fire to figure out where the Japanese were. Another time, coming down the coast back to Hollandia, I guess, or Finschhafen, the destroyer ahead of us fired star shells all night. These are the shells that would illuminate and light up, very bright. But all night long, they would fire those, I guess just to see if there were Japanese patrol boats in the area, or their small craft.

Janet Hammond:

Did you actually fire your guns at any time?

Howard Gilbert:

We weren't allowed that during the air raid. The army took over. They said, "the navy, you hold off." and it was, to me, rather stupid, because here we are standing up there with our helmets and our life jackets on at our guns, ready to go, and, you know, there's some flak falling. And I thought, well, this is kind of stupid. If we're not going to fire, why don't we get shelter, get under something, you know? It was a funny raid. Several planes came in low, and -- oh, it started out, the Japanese were quite high. They could be picked up by the spotlights, though. We could see them. And while we're concentrating on those, some low ones came in and . . . (end of side one, tape one; begin side two, tape one)

Janet Hammond:

Go ahead with your story, Howard.

Howard Gilbert:

At sea, we would stand four-hour lookout watches. There would be a lookout on each side of the ship, one in the bow and one in the stern. And four hours of standing with headphones on got rather monotonous. And we were always deprived of sleep, because, say you had 8:00 in the evening till midnight on watch, then you would finally get bunked down about, oh, 12:30, 1 o'clock in the morning by the time you had some coffee and a couple of cigarettes. And then general quarters, everyone on the ship is up and on lookout because that's your vulnerable time to a submarine or air attack. So you'd just get to sleep, and then it would be time to get up for general quarters. Then you'd go back and get maybe an hour's sleep, and then it was up for chow. And then you went to work on your daily routine of cleaning guns or painting or whatever the detail was. But it seemed like the only time you could ever get a good night's sleep was when you were in port in the u.s. you'd really look forward to it. And we'd get milk when we'd get back to the states, and fresh bread, which is exciting. The bread at sea on the ships was always full of, oh, the weevils. The weevils were in crackers, they were in dry cereal, they were in the bread. You'd take a piece of bread and hold it up, and if it only had two or three weevils in it, you'd eat it. It was kind of tough for the young guys that came aboard. They didn't eat well for a while. But they got used to it. But the storms at sea were -- we got in -- going to India on the liberty ship, the prowess, we got into a heck of a storm in the Tasman sea. We had a deck load of five p-51 fighters; and then under that cargo, drums all over the deck of alcohol and various ammunition. But anyway, in the storm, it wiped out our cat -- we had a catwalk to get to the forward guns, and it wiped that off completely and flattened one of the gun tugs and bent the rings on the first p-51, which was when we got to Calcutta, they just dumped it. I suppose they robbed it for parts. But the seas could just be fierce. And my bunk on both ships was right over the -- it was in the stern, right over the screw. And you get in rough weather, the stern lifts up, and the propeller turns freely; it cavitates. The whole ship just shudders. And meanwhile, you're going up and down vertically probably 50 feet, something like that, so you learn to sleep and hold on to a pipe, a stanchion, by your bunk. When I got home from the service, we had a mahogany bed, a four-poster bed, and I'd worn the varnish off the bed on -- the post on my side from my habit of holding on at night. But the trip to India, we were there probably two weeks in Calcutta. That was quite an experience for me, because the little kid from Seattle had never been in such a city as that. And the river going up to Calcutta was something, too, you know, there would be people washing one place, people relieving themselves another. There would be a body floating down the river. When we got into Calcutta one night, a couple of us got rickshaws and went into the black hole, as it were, the big native section, and I remember we threw away our navy hats and bought these cheap white pith helmets. But I really wanted to keep an eye out for the guy ahead of me going down these little narrow streets. And they burned dung in these little fires out in front of their huts, and it was an odor that every now and then I used to get a flashback of, boy, that's Calcutta. But -- I could go on and on about that, but leaving Calcutta, we then came down to Colombo, Ceylon, and -- Sri Lanka it is now -- and that was kind of a vacation from the war. There was a British carrier in there, and when we went ashore one night, or when the kids went ashore, they got in a fight with a bunch of British sailors at the landing, and I think they tromped Churchill's picture or something, and a fight broke out, and I know they were chasing our guys back to our ship. Anyway, we were all grounded for the remainder of the time in Colombo. And we were there for a couple of weeks loading copra. And I rode over in one of our boats to the royal Ceylonese yacht club, and they had a little sailboat there, about a 16-footer, and they said, "well, yes, you're a sailor, you can use it." so I spent the next week and a half sailing around the bay of Colombo. It was delightful. I learned so I could sail in next to the gangway and pick up a friend and take him out for a sail and back. Then after that, we left for Suez, and the copra bugs started out of the holes. This was ballast, the copra. And the bugs would just cover -- you could hardly walk on the decks, it was so slippery with the darn things. They were just in everything; in your hair, in your clothes. And you got -- they said, "Well, wait till we get a little bit further north." and they disappeared. But we left Colombo with a couple of monkeys and a bunch of parakeets. And the monkeys were kind of ornery. They'd climb the rigging and drop tools that they'd steal. And they finally went over the side. But the parakeets went all the way to New York. The gunnery officer said, "well, Gilbert, let's get rid of those parakeets." I said, "yes, sir." so I'd say, "hey, you guys down there, get rid of those parakeets." and one of the guys would just go -- (making noise) -- say, "I just wrung his neck, boats." so we came into new jersey, and the Brooklyn navy yard sent a boat over to pick us up. And going back, we had all our sea bags piled in the middle. And right on top of this is a parakeet in a cage. And the gunnery officer just had a fit. It was not the thing to do. I think we had to destroy it. But speaking of storms, when we went through Gibraltar, we formed up a convoy just on the inside, on the Mediterranean side, and coming out through Gibraltar that morning, there was a German sub on the bottom, and he let go. He got the ship behind us -- I think that was a tanker -- and then he got another ship one column over next to us, that as the destroyer escorts came by, they were throwing these depth charges out as well as dropping them. And they threw one that came over close to the side of the ship, and it -- I thought, well, this is our turn. But there was -- there weren't many casualties. The one ship, the skipper put it up on the beach there in Spain, and it was -- it was saved. The tanker we left, of course; it was kind of wallowing. But this was January in the north Atlantic and rough as a cob. I was sitting on the stern one night on a smoke drum, which is like a big inverted garbage can, talking to the kid on watch, on lookout. The stern would go under a little ways, a couple of railings up on the -- a couple of rungs up on the railing. We'd lift our feet and let the water run by. And then all of a sudden the whole stern of the ship went under. And luckily there was a stanchion right next to me, and I grabbed that. The kid next to me, he grabbed me. And when we came back -- it seemed like you were under quite a while. Of course, it was probably less than a minute. But when we came up, the smoke pots we had been sitting in had been washed overboard completely, so we secured the stern lookout watch and ran for the hatch to get undercover. But I think that's about as close as I came to having a bad experience.

Janet Hammond:

And this was on the liberty ship?

Howard Gilbert:

This is on the liberty ship. We got to New York, we talked to fellows on the destroyer escort, and they said they got the sub. They said enough oil came up to show that it was a kill. So that was reassuring. It was kind of exciting coming into New Jersey. There was a big office building there, and all the windows opened, and the gals and everyone were waving, and very exciting. And when you come back to San Francisco, it was really exciting to come back under that golden gate. And you pull into the pier, and there would be a big band there, and the red cross would be there, and the USO would be there and handing out all these goodies and . . .

Janet Hammond:

When you did go from New York -- when you left New York on the liberty ship --

Howard Gilbert:

No. We came back to New York. Had left in San Pedro; went around the world to New York.

Janet Hammond:

Okay.

Howard Gilbert:

And then I got seven days' leave from them --

Janet Hammond:

Oh, all right.

Howard Gilbert:

-- To come home and then back to the armed guard center in San Francisco for reassignment.

Janet Hammond:

Where were you reassigned then?

Howard Gilbert:

I talked myself into a draft coming up to Seattle. I was to go to the Aleutians. But when I got up here, I was then a boson mate, so I got to be in charge of a barracks, a master-at-arms. So I was stationed around Seattle in various barracks where we would keep the -- I would drive a truck down to the depot and pick up a draft of men, take them to a barracks. One was located in Kirkland, one at lake union, one at pier 91. And we had a floating barracks, too. I was master-at-arms on that for a while. So fortunately, I ended the war in Seattle and didn't have to go out again. So . . .

Janet Hammond:

You were on two different cruises, then, Howard?

Howard Gilbert:

I made two trips to the south pacific on the sea devil. And then on the prowess, the liberty ship, we went 30 days to Melbourne -- Melbourne, had one night liberty, another 30 days to Calcutta, and I made one trip on the prowess. That's the one where we went around at eight knots. It was very slow going.

Janet Hammond:

Then when was war was over, where were you?

Howard Gilbert:

I was in Seattle. I was in Seattle, yes.

Janet Hammond:

Do you remember any day when you heard it was over?

Howard Gilbert:

Oh, yes. It was a big day. Yeah.

Janet Hammond:

Tell me about it.

Howard Gilbert:

VE day was darned exciting in the spring, too. And then VJ day, yeah, I think I went downtown Seattle, and everyone's enjoying the festivities. There was a lot of excitement.

Janet Hammond:

When were you discharged, then?

Howard Gilbert:

I didn't get out of the navy then -- even though I had overseas points and everything -- until March of 1946. The reason I didn't get out is because I was 18 -- I enlisted. I didn't have a reserve status. I was a U.S.N., a regular navy. And that's a -- if you're 18, that's a six-year hitch. And I wanted to get out because I'd hoped to go back to school. So I had -- there was just all kinds of communication between the bureau and the headquarters in Seattle, back and forth and back and forth. And finally, they changed my enlistment to U.S.N.I., I guess it was -- indefinite or something -- and I finally got out. So I went to Bremerton and was discharged in Bremerton in '46. I should have been out, probably, in September or October, early on. It was kind of a point system, I guess.

Janet Hammond:

What were you doing during that period after the war ended and before --?

Howard Gilbert:

Well, I was at the various places -- they still had -- they were taking apart the -- disassembling the barracks and sending troops -- troops were -- sailors were still coming in, and this -- they would depart from here to there. They would be discharged in the area. But the reserve center there at lake union kept going for quite a while.

Janet Hammond:

When you were on the sea devil, I believe maybe your first cruise, coming back with wounded and so on --

Howard Gilbert:

Uh-huh.

Janet Hammond:

Where all did you stop coming back on that?

Howard Gilbert:

From Lae, New Guinea, we came directly back. And each trip down there would be a shorter trip because more and more of the islands were occupied by us, so you could make a more direct route. One thing that -- we had an army troop die on board. I guess we were going -- I don't recall where we were going. Anyway, we buried him at sea in the navy tradition, which meant sewing a sack, a canvas bag over him, and weighting. I think I got some chain and an old block or something and put in the foot of the canvas bag. And then being a bosun mate, had to sew the bag up. Then you put him on a slab, put a flag over him, and then you tip -- after you have said your farewell, you tip the board, and they slide off into the ocean. And it was kind of weird. He just almost went in without a splash. It was quite different. Another time, we lost a guy, and we just put him in the freezer till we got back to Australia. Had a freezer on board.

Janet Hammond:

Was this a navy man?

Howard Gilbert:

No, he was army also. He had -- had had a heart attack. We must have been headed back to Australia from New Guinea at the time. So that's why they took care of him that way.

Janet Hammond:

Did you, in any of your cruises as a gun crew, make any kills on --?

Howard Gilbert:

No. We weren't. Constantly looking for a periscope, and you're just sure some day you're going to see one. The phosphorescence in the ocean in the tropics is -- at night, the wake behind the ship would just be a platinum highway going back over the horizon. You'd see fish swimming a lot. And I remember one night a dolphin, I suppose, came straight for the ship and then went under it. And everybody, you know, "there's a torpedo." but it wasn't. No, we didn't -- coming through the Mediterranean, in 1939, they had laid a big minefield between Tunisia and Sicily, I guess, and the cables holding the mines had rusted through, so the mines came to the surface. So every day we'd see two or three mines. And I had a .30-06 somehow I got, and a bunch of aircraft ammo, and I'd cut the ammo out of the aircraft belts and sit on the fantail every day and shoot. And I got fairly good. So they'd see a mine, they'd came back and shake me, say, "hey, Howard, there's a mine," you know. Well, you'd shoot at the mine hoping to set the thing off. And you'd see a -- every fifth shot on the belt was a tracer, and some tracers were fired through the rifle, and you'd see it hit the mine and bounce off, you know. But I guess you'd have to hit a spoke, one of the projections on the mine, to have it explode. One day I was doing something, and I heard the three-inch gunfire. Well, no one had given anyone permission to fire. Well, some guys back working on the gun decided they'd shoot at a mine, which was great, except the ricochet was going up onto the beach in Africa. And I don't know, I think there was a village there, and thought, this isn't good. We shouldn't be doing that. But anyway, you'd stand on the bow watch, you'd look down, see a mine come really close to the ship. It was kind of spooky. Another day off of the coast of India we saw one of the little Indian sailboats. I forget what they call them now, but it looked like a comm'ing tower. So we were all ready to open fire on that, but of course didn't have to. But no, we never did get to fire our guns in combat, which was disappointing.

Janet Hammond:

Did you land troops where they were making a landing for combat?

Howard Gilbert:

Oh, yes, yes, uh-huh.

Janet Hammond:

Tell me about some of those.

Howard Gilbert:

They weren't very anxious to go over the side, because rumors would get started that the mortars weren't firing properly, they were backfiring. And the rumor got through the troops, you know, and they were pretty hesitant to climb over the side into the nets. But for us, we were so fortunate to be on a ship, you know. You weren't always sure your bed bunk was going to be there the next day, but you weren't walking around in the mud and crawling in the Sand and eating k-rations. And I was very happy I enlisted in the navy. I knew I didn't want to go into the army.

Janet Hammond:

Where were some of the islands that you landed?

Howard Gilbert:

This was all on New Guinea. This was before -- see, I left the pacific before they -- Biak would have been the next move up, and then the Philippines when I left, come back and got on the other ship, so I missed that phase of it. All of my experiences were in New Guinea.

Janet Hammond:

Never fired at airplanes?

Howard Gilbert:

No. Weren't allowed to. No.

Janet Hammond:

Did you make some life-long friends while you were in the navy, Howard?

Howard Gilbert:

No, not really. No, we've never had any reunions that I know of. There's a fellow here in -- couple of fellows in Seattle. One was a signalman on one of the ships I was on. I haven't seen him. And a couple of guys out of the boot company from Seattle I've seen on occasion. But other than that, we're just too scattered, because every time you come in for reassignment, they would -- you'd -- your friends would go to another ship, and . . .

Janet Hammond:

How did your service in the military affect the rest of your life, do you think, Howard?

Howard Gilbert:

I think it was a great experience, and I've always felt that we should have compulsory conscription. I think every kid should spend two years in the service.

Janet Hammond:

What do you think it gave you?

Howard Gilbert:

Gave me a whole different philosophy on life. I learned all types of people. I didn't realize there were people that couldn't sign their name; that's why they had a spot for an x on a paycheck, a pay chit. It gave me a different outlook on life. I became a little more fatalistic, I think. All in all -- you remember the better times, but it was a good experience.

Janet Hammond:

After you got out, what did you do?

Howard Gilbert:

I went to work on the docks. That had been my previous employment before I joined the navy. I was down on -- working at pier 90 or 89, whatever it was, and then -- waiting for a quarter of school to start. See, I got out too late for spring quarter, so I started summer quarter again. And then I went the next four consecutive years, four quarters a year, summer, and fall. And I stretched my G.I. bill. I'd pay my summer quarters, so I'd get my three winter quarters on the G.I.. Bill. So I was in school for five years on the G.I. bill, which worked very nicely. But I hadn't been out of the navy very long, and a chief came up to the department one day and talked me into joining the reserves. So I joined the navy reserve and was attached to that submarine school over there, lake union in Seattle, and go down once a week and would have school at the boat, and you'd learn all these various things about the submarine. And then after I got into dental school, there was a navy program where you could enlist and get a commission as an ensign. And I did that along with other friends. And then -- which allowed us at Christmastime, when we had a break from school, we could go on active duty for two weeks and get some money, which was most important. We would go to the dental clinic at Sand point or at the pier 91 navy station. And then after school, you had the option of either dropping your commission or taking your permanent Lieutenant JG. Korean war was on at that time. They were pulling navy guys out to serve, and they were going -- taking a lot of them as anesthesiolo -- anesthetists, helping in the field hospitals in Korea. And I had just started my practice. I'd spent some money for equipment, and I was debating whether to go back into the navy full time. I didn't dislike the navy. I was thinking maybe of making it a career as a dental officer. And for months, it was back and forth. The procurement office would call me, "what are you going to do? Your papers are here. You've had your physical. You're ready to go." back and forth. And finally, I resigned my commission, and that was the end of my career. At that time, though, between active and reserve, I had nine years. I figured, you know, you're partway towards getting 30 years if you go full time, so . . .

Janet Hammond:

Were you married at that time?

Howard Gilbert:

I was married at that time. Everybody had to get married right after the war. You had to find a woman and get married.

Janet Hammond:

Your military service, did it alter your outlook on the military, on war, those kinds of things, or would you say there was really no change?

Howard Gilbert:

I don't think there was any altering because I didn't have that many thoughts about it prior to service. I was always enamored with the navy because, in peacetime, the fleet would come into Seattle every summer with battleships and cruisers and destroyers, and as kids we'd go down and wait in line for hours to go out and go aboard these ships. And you were impressed with the teak decks that were just snow white from their holystoning them every day and swabbing them, and the cleanliness of the fleet was very impressive. And so I always had a partiality for the navy. But I didn't think a whole lot about war until Pearl Harbor day.

Janet Hammond:

You mentioned that in the reserves you were in a submarine unit?

Howard Gilbert:

Uh-huh.

Janet Hammond:

Did you ever spend any time in a submarine at sea?

Howard Gilbert:

No. Never did. I -- we did make a dive out in Elliott bay one day, a couple of dives, just tests. The cruises they would take with the reserve were longer than I had time to spend, with school. I did go on a cruise at Christmastime. They said, "Well, guys, we're going to San Francisco." that sounded very good, so we -- as we're going aboard the destroyer, they said, "oh, there's a little bit -- been a change of plans. We're going to Ketchikan, Alaska." well, in December going up to Ketchikan, it's a very rough ocean. I came close to getting seasick. The destroyers, you know, they just get covered with water. They dive into the waves, and it was a rough ride. When I got to Ketchikan, I had to walk shore patrol on Creek Street, which was the red light district, to keep the sailors from visiting. And in San Francisco, I think I mentioned I'd walk quite a bit of shore patrol, which was kind of interesting.

Janet Hammond:

Are there some other stories you can tell us about your time on the cruises overseas during the war? Anything else you want to tell us about the -- well, thank you, Howard. Really appreciate your sharing.

Howard Gilbert:

You're very welcome. I hope the contribution means something.

Janet Hammond:

It certainly does. Thank you.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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