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Interview with Victor J. Ivers [11/22/2005]

Ellen K. Bassett:

This interview is taking place on November 22, 2005 at the St. Joseph’s Rectory in Libertyville, Illinois. My name is Ellen Bassett, and I’m interviewing Father Victor Ivers, a Navy Chaplain during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Father Ivers spent 30 years in the military and recently celebrated 60 years as a priest. This is Father Ivers’s story.

Victor J. Ivers:

In the summer of 1945, there were 48 of us ordained. We came from all over Illinois. My first assignment took me to a parish in Joliet in 1945. While I was assigned there, a priest came in to give lectures to the people in our parish. He had been an Army chaplain, and he had a brother who had been a Navy chaplain. He talked me into thinking a little bit about a military chaplaincy. He said, "I think you would do good in the Navy." He saw me out on the playground playing football with the kids and all that. I said, "Well, I don’t know anything about the Navy. I’ve rowed a boat, but I don’t know anything about ships and sea." About three years later, I was transferred by Cardinal Stritch to a parish in Chicago. While I was there, the very first year, that same priest came back and said, "Korea’s on, and you should be a chaplain in the Navy." Well, I thought Korea was for Army and Marines. He said, "The Marines borrow their chaplains, their doctors and nurses from the Navy." So, I had it in mind, someone in that community told the Cardinal about it, and two years later the Cardinal asked me and two others in my class to go into the chaplaincy. He asked five priests in the class before me, so eight of us went all together. Two went into the Air Force, three went into the Army, and two of us went into the Navy. A total of eight of us went to Korea. That’s how I got into the Navy. The understanding was that all priests going in would relinquish their home bishop, their home diocese. Mine was Chicago. We would be in for about four years. But in my third year, I liked the job so well, living with the men, etc., that I wrote back to the Cardinal and said, "May I have permission to stay on, not as a reserve chaplain but as a Regular, a U.S. Navy Regular?" He gave me the okay, which meant I would be committed to twenty years all together, those four and sixteen more. That’s the rule for all chaplains, Protestants, Orthodox Jews, and even now the Muslims. We have Muslim chaplains. Then I found myself in chaplain school in Rhode Island, Newport.

Ellen K. Bassett:

And that was before you first went over there?

Victor J. Ivers:

That’s right. All chaplains go to school for eight weeks.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Oh, eight weeks?

Victor J. Ivers:

Eight weeks. And you learn Navy procedure, Navy law, and you get talks by chaplains, old-timers, about what a chaplain does. You know, it’s ministry to families, ministry to single men and to single women. It’s ministry on marriage preparation and marriage counseling, the problem of drugs and alcohol and how to deal with that, etc. We go to special schools. Then they put us in a building and set fire to it-.how to escape from a fired ship, you know. They put us in chambers and put on the gas, and we had to put on our gas masks and all that. Then we went out to sea in bouncy little ships, destroyers, to see how we’d do. Then finally they said, "Okay. You’re in." And my first orders took me to Coronado, California. Ever been to Coronado?

Ellen K. Bassett:

The island? Yes.

Victor J. Ivers:

Yes, the island. I was a chaplain with the amphibious Navy and Marines. The Marines climbed aboard ships. The amphibious-they went ashore, the ships did, climbed on beaches and the men would go off to the fighting area. I was there for two years. So, in 1953 I’m on my way to Korea. The war came to a close in July of 1953, but we had a lot of problems. We kept losing people. The war was officially over, but we had all kind of things. We had people stepping on mines-a lot of mine fields in Korea. After that, then I have all these different assignments.

Ellen K. Bassett:

While you were over in Korea, were you on an aircraft carrier?

Victor J. Ivers:

No. In Korea, I’m with the Marines. I’m on the ground. I’m ashore.

Ellen K. Bassett:

What did you see as your job there?

Victor J. Ivers:

We had about 28,000 Marines; we had maybe 500 or 600 hundred Navy people who were medics and doctors, and had battalion stations here and there. The war was over but we still had problems. We had health problems. We had a terrible disease, which people called hemorrhagic fever. The men would wake up, and they would be bleeding right through their veins. Terrible. And they died. We had men who caught malaria, terrible accidents with heavy equipment, ammunition that discharged for one reason or another, drownings in the big rivers, etc- So we ministered. Also, we were waiting for a number of bodies to come back, and they all came back in laundry bags, 20 to 25 pounds of Army, Navy, Air Force people killed up in North Korea when the Chinese came over the border. We were not expecting that, but they overwhelmed the Army and the Marines. We lost a lot of people, including chaplains. I partook of the ceremony when the Chinese came back with big trucks, and they were like Coca-Cola trucks, you know where they put the cokes on the side. They had all these laundry bags, and each bag had remains, with the name in Chinese, Korean and English. I had the funeral service for all of them on that one occasion. Then my orders were to leave there and go back to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, which was the headquarters of the Marines that cover everything east of the Mississippi River. I was with the 2nd Marine Division. They had about 16,000 men. In Korea, we had about 26,000 to 28,000 men. We had 24 chaplains, mostly Protestant, six or seven Catholic, one Jew, one Orthodox. No Muslims at that time. We all wore the Marine fatigue uniforms.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Did you all work together?

Victor J. Ivers:

We worked, generally, about two of us together. My senior officer was a good Methodist, my boss, and he coached me on how to act and respond to different problems. We took care of the poor. The Marines called me up one day and said, "We’re coming by with a Jeep. Jump in the Jeep; we want to show you something." And our camps in the Marines were surrounded by barbed wire, so nobody could squeeze in at night time, or even during the day. He took me out to a garbage dump, where during the summer, we had dug a whole twice the size of this room, maybe bigger and about as deep. We threw all of our garbage in there and covered it. We found orphan boys and girls, 8, 9, 10 years old, with sticks digging through there eating the garbage. We got a truck and brought them back. We saw a lot of that poverty. In the villages, you know, unbelievable desperation in their lives. Terrible.

Ellen K. Bassett:

You were there, and then you came back.

Victor J. Ivers:

I came back in May of ‘55. Then after leaving the Marines in Korea and in Camp Lejeune, named after a famous General Lejeune, we now have four stamps issued-the past couple of weeks. One was our General Lejeune. Another man was with whom I served twice, once at Coronado and once at Camp Lejeune, General Puller. Nine Purple Hearts.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Nine?

Victor J. Ivers:

Five Navy Crosses. Most decorated Marine, I think, in all history. We called him Chesty Puller.

Ellen K. Bassett:

And you knew him?

Victor J. Ivers:

I served with him. Yes, I was the chaplain. Then I went to a Naval Air Station down in Pensacola, Florida and that was a two and half year assignment. While I was there, the Marines, the Navy Pilots said we ought to get you to learn to fly an airplane. So, they got a little Piper Cub and I learned to fly it. Then I saw a Piper Cub for sale, $750. Some sailor was going-I bought it, and the Navy people repaired it for me, put on a new propeller, tires and all that. So, I flew that area. But the ministry there was very good, because I was dealing with technologically oriented sailors and sailorettes. They’re working on airplanes, repairing them, maintaining them. A heated cock is what we call a fixed wing, an airplane that has a wing. The other cock is the heel. That was a great ministry to them. When I left there, in 1959, I went aboard a carrier. The Ticonderoga was named after a famous fort in northern New York. It was a two-year assignment. I had to leave Pensacola and drove all the way to San Diego. We had a big base there in San Diego, Naval Air Station, and we had two carriers lined up one behind the other. So, I climbed aboard the Ticonderoga. The senior chaplain was a Presbyterian, proved to be a good friend. I was there a couple of months. We went out to the Far East, that means Korean War, Japanese War, Philippine Wars. Once again, taking a look at what the North Koreans were doing. We were a buffer force, and we wanted to be sure that nobody in that part of the world was going to be active and aggressive. That’s why the fleet’s out there. Our carrier is four smaller ships called destroyers. One up here, one on the aft, one on the starboard side, and one on the port side to protect us so no enemy submarine could go in and shoot at us. So, we were always surrounded by protecting ships. Our crew aboard-we had about 3,500 men, but then when the pilots came aboard, they brought all your doctors; they brought all your nurses, they brought all the mechanics, etc. Then we had over 5,000. We carried over 5,000. The carriers today, I think, have about 6,000. Our carrier was not quite 900 feet-880 feet. The carriers, the big ones, are four football fields long, 1,200 feet long.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Wow.

Victor J. Ivers:

Unbelievable. A lot of people aboard, and they have three chaplains.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Three chaplains?

Victor J. Ivers:

Yes. They need three. From there, I left and went to a Naval Air Station, of all places, Memphis, Tennessee. Near Memphis, a little town called Millington, and Millington had about ten or twelve thousand sailors and sailorettes. Your job was to teach pilots advanced ways and understanding how to fly with sophisticated instruments. Not visually, no, but flying by the instruments, and also repairing airplanes. Some of the people who went to school there eventually ended up aboard carriers. There were maintenance people aboard the ships. From there, I went to the submarine base at Pearl Harbor. That was a good tour of duty at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That was different. One of the Red Cross people met me whenever the ship came back to San Diego, the Ticonderoga, and say, "I’ve been waiting for you to come back. You have these people you have to see." There’s been a sickness in a family, or a wife is hospitalized. We’d make arrangements for what we call leave, vacation. Sometimes they even get a discharge when a family situation was so bad that the man had to be back home with his family. In San Diego, rather Pearl Harbor, with the submarine, it was all together different. The submarine went out to sea on-.

Ellen K. Bassett:

That’s when you were on the submarine, when you were at Pearl Harbor?

Victor J. Ivers:

I was not actually on a submarine yet. I was ashore as their chaplain. There were two of us. The men would go out and come back in about every six months, but they would be under water only about-.well, I can’t tell you because I don’t think I know. But they might be floating on top for a couple of days, and they’d go down for a couple of weeks and then come up. They did not have the nuclear power. They went by batteries and by what they call black oil. They had to be very careful about the fact that they had to be husbandry, as far as fuel was concerned, as far as air was concerned, food is concerned and all of that. When we went down on a nuclear submarine, we went down for 63 days, but now the submarines go down and stay down for 90 days and then come up. The problem is when they go out, if they get a message it’s all strictly business, and if they want to send a message back, they can’t ask, "How’s my wife doing?" If there’s a death, that man aboard ship is not notified of that, or the death of a child or sickness. When he comes back at the end of the patrol, the chaplain’s there with a peer, and the Red Cross is here with the messages. It’s very sad.

Ellen K. Bassett:

That was your job?

Victor J. Ivers:

Yes. We notified them.

Ellen K. Bassett:

That’s something you had to do?

Victor J. Ivers:

The most difficult job I think we had at that time, the submarine base, was to notify the families of tragic, sometimes disastrous things that happened to their loved ones.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Oh no.

Victor J. Ivers:

Okay. My next ship was a ship that took me out to Vietnam, amphibious ship. One was the Tripoly that was a little carrier that only had helicopters and Marines, Navy people piloting it. The Marines came aboard as visitors, and they came with helicopters and their own doctors and all. After the Tripoly, I had another six months aboard a ship called the Okinawa, the same kind of a ship. It was only about 600 feet long, but it did need a long deck, because it did need the deck for ships of a fixed wing. We need the whole deck to land. They just land on a space this big. Aboard that ship, that was traumatic for me, for any chaplain, because in the morning the men were up at 5:30 or 6:00, and then they would jump in their helicopters with their rifles and radio equipment and all that and be ashore. By 9:30, the wounded and dead were being brought back by helicopters. The dead were brought back to the aft, the back of the ship by elevators. They would come up in raincoats, wrapped up in the raincoats. Terrible. The wounded were brought up forward, and the doctors would go in immediately to get a blood pressure reading and find out what kind of wound, and they would be taken into the hospitals. Each one of the hospitals could handle hundreds of patients. They were three-deep in racks, you know, three-deep bunks.

Ellen K. Bassett:

So, you had to administer last rights?

Victor J. Ivers:

Oh, I did that. When we prayed, the Protestant did a great job. We had doctors. We always had about nine or ten doctors aboard each ship. We had a lone anesthesiologist, you know. They were men, they were all Navy doctors, and they wept over the people they lost. We chaplains wept. I wept.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Were there burials at sea?

Victor J. Ivers:

No, we never had a burial at sea. The reason is the Air Force would come in and pick up the dead, and we had as many as 30 and 35 aboard the ship at one time in big boxes, I forget the name. They were refrigerated boxes like this. They would pick them up and take them to Japan, and the bodies were then prepared in caskets and flown back to the States. My next tour of duty was in Newport, Rhode Island. I’m now a Commander ready to make Captain. Commander is three stripes and the beginning chaplain school is still going-eight weeks, but the Navy decided they wanted to be a Chaplain school for Commanders and for Captains Senior, new ways of dealing with the men. We were dealing with a new problem, alcohol and drugs, a very serious problem. Our matter of loyalty to our country, the apprehension if they’re caught, how thankful they would be, because in Vietnam we had some men that went over the border for the sake of soup or cigarette, or whatever, not many but a few. Many died in protest. They were starved by the North Koreans and Chinese. We had a priest die. I didn’t know the man. Emil Kapan(?) was his name, from Nebraska, a farm boy. He died of malnutrition and pneumonia. We lost a priest in Vietnam. In Vietnam, when the command said to me, "Padre, we want you to go ashore with the Marines," and I would put on my gear. We were never allowed to carry a weapon, but they would assign a Marine to me who carried a pistol and a rifle to protect me. I read an article today in a magazine about a priest served in Vietnam and his guard was...he was Army. The Army guard was a woman. She was a Sergeant. He said she was tough, and he felt protected. Good story. I read it only this morning. So, I went to the Chaplain school and we brought in 20 chaplains as students. There were four of us, a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and two of us Roman Catholic. We broke up this group of 20 into teams of five. There were four teams of five. We went through all of the proceedings with them and did a lot of innovative things, like for instance, "Who is a young adult?" So, we’d sent down five of them down to live near an area where the young adults were living in a commune near Boston. These men went out there, not in uniform, by the way. They wore old clothes and didn’t shave for a couple of days so they would be accepted. Then we had five live in a square of Boston, and they dealt with the people who had been in the Navy. Some had got out as Conscientious Objectors. We gave them $5.00, they got a room in a flop house-big money. You’re a chaplain; you have to do that. And the third group worked with Blacks in Providence, Rhode Island. And the fourth group worked with Hispanics and with Filipinos out on Navy bases. At the end of a week-we said to stay out there as long as you can, getting all the information you can in our community, and here are some guidelines on how to do it. When they came back-some came back in five days, some in seven and some in eight-. And we sat them all together and said, "Okay. What did they say about the government and dutied Armed Forces? What did they say about their churches? What did they say about parents? What did they say about their education?" The pros and cons. We put together booklets: one on drugs, one on military duty versus the draft, which of course, we still had a volunteer force. We don’t have anybody drafted, even if you would go in the Reserves. If the Reserves were activated, they signed to go. They weren’t forced to do that. We did a lot of exciting things. We brought in a Lutheran minister from Minnesota, who was very creative in church worship. Instead of having him live in a hotel, I had him live with me at a little house I had in Newport. I learned a lot of things that they didn’t get a chance to squeeze into the course. He was with us for eight or nine hours everyday, so he said "You chaplains now, you’re 37, 42, 43 years of age-you’re preaching and you’re conducting services and you have a feeling that everything is on track. My hunch is that you think that everything is on track, that you’re meeting the needs of those young sailors and sailorettes. It’s not always true. They’re there because they have to be there or because their parents expect them to be there." After the one week in Boston, one of our chaplains, a big guy - he was from Texas, he said, "Let me tell you about my experience." And he began to cry, and he put his head-. each one of us had a table about that big-.and he put his head down and sobbed and I gave the signal to keep quiet. Let him sob. He said, "You know. I thought I knew my children, a high schooler and one college kid. How could I have missed them? I never really met them on their turf. I was preaching theology and possibly very technical, Biblical stuff way over their heads. I learned that when I dealt with these sailors and others that I met in Boston." Does that make sense to you?

Ellen K. Bassett:

Mm hmm.

Victor J. Ivers:

That’s the problem we priests and Protestant ministers have. They’re doing a good job at Willow Creek, by the way, because they are finding out what the people are saying and feeling, are angry about, pleasant about, happy about, torn apart about.

Ellen K. Bassett:

You really got to know the guys you worked with.

Victor J. Ivers:

They’re learning that. It was up on big black boards. We put it all there and we would compile a bunch of little booklets of the information. When they went back to their duty station, they went back with a whole new way of how to do ministry to their people, and they did.

Ellen K. Bassett:

How wonderful.

Victor J. Ivers:

We had them for six months, six more months another group would come in-every six months. My next duty was to be the Senior Chaplain of the submarine chaplains in the Atlantic fleet. The headquarters were in Norfolk, Virginia, but my Admiral there said, "Why don’t you be closer to where the submariners are?" A lot of them go to Charleston, South Carolina for two years. While I was there, I sat down with the four other chaplains that worked with the submariners. We tried to devise new ways of dealing especially with the families. Because for every 130 men aboard submarine, about 75 or 80 were married, and some of them had children. And when that ship went to sea, that woman could not contact the man at all, and he could not reach her. And those were the longer trips. Those were 63 days in the deep with no contact. Incommunicado. I remember the Lutheran chaplain recommended-we sat in a room and we brought in the wives of the submariners who were at sea, so there were about eighty of them in a big circle with a psychiatrist and three chaplains. I always start off by saying, "Well, we’re going to chat, and we’re going to serve coffee and donuts or something. We’d like to be here at least an hour, from 7 o’clock until 8." They always head home about 11. "Tell us how you feel about-." They would talk about their anger about the submarines. We say to our husbands- One woman said, "I’m a college graduate. I said to my husband, what do you do aboard a submarine?" He said, "Well, it’s kind of tricky." And they’d say, "Well, what do you do aboard a submarine? We’d like to know." "Well, you wouldn’t understand." The next day, "Why won’t you tell me that?" He said, "Listen, Mable, you would never understand! It’s too sophisticated for you!" And that’s a put down! A woman put up her hand, "Why doesn’t the Navy make a wooden submarine right out here and we can climb aboard see where our husbands work, and where they have their meals, and where they sleep?" You can’t do that. I mean, they wept through that, I mean when they talked about how the hurt, they were weeping. And that’s a sacrifice that Navy submarine wives make and the wives of all the guys who are (?).

Ellen K. Bassett:

So, at that point you were ministering to the wives? You weren’t out on the submarine?

Victor J. Ivers:

No, I was not on the submarine at that time for about a year. Dealing mostly with the wives and families. The sailors would come in. They were getting married; they were having problems with their marriage. What does it mean to get divorced? They would come in and say, "You know, I’ve been in now for three years. I want to get out. I’m a Conscientious Objector." They could get out if they were not even trying to get out for religious purposes. The Navy was that understanding, and we would help them do it. We chaplains were in the chain of command to assist them in that program. Then we were working in alcohol and drug rehab work. We were pretty much concerned with that, drug work. We gave lectures to submariners and all that. Then one day the Admiral called me and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I have eight hours today with a group of 12 to 14 men who are all submariners, and they are from the south, from the north, maybe Filipino, maybe American Indian, etc., and maybe a guy’s whose father is a doctor, another guy is an ordinary blue-collar worker. During a circle, we talk about getting along." In the Navy, in the submarine force, they have to all get along, because they live together 24 hours a day, 90 days down. They have to live together and they’re impatient. As a matter of fact, I wanted more submarine-. The Admiral said, "I know that’s important, but as soon as you finish up, call me up and you’ll get to go." I had that group and then another one. He called me a month later, and he said, "I want you to go on that submarine patrol to give you a feeling of what goes on aboard ship." He called me up again, and said, "Well, you’ve not called me up. Today is Friday. Monday, you show up at the Air Force Base in Charleston, climb aboard a ship. You’re gonna go either to Spain or Scotland and spend a couple days there aboard the mother ship that takes care of the little submarines and you’ll go to sea for 63 days." "Okay, on what?" And that was that. Now, aboard ship, chaplains don’t ordinarily go aboard submarines. I’ve met sailors and submarine officers, too, that had been aboard submarines and then became a chaplain to avoid the submarine and became Naval Officers. And they were good ones, super. Anyway, aboard ship, one of the things I noticed is the absolute control the men had over their emotions, and secondly, how knowledgeable they are, extremely knowledgeable. In the old days, a guy would go aboard ship, never see a typewriter, and never see a radio. They would be there on deck with a mop "swabbing the deck" they would call it. Today, they go aboard ship, they have to have four years of high school, be computer-wise, be able to handle computers, be able to read and spell. They are all very bright guys today, extremely bright. It’s a different Navy, a different Navy. I didn’t see any problems aboard the ship. I had a service everyday at 11:30, and about 12 to 14 men would show up in the Officer’s Dining Room, which is about this big, with two little tables. So, 12 or so were there. The rest of the time, I went aboard the ship introducing myself. There was a doctor aboard. They sent a doctor aboard, too. We never had a doctor; we had Navy Chiefs. They’re like senior nurses, and they were good. But this doctor came aboard, and he said, "Why don’t we ask the sailors, ‘Could a woman do your job?’" So, we did. And you know, most of the men said, "Well, if she’s got the training and all, sure she could do it." The men in the room where you had the torpedoes, which you are doing a lot of lifting of heavy gear with chains and all, so they’d have to be pretty husky gals. We didn’t get that big (?) anybody. I heard (?). I felt good about that. We felt good about that. Then I came back and continued my work. There were other things that we did in the area of drugs that I can’t share with you.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Okay. Yes. I figured there were probably some personal things.

Victor J. Ivers:

Not personal, it’s really the Navy. Now, what else? Now, from there, I went to Guam. I was at a big station; the war was still going on.

Ellen K. Bassett:

That was during the Vietnam War.

Victor J. Ivers:

Guam, yes. I’m on the island taking care of a lot of Navy men, some few Marines and a lot of families. The problems were-there was a big hospital there. They would bring some of the wounded back. The second year I was there, a wind came and tore down the whole hospital.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Oh, no.

Victor J. Ivers:

It was made of tin and plywood. It was a substantial hospital. Family. A lot of families. I’m still in contact with them. I chatted with a family just yesterday. They were in Guam with me, and they are now living in Wausau, Wisconsin, retired.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Oh.

Victor J. Ivers:

It was good duty. While I was in Guam, the Armed Forces decided to call it quits in Vietnam. So, we went there with airplanes and helicopters, and the Vietnamese people, especially the Embassy, people working for the U. S. Armed Forces, jumped on the helicopters, jumped on the ships, and we’re bringing them back. So, in Guam, we brought by ships, and we might have 300 or 400 people aboard the ship- families, clergymen...dressed in tatters. They ran with just their pajamas, with nothing, no sandals, and no shoes. It’s amazing. They lived on Guam for awhile, and eventually, they came into centers in the United States. Some of the cities were very jealous. Some of the states were inviting these people to come to their communities, the Vietnamese people. We have Vietnamese seminarians studying to be priests now at the seminary in Mundelein. We have three or four of them.

Ellen K. Bassett:

No kidding.

Victor J. Ivers:

Yes, and they’re good. From Guam, I was sent to Great Lakes as Senior Chaplain. I had about 22 chaplains that I supervised. We had three or four chaplains working with the recruits, brand new. We were graduating, at that time, 1,000 recruits a week. We’re graduating about 1,000 recruits a week now. There were 20,000 sailors. We had three big training places: Orlando, Florida, Naval Training Center at Great Lakes, and San Diego. They closed the two, and those people who would be brought into the Navy, all of them had to come to Great Lakes for training. Very sophisticated. Very sophisticated. Now, I was there in Great Lakes. I shared this recently with an Admiral at Great Lakes, and the next thing was an Admiral Chaplain, a head of the chaplains. They said, "Are you the fellow that started the Islamic service here in Great Lakes?" I said, "Yes." He said, "How did that happen?" One day the chaplains on the recruit side-.they were never allowed to leave the recruit side. They had to be there eight weeks. Finally, when they graduated over to the school side, they were free to move around and visit Waukegan, Chicago and all that. Two guys came in and said, "How come there’s no service for us people of the Islamic faith?" I said, "Are you really Islamic?" They said, "Well, we used to be Baptist, but we’ve become Islamics, Muslims." "Are there any others there in the barracks?" They said, "Well, I think so." I said, "Come back tomorrow and tell me more." So, they came back, and we found four or five more. Later that afternoon I got on the phone and called the Chief of Chaplains, who’s an Admiral, Catholic, a friend of mine. We came into the Navy together. I told him what the problem was. He said, "Just a minute. Let me ask my staff if the Air Force has Muslim Chaplains for the Army." He said, "No, they don’t have them. Let me suggest something. See if there is a kind of a Mohammad community in the Chicago area." I said, "I think I remember reading about them on a trip." He said, "Tell me about it. Call me up." So, I found out that there was a church called the Mohammad Church of the West at 64th and either Dorchester or Stoney Island. It had been a hotel taken over by a group of Islamics. The man who ran it was Wallace Mohammad. He said, "I have a man that could help you out. He runs a little mosque in North Chicago, and he’s also a medical technician at Lake Forest Hospital." So, he came in, pretty dapperly dressed, very articulate, trim guy. He said, "Okay. I’ll come aboard. I want to come aboard on Fridays." Hard days; can’t do it. We’ll do it on Sunday. So, we made up a contract. We paid him. He came aboard. The best he ever had, numberwise, was about 40. Today they have less than 20. Back then, we had about 40. So, we had the first Islamic service of all the Armed Forces here. Now, I think there are four or five Islamic chaplains now, and they wear the moon and the simmer(?), you know, the sword. I wear the cross. The Rabbis have the Ten Commandments, they have Arks in them.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Okay. I didn’t know that.

Victor J. Ivers:

Oh, yes. The cross stands for a Christian. You could be a Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran or whatever with that insignia. Our next tour of duty was aboard the USS Albany. That’s a big cruiser. We had about 1,700 men aboard. It was the number one ship in the whole fleet, the Atlantic fleet, the 6th fleet. We had a three-star Admiral aboard.

Ellen K. Bassett:

And that was after you left Great Lakes?

Victor J. Ivers:

After I left Great Lakes. I’m on my last tour of duty. I will be there from ‘78 to ‘80. I know I’m going to retire in 1980. I think we had 38 ships under our command, carriers, submarines, all kinds of ships. They were all down-.some were down in a different part. They were down in Alexandria, Egypt. They were down in Tunisia. They were down in Morocco in the different seas, Athens. The home fleet for them was Naples. The Admiral, his ship was in a town about 30 miles up the coast called Gaeta, and that was for the sake of security. So, our ship was protected from people that might want to blow it up or get rid of the ammo, etc. That was a good, exciting tour of duty. A lot of stories. Wow.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Tell me the one that sticks out most in your mind from that tour of duty.

Victor J. Ivers:

Aboard that was the-I think, the good work that the sailors did in certain ports-for instance, we went to Toulon, France. A ship pulled in, and I met the minister. He said, "I’m a Catholic helping out a Catholic church. We have a home here for very poor people, and we have some needs." I said, "Okay. I’ll come down." We were in port ten days. I went down and came back and I told the Captain of the ship, who worked for the Admiral, "Those people need paint, maybe some tools to do some fixing, and there’s some electrical work that needs to be done." He said, "Okay. I’ll allow you $200 a day for paint and whatever you need-tools." And we had Marines aboard. "Take as many men as you want. And if the Marines will take their pup tents along, they can live on the grounds of that place, had a nice garden and all that. So, they did that. That was beautiful. When we went to Egypt, we did the same thing in Alexandria. We went to Athens. The Arch Bishop Greek Orthodox Preacher said, "It’s great to have you aboard. Here are the places where we need some need." And our sailors always respond. When I was aboard the Ticonderoga, we tied up at Hong Kong. The minister said, "I’d like to come aboard with a group of my high school kids, and we’ll sing at your liturgies, Protestant and Catholic, in Chinese." He said, "But I can’t bring them aboard, because they don’t have any clothes. If you give me the money, we will buy bolts of material, and we’ll have outfits made for the boys and girls." They came aboard, about 25 or so, and they sang. And we all wept. It was exquisite. Then the Captain said, "You’re allowed to take up a collection." He said to the men. And the guys just emptied their pockets out of generosity. Unbelievable! Sailors! It’s true of the Army and the Air Force. Where ever they go, when they see people living at a level that’s way below the American level, they respond in a way that’s touching.

Ellen K. Bassett:

A real outpouring.

Victor J. Ivers:

It moves your heart. It really does. In Korea, I got a call from a doctor, he said, "You know, somebody told me that there’s an American girl trying to run a group of orphans, and she’s sick. I’m not sure where she is, but I have a driver who may take me there." So, we drove out in the boondocks to a cemetery. And the cemetery had a shed where they kept the dead bodies through the winter and could bury them in the spring, because of the cold. They had four to five feet of ice, you know. And this woman was there, lying on some straw, yellow from jaundice, very sick, a girl about 25, supported by a Protestant church, somewhere in Nebraska. They ran out of funds and said "You come back." She didn’t have the funds to go back. She said, "Phooey." She had about 20 orphan kids she had picked up. They’re all lying on the floor there. My doctor said, "Let’s do something about that." We medicated her. We got her a lot of lumber, and we had carpenters build her a little shed right on the grounds there. Then we got a lot of lumber, and we made a compound out of barbed wire. All she had to do was sell a couple pieces of wood, like a 2 x 4 or 4 x 4, a week, and it would be enough to support the kids and herself because lumber was so rare. When the Japanese had gone over to Korea, they stripped the forest and took the trees back to Japan. Wow!

Ellen K. Bassett:

That’s a great story. That is a wonderful story. It sounds like you were close to retirement, then. You were on your last tour of duty.

Victor J. Ivers:

Yes. I was 62, and at 62 you have to leave.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Oh. They don’t give you a choice?

Victor J. Ivers:

No. I had a nice going away. I’ll tell you an interesting story about that. We had a big ship coming in called Puget Sound and it would be a mother ship for submarines. By mother ship, I mean it would have big machine shops, big repairs so you wouldn’t have to send things back. (End of Side A)

Victor J. Ivers:

(Beginning of Side B) It was coming to our place, to Naples, in Italy.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Okay, we were talking about the submarine and the ship that was the mother ship.

Victor J. Ivers:

Puget Sound-I asked my yeoman, "Make a call to Norfolk, Virginia where that ship is and crew is, and ask what they’re planning to do." He said, "Well, I’ll do that." He called me up and said, "They tell me that the ship’s not only coming over, the ship is coming over with about 150 families, and the Navy is going to have to find them a place to live ashore." And I said, "The next time you make the call, I want to talk to the Officer." He said, "It’s a Lieutenant Commander So-and-So." I said, "This isn’t Lieutenant Randall?" The voice said, "Yes." It was a woman. I said, "How you doing, dear?" And she said, "Captain, don’t ‘dear’ me." I said, "Sorry." (laugh) Eventually, she came, and she had four Naval Officers with her. They lived on that ship until my ship, the Albany, said "Sayonara, Italy!" and went back home. I’ll tell you about that story. Beautiful. So, she was aboard the ship only a couple of months. I remained on board it. The families were now ashore. We had found housing for them. Now, I’m retiring in December of 1980. So, Admiral Watkins, left us and he became the head of the whole Navy. His next tour after that was Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the whole shebang.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Wow.

Victor J. Ivers:

Watkins, Jim Watkins. He said, "Okay, we’ll bring them aboard. Now, I want to be there for your retirement ceremony." So, he got a big cake for me, and somebody cut it with a sword, you know. This is on the open deck. We were down on the gangplank. I was going to walk off that. It’s a Navy custom. They blow the whistle, (whistle sound) and they salute you. The Admiral, and the whole row-.and out steps this woman, and she hugged me. They saluted me, and she hugged me. We had been doing business together for the families. She appreciated the fact that a Naval Officer had some contribution to make. I was really moved by that. They didn’t get a picture of me doing that though. Souvenir, yes.

Ellen K. Bassett:

I wanted to ask you a few questions specifically about the Vietnam War.

Victor J. Ivers:

Yes.

Ellen K. Bassett:

You mentioned that you had had a personal guard. So, I’m assuming you saw some combat when you were over in Vietnam at some point?

Victor J. Ivers:

All chaplains do. Every chaplain has to have-.because chaplains, by virtue of the Geneva Convention, may not carry a weapon.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Okay.

Victor J. Ivers:

So, you were treated as a non-combatant. Several nations don’t believe in that; the Chinese and Koreans didn’t believe that. If they caught you, you were in the Army. Period.

Ellen K. Bassett:

So, you weren’t allowed to carry a weapon?

Victor J. Ivers:

No. That was all right. I was happy with that.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Yes. I think I know what you mean. So, obviously, were you on the front lines with the men?

Victor J. Ivers:

No. Chaplains ordinarily would be in a place where they had what we called a medical battalion. It would be a place where you had a bunch of doctors, a bunch of Navy nurses, and a bunch of corpsmen. There would be technicians, and you had a lot of operating facilities. They would bring them back. It might be a distance from the front line 30 or 40 miles. These were big tents, and that’s where we Chaplains operated out of there. They didn’t want you out there.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Oh, they didn’t?

Victor J. Ivers:

No. You were handicap out there. Yes. I would consider myself a handicap out there.

Ellen K. Bassett:

So, they would bring back wounded?

Victor J. Ivers:

They would bring back the wounded and the dead.

Ellen K. Bassett:

You would administer last rights or talk to them?

Victor J. Ivers:

I found out what they wanted. They might say, "Well, I have a family back at home. Can you send word to them, etc., of where I am and what’s happened to me?"

Ellen K. Bassett:

Did you write letters on their behalf?

Victor J. Ivers:

A lot of letters.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Really?

Victor J. Ivers:

A lot of letters, yes.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Really? Just based on what they would tell you to write?

Victor J. Ivers:

Yes. Well, some things they would write, the Navy would delete, the name of the unit and where they were stationed, how many men were there, about the losses then they would run a black line through them, which was all right.

Ellen K. Bassett:

What did you see as the toughest part of your job?

Victor J. Ivers:

Well, I had one tough moment, and only some weeks ago one of the priests here was asking me that question. (recorder turned off at interviewees request)

Ellen K. Bassett:

(recorder turned back on) What were some of the things that you really enjoyed doing? Your favorite thing?

Victor J. Ivers:

Well, I had marriages; I had baptisms.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Oh. You got to perform marriage ceremonies?

Victor J. Ivers:

I had choirs. I organized study clubs for women and Bible core groups for men. In Memphis, Tennessee, I had a group of about 25 to 30 men and women who were getting married. I’d have a course on marriage for them, about three or four sessions. We used little guide books. I would give each one a guide book. I’m still in contact with some of those people who were preparing for marriage.

Ellen K. Bassett:

That’s wonderful.

Victor J. Ivers:

I used to train boys how to be servers. Then I’d take them out to lakes for fishing. On a day off from the Navy we’d go fishing and we’d have a picnic. Those were great experiences. Another great thing is we’d get invited by families. I was away from home for Easter, Christmas, my birthday, my anniversary, and Thanksgiving. I’d be in Navy homes or Marine homes.

Ellen K. Bassett:

And you enjoyed that?

Victor J. Ivers:

One Marine was Jack Spaulding, and his wife was Mary. He had six children. At Lejeune, they’d invite me over. I’d call up at 5:30, and she’d say, "Come on over. I don’t know what we have." She might have hotdogs. That was it. Period. And we would have hotdogs. I would enjoy sharing it with the kids. They were all grade school kids. At the end, he would always stand up and go around, she sat at the other end of the table, he’d walk around and hug her and say, "Mary, you’re a wonderful wife and you’re a great cook." I’ve never forgotten that. And the reason I (?) I’m aboard the Tripoly, we’re three miles off-shore, and remember we have a 300 hospital bed ship-

Ellen K. Bassett:

Was this a hospital ship?

Victor J. Ivers:

It’s a hospital ship.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Okay.

Victor J. Ivers:

But, it also has helicopters. It was a helicopter ship that has a hospital in it. We had ten to twelve doctors.

Ellen K. Bassett:

This was during the Vietnam War?

Victor J. Ivers:

Yes, during the Vietnam War. Word came back that a Lieutenant Colonel was taken over to the Repose. Our hospital ships were Emergency, Compassion, and Repose. They’re named after terms that fit the medical profession. They were about three miles away. You could see the helicopters going from shore, and they’re dropping patients. I said, "Oh." When I went down to dinner, they said, "You know, one of the guys that got banged badly was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corp." I said, "Uh, oh." They have to know his name, get the word out. So, they said, "It’s a man by the name of Jack Spaulding." My close friend. Wow! He died. He died.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Wow.

Victor J. Ivers:

Another time, we were in the Philippine Sea on a big carrier, the Ticonderoga. President Eisenhower has come out to join us.

Ellen K. Bassett:

That was the Korean War, then?

Victor J. Ivers:

After the Korean War.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Okay.

Victor J. Ivers:

He was on a big cruiser, the St. Paul, and it had all kinds of technicians aboard. They changed the (?) and all that. The ship was modernized overnight. Anyway, Eisenhower is aboard. Our ship is the carrier, and he wants to see what our Navy pilots can do. The next day, the Captain says, "All of you guys who are now (?), get up on the flight deck and watch what our pilots will do." So, a squadron took off. It was a propeller squadron, about eight airplanes, and they took off. And afterwards flew with the small bombers. They looked like bumblebees. They had jets. Out in the air and "Boom!" There was a big explosion. A missile had fallen off the small bomber and fell on top of this propeller plane that was just sitting there. The guy, I knew him, he was my friend. I knew his wife and his three kids-lived in Coronado. His name was Sam Brocado.(?) His wife was Frances. Wow! I was wiped out. That was a tough one.

Ellen K. Bassett:

I imagine there were a lot of tough stories.

Victor J. Ivers:

Can you turn that thing off for a second?

Ellen K. Bassett:

Sure. (recorder turned off)

Victor J. Ivers:

(recorder turned back on) One of the nice things I did was serve food to the enlisted men. I would go down to the mess decks, on the three carriers I served, on a big cruiser and on all the little ships on which I served. I would get a cook’s hat, and I would stand there while they were going through the line. I would give them whatever they wanted, you know. I was in my uniform with a little apron. I liked that, because I got to see the men. They’d say, "Hey, Padre! What are you doing? Are you a cook now?" I’d say, "No, but I’m helping out."

Ellen K. Bassett:

Did you volunteer to do that?

Victor J. Ivers:

Oh, yes. I volunteered to do that. Sure. Then I used go down to the laundry. Hot as Glory Hallelujah. And these men would do-.all of our laundry was done down there. It was 120 degrees, I think, at all times. I would go to the ship’s store first and buy a box of what they called Funny Cigars, Sweet Cigars, and take them down and say, "Here, guys." They’d light them up and all they’d be-.I had kind of a feeling for these guys with a backbone of food and clothing, you know, and all of that. I went to the barbershop one time, and I recognized this fellow in the chair. We had about four or five different barbershops aboard the ship in different locations. In this shop, there were six barbers cutting hair, all sailors, of course. Oh, another man came and sat down and I had to hide my face. I got around behind him and I sort of said, "Give me that electric thing." So I ran up and said, "Blah-blah-blah." He said, "What are you talking about?" And he said, "Hey, Chaplain! Are you cutting my hair?" I said, "Yes, I am." That’s fun! A lot of fun!

Ellen K. Bassett:

What did you do for fun?

Victor J. Ivers:

Well, I hit golf balls off the ship. They’d give us 1,000 old golf balls.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Now that sounds like fun!

Victor J. Ivers:

When we were in foreign ports, I’d play a little golf. I fished. We’d stop in some port, and I’d get a fishing line and catch fish. I thought that was fun. Other sailors did it with me. Also, when we went into places, mostly in Japan, Korea and the Philippine Islands, we had a Recreation Officer, and he would say, "Chaplain, we’re going to go to Nagasaki, or we’re going to go to Hiroshima, where the big bomb fell. So, why don’t you make up tickets? Charge $3.00. It will be the bus ride and a free lunch. We’ll see how many you sell." We sold 60 times 4, and we got four big Japanese buses, a Japanese girl in English telling us where we were going. We get up there, and we sit down in a circle on the floor and have the food served to us. And my Captain said, "You’re giving me a free ticket. I never accept a free ticket. The sailors pay for their tickets, and I do, too, Padre." I said, "Alright." And he said, "Also, I must be seated with the enlisted men when we get to the restaurant." I said, "Okay." He wanted to be seated with the enlisted men; that’s the way he wanted it. They’re be 8 or 9 of them and he’d be there chatting with them. Amazing.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Was there anything like a typical day? Did you hold services every day?

Victor J. Ivers:

A typical day would be, at 7:45 they’d gather together all the department heads aboard ship, and the Captain sends out the number 2 man, called the Executive Officer, to give them all an explanation of what’s happening that day and orders. I was a department head, you know, of Chaplains. We were there for about 15 minutes, and he’d say, "Engineer, this is what we expect from you today, and Doctor So-n-so, this is what I expect from you today. Navigator, this is what I expect from you today. Sergeant of the Ship, this is what I expect from you today, etc. And the man in charge of food, etc., etc. We’re getting a supply shipment today. Do we have any problems bringing it aboard?" We bring it aboard by sending a clothesline over, and then on the clothesline, big baskets. Now we do it by helicopters. It’s so much easier. That was the morning. Then I’d go to my office. In the meantime, the library department in Washington may have given us a big box of books for our library. I have correspondence to read, letters from the Red Cross back at home. If it’s a message that involves a problem, the message usually went to another department head, but then he would send it to me. I would be the man to do that. By the way, when we were at a place like Camp Lejeune, we had deaths occur there, San Diego, Coronado. The Chaplain goes out with the doctor and a nurse to visit the family, to notify them.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Really?

Victor J. Ivers:

If your husband died-. I didn’t have that so much, but we had a Chaplain Siders, a Presbyterian. When his car went down the street, they would close their door because they thought it was a death notice. So anyhow-up in Lemoore, California-Navy pilots.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Did you have to do any kind of notification when you were back in the States?

Victor J. Ivers:

Oh, yes, I did.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Oh, you did have to.

Victor J. Ivers:

I did in Memphis, Tennessee, and Pensacola, Florida.

Ellen K. Bassett:

I bet that was very difficult.

Victor J. Ivers:

Yes. I recommended when I was at Camp Lejeune that besides a doctor, we should have a nurse. In the instance of women, two males would not be as helpful as a professional Navy nurse. In some instances, the women were pregnant, and we were notifying them of men that were badly injured or dead.

Ellen K. Bassett:

Oh no.

Victor J. Ivers:

And then we’d call the Navy Specialist at the time. Then we had funerals. (recorder turned off at request of interviewee) 1

 
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