Monthly Archives: December 2014

Old San Juan – Luna Street

Of my visits to San Juan aboard the USS Tutuila, I seem to recall most vividly, the first. A shipmate and I went ashore on our first day, seeking “excitement, adventure, and really wild things”. To get the afternoon started we bought a bottle of the local rum and a one litre bottle of, God help me, 7-Up. We then found a cab and asked the driver to take us to a nice beach.

Just east of the big hotels, along the northern shoreline, was a broad beach, visited in those days mostly by the local population. There we enjoyed the surf, and the freedom, and the exotic setting, while consuming an adequate amount of our drinks.

But, rum and 7-Up notwithstanding, the surf and the setting soon got boring. So we walked around a bit, taking in the sights and, for us, the newness of it all. Finally we hailed another cab to take us to the old city; specifically Luna Street, where we expected to, and did, make contact with others of Tutuila’s crew.

There we explored the city of conquerors, and pirates, and colonials, stopping occasionally to patronize the local businesses (that is to say, the bars), taking advantage of the fact that there was no Puerto Rican statute requiring us to be 21 years old to do so. We eventually made our way to what many thought to be the best bar in town.

Holding court at his favorite San Juan bar was our division officer, Mr. Robertson, a grizzled Chief Warrant Officer who, scuttlebutt (rumor) had it, was a survivor of the Bataan death march, and whom we both feared and respected. So we were on our best behavior.

This of course didn’t mean no fun; just don’t make a fool of yourself, and spoil someone else’s good time – particularly that of the boss. Good advice, and mostly followed. When not followed there would be consequences back aboard the ship. So while I managed to have a good time, all in all, my “P’s and Q’s” were carefully watched. I had once been on “Robbie’s” bad list, thank you, and wanted no more of it.

 

Christmas 1959

There are times and seasons which remain prominent in memory as if (to paraphrase Steven King) they are special small slices, cut from the cake of time. One of these, for me, is the Christmas season of 1959.

There was the family Christmas, of course, which was always special in itself. And I was now, at every opportunity, exercising my newly acquired ability to ice skate — My Uncle Ray’s old hockey skates were serving me quite well. But those are both somewhat generic. My best memories of that time recall the after school sessions in Mr. Ireland’s homeroom.

I believe Mr. Ireland felt a responsibility to his young charges that went beyond simply administering each morning’s brief homeroom gathering. In the first semester of 8th grade, at 13 years old we were all, outside the comfortable circle of family and close friends, sort of feeling our way into life; awkward, shy with girls — The girls, I would later come to find out, were shy and insecure as well, although we boys sure didn’t know it at the time — and I truly think Mr. Ireland’s mission was to help us, in his small way, to get through all of that.

So as the Christmas season approached, and some of us, in response to Mr. Ireland’s invitation to the homeroom class, started spending a few afternoons, after classes were over, helping to create Christmas decorations; not just for our room, but for the hallways of the entire school.

These gatherings brought us, boys and girls alike, into an informal, safe setting, focused on a common goal; decorating the school for Christmas. We were, of course, already excited about the season, and the work was fun as well. But soon these gatherings — by design I think — evolved into small, informal social events. Somehow a record player appeared, and we soon started to bring our favorite 45s, as Mr. Ireland’s after school arts and crafts sessions gave way to miniature sock hops.

While not my original reason for attending — the artwork, and the opportunity to hang out with a nice group of kids was enough — the best thing about all of this was April, with whom I always seemed to be partnered for the work, and soon enough for the dancing as well.

The song to which we danced most often, because we requested it be played often enough to wear out the grooves on the record, was “Mr. Blue”, by the Fleetwood’s. So as Gary crooned, and Gretchen and Barbara harmonized, April and I would hold each other — to an appropriate 13-year-old degree, of course — and glide away the afternoon. It was my first “Our Song”, and as the saying goes, you never forget your first.

Thank you, Field Marshal

To speak in the language of today — which I usually do not — I want to “Give a Shout-Out” to Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, former commanding officer of the British Army in World War ll, whose command also briefly included the unit in which my father served. This somewhat unusual salute is the result of the following story.

On December 16, 1944, on the cusp of the coldest European winter in a century, the German army launched an offensive through the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest into Belgium, thus beginning what would be the largest battle in the history of the United States Army; the Battle of the Bulge.

At that moment, my father was a staff sergeant and commander of an M4 Sherman tank; a member of Combat Command B (CCB) of the Seventh Armored Division, currently in Heerlen, Holland expecting — after just completing a long difficult campaign securing the Scheldt Estuary — to wait out the winter before the all-out push into Germany.

When the German army came swarming West in many locations over a broad front, the principal objective, initially, was the Belgian town of St. Vith, which contained an important crossroads, as well as a vital railroad junction. In fact, the only railroad line from that area to the west; something upon which the German Army was counting quite heavily.

So late in the afternoon of the 16th, my father, and the rest of his unit were ordered to travel overnight, some 60 miles to St. Vith; there to establish a defensive perimeter, and hold the town against the German onslaught.

After forcing their way through the chaos of retreating American units, CCB Commanding General Bruce C. Clark organized his, and remaining US forces, and set in to defend St. Vith. Recognizing how vital the rail-head at St. Vith was to the German plan, the order was to hold the town at all cost.

After several days of repelling constant, brutal, probing in-force, and finally a massed assault, by the German Fifth Panzer Army, including, among others, the elite 1st SS Panzer Division, the so-called “Adolf Hitler Division”, Clark’s CO sent word up the chain of command that if they continued to hold, his unit would shortly cease to exist. Word came back that every hour the Germans could be delayed was vital, and to buy as much time as possible in an Alamo-like fight to the last man in the snows of Belgium.

It was at this time that the American command determined that they could not effectively orchestrate forces in the northern portion of the battle area, including St. Vith, and over the objections of tactical commander Gen. Omar Bradley, command of the “Northern Salient” was passed to Field Marshal Montgomery.

The Field Marshal visited that most critical location of his new command, St. Vith, and determined that it was not necessary for these men to perish. He would instead reorganize forces in the north into a stronger defensive line and ordered Clark to execute a fighting retreat, buying as much time as was possible for the vaunted Patton, and other reinforcements to arrive.

On Dec 23, taking advantage of the falling temperature which had turned deep mud into frozen ground, CCB of the Seventh Armored, and the other units under Clark’s command gradually withdrew in the action which would later become the U.S. Army’s textbook example of the use of armor in defense. All in all, these units held St. Vith for six days, against overwhelming odds, totally disrupting the German timetable. “The Battle at St. Vith” was later cited by the commanding general of the 5th Panzer Army, General Hasso Von Manteuffel, as the key event in the failure of German forces to succeed in the overall offensive.

After finally yielding at St. Vith, CCB of the 7th Armored Division received General Eisenhower’s personal thanks, a nights sleep, a couple of hot meals, and orders to return to the front. After a month of bitter fighting, a sign was erected on a road to the east which read “You Are Now Re-entering St. Vith Courtesy of the 7th Armored Division”, and the Battle of the Bulge was over.

So on this 70th anniversary, I want to honor and to thank my father, S/Sgt George A. Shropshire of Aurora, IL, and my namesakes, S/Sgt Thomas Forkin of Pittsburg, PA, and S/Sgt Dale Hoskins of Ramsey, IL, and the rest of the allied forces who fought with such valor. But a special thanks to you, Field Marshall Montgomery, for the decision on December 22, 1944 which saved the life of my father, two years before I was born.

A Visit to Puerto Rico

After completing our post-refit Sea Trials and departing from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, our reward for a job well done was a visit to what was then the Tutuila’s favorite liberty port — San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 After our arrival, and we were properly secured to the pier and all arrival formalities met, liberty commenced. Given that this was our sole purpose for being there, and there was no regular “ships work” — that is to say, repairs — to be performed, time ashore for those not burdened with the duty were a day-and-evening long events for two of every three days we were there. Or for as long as the money lasted anyway.

Most of the crew, for most of the time, swarmed San Juan’s “Old City”, which catered to the Navy in the way it now serves Caribbean cruise ships. The principal difference being that the seedy bars of 1965 far outnumbered the tourist shops and chic restaurants which are found in today’s San Juan.

The old city of San Juan, which dates back to the days of the Spanish explorers, lies between the fortress of San Cristobol and the del Morro Castle, which guards the entrance to the bay and harbor. The many bars and other entertainments notwithstanding, this place – with its history of pirates and Conquistadores — was fascinating to explore, and simple sightseeing was, in and of itself, an interesting and, importantly, inexpensive activity

But sometimes we would venture further. Into the new city we would go. Into the portion of San Juan which occupies the peninsula bounded by the northern shoreline and the bay; to the west of the Castles, the old city, and the harbor. Here was a splendid beach — similar in contour to the broad, hard flat sands of Virginia Beach, VA — to which we would bring our “Turf Boards”. This also was, and is, an area occupied by the city’s more affluent residents, and which also featured many grand and luxurious beachfront hotels, in front of which we would stroll, along Avenida Ashford, imagining what wonders there might be, just on the other side of the looking glass.

Of all the big hotels, I was most captivated by the San Geronimo Hilton, occupying what was, in days past, the site of a lesser fortress. I recall gazing at the grand edifice, promising myself that I would — on some unimaginably far-off day — return as a guest (Something I did, some 40 years later, thanks to American Airlines, and a lot of Hilton Honors points).

Sea trials – Guantánamo Bay, Cuba

After a period of overhaul and refit in the shipyard at Portsmouth, VA the USS Tutuila returned quite briefly to Pier 2 before departing for Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to undergo “sea trials”. This was, and still is I would suppose, the Navy’s way of assuring that the old ship was not only as good as new, but hopefully better.

The trials, which actually began on our way to the Caribbean, and continued in the startlingly blue waters south of Guantánamo, were an exhaustive series of tests and exercises — including what could laughingly be called Speed Runs, during which the old liberty hull would “air it out” at 11 knots.

All of this mechanical huffing and puffing proved that all was well. This was to be expected, as both the shipyard personnel, and the Navy were (are) quite good at taking care of their assets. But a measure of any ship’s seaworthiness also includes a sharp, well trained crew. This of course meant many, many drills, which honed the crew’s skills, and which were of course graded by the Gitmo evaluators.

My small part in all of this was as a member of one of several “damage control” repair crews. For General Quarters (Battle Stations), or for any ships emergency, the repair crews would gather below decks, in designated areas, and wait for action. The Navy had learned well, and remembered, the lessons of WWII, and so a large portion of the training – and grading — was oriented toward firefighting. My job was to carry, and deploy as required, the “Access Kit”; a bulky canvas bag containing a large pry bar and sledgehammer, and other assorted tools which I might use to gain access, for the firefighting/repair crews, to compartments involved in fire, or calamity, or any other problem.

Short of a real emergency, of course, my “problem” was carrying, when called upon, the heavy, clumsy bag, at a run, through the cramped spaces. But we all performed to a satisfactory level. The ship was awarded a Navy “E” for excellence — the Navy’s very visible way of saying “Well Done” – which would be prominently displayed thereafter, for all the world to see, on the ship’s bridge structure This greatly pleased the Captain, which made the officers happy, which in turn made life a bit easier on all the rest of us.

Despite the grueling schedule, we were given time off in the evenings — and once, for a whole day, during which the Captain hosted a Beer and Barbeque party for the crew on a palm-ringed bluff overlooking the sea. On every other day we would get underway early in the morning for trials and drills, and return in the later afternoon. When “In Port” we would anchor in our designated spot. The Gitmo piers, such as they were, were reserved for more important vessels than ours, so for liberty we rode the ship’s boat to the landing. From there we would walk to the nearby Enlisted Men’s Club, or to such other recreations as there were.

After all of the effort, and the trials were successfully completed, we weighed anchor for the last time at Guantánamo Bay and steamed eastward to our reward – a visit to one of our favorite places; San Juan, Puerto Rico.

December 1st – Christmas Memories

Aside from being my father’s birthday, the first day of December was a transitional moment in the cycle of each year. Thanksgiving and, sadly, the extended autumn have come to an end. But okay, the page turns and in earlier and more rational times, the Christmas season could now begin.

Christmas time arrived sort of slowly in the days of my youth. But once it was December, it was now okay for snow to fall, for we all wanted a White Christmas, and the possibility at least of experiencing an old-fashioned Courier and Ives-like scene as the season came to its fruition. Cold weather was okay too, for if the Phillips Park lagoon was to freeze for skating the temperature had to dip below zero for two or three nights — which in those days it almost always did in December’s first couple of weeks.

As the Christmas season itself began to get rolling, spaces around the entrances of grocery stores and other shops were festooned with green pine cuttings and wreaths, and the scent of the pine perfumed the cold, often snowy, air. Bunches of Mistletoe were available for hanging, and boughs of Holly for hall decking.

In the background, bells could be heard as people hustled about from shop, to shop, to market, to the lunch counter at a convenient drug store for a BLT, and finally, laden with packages, to home again. Empty lots were filled with cut fir, or spruce waiting to be selected, taken home, and transformed into that most magical icon of the season, the Christmas tree, which would then dominate the living room for the next three weeks or so.

I recall the occasionally secretive nature of my mother as she acquired, and carefully hid, presents for the big day. Although I knew her hiding spots, I never peeked. Yes, the waiting was agonizing, but to know ahead of time would diminish the unmatchable special-ness of Christmas morning.

Our after dinner drives in the ‘50 Plymouth would take us, more than once, to join the slow line of cars navigating Lenertz Avenue at the edge of Aurora. Homeowners of this semi-suburban street, with a lot of open land, had collectively decided to tell the story of the journey to Bethlehem and the Nativity with large cutout figures, and signs relating passages from the biblical story, and of course many many many lights. Cars, laden with mothers and fathers. and of course the children of the baby boom, came from miles around to join the parade, pausing at house after house to read the passages and admire the artwork and gaze in wonder at the lights.

At school our classroom was transformed, by our own efforts, into a wonderland of colorful cut paper chains, and bows, and drawings of bells and candles and holly, and all manner of Christmas decorations which we ourselves produced in — what at least seemed like — extended art periods. Absolutely the best time of the year, at least as far as school was concerned.

I recall little page size day calendars — a recurring theme with me it seems — with a small flap on the back so they could be stood up on the living room end table like a picture frame. On the front of these calendars was a painted Christmas scene of some sort, which seemed almost three-dimensional with flocked snow and silvery glitter. Little numbered doors, marking December’s days, were cut into the top layer and could be opened — one per day — to reveal a Christmas message printed on the layer below. Each day I would come home from school to open that day’s door to read the underlying message, and to feel my excitement grow, knowing I was one day closer to the two-day event that was Christmas**.

      ** See the earlier Post “Ghosts of Christmas Past”