When my dad was a teen in the early 1940s on Philadelphia’s Main Line, he ran around with a wiry farm boy named Luther Beam.
Luther had a ’32 Chevy, a two-seater, they occasionally drove to the middle of Pennsylvania, to Mifflin County, where my grandfather once worked in a Bethlehem Steel limestone quarry and Dad was born. They’d go on a Friday, visit Dad’s relatives, and return in the predawn on Monday. The trip was about 140 miles each way.
With a war on, they’d soon travel a lot farther to do their part.
My dad’s family and Luther’s once lived at a country crossroads called Valley Store, in an eastern wedge of Chester County. In 1938, my grandparents moved a few miles to Malvern, renting and later buying a two-story house on the main street. Luther and his older brother Ernie lived with them for a while.
The house goes back to the 1880s. At one time, folks could buy shoes or have them repaired in a front storeroom at sidewalk level. Luther, Ernie, my dad and his older brother Louie slept in the room. It wasn’t the best arrangement for my straitlaced dad and Luther, because Ernie and Louie were rascals, but it worked.
“I can still see Mom Venditta’s pot of spaghetti cooking on a Sunday morning, and the bubbles coming out of it, piece of chicken in there, a pork chop or whatever. Might’ve been a 5-gallon pot,” Luther said recently, a few days after his ninety-fourth birthday, as we sat in the kitchen of his youngest daughter’s Berks County farmhouse near Hawk Mountain.
Dad and Luther signed up for the military in the fall of 1944. Both were seventeen, with Luther older by six months. Dad, now graduated from Tredyffrin-Easttown High School, chose the Coast Guard. Luther had gone to trade school, what was then called shop class, in West Chester. He joined the Navy and became a Seabee.
My dad went to radio operator school in Atlantic City – 24 weeks. Finishing in the top third of his class, he had his choice of postings. He wanted to go where it was warm and picked what he thought was Argentina. But it was Argentia, a Navy base in Newfoundland. His duty in 1945 was aboard the patrol frigates Abilene and Sheboygan, on weather and plane-guard duty in the North Atlantic. So instead of South America, he found himself shivering off Greenland and Iceland.
Luther took basic training at Great Lakes, Illinois, and Seabee training at Davisville, Rhode Island. He shipped out with the 139th Naval Construction Battalion, headed for the Japanese island of Okinawa via the Hawaiian Islands. “We were in a convoy. From what I heard, half of our battalion was on one ship and half on another.”
The transport carrying Luther and about 600 other Seabees was an old Dutch cargo ship, he said. “The Pacific was calm. I didn’t get sick, but some guys did. One got sick and said, ‘Somebody shoot me.’ ”
On April 1, 1945, U.S. soldiers and Marines stormed Okinawa. It would be the last major battle of the war and one of the most horrific.
“When we were a day or two out from landing, they got on the loudspeakers and said, ‘OK, fellas, from now on, there’s no smoking on deck at night, and there’s no lighting matches. We’re getting close to our destination. Anything that happens now is the real thing.’ ”
Luther was “pretty sure” his ship reached Okinawa on May 1. “I saw our ships shelling the island. I seen one kamikaze come in – it happened so damn fast. The gunners must’ve caught his wing, and he went down in the drink.”
The Seabees rode landing craft in to Brown Beach, he said. It was the southernmost invasion point. Though the enemy had been driven inland, the fighting on the island would grind on for two more months.
“The Marines and Army had pushed them back,” Luther said. “There were still snipers, but we were 90% safe. We had 30.30 rifles, carried them all the time. We were never alone, always had two or three guys in a group. We just kept our eyes open.”
They built roads and Quonset huts, “a little bit of everything,” he said, working twelve hours a day. “I was a grunt. One-fourth of our outfit was fellas that were operators – bulldozers and stuff like that — and had experience with carpentry and plumbing. Us younger guys just did what we were told.”
Nights on the island were cold, he said, but it was nice in the daytime. “We slept on cots in tents, four in a tent, and ate C rations and K rations at first. We got a little box with cigarettes, a piece of cheese, crackers. That cheese was pretty good. I never smoked, so I gave my cigarettes away. Then we started getting some decent food. We ate in a chow line.”
After getting organized, they came up with a way to sleep more comfortably. “Some of us took a couple of two-by-fours and cut big inner tubes in slats, and put the inner tubes around the two-by-fours and made a bed out of that. It was softer than the cots.”
During storms, they’d move to the safety of higher ground. “We went up in them caves, the tombs, I guess they were, where they buried their dead. Just big enough for three or four guys to get in there.”
They weren’t supposed to have contact with the islanders, but did see them. “Some of the Okinawans would come down to the docks at night and want food. They would say ‘We Okinawa-Americans.’ We didn’t know who they were, really. We stayed clear of them. We weren’t supposed to do anything but what we were doing.”
The 139th was inactivated on Okinawa at the end of 1945, four months after Japan’s surrender. By then, Luther said, the Seabees were teaching the islanders how to drive.
Luther and Dad came home in the spring of 1946. Other Beams and Vendittas had also served in the war. Luther’s brother Ernie was an Army M.P. in North Africa. His brother George was in the Navy, working on a tugboat in Australia. My dad’s older brother Sam was with the Army Coast Artillery in the South Pacific. His brother Frank was an Army medic in Panama and later at a psychiatric hospital on Long Island. Frank’s wife, Florence, was in the Women’s Army Corps. Louie, who would lose a son in the Vietnam War, was a ground crewman with the 8th Air Force in England.
“After I was discharged at Bainbridge, Maryland,” Luther said, “they put us on a bus to Philly. They offered us $20 a week for fifty-two weeks. Fifty-two twenty, they called it, and you know I didn’t take it. I was too proud. It was, ‘They don’t owe me any money. They don’t owe me anything.’ So I come home and started working on the farm a little bit, got my legs underneath me, and went on from there.”
Luther worked at Foote Mineral, which made lithium metal and chemicals for the metals industry, then followed Ernie to Peco, the electric company. He did line work, climbing poles — “Probably why my knees are bad” – and stayed with the company for thirty-eight years.
One day, Luther’s sister Ruth had a cooking demonstration and asked her friend Norma Slider to sit at the table. Luther remembered it: “Norma come up with a little pink dress on, just out of high school. I thought, damn, she was the cutest thing! That was the end of my freedom.” (His favorite song, he said, has always been ‘Don’t Fence Me In.”)
Norma was a bookkeeper at Foote Mineral and later at Chester County Hospital. They were married in 1953 and went on to have two boys and three girls. Luther and Dad stayed pals, but more than friendship linked our families. Ernie married one of my dad’s sisters, and Norma’s brother married one of my cousins.
I remember being a kid riding in the bed of Luther’s pickup truck with my brother John and Luther’s sons, Jim and Sam. We were on Route 322 between Downingtown and West Chester, pumping our arms to get truckers behind us to sound their horns. When they did, we laughed and shouted.
My family lived just outside Downingtown on what had once been my grandparents’ dairy farm. Pop-Pop, my mom’s dad, stopped milking cows in the mid-1940s and raised steers instead. There were sixteen acres, a barn, sheds, a corn crib where Pop-Pop’s heart gave out in 1964. Dad got the idea he wanted a steer for meat, and so Luther, a veteran at raising steers, helped him get one.
“Him and I went to a sale, and we got a little black Angus steer and we brought it home and it must’ve got discouraged or somethin’ and it died. I felt so bad about that. A steer can be born out in the field, in the dead of winter in the snow, and it’ll live. But if you pick a calf up at a sale and bring it home, it just seems to have an effect on it.”
The scene sticks in my mind: Dad and I were in the barnyard with the calf. It was in distress, gasping and thrashing about as Dad tried to hold it. He didn’t know what to do. He was flustered that he couldn’t save it.
My brother Bill, sister Carol and a cousin had horses on the property, and there were a couple of ponies, too. In the late Sixties, Luther helped us bale hay to feed the animals. He drove the 1917 Fordson tractor that hauled the baler and a wagon. “The Fordson was a bugger to drive,” he remembered.
While Luther was climbing poles for Peco, my dad was crunching numbers. He was an accountant. It was a thing of beauty to see his fingers race over an adding machine, rapid-fire clacking, his eyes glued to a balance sheet. That dexterity served him well as a wartime radioman. A couple of times in the 1980s, he showed me how he’d tapped out Morse code, saying “dit” and “dah” for dot and dash.
Dad couldn’t hold onto his memory and never got to enjoy retirement. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1993 and sailed ever deeper into the fog until his death in 2004 at seventy-six. I have his Coast Guard papers, manuals and even his pea coat.
Luther says he’s fine, other than his balky knees. He’s been staying with his daughter Joyce Esser and her husband, David, on their farm for more than a year. Norma died in 2006. Two of his children have also passed – Sam, in 2012, and Donna, this past September. A few weeks after she died, he lost his brother Ernie.
Of his World War II service, Luther said: “It was just one year of my life. I was young and didn’t think too much about it. That was it.”