First of three parts
My Uncle Walter liked to say that if he’d kept his mouth shut, he wouldn’t have landed in the Navy and ended up at one of the most desolate, unforgiving outposts of World War II.
Walter Leroy Hannum was my mom’s older brother, born in 1910 to a southeastern Pennsylvania farmer and his schoolteacher wife. In his youth, he crafted wooden patterns for machinery, rode motorcycles, built biplanes and learned to fly. As a thirty-something sailor in the North Pacific, he specialized in aircraft ammo and bombs bound for Japan. Back home, he used the GI Bill to earn a commercial pilot’s license.
The lure of machines almost cut his life short. When he was twenty, a biplane he was riding in dived into a field, killing a young cousin and critically injuring the pilot. Walter was seriously hurt, but the accident gave way to good fortune. While laid up in the hospital, he met a student nurse, his future wife. The next year, a motorcycle crash banged him up again.
Undaunted by the plane disaster, he got a private pilot’s license in 1941. When America entered the war that year, he was exempt from the draft because his employer, Downingtown Manufacturing Company, did defense work. In peacetime, the plant built paper-making machinery, for which Walter made patterns for casting. Now it made steam winches to raise anchors and lift cargo onto Liberty ships, and produced the steering mechanism for airplane rudders. Walter once made a pattern to carry the breech mechanism on a submarine’s five-inch deck gun.
He liked the work but bristled over the plant’s personnel manager, who’d come down to the pattern shop and tell Walter, “I got you a deferment. Isn’t that pretty nice?” Walter steamed over it.
“I didn’t like it, and I didn’t like him, and I didn’t like him having me in debt to him,” he told me in 1997, when he was eighty-six.
The manager told Walter again and again: “I got you another deferment. Isn’t that pretty nice?”
Then in 1944, when it got near the time for another one, Walter told his foreman, “It’s about time for that big SOB to come down and tell me I have another deferment and isn’t that pretty nice. I’m goin’ up to Personnel and straighten him out.”
He confronted the manager. “I don’t want no more deferments.”
“Well, if you feel that way, I’ll just take you off of it.”
That was a Wednesday. The following Monday, Walter was on a train to Philadelphia to report for induction into the military. He was married and thirty-three years old.
With his background in aviation, he hoped to get into the Army Air Forces as a mechanic. “If you wanna go in the Air Force,” he was told in Philly, “you gotta go in the Army first.” Walter had a problem with that. He didn’t want to do a lot of marching. The heck with that, he thought.
“I’ll take the Navy,” he said, but with no promise of getting the kind of job he wanted. He was inducted on May 5, 1944, a month before the D-Day invasion of France that doomed Nazi Germany.
“Boy, was I wrong about the Navy!” he said. “I went to Camp Peary in Virginia for boot camp, and we marched from 8 in the morning till noon, and you went and got somethin’ to eat, and you went out and you marched from 1 till 5 in the evening for seven weeks.”
One day, the trainees were tested on math, history, geography. A proctor said, “Anybody that’s interested in an aviation rate can stay for a special test.” Walter didn’t think he could pass it, but took it anyway.
“I guess I passed because they interviewed me one day about what I wanted to do in the Navy, and they found out I had seventeen years’ pattern experience. They wanted to put me in pattern-making.”
He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to get into aviation.
“No, you can’t,” one of his two interviewers said, noting Walter didn’t have enough education, just one year of high school. But the other said, “Look at his aptitude test,” and with that, he got a green light for schooling.
He was off to Memphis, Tennessee, to the Naval Air Technical Training Center, where right away the trainees had to pass a math test to stay. Walter fretted again, but he passed. He wouldn’t have, if he hadn’t taken an International Correspondence School course some years earlier – a course that opened a life’s worth of work for him.
“If I hadn’t taken that ICS, I never would’ve made nothin’.”
Now, Walter was among twenty-one students in a class studying aviation ordnance – bombs, fuses, ammunition, machine guns, all of the armament for airplanes.
“We had classes all day, and all day Saturday you took tests on what you studied that week. The next week started, you were on an all-new subject. And if you didn’t pass all those subjects, you had to go at night to try to pick up what you failed.”
An officer urged Walter to volunteer for aerial gunnery, but he balked. He’d seen what fighter planes did to a target with six .50-caliber machine guns, and didn’t want anyone shooting at him.
“Are you afraid to fly?”
“No,” Walter said, “I’m a civilian pilot.”
But he changed his mind about gunnery when classmates pressed him to join them. The draft for gunnery school was filled, though, meaning he couldn’t go. He was in sick bay with a cold and fever when he got word that a slot had opened up for him.
Others in sick bay razzed him that he’d made a mistake.
“Boy, are you foolish! You have the highest marks in our class, and there were two openings at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.”
That didn’t matter to Walter. He didn’t like the cold and thought he’d be learning aerial gunnery where it was warm, in Florida.
“When they read all the drafts out, it was Whidbey Island. I asked somebody if Whidbey Island was off the coast of Florida. He said no, it’s off the coast of Washington – the state of Washington. Good Lord, that’s up there in the Northwest and this is December!”
But Walter found the weather up in Puget Sound, above Seattle, was pleasant that winter of 1944-45. The place was Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, home of Fleet Air Wing 6, where he studied weapons in a classroom and then went outside to fire them.
“Your platform was moving and what you’re shooting at is moving, and you’re only allowed to fire in bursts of twelve shots, because you had an air-cooled gun. If you fired too long, your gun would get hot and quit.”
He shot at all kinds of targets, instructed to always lead them, and learned to use a turret.
“I liked the hydraulic turrets. I could get that gun right where I wanted it. But the electric turret was kind of uncertain. You moved your control, it went too far. If you tried to move your control to slow up, then it was too slow and your turret was erratic trying to follow a target.”
Walter finished the course and worked as an instructor on the firing range while waiting for reassignment.
“All we had was cotton for our ears. You had four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon of these guns firing. After two weeks, my ears were ringing night and day.”
His chief said he could stay on as an instructor or put in for a draft out of Whidbey Island. Walter opted for the draft, figuring anything was better than the bedlam in his ears. In the meantime, he went on seaman guard at night, keeping watch on the station’s patrol planes.
One Sunday morning, after he and others finished six hours on guard duty and were crossing a field, they came across a petty officer. He told one of the weary sailors to square his crooked hat. The sailor made a disparaging remark and was put on report. That sealed it for Walter.
“I thought, I’m tired of this chicken nonsense around here.”
He asked to leave the island. It was early June 1945. A pal who worked in the station’s draft office told him that an officer saw Walter’s application and said, “We’ll fix him up.”
When Walter’s orders came through, he couldn’t make out where he was headed. His assignment was just a bunch of letters across the top of the page, “alphabetical soup,” he called it. He went to the post office to get his address changed, and the clerk asked, “You know where you’re goin’?” Walter hadn’t the slightest idea. “You’re going to Adak for further transfer.”
“That’s up in the Aleutian Islands.”
Walter went to the library to look at a map and saw that Adak is about midway out the Aleutian chain from mainland Alaska.
Good Lord! he thought. Alaska! He worried about the “further transfer.” Where would it take him?
Part 2 coming Wednesday, August 11