World War II vet recounts service in Navy
By Clay Schuldt
Sunday, Nov. 11 is Veterans Day, a day when we honor and remember those who served our country. Veterans Day first became a recognized holiday to honor those who served during the First World War (then Armistice Day). Since the First World War many men and women have served in the U.S. Armed Forces in a variety of branches and fields.
Caledonia resident Joe Clifford volunteers his time driving for Semcac, but 70 years ago he was serving in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific during World War II. Clifford is humble about his service, saying, “Other guys had more interesting and serious stories.” However, with so few WWII veterans remaining, Clifford’s experience provides a unique insight into one of the most pivotal times in world history.
Clifford explained that one of the first things he did after coming home was to figure out how long he was in the service. By his estimates, he was in the Navy for three years, three months, three weeks and three days. Prior to joining, Clifford worked with his father on a farm a few miles out of Caledonia. At the time the U.S. needed people working on the farms and Clifford could have easily avoided service. Instead, he joined the Navy on Aug. 26, 1942.
Clifford said that one hot summer in 1942 he told his dad that when the crop was in that fall he would be joining the Navy. He expected his dad to argue the point, but his dad did not question the decision.
While he did have some patriotic feelings for joining the service, Clifford considers his motives somewhat self-serving. “I was eligible for Uncle Sam’s scholarship with the GI Bill. I would have never been able to go to school without it.”
When asked why he chose to join the Navy over other military branches, he simply explained that he did not want to sleep in a mud hole. “I thought in the Navy at least there would be a clean place to sleep.” Ironically, Clifford learned during basic training that sleeping on a naval ship had its downside as well.
Clifford’s clearest memory of training at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago, Ill. was learning to sleep in a hammock. “If you didn’t do it just right, you were on the floor just like that!”
Even without the risk of falling out of bed, the men in his unit slept shoulder to shoulder and would frequently bump into each other in the night. This would not have been that bad if it weren’t for the fact that at basic training seamen were required to receive several inoculations leaving them with already sore arms. “It seemed like a form of punishment,” Clifford said.
Following training, Clifford was eventually shipped out to the South Pacific as part of an aviation repair and overhaul unit on Espiritu Santo, a part of New Hebrides island chain north of New Zealand.
“Our purpose was to support them in their work, and their work was keeping fighter planes in the air,” Clifford said. After a certain amount of time the planes required service, and the repair and overhaul units stationed in the Pacific allowed for shorter delays. Clifford said that the workers doing the actual repairs were skilled laborers. “I have a lot of respect for that group. They were a lot of skilled people that knew their job well, but they also had to be ready to defend themselves at a moment’s notice. They were not given the credit or publicity they deserved,” he said. “They were in the thick of things like a lot of soldiers.”
Clifford’s Naval unit had the task of clearing parts of the island and constructing buildings. He emphasized that his service on the island was low risk compared to others serving in the Navy. The fighting never came to Espiritu Santo. After a few close calls earlier on, the Japanese continued to be pushed further away from the island by the Allied Forces. In addition, Clifford said the operation on the island was well hidden from the enemy.
The overhauling of the planes required large buildings, but the island’s natural features made it near impossible for the Japanese to locate the operation. The island had huge multi-trunked trees that created a massive jungle canopy that camouflaged the complex.
“We were kind of out of it there, except for our daily routine, so I went to the chaplain one day and asked him to get me out of here. Next thing I knew, I was a seaplane tender.”
Clifford was transferred to the USS Half Moon.
The Half Moon’s purpose was to supply the seaplanes and other ships in the area. Clifford was in charge of the machine shop onboard the ship.
Loaded with a large supply of plane fuel, the Half Moon could not risk carrying any armaments. “We couldn’t be accused of blasting away at the enemy.”
Even on board ship Clifford had the good fortune to avoid any direct enemy contact. The biggest risk to the Half Moon was mother nature. During the monsoon his ship would spend days at a time riding out massive ocean swells. The ship had to keep its nose at the heart of the storm. If the boat were to turn sideways it ran the risk of capsizing.
“We would ride these swells. We would be going up like on an elevator and we would get on the top and the screws (propeller) would come out of the water and the thing would vibrate like crazy.” In addition, the thousands of gallons of fuel in the ship’s hold would be sloshing back and forth further throwing the boat off balance. Clifford said that being out in the middle of the ocean was safer than being docked near land, as the waves could easily smash a ship against the beach.
Like many of Clifford’s generation he has a positive outlook on his experience, viewing the transfer from island duty to life at seas as an exciting change of pace. Even while recounting the turbulent weather conditions, Clifford is simply thankful he was not prone to seasickness.
Following the War, Clifford took advantage of his military benefits to attend school at the University of Minnesota and get a degree in agriculture education. Eventually Clifford became an agriculture instructor, which was the perfect career path at the time. Many returning GIs would decide to return to school for agriculture and instructors were needed. “Those of us who had our ag diploma, we could choose where we wanted to go because there was such a demand,” Clifford said, who ended up in Sherborn, Minn.
Clifford remains modest about his status as a WWII veteran, crediting lady luck for being posted in non-combat position in the Navy and being able to use the GI Bill to jump start his career. When summarizing his experience, Clifford said, “Isn’t it a shame that you have to give credit to being in a World War to account for some of the things that allow you to get where you are? It seems contradictory to think that the very beneficial things you are enjoying or experience are the result of a very serious situation. Many of us GIs could not afford to go to college without the GI Bill.”
Over the last 70 years America has fought several wars, and while none reached the same scale as World War II, Clifford feels that younger veterans coming home may not be receiving all the credit they deserve.
“World War II veterans received a lot of credit and publicity for what we did because it was a World War. These guys who are going out in these messes today are exposed to situations every bit as bad or worse. It’s just a matter of mass. There is not as much involvement as there was in a World War.”