In 1951, when I was seven years old, my father was in his ninth year of service as a Hospital Corpsman in the U.S. Navy, which he had joined during the Second World War. My father, my mother, my four-year old sister and I were living in Alameda, California, where my father was on shore duty at the Naval Air Station.
Then, that year, my father’s tour of shore duty came to an end, and it was time for him to go to sea again. He received orders assigning him to spend at least two years, possibly longer, as a hospital corpsman on the U.S.S. Henrico, a Navy transport that was preparing to sail to Korea, where war had broken out. Times were difficult with my father away. Finally, my father came back from Korea to San Diego, where the Henrico was to be in harbor.
A short time after my father’s return, we left Alameda. My father had three months remaining in his tour of duty on the ship. He and my mother decided that the family would spend that time in San Diego with him. We put some of our belongings in storage, packed the rest in suitcases, and were driven to Oakland by my mother’s parents. They waved goodbye to us as we boarded a Southern Pacific passenger train to take us south.
When we arrived in San Diego, we checked into the Hotel San Diego. We assumed we would be there for just a few days and then would move into an apartment within commuting distance of the harbor, where my father’s ship was anchored for the summer. But, having been too long at sea, my father was not aware of the housing shortage affecting California at that time. He had assumed we could find a place to live quickly. Instead, he had to search for almost a month. So, unexpectedly, we found ourselves staying at the Hotel San Diego much longer than planned.
I had never to my recollection stayed in a hotel before, let alone lived in one. The experience was discomforting yet fascinating. My parents and my sister and I were all in one big room. That was all we could afford. We felt crowded together, especially because we had to share a bathroom with the people in the adjoining room. Our plain furniture and décor soon seemed monotonous. Our meal schedule was chaotic – usually sandwiches and fruit on the run, with bottles of milk, purchased from local delicatessens – because my parents couldn’t afford the costs of room service or meals in the hotel’s restaurant. There were no other children around. My sister and I played with each other.
When that became boring, I tried to amuse myself. And yet, I did find living in the hotel to be interesting. The bellboys gave me rides on their carts and let me help carry luggage. The maids gave my sister and me candy. I liked the daily parade, the sense of ceremony and commemoration, as guests arrived and departed. My mother gave me permission to spend time by myself in the hotel lobby, providing that I didn’t go anywhere else. I sat in the big chairs and watched the adults. At one of the big desks, I wrote letters on hotel stationery and asked my parents to mail them to our relatives back in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As often as possible, my parents took us for walks. These were always interesting. The Hotel San Diego was located downtown near the harbor. The area had a maritime atmosphere. There were office buildings and department stores and banks. But mixed in were numerous shops that catered to the Navy and the Marines Corps: shops where you could buy uniforms, bars, short-order restaurants, delicatessens, liquor stores, music stores. The streets were full of military personnel and their girlfriends and wives. I stared at the bright uniforms and the stylish dresses and felt the energy of the street. I fancied that I was suddenly in a world where all my toys had come alive and taken on a larger, more complicated reality. And there was always music in the background. Loudspeakers in the shops directed it outwards at the sidewalks to attract customers. In the restaurants, there were chrome-trimmed jukeboxes in the booths and at the lunch counters, offering three songs for a nickel. “She’s my truly fair; truly, truly fair…” one of the songs went.
As another way of breaking the monotony, my father took us for a visit on board his ship. For my mother and sister, one time was enough. But I was so interested that I went back with him several times. The experience was magical. I had never been on a ship before, and I was fascinated to see where my father had lived while he was away at war.
The U.S.S. Henrico was a large, gray transport with a stubby superstructure in the middle and large cargo cranes fore and aft. It was being used in the Korean War not only to shuttle supplies but also to carry troops and shelter refugees. For example, at the invasion of Inchon Harbor, the ship’s first assignment was to use the landing boats it carried to put several thousand Marines ashore. Then it took on board an even larger number of Korean townspeople and farmers trapped in the path of battle. For its role in the invasion, and the bravery and efficiency of its crew, the Henrico had received a high military honor known as the Presidential Unit Citation. My father told me numerous stories about the ship’s exploits – for example, how he and his shipmates stood on deck at night while the sky was lit up by the booming guns of the battleship Missouri and the banks of rockets launched from smaller ships; and how, as the invasion proceeded, the Henrico was soon surrounded by its own landing craft and local fishing boats all carrying refugees. In the sick bay on board the Henrico, my father and the other medics treated the refugees and, later, those Marines who returned.
Each visit to the Henrico commenced in downtown San Diego at the Navy pier that was just a few blocks from our hotel. Arriving at the dock, we went on board one of the shuttlecraft the Navy provided to take people to and from the many vessels anchored in the large harbor. Sometimes the boat was an officers’ launch with waving pennants and polished brass railings. More often we found ourselves in a large gray landing craft. On these trips I could imagine I was a Marine getting ready to hit the beach. But I really did little more than stand on the floor of the boxy vessel and fantasize. I was not tall enough to see over the sides.
Arriving at the Henrico, we tied to the barge and made our way up the elaborate gangway that was hung along the ship’s side. At the top of the stairway, my father and I both saluted the watch and were given permission to board. Then we toured parts of the ship I had not yet seen, and visited my father’s medical corps colleagues. There was usually time for lunch in the crowded galley. There were also special surprises. One of my father’s friends gave me a boatswain’s pipe. In the ship’s radio room, I was allowed to tap out a message in Morse code on the wireless key. We toured the labyrinthine engine room. I was allowed to sit in one of the chairs of an anti-aircraft gun. In the sick bay, my father and his friends showed me how to tape broken bones. On the bridge, the officers let me take the helm and pretend I was steering.
On one of our visits, my father introduced me to the Captain. He was in his quarters, wearing glasses, sitting at a big gray steel table, filling out some papers that were, he explained, due at Fleet headquarters very soon. In spite of the time pressure, the Captain invited us to stay a while. He and my father talked at length, mostly about their families and their lives on shore. I noticed that my father had an amazing ability to be the Captain’s friend without overstepping boundaries of authority. I could also sense that my father was not the kind of person who would have wanted the Captain’s authority for himself or even known how to wield it. The Captain seemed to know my father well and to like him. My father seemed to know how to help the Captain relax.
While I sat with them, the Captain pushed a button on the intercom that was on his table. A Pilipino steward, wearing a white coat, entered the room. The Captain told the man to “bring some cereal for the boy.” The Captain did not ask me whether I wanted cereal, and I did not volunteer that I didn’t. The cereal soon arrived, I ate it, and the steward came back and took the bowl away.
A few minutes later, a door opened at the side of the stateroom, and I saw a boy standing there, about my age. The Captain explained that the boy was his son, and that the boy often spent several days at a time on board ship. This surprised me. I had seen other children on the Henrico now and then. Like me, they were with their fathers and left by late afternoon. The Captain’s son seemed to have special privileges.
The Captain’s son and I talked briefly at that first meeting. On later visits I sometimes played board games with him or was allowed to wander with him to parts of the ship where we couldn’t get into trouble. I soon realized that the Captain’s son was very spoiled. His father pampered him. He was lonely. The father spent more nights on board than necessary, because he and the boy’s mother weren’t getting along. The crew members were afraid of the Captain’s son and let him have the run of the ship rather than make him behave. I realized that, even though I was having a lonely summer, I was not as bad off as the Captain’s son.
My father finally found us a place to live. We moved from the Hotel San Diego to a place on the outskirts of the city, along El Cajon Boulevard. Our new living quarter was a small, one story, neo Spanish, two bedroom house set some distance back from the road. There was a big lawn in front, parched brown by the intense, dry heat of the summer. A large parking area covered most of the backyard, leaving just enough space for a small lawn. There were no trees on the property, although I do remember a few low bushes along the outer walls of the house, and several small cactuses. The area was dusty.
My strongest memory of the house was boredom. My sister and I didn’t have any children to play with. We passed the time as well as we could, improvising games in the backyard or retreating to the small living room to get out of the sun. We got very little sleep at night. The weather was too hot and the sound of cars out on the road never went away.
My parents asked us to be patient. Halfway through the summer they gave us the good news that my father had been reassigned. His orders were to report to Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, on the north side of San Francisco Bay. We were going with him and would be able to take the Greyhound bus on weekends to visit our relatives. My experiences as a Navy kid would continue.