When you work the visitor center’s information desk on a slow day, you can strike up conversations with walk-ins. Visitors often will tell you interesting things about themselves. And once in a while they will positively astound you.
It’s December 7 -- Pearl Harbor Day – and this is my World War II story.
One summer afternoon several years ago, I was doing a volunteer stint behind the information counter at the Congaree National Park visitor center. A small group of visitors showed up, and after they watched the introductory film and checked out the exhibits, they headed for the boardwalk trail.
All but one, that is. A gentleman that looked to be about 85 stayed behind. It was a typical July afternoon in central South Carolina, meaning that it was brutally hot and muggy. This elderly fellow preferred to remain in the air conditioned visitor center, and I can’t say that I blamed him.
He wanted to chat, and that was fine with me. After a while I asked him about his headgear. It was one of those caps that Navy vets wear, the kind with the CV/CVA/CVS-numerical (or something like that) that tells which ship they served on. He told me that he was in the Navy during World Word II, which is what I suspected, and went on to tell me about his experiences. I listened raptly. World War II history is one of my favorite topics, and anecdotal histories are the best of all.
The old Navy vet explained that warships must undergo careful inspections at various stages in their construction, and that is what he did. He had been trained to inspect a small, comparatively slow variety of warship called the destroyer escort. (Nearly 500 DE’s were built for the U.S. and British navies; most were used in convoy escort, radar picket, patrol, or anti-submarine roles.)
This is where my ears really perked up. The Defoe Shipbuilding Company in my home town of Bay City, Michigan, built some DE's during the war. Let me interject here that Bay City is a Great Lakes port, so there are waterways navigable all the way to the Atlantic for small vessels like the tugs, PC boats (patrol craft), minesweepers, landing craft, fast tranports, and destroyer escorts that were built in Bay City. Let me also add that Bay City, a town of about 35,000, is the better part of 900 miles from Congaree National Park.
I told this interesting visitor that I hail from Bay City, Michigan, and before I could tell him about the DE’s built there, he blurted out something like “Well, I’ll be damned! One of my duty assignments was to inspect DE's at Defoe.”
He had been given the choice of two DE-inspection assignments, and one was the "Defoe Shipyard" in Bay City, Michigan. He chose Bay City because he had never been there and it “sounded interesting.” This conversation was getting weird, and within the next few minutes it would grow a lot weirder.
A bit of probing revealed that he had, of a certainty, inspected a Rudderow-class destroyer escort that my mother was helping to build. Rudderow-class DE's were built at Defoe (and in a Philadelphia shipyard as well) during 1943-1945.
My grandpa George, who also worked at Defoe, had gotten the shipyard job for my mother. While mom did her “Rosie the Riveter” stint, ride-sharing with grandpa 20 miles each day from the family farm in Akron, my grandma Mary and my uncle Willard (see accompanying photo) performed babysitting duties for me and my cousin Barb.
The old Navy vet and I agreed that it was, indeed, a very small world. We chatted some more, and I finally got around to asking him where he had lived while in Bay City. He replied that he had lived on the West Side. That was an interesting development.
I asked him “where on the West Side?” He said he lived on Wenona. I asked “Was that on South Wenona or North Wenona?” He told me he lived on North Wenona. I asked “Where on North Wenona?” He said he couldn’t remember the address, but it was “an apartment over a grocery store.” It was my turn to say “Well, I’ll be damned!!”
This particular mom-and-pop grocery store, the only one on North Wenona, was an intimate part of my childhood. After the war my family moved to a house on North Wenona just a few bicycle-minutes from the store. This was during the penny- and nickel candy era, and Powers (as the store was then called) was a treasure trove of Sugary Stuff. God, how I loved that place!
My new friend asked what happened to the store, so I told him that Earl Powers caught the entrepreneurial bug, went into the real estate business, and was soon driving around town in a Cadillac. The store did not long survive the arrival of the supermarket era and the building was eventually obliterated. A house now occupies the site.
The Defoe Shipbuilding Company closed its door in 1976, and the site is now occupied by a scrapyard. My mother died in 1998.
I deeply regret that I did not remember to get the old Navy vet’s name and address. I did remember to thank him for his service to our country.