My WWII Service in the U.S. Navy
I am a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, yet my most dramatic memories come from our role in two land campaigns: the Battle of Anzio, and Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France.
I was born in 1923 in Brevard, North Carolina. My father, Robert E. Orr, was a carpenter, and my mother, Florence Ann, was a homemaker. I had a sister, Bessie, and three brothers, Floyd, John and Wallis.
In 1941, when I was 18 and had finished high school in Brevard, my family moved to California. We moved because of my sister Bessie’s health. She had bad asthma. We came out to visit my brother and found that while she was here she was much better, away from the damp climate in North Carolina. We settled in Mono Vista, in Tuolumne County. My sister regained her health here. She lived to be 80.
My first job in Sonora was setting pins in a bowling alley. The bowling alley was located on South Washington Street, catty-corner from where the Subway restaurant is now. Bowling was big at that time. There were tournaments, and we were pretty busy. There were two theaters in Sonora and very little else in the way of entertainment.
Later I worked in the Pickering box factory in Standard, at the facility that is Sierra Pacific now. I met Mary Magni, the girl who became my wife, during this time. Mary and I corresponded throughout the war, married after I got home, and had a daughter, Doralee Ann.
Mary passed away in 1969. Doralee married Gordon Grubb, and they live in Modesto. I have a grandson, Jacob Zane Grubb, and two great-granddaughters, Grace and Ava, who live in Sacramento.
Joining the Navy
After the U.S. entered the war in December, 1941, young men were keen to volunteer for military service. I was no exception. I joined the Navy in December of 1942 at age 19. I had thought of becoming a career Navy man, so I chose the Navy. I went by myself to San Francisco, to the Federal Building, to sign up. I was sworn in on December 10, 1942.
I did 12 weeks of boot camp in Farragut, Idaho. The idea was to separate you from your normal environment so that you would adapt better to the military. We had a good training officer. I met a lot of nice guys, all willing to serve. When we finished basic training I had a few days’ leave at home. We left for New York on March 29, 1943.
When we got to New York on April 2, I rated a weekend liberty. I remember I saw Charlie Barnett and his band. I went aboard L.S.T. 377 on April 12, 1943, and we sailed straight for North Africa as part of a large convoy. Our speed was six knots or 6 3/4 miles per hour. It was a 30-day voyage. I was seasick for a week.
Historical note: The L.S.T. (Landing Ship Tank) was a unique vessel developed during WWII at the instigation of Winston Churchill, who recognized that amphibious operations would be a cornerstone of strategy for the rest of the war. The ship had a 328-foot-long hull, with a bow ramp that could be lowered after the vessel had run itself up onto a beach. The ship could carry troops, heavy tanks, trucks, and other pieces of mobile equipment. They were also capable of carrying smaller vessels, L.C.V.P.’s, or Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel, which could be offloaded away from the beach and find their own way in. About 1,500 L.S.T.s were built in the U.S. during the war and used extensively in both the European and Pacific theaters.
Although we were not ship’s crew, they had plenty of ways to keep us busy. We chipped paint, scrubbed, and repainted. We swept a lot of dirt. The food was okay, regular Navy chow. Chipped beef on toast (that’s the polite name for it) appeared on the menu frequently.
When not on duty, the guys played cribbage or cards: pinochle, poker, or penny ante. We were strongly encouraged to write letters to family and girlfriends, although the letters were read by the censor.
Historical Note: The Allies had invaded North Africa, which at the time was held by the Germans, Italians and Vichy French, by way of landings near Oran and Algiers in November 1942 called Operation Torch. After some early setbacks, the American and British landing forces were able to meet up with the British forces pushing west from Egypt, and the remaining German forces surrendered in Tunis in May, 1943, thereby ending the war in North Africa.
We arrived in North Africa on May 7, 1943 and proceeded to Oran, where I was stationed until June. Then I was sent to the Navy salvage base at Dellys, a small port on the North African coast east of Algiers. I remained there for about seven months. Our unit took over a yacht club where we stored equipment.
We were primarily a deep-sea diving unit in charge of harbor clearance and salvage. I wasn’t a diver. I did try it once but quickly concluded I wasn’t cut out for it. The diving suit is claustrophobic. When they screw on that helmet, you’re all alone in there.
Under water, you can barely see anything. I was a “topside man,” a tender, in charge of the air compressors and lines. That made me a pretty important person to the divers. You had to play close attention to their signals.
Although I joined the Navy “to see the world,” I didn’t see much of North Africa. We weren’t encouraged to visit the surrounding area. We were nearly always at sea, and when we were in port, liberty was hard to come by and ended at 11 p.m. We mostly mingled with our own.
I spent a month in Algiers working on the USS Thomas L. Stone, a troop transport that had been torpedoed by German aircraft and had run aground in Algiers harbor in November 1942. The hope was to raise the ship but the Navy’s efforts failed and the ship was eventually sold to the French for salvage.
I was transferred back to Dellys in early February of 1944. On February 21 I went aboard USS Restorer, a salvage tug designed to assist stricken ships: towing, repairs, firefighting. We set out for Naples, where we arrived on February 25. Eight hours later we left for Anzio, where one of the worst battles of World War II was under way.
Historical Note: The Italian government had surrendered in 1943, but Italy was still occupied by the Germans, who were determined to defend the entire Italian peninsula even though many of their resources were committed to opposing the Allied invasion of Normandy. The Allied plan (Operation Shingle) was to establish a beachhead at Anzio, on the West coast of Italy, south of Naples, and then to press eastward across Italy to outflank the enemy defenses and continue north towards Rome.
The first days of the campaign went well. The enemy was taken by surprise and Allied troops went ashore on January 22, 1944 without any organized resistance by the Germans. The Americans and British successfully implemented a huge operation to land supplies and troops in the harbor and establish a beachhead.
By the time we arrived, the Allies were in a bad situation at Anzio. The terrain was difficult. There was a lot of rain. The battlefield was in an area of reclaimed marshland which the Germans had flooded, so some of our guys were up to their hips in mud and water. The enemy got organized and resistance was fierce; some of the hardest fighting of the war took place as the Allies tried to break out from their beachhead. The casualties on both sides were terrible. The campaign lasted four months with little progress.
Naturally, the enemy hoped to disrupt the Allied supply operations. When our ship arrived in the port at Anzio on February 28, we were shelled by the Germans from the land. The following day we were shelled again and came under attack from the air. Restorer stood by to provide assistance.
We weren’t supposed to keep a diary in case it fell into enemy hands, but I did, anyway, for some of the time. I still have it. It seems I made pretty regular entries during the Battle of Anzio. On February 29 I wrote, “Near miss by three bombs.”
On March 2, during a break in the weather, we watched a huge fleet of Allied bombers flying overhead to attack the enemy not 10 miles away. There were so many aircraft they seemed to darken the sky.
That night, we experienced four enemy air raids. My diary shows a single entry for March 3 to 6: “Continual air raids.” On March 7: “Six raids in four hours.” Enemy planes would attack at sunrise and sunset and repeatedly at night, so we didn’t get much sleep.
I noted in my diary that on March 9 we saw a German plane fall in flames a mile from the ship.
I reported “a near miss by a tin fish off the fantail” on March 14, “near miss by dive bomber off starboard bow” on March 16, and on March 21, “near miss by 3 or more bombs off the stern.”
On March 28, in a daylight raid, three German and two British planes were shot down. On March 29, I noted that two German planes were shot down in another daylight raid. I saw one hit the water. Our bombers flew whenever the weather allowed.
Through all this, all of us were scared, even though my diary doesn’t make mention of that fact. Don’t believe anybody who tells you they weren’t scared in that situation. It just got to be routine to feel scared.
Despite their efforts the enemy never succeeded in stopping the Allied supply operations.
On April 15, 1944, Restorer returned to Naples, where we assisted in clearing the harbor. After that, we sailed back to North Africa. We had been lucky. During our time at Anzio our ship was never hit and we didn’t lose a man.
Invasion of Southern France
Then, once again, our unit had a role to play in a land campaign. We were put aboard an L.C.I. (Landing Craft Infantry) and began to train for “Operation Dragoon,” the invasion of occupied southern France.
Historical Note: The purpose of Operation Dragoon was to liberate the southern French port cities of Marseilles and Toulon, which the Allies hoped to use to supply their operations in northern France, where the D-Day landings had just started. The invasion was initiated via a parachute drop by the 1st Airborne Task Force, followed by an amphibious assault by elements of the U.S. Seventh Army, followed a day later by a force made up primarily of the French First Army. The landing caused the Germans to abandon southern France and to retreat under constant Allied attacks to the Vosges Mountains, on the German border.
Our forces hit the beach on August 15, 1944. Our ship stood by to assist if necessary, as we had at Anzio.
Once again we came under fire, but that stopped after the first few days as the enemy began to fall back from the coast. This campaign was controversial, because some felt the resources used by the Allies on Operation Dragoon should have been spent elsewhere.
But from another point of view Operation Dragoon was a success. It resulted in the liberation of a large portion of France, as well as making the southern ports available to the Allies for the purpose of supplying operations in the north.
The War Ends
After Operation Dragoon, our unit returned to Dellys and from there, we shipped home to New York. I was based at Pier 88, the main salvage base for the Navy. Some of my friends volunteered for duty in China and I decided to go with them, but we never got there.
The war ended and we didn’t get any farther than Pearl Harbor, where we were engaged in towing and reclaiming operations.
After five months, I had enough points to get my discharge, which I did on January 26, 1946. After 37 months, four days and 4 hours in the Navy, it felt great! I was happy to return to Sonora and pick up my life. I love the Sonora area. Mary and I got married, and I went to work again for the Pickering Lumber Company.
A few years after the war ended, my life did take a different turn. Around 1960, Mary and I visited a friend who showed us around Knott’s Berry Farm. One of the attractions was a stagecoach ride. I figured I could do it in the state park in Columbia.
I knew how to ride a saddle horse but I had no experience driving a team or building a stagecoach, so I got together with Eddie Webb, who, as a young man, had been a real stagecoach driver. He taught me everything I needed to know. He was a good friend.
We built four stagecoaches together over the years, in addition to offering stagecoach rides. Mary and I ran the business and it did well. When my wife passed away in 1969, I sold the business. One of our stagecoaches still operates in Columbia.
I continued to work shoeing horses for local owners. People think shoeing a horse is hard work, but for me it seemed easy. I kept on doing that until I was 85.
At almost 91, my health is good. I’m still able to drive. I’ve always loved to drive, and hope to be able to keep on.
I live outside Sonora, but I drive into town most days. I enjoy going to McDonald’s for a meal and meeting friends for conversation at the doughnut shop. Every couple of weeks I drive to Modesto to see my family and do my shopping.
Looking back, I am proud of my service in the Navy. I was not in a combat unit and never fired a shot, yet I came under fire in two important campaigns.
The work we did was necessary.