MYSTIC – The lives of military veterans, however hazardous or prosaic their service might have been, have something important in common: they were all touched by the great historical events of their time. The local residents profiled here were from an era when such service was not unusual, but their stories serve to remind us today of the individual sacrifices, rewards and memories that shaped the lives of generations of American veterans.
RONALD E. WILLIAMS
Ronald E. Williams volunteered for the Navy in December 1940, one year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was only 17 years, one year before he was eligible. He laughs at the story. “I went to enlist in the Army and they told me ‘Sorry we can’t take you, you’re too young, but you can go in the Navy.’” That’s exactly what he did.
Now 90, Williams says his motivation for enlisting was money. It was rural Pennsylvania during the Great Depression and he began coal mining at the age of 12. The Navy looked promising.
The naval training stations at Great Lakes, Ill., and Newport were closed at the time because of a measles outbreak, so he returned home and was recalled in March 1941. “They told me there was a problem with my papers so I had to sign up again, and this time my length of service was set at six years,” Williams said.
Williams was trained as a machinist. His first assignment was on the USS Stack, a destroyer with the mission of escorting merchant marine convoys to Europe during the Battle of the Atlantic. During the first years of World War II German U-boats wreaked havoc on supply ships to Europe. Most of Williams’ supply runs were from Canada to Iceland. “We also did some anti-submarine work near the entrance to the Panama Canal,” he said.
In June 1942, the Stack escorted the aircraft carrier USS Wasp, along with several destroyers and cruisers to the Pacific Coast, in a convoy to beef up the fleet in the months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In August the ship aided the invasion of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, by providing coverage for the troops.
In August the next year, he left the ship to visit his girlfriend, Helen, who he later married. The Navy then began looking for volunteers for submarine duty and Williams accepted. After training he caught a ride on the USS Proteus, a submarine tender, at Mare Island, Calif., and boarded the submarine USS Parche in March 1944, at Midway Island. Of its six patrols he was on board for the final five.
The Parche’s war patrols are chronicled in Stephen P. Moore’s “Battle Surface,” and are the stuff of legends. Williams continued as a machinist and also helped operate the 5-inch deck gun. In one 1944 tour the Parche surfaced amid a Japanese convoy. The submarine shot its way out, sinking four ships and damaging another two, earning a Presidential Unit Citation. In all, the sub fired 18 torpedoes in less than an hour. Ultimately Williams would earn two Bronze Stars, and later, more than 10 other medals throughout his career.
“We didn’t think about being afraid at the time because we were too busy,” Williams said.
Williams said many of the familiar notions about undersea warfare are true: depth charges be literally be deafening, and when submarines exceeded their diving depth they creaked and groaned under the pressure. As for picking up survivors of a sunken vessel, it was pointless if they were Japanese. “We stopped several times when we could to pick up survivors but the Japanese would never come on board,” he said. “It was their honor that prevented them, it would bring shame to their family.”
After the war the sub sailed to the Bikini Islands where it was used as target practice for the firing of two nuclear bombs, one above and one below the water surface. He witnessed the event from 10 miles away. The Parche escaped significant damage and was cleaned of radioactive material.
In 1956 he was accepted into the nuclear program. He served as chief of the boat and senior engineer for the USS Seadragon, the first submarine to navigate the Northwest Passage. It was also the third submarine to surface at the pole. “We had a softball game there,” he said. “If you hit a home run, you ran around the world. Everyone hit one.”
He retired as a lieutenant commander in 1971 after 30 years. Once able to settle down with his family, they moved to Mystic, where he spent the next 15 years teaching about nuclear submarines, naturally.
ROY D. WELCH JR.
Roy D. Welch Jr. was 13 at the start of World War II, and the fighting disrupted his life. His older brother and sister enlisted and his father left his job as chairman of the music department at Princeton University to work in Washington, D.C., organizing big band and orchestra concerts. Anyone wishing to attend bought a war bond as the price of admission.
Anne, his sister, was one of the first Navy WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) officers in the country. His brother was based in the Pacific and when writing letters home would send coded messages. “It was something like the first letter in the first paragraph, the second letter in the second paragraph and so on,” he said. “The first message said ‘Guam’ and another said the ‘Philippines.’”
“My father was a good friend of Albert Einstein because he played the violin and would love to talk about music,” Welch said. “At Christmastime I would go with my friends to Einstein’s house and sing carols, which he loved.”
Welch can also say that he was one of the last people to see the Hindenburg fly. “I was 9 and going to Miss Fine’s School in Princeton. The teacher told us to go to the parking lot and see this big airship. We saw that thing fly overhead and it was the most incredible thing I had seen in my life,” he said. “Sometimes I had nightmares about it.” It was Thursday, May 6, 1937, and by 7:30 p.m. it had exploded in Lakehurst, N.J.
After graduating from Northwestern University he enlisted in the Navy, hoping he would have a better choice of job duties than if he was drafted. “I went to officer training school in Newport. It was one of the best schools I ever went to in my life,” he said.
He was then deployed to Pearl Harbor during the Korean War on the USS Elecktra, an attack cargo ship. He later found out that he was a victim of McCarthyism. “I tried to get top secret clearance but didn’t. Later, I heard that it was because my father was friends with some college professors that were suspected of being Communist, which wasn’t true,” he said.
Most of his duty was spent in the Pacific, making runs to furnish provisions, fuel, and water to support the war effort.
While on board, the crew discovered logbooks from the ship’s World War II duty. While providing support for the troops in Africa, the ship was torpedoed by a U-boat but was ultimately returned to service. “I will never forget reading that, the image will always be in my mind.”
While on the Electra, one day a drill was scheduled and Welch knew nothing about it. He found himself accidentally standing too close to a 5-inch gun. “It deafened me for life. That’s why I have to wear hearing aids all the time,” he said.
He also had the fortune to fly aboard the Navy’s Mars airplane, a four engine cargo transport seaplane, a two-level affair that held more than 200 people. A flight from Hawaii to San Francisco took almost 20 hours.
Welch served for five years and attained the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. “Same rank as my sister,” he said, while laughing at the sibling rivalry.
Ruth Walsh is an Army brat and proud of it. She comes from a military family. Born in Wyoming, she considered home to be where she was at the time. Her father graduated from West Point and was a career Army officer. In World War II he was part of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the Philippines. He died when a disabled aircraft landed out of control, killing 21 people. At the time she was living in Washington, D.C. “That was very devastating to our family to hear the knock at the door and see the telegram,” she said.
Upon graduating high school she enrolled at the University of Maine. “By that time they had the Women’s Army Corps, which was called the WAC,” she said. “When I was getting ready to graduate they opened up the WAC Company Officers Course, where you went into service as a second lieutenant after you graduated.”
By the time she finished the course and was placed on active duty, in December 1950, the Korean War had begun. Her first station was at West Point, where she was the executive officer of the WAC detachment and also served as a supply officer for the hospital. “They wanted us to get the full experience of what everybody did, so we shoveled coal and went out on bivouac. It was a fascinating experience,” she said.
It was there she met her husband, a cadet, and they were married in 1951.
Being a woman in the army in the early 1950s was not easy. “It was perfectly fine to date and perfectly fine to marry, but women in the military were not permitted to have children and stay in the service,” she said. “Absolutely not.”
After West Point she was stationed in Camp Breckinridge, Ky., in 1952, at the age of 21, with the 101st Airborne Division, assisting the general and investigating the status of certain soldiers. “I enjoyed the training and the work I was doing. It was fun,” Walsh said. But all that ended in late 1953 when she became pregnant with her first child. “I was honorably discharged and that was that,” she said.
Later she tried to re-enter the service but was told she would not be allowed to do so until her youngest child turned 18. It ended her military career.
Divorced, she spent a summer in Mystic, and loved it. She decided to stay, obtaining teaching certificates in New York and Connecticut as well as a master’s degree. “I served in the military the best I could and am still thankful for that time. I am a very patriotic person,” She said.
In 1997 she attended the dedication of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington along with several friends. Last year she received a Greatest Generation medal from the University of Maine. “Some of the women thanked us because we were the pacesetters for them. It was a great feeling,” she said. “You can see the advances we made.”