U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Interviewee: Robert Smith
World War II Coast Guard Veteran
Interviewer: Miles Miller
Date of Interview: 28 September 2005
Place: Fredericksburg, Virginia
Miles Miller: I’m Miles Miller and I’ll be interviewing Robert Smith today, we are at his daughter’s house, in Fredericksburg Virginia, it is September 28th and this is for the Veteran History Project. Bob, these are just a couple forms just saying that we can use your information that we gather from this tape, I’ll have you sign these after the interview just to let you know.
Robert Smith: Okay very good.
Miller: Okay let’s get started, so you were born in Detroit Michigan is that correct?
Miller: Can you tell me a little bit what it was like to grow up in that area?
Smith: Well actually, I was raised in Detroit until I was the age of nine then my family moved north to a small town in Lower Peninsula near Mackinaw City and we lived on a small farm. Of course this was during the depression and we lived as many other people did during the depression years, we didn’t have much but we had a wonderful family and I’m the oldest of fifteen children. My dad and my mother had quite a job taking care of us all, but it was a wonderful life and we enjoyed one another very much.
Miller: Did you decide to list in the Army or were you drafted, the Coast Guard, excuse me?
Smith: No, uh, actually I, I went from high school; I joined the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps. I was stationed in Saint Ignus Michigan; there we did planting a lot of trees in parks and along the highway and spots. I decided to go into the service from there, actually I only served ten months there and got leave and went down to Detroit to enlist in the service. Um, it was at that time that I enlisted in the Coast Guard, although I went there with the purpose and a friend of mine to enlist in the Marines, but the Marines were filled up at the time, and this was all pre-war so. Them I, them, they had to wait awhile and I didn’t want to wait and didn’t want to go back up north, so I saw the Coast Guard sign and went over and asked them if they would take people and they said yes, and that’s how I got into the Coast Guard. It was just pure chance.
Miller: What year was this?
Smith: What year?
Miller: So where did you go through training, was there a specific place you went?
Smith: Yes, uh, I was shipped… I was sent to Ellis island where the Coast Guard had the apprentice training station there and spent three months there, and uh, that was very interesting because one half of that building was still being employed for immigrants coming from other countries, principally Europe, and we had a… a big barrier there between our two Coast Guard portion of it. But uh, the experience was very interesting. Especially being in New York City and coming from the woods of Michigan well I, it was, it was quiet an enlighten experience for me.
Miller: Did you get any time while in training to explore New York?
Smith: Oh, Yes. Oh, Yes. Yeah, it was, that was the very interesting part of it. I got acquainted , we... we didn’t get much money and we would get on the subway, unfortunately since we didn’t have much money two of us would mange to squeeze through this, the… the the turn stile on one nickel and save the other nickel to come back with. But yes, we... we explored New York City pretty well.
Miller: Um, just with your training, did you think it was thorough enough for you? Like, did you feel like you were adequately prepared to go into the Coast Guard service?
Smith: Oh, I think so. But, yeah, really, uh… I knew nothing, knew very little about the Coast Guard, so whatever they had, why uh, we accepted, you know, and just went along with it. …the ability to judge whether it was good, bad, or sufficient was difficult at that time and apparently was okay.
Miller: Would you mind telling me what the first ship that you were assigned to, like right out of training?
Smith: Yes, it was the uh….USCGC Spencer [WPG-36]. And uh, and I’m not sure if I could give you much much more explanation of it, a…as a… the size and so forth of the ship. At that time I was, I was just learning about the fact that the Coast Guard had ships and retaining that much information. Although I do remember the ship very well and it was interesting
Miller: What was your first impression when you got there?
Smith: Oh, gosh, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if I recall any first impression. Uh, the ship was quiet large it was matter of fact, they… the… Spencer was the, I think there were, 6th of that style and they were the largest ships that the Coast Guard had at that time. Course, things have changed tremendously since then. But uh, I was … I was pleased with the assignment.
Miller: Can you just tell what you did on that ship, and some jobs you would?
Smith: Yes…actually, course I was… I was a seaman, second class, at that time. I learned that they needed office help and I had learned typing in high school. So I asked the chief if he had a job for me, and he did, I then assumed the duty of what they call the Yeomen striker, and I worked in the office all during the time I was on the Spencer.
Miller: Can you tell me, just; um… what are some of the ranks that were on that ship?
Smith: Oh, gosh…. Uh… course you had your boatswain mates, you had your …your quartermaster, your seamen, your cooks, and you had your mechanical positions, your machinists mates. You asked me questions that I haven’t thought of in so many years. As I wrote in the shell when Neil [someone who had interviewed previously about his service years] asked the questions, I said boy, you’re taxing a 65 year old memory and I’m having a little difficulty with it. There were more of course but that’s all that pop in mind right now.
Miller: It was it on the Spencer that you served with Douglas Munro.
Smith: Yes, he was on the ship at that time and I uh I knew him during that … actually I’m not even sure right now how long I was on the Spencer. Let’s see 6 months, plus maybe seven - eight months, I don’t recall. I had never kept any records of sort so it’s just memory, but uh, I happened to know him on there. Course, the fact of recalling knowing him, I knew others, of course, but then he gained a certain amount of notoriety afterwards due to his heroism. That bought his memory back to me.
Miller: What was, I guess the fellowship like, between the crewmen on the ship? Was it really tight, or was it um…
Smith: Hmm. Oh… I don’t know really… how to answer that. It was pleasant, there wasn’t anything uh, about it that… that really could put a good label on it as such. I know there is one….unusual feature of it that isn’t experienced today or many years since then was, when went aboard we did not have bunks and compartments. We were given hammocks and we had to rig them up each night in, on the mess deck, which was a large open portion of the ship, and that’s what we slept in and then we rolled them up in the morning and parked and put them away along with our sea bags with all our gear. That was feature though, I think that, uh, enabled me to go to sea for a number of years, which I did, without ever getting seasick. I think I had become acclimated to the motion because I was able to sleep in a hammock for those first few months.
Miller: So when you left the Spencer where did you go next?
Smith: What did I, I beg your…
Miller: Excuse me. When you left the Spencer, after you left that ship, what ship did you go to next, or what did you do next?
Smith: Oh, what it was… or what I did uh, the Chief Yeomen had said they had a Yeomen school, the Coast Guard Yeomen School, up in New London Connecticut and he put my name in for it and they accepted me and then I was transferred from the Spencer to this yeomen school. It was a 6 month school there, in New London.
Miller: Do you remember what year that was?
Smith: Uh, that would have had to been in early 1941, because I went aboard the Spencer in July, August, October, yeah the spring of 1941.
Miller: Can you tell me a little bit about the school and what you went through while you were there?
Smith: No, not an awful lot really. It was training in typing, I achieved a certain proficiency, as the others did in typing, an increase proficiency from what your beginning lessons. Also, I learned shorthand and also, we studied different regulations of the Coast Guard as they applied to personnel matters because yeomen duties dealt with personnel matters and during your service time. So, that was basically was what it was.
Miller: Did you end up graduating from that school?
Smith: You have to ask that question. Ha ha ha, my wife says don’t never; don’t say that because a couple of weeks before graduation I went [out] improperly and I got caught coming back and I was bilged out. So, no I did not graduate.
Miller: When was it that you met your wife?
Smith: Uh, that wasn’t until…well let’s see, it was February 1943 that was in Washington D.C. at Headquarters.
Miller: Were you both assigned to Headquarters?
Smith: Oh, I was assigned then, yes, at that time. I was there several months before she came.
Miller: Can you tell me a little bit about getting to know her, and just what you guys did while you where there.
Smith: Well we worked in this office of military moral, and I was there as a yeomen. And um, she came aboard as the first SPAR [Semper Paratus Always Ready--the acronym for the Coast Guard Women's Reserve] that came there to Washington D.C. And uh, of course we all were very interested in seeing the SPARs because we weren’t aquatinted with the fact that of SPARs being in the service, all of us in there…there were civilian girls working office along with the service men, there were probably, I think there were about five or six of us in that office as yeomen, working yeomen. And there were probably be three, four, five girls in there too as civilian girls and she just when she came in, she just joined the group, but she was n object of interest of course.
Miller: Can you tell me a little bit about your courtship with her?
Smith: …Oh… I’m not sure, uh, actually, uh. I was…that little part there. Uh, not an awful lot, I don’t know, she…I was attracted to her, she was a nice looking gal and we went out to lunch a few time, and one thing just kinda drifted along to another and we started dating, and um. Somewhere along the line, I guess uh I decided that she was the woman for me.
Miller: When were you married?
Smith: Uh, April 23rd, 1943.
Miller: Can you tell me a little bit about the marriage? I know you guys were married in D.C. and you were the first, of course, Coast Guard marriage, and service to service member marriage. Can you tell me just a little bit what that was like, was that going through you head at the time or?
Smith: Well, uh, actually the … one thing that surprised both of us, of course, we had arranged with the church there to be married, others, and by that time there were more SPARs then and Donna was living at Kalorama Road in Washington D.C. This is where the SPARs were quartered and um... when they learned, of course, that we were planed to be married, why unbeknownst to us, why, as a group and in this office, why, they surprised us with a very expanded service and so forth and also with a lot of presents and also with a reception at the Sheraton Hotel. It was wonderful, wonderful experience totally unexpected but we’ve cherished it since then… Well as far as a, we … then we got an apartment then, northwest Washington D.C., for the life of me I can’t remember what the address was. But it was very interesting, there is an interesting aspect of this that I might mention to you, at the home that we had the apartment in was a story and a half home with full basement and the people who owned it lived in the first floor and had then made an apartment in the upper floor and that was the apartment that we rented and that we lived in. There was an apartment down in the lower floor, basement floor, and it was empty at the time we moved there and after two or three weeks, why, course one would come in, why, for mail there was in the foyer, there was hallway there was a table that they put the mail there, and I was sorting out through it to see if we had any mail, why, there was a letter there and it had the name on there Sergeant Robert Burns and had a post stamp from Roger City Michigan. Well there had, a couple had moved down in the basement we didn’t know of them and when I saw that I thought gosh sakes there’s no chance that this could be but I thought well I’ll double check. I went down and introduced myself to them and Robert Burns was a man who grew up in the city where I did, he was a couple grades ahead of me in high school. The town I lived in was Onaway, Michigan; Roger City was about thirty miles away. He had been a, he was assigned to Washington D.C. in the army, he had just come from home, he had married a girl from Roger City and they had just moved in downstairs. It’s one of those unusual circumstances, you know, that are really quite, quite astounding.
Miller: Do you remember meeting him again that second time, and does he remember you?
Smith: Yes, course we…. mixed in for time, you know, and we visited quite a bit and got acquainted with one another. Matter of fact, when I had, we both had to leave, why, we had a lot of dishes, my wife had dishes and pots and pans that had been given to us and she couldn’t take them home with us, so we gave them to him. But uh, we occasionally communicated with them, and later years, why, we came back, they lived in Onaway Michigan, and we went up there and visited with them up there at that time. Then we kinda lost track of them because that time he had an ample hardware store, they were planning to sell out and moved to Florida and we lost track of them since then.
Miller: Can you tell me a little bit about your first daughter and how it was like being in the service with your wife being pregnant?
Smith: Well actually, when she became pregnant, it isn’t like it is today where if a service person gets pregnant they can stay in the service, you know with that. At that time, why, she accepted an honorable discharge and she went home. What happened with the pregnancy was the fact that, that at time, why I had taken the test to go to the academy and was qualified and was due to ship out so, I was shipped out to New London Connecticut on the 6th of July 1943 and she was discharged and left Washington D.C. to go home the next day, July 7th and she went home and uh, are first daughter was born, let’s see, November, Feb… no, she hadn’t been born, I went through four months at the academy and I had leave and I of course, went out home and had 30 days leave at that time, I came back to New York City and I can’t remember where, there were a number of us young officers were…what our assignment was I’m not sure, but anyway we were waiting for reassignment there, and that spanned three - four months and I can’t remember all we did, what activities we were involved with. But anyway, our daughter, first daughter was born in February, and when she was, while I was still there in New York and that was early…spring there, why, she brought our daughter and got on train, came on a train to New York City and was with me there for a few days and then went back home with our baby daughter. That was all the experience I had with my first daughter for, oh gosh, I guess she was eight - nine months cause she was out there, out on the West Coast and all my duties were here on the east, East Coast.
Miller: What was your assignment after you saw your daughter? Do you remember?
Smith: Well, yes, from that time I was in New York City, why, waiting for reassignment I was assigned to a crew in Duluth, Minnesota, where they were building new ships, and I was assigned to one ship there in and in Duluth and it was our job to get it prepared for commissioning, which we did and uh…I kinda lost my train of thought with regard to it, anyway, that was my first assignment, it was the USCG Salvia [WAGL-400]. We commissioned it and we, it was a combination ice breaker and buoy tender, and this was in the Spring, that would be ‘44, and we broke ice in Lake Superior uh, but while I was there, it was Easter time, why, my wife came to Duluth and spent a week with me and then she went back home but didn’t bring our daughter with her, she stayed with her mother, uh, her grandmother.
Miller: How was it, what was it like with a daughter and a wife and you were on the opposite coast on assignment.
Smith: Well eh, it just part of your family separated form you, course when you’re young, this is all new and uh and you, you don’t particular like it but you have accept that separation.
Miller: So after the service on the boat, the ice breaker, did you have another assignment after that?
Smith: Well we brought the Salvia around, matter of fact, out through the … down, okay, again that leads to one point that I might mention. We brought it around through Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and Lake Huron coming through the Detroit River the skipper had the con[trol] and he inadvertently hit some rocks. So, we had a hole in the ship so we were in dry dock there for a month in Detroit, oh my family had all moved to Detroit so I had a month then with my family, which was very enjoyable. But then we went on out to Nova Scotia and down the coast and received our permanent assignment in Portsmouth, Virginia and, uh, course all during this time I hadn’t seen my family at all and while I was down there in Portsmouth, why I requested a transfer to the West Coast and activity out there. And, I was granted that and I had the chance to be with my family again.
Miller: What was your assignment on the West Coast, that you requested transfer to?
Smith: Well, I was sent to Alameda and waiting transfer to uh, assignment out in the Pacific.
Miller: Um, how was the transition for you? Were you excited about going to the West Coast?
Smith: Interested, let us say. I wasn’t experience much excitement in that regard, but it was pleasurable from that stand point that one of the reasons I asked for it too, I knew I would have the opportunity to visit home before I got an assignment out in the Pacific. But I was just interested in the new assignment I wasn’t interested in staying in Portsmouth, Virginia because the duty was uh, tending buoys and I wasn’t, that didn’t appeal to me too much.
Miller: What was your assignment in the West Coast?
Smith: Assignment where?
Miller: What ship were you assigned to on the West Coast, or were you, what was your assignment?
Smith: Oh, Alameda, I was, I went on a troop transport and we were taken to Port Moresby, New Guinea. I didn’t have an assignment; I was going out there to be assigned to a ship.
Miller: What ship did you eventually get assigned to?
Smith: Well, the assignment that I received was to, was the called the Y-9. That was a Army… Army tanker, a small Army tanker, very shallow draft and our purpose was to receive fuel, aviation fuel from the large tankers and take them in and discharge at the various air strips. That’s ultimately what our job was, but at the time I wasn’t sure really, but that is what it was. It was just a small ship we had a small crew and there were, let’s see, four officers and I think about 30 men.
Miller: How did that compare to previous assignment where you were on larger ships?
Smith: Um, I’m not sure if you could really make much comparison it was just what I was given and I accepted it as much, uh, I would of preferred to been on a… a larger ship or a Coast Guard cutter rather than that. But it was acceptable. But you can’t make an assessment other than that.
Miller: What was your ranking at the time?
Smith: I was an Ensign.
Miller: Okay, Did you end up climbing any more ranks then that, or did you go any higher?
Miller: Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
Smith: Uh, that was interesting as far as the assignment the LST I was assigned as the gunnery officer on that ship and we were getting prepared for at that time, why the plans all it was Subic Bay in the Philippines. Uh, and we were, they were preparing for an assault on Japan. That was, that was our activity was to get armed up and get fitted to join a task force that would be involved in that, and fortunately before we made that trip, why, the war ended. Then from then, why, on we were involved in transporting troops to Japan, matter of fact, we brought troops into Wakiyama in the first troop plan set there, but we made several trips back and forth
Miller: Did you see any action at all, or was it right before?
Smith: Oh, No, well while I was on the Y-9 only being under attack because we had a little very armament on that we generally just followed the invasions and they have different ones on the Islands around the Philippines. We would follow it in after they go in a secure them and course they go after the air strips as soon as, and there were a number of air strips there and we would go in and fuel up the air strips.
Miller: So when you were on the LST-769 was that the last ship you were on?
Smith: Yes, yeah
Miller: So the war ended while you were on that ship?
Smith: Yes, uh huh.
Miller: What happened when the war ended what proceeded next for you?
Smith: We were all pretty excited; course then you started then right way Okay when I’m going to get out of the service. They had a so called point system but uh, that applied only to the reservists and they were the first ones to start adding up their points and when they started shipping them home they were the first because, I was in the regular service and my commission was called a temporary appointment and I had a fixed duration of time and it wasn’t up yet so, I had to stay out there.
Miller: How long were you out that after the war ended?
Smith: Well, let’s see, well I was out there for almost two years from the time I first when out there until I came back. Uh….so, I’m not sure, maybe six months after the war ended.
Miller: Do you remember your last day of service?
Smith: Yes, uh, actually, we brought the LST; I’ll just go ahead and touch this stand point. We brought the LST back to Hawaii and we had engine trouble so we had to spend a month there for repair and uh, that was enjoyable because four of us officers got a room up in the hotel there we lived ashore and we had, we ate very heartily fresh food and all that good stuff and enjoyed it, but also while assigned there, or while we were there, why, the District Commander, he was talking with him and he need a personnel officer real bad and learned I had been a yeomen and said you’re prefect just the one I want. I said I would like that but I said uh, well he said I’ll tell you if you’ll take this assignment, he says I’ve got a house here for you, and I’ve got the keys right her, and he started dangling them in front of me and he says, I said I told him I was married and about my family. He said I’ll have them here in two weeks time, well I said my wife just bought a car too and he said well I’ll have that here too. I said wonderful I’ll take that assignment; the only thing is I’ll need to have a replacement on the ship because we were all skinned right down to the bare bones for standing watch and bring the ships back and I spent two weeks just scouring all the ships just trying to find one with an extra officer that could take my place. Unfortunately I never found him, but I talked to my wife, oh, she was anxious cause I had a second daughter then at that point too. That was the result of my visit to stay in Alameda. Why we were fortunate enough to have a second daughter arrive…
Miller: I’m back here with Robert Smith and he was just telling about when he was coming back from his service in the pacific and his second daughter and just telling me a little story about how he was offered a house, if you would like to continue.
Smith: Okay, do you think that’s all on there already?
Miller: Yes it is.
Smith: Okay, well anyways we came to San Francisco with the ship and directed to bring it around through the canal to New Orleans, which we did. Then from there we took the LST up the Lake Charles River to Lake Charles and it was there that we docked the LST and decommissioned it and then from there I was transferred, at the completion of that I was transferred to Seattle because um, I had indicated that uh, I didn’t know what would occur because my time of my enlistment was coming due. Uh, so they transferred me to Seattle and I spent three - four months there and that time, why, they offered me permanent commission if I would stay in the service but since I had such little time with my family and I added all that up and I decided that I didn’t want to continue that type of life so I turned it down and then I was discharged in August of 1946, from Seattle.
Miller: Is that when you moved back in with your family?
Smith: Yes, yes.
Miller: Where were you at this point in time?
Smith: Well, we had a bought a home in, outside of Burlington, Washington and started our civilian life together.
Miller: Can you tell me about your most memorable moment?
Smith: About my what?
Miller: Most memorable moment in the service?
Smith: Hmm, that’s an interesting question…probably the end of the war, it was, we were in the Philippines in the Subic Bay and I recall all the excitement and everybody of course was whooping and unfortunately firing guns all over the air. That was probably the single most excitement. Well one other time, course, we were uh, pumping, we were discharging gasoline into this air strip on Tacloben and we come under fire and air planes dropping bombs, I admit that was exciting and we were scared too. But, uh, that’s probably, the end of the war was probably the highest point.
Miller: Are there any other comments or impressions you would like to add before we conclude the interview that I’ve maybe forgotten.
Smith: No, I think in a sense, since this has to deal with the war time period there and uh, and my life during that time, why, I think you’ve covered it pretty well and it’s been interesting to try and recall a lot of that I’ve said, that was 60-65 years ago and I didn’t have any written down records and so forth, just strictly from memory.
Miller: Just one last question, what do you think of the Coast Guard today?
Smith: It’s a fine organization. I think it’s a wonderful organization it’s acting so much better than it was when I was in it, I’m not sure I’ve explained why, except that the time I first went in the coast the guard was part of the Treasury Department and they had very little money, they were always scrappin’ the barrel to get by and take care of the ships and perform duties. I may comment on one other thing that I’ve had the experience of, two things. While on the Spencer we were made weather patrol, 30 days out and 30 days in, one of our times out there we hit a hurricane and boy it was a big one and they, one time during the hurricane I was out on deck and looked and the water was just like being on a saucer in a cup, a big cup. The water was all around like this [he made a motion that surrounded himself], those waves were so huge. But, the exciting part was that the skipper who had the con [troll], I think it was a skipper, anyway he gave the order for right full rudder to the seamen on there and the seamen when left full rudder and the ship went over 54 degrees they said later, 54 degrees, and actually that was past the point of being able to return, but the ship did return fortunately, but that was quite exciting. Then another instance as far as going to sea, and that was one piece of the Coast Guard I loved, I loved going to sea, was in the Pacific, with this LST, why, I was a navigation officer on that along with other duties but we were going and heading to Saipan and a typhoon was coming up and I was tracking it and the Navy was feeding us records for it and we were tracking this typhoon and were plotting our course so we would hit the one-quarter, where the fury of the typhoon was lessen. We were following that very well but just before we got there into that the Navy corrected things and we headed into the worst quadrant, and the ship, I’ll tell you, I looked out to the LST, the deck, the steal deck out there and you could see buckling like this, foot wrinkle and you wondered how in the devil that thing stayed together.
Miller: Did it look like a wave kinda motion going along the deck?
Smith: Yes, the steel deck, that’s exactly what it, looked like. The guys that welded that did a wonderful job. But those were two thrilling moments that I had too.
Miller: Anything else, I would love to hear more if you have anything?
Smith: Well…not right at the moment… nothing, I’m sure there were other more pleasant times and so forth but uh. One incident, but this is just personal enjoyment, we were in Sag Wagon in the Philippines’ and Maaninaw and there was an army base there and an air strip there and the P-51 were the plans flying out of there and they were a night fighter and on one of our trips to the air strips, I got acquainted with this pilot and he said I want to get away from here, I’ve got a few days I can get away so he came with us and relaxed and enjoyed it he says, now when we get back he says, I’ll take you on one of our flights in the P-51. Oh, I was all pumped up for that and right now I can’t remember what spoiled it but I missed it and I was real sorry about that too.
Miller: Well, I would like to thank you very much for this interview.
Smith: Well, I’ve enjoyed it. I was kinda curious about what it might be like and I’ve enjoyed it, I hope you have too.
Miller: I have, thank you very much.
END OF INTERVIEW