|EAST CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTION|
|ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW|
|Captain John W. (Buck) Newsom|
|USNA CLASS OF 1941|
|June 5, 1991|
Would you comment on your background in North Carolina and what led you to go to the Naval Academy?
I was born in Durham, North Carolina, in July of 1919. I attended primary and secondary school in Durham. My father, M. Eugene Newsom, was a banker, a merchant, and later the mayor of Durham. He also was on the Board of Regents at Duke University. He attended Duke when it was called Trinity College. In fact, all of my family attended Duke; so when I graduated from high school, I went to Duke, too. At the end of the first semester of my freshman year, my Dad obtained an appointment to the Naval Academy for me. I had never really heard of the Naval Academy except that Duke use to play them in football--and used to beat them.
I went to see the Dean of Men at Duke University. He had gone to the Naval Academy. He explained that since Duke was an accredited school, I could enroll in the Naval Academy on a college preparatory course and not have to take entrance exams. My school record was found acceptable except I needed physics. I had to enroll in the second
half of physics during my second semester and then go to summer school and take the first half of physics. My final grade was a better than C average and I was accepted into the Naval Academy.
Since I had to go to summer school, I entered the Academy late. I arrived the latter part of July. Most of the students had started school earlier. I roomed with a guy who had gone to Duke with me. His name is P. C. Brown and he is now living in South Carolina. In fact, it's an interesting thing; there were four of us from Duke: myself, P. C. [Pride Cinclair] Brown, [Jr.], Frank Sanger, and Jimmy Senter, a football player at Duke under Coach Wallace Wade. The Naval Academy was happy to have him to play ball. I don't know if he lasted through the first semester. He hated the Naval Academy and I don't know what ever happened to Jimmy. Frank Sanger and I ran against each other for president of the freshman class at Duke. Neither one of us got it. Pride Brown and I had also gone to high school together. We were both KA fraternity brothers at Duke. During my plebe summer, I roomed with a guy named Johnny [John-Wirt] Burwell from Baltimore who had moved down to Annapolis. I later roomed with P. C. Brown.
The Naval Academy was tough for me; I wasn't really smart enough to be there. I had not really competed like a lot of students had with taking exams. I was sort of handed the appointment on a silver platter. I remember my first semester. If you were unsat in any subject at Christmas--unsat being less than a 2.5--you didn't get a Christmas vacation. I didn't, so I had to stay and study during the Christmas vacation. I needed a 3.2 on the exam to be sat in mechanical drawing, which was a complete fog to me. I studied all the old exams and even received extra instruction. Just before formation broke, I went to see a classmate of mine. He was in his room drawing all these intersections. I said, "What's
that?" He said, "That what we have on the exam." I said, "Really," and I watched him. We went to formation, marched over to take the exam, and I found that it was the exact exam. I got something like a 3.8. This guy C.E. Moore, from Georgia, needed a 3.7. He got a 3.6 and flunked out. I passed the course and during the second semester, somebody "raised the shade and the light came on" and I understood mechanical drawing. I had no strain after that.
I found out later that four battalions took the exam. A lot of the people in one of the battalions did well. The smart guys and a couple of knuckleheads like me in the other battalions did well. A lot of people flunked it. What had happened was a young lieutenant instructor had served under the father of one of my classmates; and the guy, my classmate, was unsat and needed help. The lieutenant had given him a copy of the exam. So the smart guys and a sprinkling of other guys passed the exam. I didn't know that had happened until after it was all over.
Seeing the material he was working on is what made the difference for you.
Maybe it was God's way of doing something, because I ended up eventually graduating from the Naval Academy.
The type of instruction was so different at the academy from what you had experienced at Duke.
Not only the instruction; but the fact that you had a grade in every class every day.
Frank Sanger was pretty smart.
Frank Sanger was very smart. There were twelve to fifteen thousand people who applied to get into the Naval Academy. They had to narrow it down.
To about five hundred?
We had about six hundred go into the Naval Academy. We graduated 399. It was very competitive. Passing with a 2.5 was tough. In fact, I found out as professor of Naval Science out at KU (which was also on the 4.0 grade system), that 2.0 was passing (at KU). I wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to a classmate of mine back in BuPers and said, "Damn you! For twenty years you made me feel stupid, and I wasn't that stupid!" Hell, here I didn't get Christmas vacation because I got a C in one subject. In fact, I didn't get Christmas vacation for three years because every year I was unsat in one subject. During my last year, I said, "Bye-golly, I'm going to be satisfactory in all my work," and I was. That year they canceled everybody's Christmas leave. So I went four years without a Christmas leave.
The Naval Academy was strange to me; because I had gone to Duke where I could walk along the campus and say "Hi Joe," to anyone, whether I knew the person's name or not. It was tough on me because I like people and I like to speak with people; and it was hard for me to adjust to having to walk square corners and to being beaten with bread pans when I was unsat and "on the tree" for one week. The Naval Academy was tough.
Dick [Richard E.] Foster, Johnny Burwell, Pride, C. O. Marshall, Russ Wilson, Victor Moitoret, and I were all pretty close. They were smarter than I and they helped me. In some ways, I was fortunate to get through the Naval Academy; because I really felt I was in over my head. I was always one step out of step. I did graduate, fortunately, and found out that I did enjoy the Naval Academy. The experience was like my position as the current district governor of Rotary in eastern Kansas. I told somebody the other day, "Being district governor of Rotary is a lot like going to the Naval Academy. I wouldn't give you ten million dollars for having done it and I wouldn't give you a dime to do it again." I received a great education and built up an enormous camaraderie. I'm running into guys that I
haven't seen for twenty-five to thirty years and we can take up right where we left off. I couldn't do that with my Duke classmates. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the Naval Academy. I'm glad, however, to see that they have changed the passing mark from 2.5 to 2.0. Many things have changed.
You made reference to some of the pranks or harassment. One that I wasn't familiar with was "on the tree."
"On the Tree?"
What is that a reference to?
Every week, each professor put out a list of people who were "on the tree"; unsat for that week in that subject. He published this list on a bulletin board. If you had a 2.4 in any subject, you were "on the tree" for that week. This was a way of telling you that you were having problems. It showed where you stood and what you needed to get on the final exam in order to be safe.
If you were on the bulletin board as being unsat, then you were considered to be "on the tree?"
Yes. Obviously, if you were "on the tree" enough, it meant that you were unsat for things like going on Christmas vacation. Nobody has ever mentioned that to you?
No, that's one term that I've never heard.
Have you ever heard another expression, "no more rivers to cross?"
You've got to be kidding. Every time you took a final exam you had "crossed a river." There was a song we used to sing in the mess hall. If we had six subjects, we had six more rivers to cross, then five more rivers to cross, and four more rivers to cross, and
finally "no more rivers to cross." A plebe, in particular, had to sing that.
Sing it for the benefit of the first classmen?
For the first classmen and then after a while for himself. No, I wasn't used to being beaten with bread pans and brooms. I didn't understand stuff like that.
Someone like Captain Taussig took great delight in these kinds of things.
Yes, Joe is a different personality. He knew about it. This was a foreign land to me. Not only was it foreign, but it a was tough land for me. They would ask you "How's the cow?" and expect you to sit there at attention and reply: "She walks, she talks, she's full of chalk. . . ."
When we played Dartmouth in football, some first classman would make me sing the Dartmouth song; so although I can't remember what math subjects I took, I can remember the Dartmouth song. I can't remember what my professor's name was but I can remember "How's the Cow?" It's amazing the things embedded in you. We never were beaten with bread pans because we got a 2.4 in a subject. The professor would take that out on you. The first classmen would beat us because we didn't remember "How's the Cow?" or "What Time is It?" I thought to myself, What am I having to do all this for? I did it and I got along with the people pretty well. I basically enjoyed the Naval Academy; but I was glad to get out.
I was assigned aboard a destroyer mine sweeper out in Pearl Harbor. About 180 of us classmates rode out to Pearl aboard a navy transport. We stood watches on the way out. I will never forget when they passed the word about the uniform we were supposed to report aboard our assigned ships in. The crews on the carriers reported aboard in aloha shirts, the battleship guys reported aboard without ties, and those on the cruisers reported aboard in
aloha shirts. Then they got down to the old four-stack destroyers, and we had to go in full white dress with side arms.
We were the lowest in the fleet and there were no admirals around within a hundred miles of us. I was aboard the USS HOPKINS DMS-13. The ship had been the old DD-249. She was the flagship of the Destroyer Mine Sweepers Squadron. George Hussey was the squadron commander. He later became Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance. I arrived at the Navy yard and was told that the HOPKINS was nested at Pearl City, which is west of Ford Island. I was put on a motor whale boat--that was as long as from here to Washington--and I'm riding out to the HOPKINS with my side arms and full white dress, steaming, on a hot day, to Pearl City. I arrived at high noon. Everyone saluted me when I came aboard. I was told that the officers were down in the wardroom having lunch. I went down and reported to the skipper, Robley W. Clark. He was a caustic guy. I walked in with my full dress and side arms and he looked at me like, "What in the hell are you doing?"
Was it standard procedure for everyone reporting to a destroyer mine sweeper to arrive in full dress?
No. Everybody in the battleships got away with nothing. We in the DMS', that nobody would even hardly let in to Pearl Harbor, had to dress like this.
Was this just on that particular occasion they did that?
I don't know. Everybody that day, all of my classmates that went aboard the same type of ships, did the same thing. But this skipper looked at me and shook his head and said, "You've got the deck." I didn't even get lunch. My first job was to be officer of the deck.
I was made chief engineer of the HOPKINS. I remember there was a tough
squadron engineer on board. Everytime we would have a derangement, where anything went wrong (like losing power), we would have to make a report. Most ships would lose power for five seconds; that would be it. But he was tough, so I spent most of my time doing reports. That ship was held together by baling wire and chewing gum.
How many officers did you have aboard?
Including ship's company, we had a skipper, the exec, communication, gunnery, first lieutenant, and engineering. We probably had eight or nine officers and about 120 men. I was chief engineer until they sent this reserve officer from MIT aboard. He was senior to me and was made the chief engineer. I then became the gunnery officer. I was aboard her for about three and one-half years.
The HOPKINS was a day out of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. We had taken some civilian workers down to Johnson Island, which is south of Honolulu, Hawaii, to help build an air strip. We were on our way back to Pearl Harbor when we got the message. In fact, I have a copy of the first message sent out. I kept that. "This is no drill! Repeat. This is no drill! There are Japanese attacking. . . . " We got into Pearl Harbor the next morning. We had to go in and refuel. En route, we had fired at planes and dropped depth charges, killing a bunch of fish. I'm sure we thought every one was a submarine. We had to go in to rearm and reprovision. When we arrived the next day, there were still bodies floating around and fires burning.
What a traumatic experience!
It was traumatic as hell. I never will forget. We had a smart aleck young engineer, a fireman, who was all mouth. He was from Brooklyn. He started moaning and groaning about this and that. That's the first time I remember lighting into him and saying in effect,
"God-damnit, don't you see what's happening, knock off your bitching. This is a war." I really laced into him. I had never talked like that before. I was really upset. That's when it really hit me. It hadn't hit me before; although we were steaming all day and going to battle stations all night. But it was very traumatic to see dead bodies floating around and to see the OKLAHOMA and all those other ships that had been sunk. . . .
And to know how many were still on board?
We spent the first couple of months of the war on offshore patrol at Hawaii. We later went back to Mare Island and received some new guns and radar and then sailed out to join the fleet that went into Guadalcanal and Munda. This experience was also traumatic. I remember I was the gunnery officer then. We stood "watch on-watch off." We would go to general quarters a half an hour before sunrise and stay on until a half an hour after sunset. You did your work in between. The skipper had a heart attack. He was hauled off and we got a new skipper. Finally, after about three, four, or five months, they realized that wasn't the way to fight a war. We were killing ourselves, doing nothing except acting like we were fighting a war. I remember we were in general quarters so much that I had the sail maker to make me a cover, a canvas cover. I put it over a mattress and I just slept on my battle station, unless it really rained.
Those old destroyers were smelly. You had body odors, the machinery odors, and the food odors; they were rough as the deuce. If I had received a nickel for every time I was seasick, I probably could have retired ten years earlier. For a long time, though, destroyers (DMS') were the only ships they sent into the Guadalcanal. We used to tow torpedo boats in and haul aviation gasoline and supplies, because no other ships were allowed to go in. We were there with the first battle of Guadalcanal and the battle of Savo Island. The
Marines were on the beach, and all the other ships had left; except those that were sunk. After one battle, we tried to tow in the ASTORIA, which had been attacked, but we finally had to break loose because it was sinking. We were at Tulagi Island, which was north of Guadalcanal, and planes called "Washing-machine Charlies" would fly around and keep us awake at night; dropping bombs spasmodically, without any pattern. We were in the first hundred-plane raid on Guadalcanal and we shot down two or three planes.
Our new skipper, who was a former aviator, talked me into applying for blimp training. I applied. I never will forget how nice it was when I got my orders. However, I was held over because we were getting ready to haul troops to Munda. I had to stay on board until we could offload at Munda. We came back and went into Tulagi. I remember getting in a torpedo boat with my gear and going over to Guadalcanal to catch a plane back to the States. What a great feeling it was to leave that old bucket of bolts and know that I didn't have to go through any more all-night watches, firing at planes, star shells, and all the other things.
When did you leave?
I left there in July 1943.
Okay, go back a minute. You mentioned going back to Mare Island, to have the radar updated. They had radar on the HOPKINS early on?
No, not until then. That was in early 1942. The radar technicians on board could only stay on watch for something like an hour because it was supposed to affect you physically if you sat too long watching the radar scope or operating the radar. I remember we had to rotate the watch quite often. Radar made an awful lot of difference in the operating and conning of the ship. You got to where you depended on the radar for
I was in the same destroyer squadron with Herman Wouk. The Caine Mutiny was about our destroyer squadron. I remember a story about the squadron commander on board, a guy named Stanley Leith. He was a nice guy; but he was sort of pompous. I remember a radar man reported bogeys at zero-four, zero-twenty miles, or whatever it was. The skipper sounded general quarters and told the messenger to notify the commodore. The messenger came back in five minutes and said, "I can't find the commodore."
He said, "What do you mean you can't find the commodore? We are in the middle of the ocean. This ship is only two hundred feet long and twenty feet wide. He's got to be somewhere." So everybody started looking for the commodore. He was found hiding in the chart house underneath the chart desk.
Hiding. He had crawled underneath the chart desk. Herman Wouk wrote about that.
Herman Wouk took a lot of your funnies and my funnies and this guy's funnies and put them into Queeg. He had an incident in his book where a ship was mine sweeping and ran over the mine "tow." The skipper circled and we ran into our own tow trying to sweep mines. The Caine Mutiny was an excellent book from my viewpoint, because it depicted life aboard an old four-stack destroyer. Actually, they had removed one of our stacks to put the mine sweeping gear on, but it still was an old four stack-destroyer.
Didn't Wouk's captain freeze up in one battle?
I think that's what was probably depicted about the commodore. Most of the things he talked about happened to one person or another and in one way or another.
But Leith was the model for much of it.
Yes, but then everybody was, that he knew. I never knew him; he was either with the ZANE or the SOUTHARD, which were other ships in the squadron.
I left the HOPKINS and went into lighter-than-air training at Lakehurst on the West Coast. I then went to Hitchcock, Texas, and from there I was transferred to Jamaica. I went to Jamaica and flew blimps through the Caribbean until they sent me as officer in charge of detachment to Barranquilla, Colombia, also flying blimps. I got a form of meningitis and was sent to the hospital in Panama. I remember it was not as bad as spinal meningitis, but it was very debilitating and very depressing.
When was this?
This was in 1944.
The war was still going on at that time?
Yes. 1944. Maybe late 1943.
What were blimps doing down in that area?
Blimps were anti-submarine. Escorting ships.
The Germans still had submarines off the coast of South America and down in the Caribbean?
Not only were we patrolling for enemy submarines, but we would also escort some convoys that were going through there. I got over meningitis and asked to go back to sea. They started cutting back on the blimps then, so I had orders to the USS CALIFORNIA. I went to San Francisco and reported to the CALIFORNIA which had been hit by a kamikaze and was on her way back for repairs. While the CALIFORNIA was enroute to Bremerton, I stayed in San Francisco. A friend of mine from high school, Martha Stanley, had offered
me the use of her apartment. She was staying in Durham, N.C., while Dave Stanley, her husband, also a friend of mine in the Navy, was at sea. At the time she offered me her apartment, she also told me about a friend of hers, Faye Nelson, from Salt Lake City, who lived in the same building. Well, you know how life is--I met Faye and we dated the three weeks I was in San Francisco. I went to Bremerton for another three or four weeks and by the end of that time we had decided to get married. The CALIFORNIA was supposed to sail back to San Francisco and stay for ten days, so we decided to set the date for that period; however, the CALIFORNIA sailed in one day and left the next morning, so we had to cancel our plans. We didn't get married until a year later. I always used to think that if one of my kids ever came to me and said, "Daddy, I've known this lady for six weeks and we are going to get married"; I would say, "There isn't any way in hell you are going to get married." Anyway, everything worked out and we got to know each other better through correspondence.
I was aboard the CALIFORNIA when they dropped the atom bomb and I think it was the greatest thing that ever happened in World War II. A lot of people don't think so. I was part of the Japanese invasion fleet. I was air defense officer aboard the CALIFORNIA. I got down on my knees and said a little prayer after it was announced in the middle of the night that the bomb was dropped.
You didn't relish the thought of having to actually invade Japan?
I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I believe a Japanese invasion would have been catastrophic. The Japanese were willing to die to the very end and we would have lost so many men and ships. I was very thankful.
We were also the first Americans in the Kobe--Osaka area after the war. As a
lieutenant commander, I was made a part of a Japanese inspection team that included a commander, a lieutenant, an enlisted recorder, a Japanese admiral, and a Japanese student who spoke English. (He had gone to the University of Washington.) We visited all the Japanese ships to see whether they should be sunk or whether they could be used to repatriate Japanese from Formosa--just what could be done with them. During this time, I found out that the Japanese really had been held together with bailing wire and chewing gum. They could really improvise, it was unbelievable. We went into a cave where they had stored all kinds of stuff. There were binoculars and all kinds of things that you wouldn't believe. Everything just stood there, waiting to be turned over to the Americans. We came back about three days later and discovered that some Marines had gone through the cave like locusts. They had taken the binoculars and all sorts of other things. Our inspection team rode around in little Japanese cars and drank Japanese tea. I don't know how the Japanese were able to fight the war as long as they did.
The CALIFORNIA left and returned to the States via around the world. We were accompanied by the TENNESSEE, a tanker, and four or five destroyers. We sailed into Colombo, Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka. We went to Singapore, Ceylon, and Capetown. We were supposed to go into Brazil; but we were given orders to get back to Philadelphia by the seventh of December of 1945. The CALIFORNIA was then put into the reserve fleet. That's when I finally got married. I flew out to Salt Lake City and Faye and I got married.
[End of Interview]