|EAST CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTIONORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW #130|
|Lieutenant Commander Howard R. Schoenbaum|
|USNA Class of 1941|
|June 6, 1991|
What I am going to do is have you start from the beginning and give your background, early education, where you are from, and what led you to the Naval Academy. Then we'll look at some of the experiences that you remember from the Naval Academy and then work our way through your career in as much detail as you have time for.
I was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1917. I lived in Petersburg, Virginia, from my early years until 1925. My father felt that his four growing boys needed a little more exposure than possible in a small town, so we moved, and I grew up in Huntington, West Virginia.
Was Huntington that much larger than Richmond?
Petersburg was small enough that we had to go to Richmond for major medical care because there wasn't a hospital in Petersburg. In those days, a drive to Richmond was over an hour. Today it is probably twenty minutes. Two of us were born in Richmond, although we still lived in Petersburg. We had family there, in Huntington, which was another reason we moved there. I had my early raising there.
My brothers and I began participating in sports while going to school in Huntington and all of us became proficient in that field. I went through elementary, junior high, and high school in Huntington. I did fairly well in academics and I did even better in sports. I went All- State in football and All-State in baseball. I went to a prep school to further my education and prepare me for a college career of some type. There I was on the Senate (showing picture of him at prep school).
Which prep school was this?
This was Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. I graduated from there, and I really have always wondered what to pin down specifically as to what motivated me to go into the Naval Academy. I would say that all my life I wanted to be on the water, but that wasn't true. The only thing I did notice in those days was that people from inland went to the Naval Academy, and people from the coastal towns went to West Point because they were tired of the water and they wanted to get near land. They didn't want the water.
I know there were prep schools around Washington that were designed to train students specifically for Annapolis. Was that the case with Mercersburg?
No. Mercersburg was a moderately priced school, which prepared you for college. We had people who attended everything from Princeton, Yale, and Harvard, to Pennsylvania and California. It was just a general educational school. It wasn't like Peddy and other prep schools where you specifically went to get enough knowledge to prepare you to pass the entrance exams. I took my exams at Mercersburg and only had to take two subjects. My brother had played ball against Mercersburg. That sort of threw an idea out and I accepted it--I had no idea of another place to go. I got injured while I was playing
football at Mercersburg. I had a torn knee and had to have an operation, which sort of dampened my athletic career somewhat.
They didn't have the type of surgery back then that they have now.
That is right. When I went to the Academy however, I did participate in athletics.
Did your brother go to the Academy or to Mercersburg?
No. He had just played ball against Mercersburg. He went to the Kiski School in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania.
I took the exams at Mercersburg, passed, and went into the Academy where I was a medium student in terms of standing in the class. I started to play both football and baseball and I injured my knee again playing football. Baseball was my first love and football my second, so I decided that I was not going to play football. I wanted to be sure that I played baseball and wouldn't have an injury. In school my grades were average. I received anywhere from a C level to a B+ level. Because our class graduated in February, we didn't finish our last baseball year. I was co-captain of the team with Tommy Blount.
I had an uneventful time there, although in 1938, I, along with Seymour Einstein, felt that our religion was important enough to us that we thought we would like to be able to attend synagogue instead of going to a general Sunday morning church service. We canvassed the school and then we went to the powers that be with the idea of permitting us to have a group who could go separately to the synagogue, just as the Catholics and the Methodists went to their own services. It was approved.
There was a synagogue in Annapolis?
Yes, it was just outside. We could do as the Catholics and Methodists and march out into town to go to Sunday morning services. They approved that and this was started in
October 1938. In 1988 we celebrated the Fiftieth Anniversary by coming back and dedicating a chapel with a special inscription on the wall. It was a good feeling to know that we had generated this. The admiral gave a little speech about it.
What about the academics at Annapolis? Was their approach to higher education pretty much what you expected?
I think it was different in those days. It was narrower. In other words, we didn't have courses like Philosophy, Psychology, or things of that type, which they later found out prepared a person to deal with people, which was part of our job. You should have had a little bit of knowledge about the psychology of working with people. All they had were predominately courses in professional fields [after the first year] in navigation, seamanship, and engineering. Everything was geared towards the navy type. Now it is, of course, different. I think that it is a great improvement. I don't say that we had less of an education, but the teaching system was rigid and inflexible. Many times you went to the blackboard . . . they would give you a slip that said, "Write the answer." If you got it right you got a hundred for the day. But if you didn't know the answer to that one question but knew the answers to the other ten that were handed out, your ninety percent knowledge wasn't reflected. Overall, it was a good education. I think they stressed fundamentals and you came out with an adequate knowledge for a school where you would be getting a BA degree.
What about the social life aside from athletics?
I am sure you have heard from everybody else about the buddy system, where each plebe was assigned to a first classman, who was sort of their mentor to help them over the hump. If you had any questions, you would discuss it with him. Some “spooned” on them
and did not require them to say "Sir" and all the other things. There was a room to go to and relax from strict sort of discipline--have some friendliness.
Some of your first classmen protected their plebes, whereas others didn't manage to.
That was part of the training in those days. They felt that making plebes eat a square meal, making them sit on the edge of their chairs, or making them do push-ups were all part of the training. I think it was all right. I didn't feel that the excessive harassment was necessary, but I don't think there was any excessive hazing. I understand there is much less emphasis on that type of training for the midshipmen today. Of course, then they could treat them all the same--it was all fellows and they didn't have to worry about how they were treating males or females.
I have a feeling that it is a completely different world now days.
Of course, we accelerated our classes in the last senior year. We got out in February. The academics were pushed. They cut back on a couple of the social academic courses, so we only concentrated on our technical education.
The other side of my life at the Academy was that I was sort of a renegade. I chewed chewing gum--never smoked in my life--but I was a habitual gum chewer. I got caught a few times chewing gum. I got caught doing some other silly things. My cap didn't have a sweat band in the center of it, so I put in a comic from the front page of the Saturday Evening Post, the "Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil." monkeys. By accident my battalion commander was standing there while I was holding my hat, and he looked at it and said, "This is non-regulation. You are on report." Well, silly things like that.
What kind of punishment did you get for chewing gum?
I got demerits. Eventually, I accumulated enough demerits in my senior year that I was borderline because I was given a Class A offense for going out of the building when I wasn't supposed to. One Saturday night, there was a movie in the yard. I said, "What is so terrible if I just go to the movies? I can quietly go in and get up in the balcony and hide in the dark and come back home." By then, I had been restricted to my dorm and the classroom building.
This was due to the demerits building up?
Yes. Lo and behold, I was up there in the balcony and I think I was chewing gum-- that incessant thing of mine--when I jokingly said, “That officer is too cheap to go to a movie out in town, he had to come to this free movie on the yard.” He looked up, and way up in the balcony, he spotted me. He was my company commander and he knew about my restriction. He called me in and I got further demerits. I graduated academically but there was a question of my graduating with a commission because, with the excessive demerits, I flunked the level of obedience required. I went to the assistant commandant. I said, “Sir, I want to know if I am going to be commissioned, because if I am not, I will have to start making preparations for civilian life.”
He said, “Look, buddy, normally you probably wouldn't. But we are going to war and we need everybody to go out and participate, and you are going, too.” Instead of graduating with the class in the center, I graduated academically, but I had a special swearing in ceremony for myself because of my demerits. There was a delay, so they put me in afterwards.
Was that so that you wouldn't have the same date of rank?
No, I had the same date of rank. As far as my naval career went, if I needed a promotion because of rank, it wouldn't have made any difference. When the Class of '41 got a promotion to jg, I went along with them. During wartime, they promoted them by class as against the position and job. Some of them got faster advancements.
How did it feel at that point in your life to know that you were getting ready to go to war?
Well, I am a fatalist. I feel that what is to be is to be. I felt that my destiny was possibly set, so, naturally, I never gave it a lot of thought to be scared about it. Being at sea, I just accepted it as part of the deal. I don't think I had any fear of going to war. The responsibility was what we had gone to school for and the war was what was going to happen.
I suppose, at that age, we all feel a little invincible until we have some experience.
I think most of us felt, which is what we probably felt the rest of our lives, that it was not going to happen to us. Whatever happens, it is not going to be as bad or it is not going to happen to me. I don't think we really felt invincible. At least in my position, I never gave it any thought. I never looked at it on a negative basis but only on a positive basis. I think in those days my lack of preparation of any type, which was not smart, for any eventuality that might have happened to me with regards to my finances or remains or insurance, indicated this.
I went to the destroyer SCHENCK, DD-159. It was an old four-stacker. I picked it up at Key West, Florida. We did training down through the area. Shortly after, my ship was transferred to the North Atlantic. This was prior to December 7. We were based in
Argentina and patrolled and escorted convoys out of Boston to off of Iceland, where the English destroyers and escorts came out and picked up the convoy.
The weather was pretty rough up there, wasn't it?
Yes. When it was rough it was very rough. At the same time, other than the fear that there may be something under the surface looking for you, duty at night was beautiful. It was quiet, the moon was always out and bright and beautiful as you were making your zigzag courses through the water, and the phosphorescence in the water made that special light. In that sense, it was a calm reflective time when you had night duty. Day duty was different.
On December 7, just about at the end of that tour, we were escorting ships back and one of them couldn't keep up with the convoy. We were designated as the destroyer to stay and escort it home by itself. It was traveling at about three knots and we had to maintain a big zigzag course. The message came over the wire announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Our captain sent a visual signal to this ship and told them what was happening and that we were at war. Mysteriously, they managed to generate enough steam to go from three knots to about eight or nine knots. It kind of scared them because they figured it was going to get worse. We escorted them home at a better speed.
Were they going slow because of engine failure?
No, they maintained the weather was rough, that they couldn't make speed in the weather. However, they started making speed in the same weather when the danger increased.
The weather improves.
Did you lose any ships in the North Atlantic run?
Yes. Fortunately, we didn't have any of those occasions when there would be a wolfpack out there knocking off three, four, five, or six ships at a time. We had an uneventful, more or less, type of tour. Other than maybe just one time we never lost anything at all.
You weren't in the company of the WASHINGTON during the time they lost the admiral over board, were you?
No, no. We were up in the North Atlantic escorting the AUGUSTA when Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt met aboard the ship. That was one of the interesting things aboard the SCHENCK. We didn't participate directly but we were in the escort and we at least knew what was going on--we were a part of it.
Did that change your routine any?
Just for that period of time, we had to watch who we were escorting, but we weren't doing convoy duty then.
Did they have an inordinate number of destroyers and subchasers around to protect the AUGUSTA?
Yes, we had to have a complete screen. I don't remember how many escorts, but remember, sound travels some distance--not just physical distance but sound distance--and that is your sonar area. Whatever range it traveled is how much coverage you had to have.
I went to sound school in February 1942 in Key West. Sonar was the new thing. I was in the gunnery department, so that was part of my responsibility and training. It was primitive, but it was suitable and useable--the best that we had at the time. I was transferred off of the SCHENCK while it was still making that run. I was sent to the Philadelphia Navy
Yard where I was assigned as gunnery officer to the USS BUTLER, DD-636, under construction.
When was this transfer?
This was late in '42.
The SCHENCK stayed on duty along the North Atlantic or along the Atlantic coast?]
Yes. Then I commissioned the BUTLER and we did patrol duty during my stay aboard, predominantly in the South Atlantic. At one time, we patrolled off the coast of Martinique to prevent any ships from getting in. We had to stay outside the three-mile zone, which was international law. We wanted to make sure that there weren't any German ships coming in and getting into the islands.
How intense was the U-boat traffic in the Caribbean?
Well, we just knew that they were there. It was intense enough . . . you only needed one . . . and we knew that there was traffic going on out there. There was speculation that there were U-boats all the way to the coast of the United States, patrolling, trying to observe and collect information on the movement of ships.
I was with the BUTLER a little over a year. I was then again transferred to Staten Island to commission the USS CUSHING, DD-797. It was a larger ship, with more equipment. One was a 1600 toner, the other one of the 2100-ton class. After training, after spending a nice shore duty there, we were assigned to escort the USS FRANKLIN, the aircraft carrier, which had just been completed and assigned to the West Coast. We escorted it down through the Panama Canal, which was interesting experience--to go through the rising and filling of the locks.
They were trying to keep secret which ships were coming and going through at that time, were they not?
I imagine so. They weren't many limits, it looked like a very difficult job there. They had certain areas they could keep them away from, but only so far. They couldn't prevent somebody from flying a plane over there.
I know I have heard people speak of covering the numbers and the names on the ship as they approached the Canal, so that it would be concealed. The locals still knew immediately what ship it was.
There is not much secrecy in that type. I know it is probably very difficult to do that. That was an interesting experience. We held gunnery practice for ourselves and for them going out. We were assigned to the Pacific Coast. We were assigned to Halsey's task force at that time. That was our duty as one of the many destroyers. It was exciting. We were in a disastrous typhoon and we lost three destroyers, just from turning over. They had not taken on water for ballast because they were supposed to fuel that morning. They were top heavy.
Where was this typhoon?
This was in the China Sea. That was a terrible disaster to lose so many.
How did the CUSHING do?
It had a very heavy roll and we didn't know whether it would recover. We could see the water coming over the sides and the gunwales and we had to stay clear, but we rode it out. Our skipper kept the fuel tanks filled with water for ballast in lieu of being prepared to receive fuel. People were running low, because we usually fueled when tanks were low.
Is it normal to flood the tanks like that or is that only done in a major storm?
No, that is done all the time to maintain ballast.
There is no problem with getting water into the fuel when flooding the tanks like that with water?
No. You know water and oil don't mix, so there was no problem getting rid of the water. They pumped it out.
We did have the comfort of knowing that we participated a little heavy in the war, when our ship knocked down a plane. We got exclusive credit for one plane. We were out on the outer patrol line of the task force and we shot down a kamikaze approaching through the task force.
With the BUTLER we participated in the invasion of Europe at Normandy. We were assigned there from the Mediterranean, where we had been based in Africa awaiting the invasion.
Were you involved in the North African invasion as far as the softening up or were you patrolling?
We were patrolling and did shore bombardment off of Sicily and that is where we shot down the plane. We were patrolling up and down, and we eventually were there when they landed in Sicily. When they were getting ready to start moving up in Italy, we left.
Did you get much return fire from the shore batteries on the German artillery during the bombardment there in Sicily?
The planes were the main threat. They would leave Italy and come over. We had a the Italian and German pilots could order their four-minute eggs, jump in their planes, come over and do a bombing run, and go back, and their eggs would be ready for them. They were at that close quarters to where we were.
When you were at the Normandy invasion the whole channel was just filled with ships, either transporting troops or for shore bombardment or to protect the other ships. What was your reaction to being part of this momentous occasion?
It was a tremendous thing. We felt that at night, with the close proximity of everything, and the many, many things going on, that it was a very difficult job to identify who was who and what was what. We knew that there were a couple of times when American planes were coming over that they were being fired on. From the time you saw a plane until the time it could attack you was a very, very few minutes. You had to respond immediately and take action. If you said, "Gee, I am not sure who it is or what it is and I better wait a little longer and look and look and look, . . .” well it might have been your last look. So there was a very fast-flight identification judgment and we had to act without waiting.
Well, the weather was such that the visibility wasn't that good.
That added to the difficulty of identification because you couldn't see them until they were right up on you.
The German response to the invasion was not what was expected though, was it? They were still looking for the invasion to occur at Calais rather than at Normandy and, secondly, they weren't expecting it on that particular day due to the weather.
We weren't suppose to know what was going on�at my level not at that time. A minimum amount of information at sea, of course, wasn't going to get anywhere. We had a briefing and did carry out a deceptive operation, to convince the Germans that the invasion would take place where they had planned it. Of course, as you read today, you find out
more about different events that took place and how it was done in terms of deception, both on land in France and at sea--deceptive movements, evasive actions.
Do you have any personal anecdotes from this time? Is there anything particular that you remember that happened aboard ship or involved you or any of the men aboard the BUTLER during that episode?
Nothing other than the excitement and the tremendous amount of action that was going on. Fortunately, we had nothing that specifically involved us as a ship by itself. Nothing.
In the Pacific, with the CUSHING as part of Halsey's task force, what engagements were you involved in?
Well, we were not in any surface-to-surface battles.
You got out in the Pacific late in 1943, early 1944?
I was on the CUSHING into forty-four. While out there, other than the one plane action and the typhoon, we were just running back and forth. The heavy, heavy action had taken place just before that. Late in 1944, I was transferred to the USS NEW JERSEY. That was going from destroyer duty to the luxury of a big ship.
How did you react to the difference? You had been on destroyers for three years now and to suddenly be on a battleship must have been quite an adjustment.
Yes. Well, it's like going from a rowboat to a luxury cruise liner. We would be in the wardroom, traveling along at twenty-five knots and we wouldn't realize that we were at sea. We could have been sitting at home in some nice comfortable room
What was your assignment?
Who was the captain of the NEW JERSEY at that time?
It was Captain Williams. I can't think of his first name. He was a nice skipper and it was a good duty. I had to get used to having Marines under me, which was certainly another new experience.
I bet. Just the number of men aboard ship, the number of officers, to say nothing of all the enlisted men . . .the variations in the manpower there must have been rather dramatic.
Yes, it was a tremendously new experience learning about the sixteen-inch guns. It was a different type of duty even when you were officer of the deck. It was a little bit more formal and there was a whole lot more responsibility with the movements and the ship locations.
How long were you with the NEW JERSEY?
After the war we came back to Bremerton, Washington, for an overhaul. That is where I turned in my resignation, while I was out in the Pacific.
Was the NEW JERSEY a part of the Japanese invasion fleet?
No. Not when I was on it.
I didn't know whether it was one of the ships that went to Japan then or not.
We didn't invade Japan.
But there was a fleet that was preparing for the invasion?
We were in that. I am sure at that time the preparations were as secret and at as high a level as they could keep them without letting everybody in the world know until they had to.
The NEW JERSEY didn't actually go right after VJ Day.
Quite a number of ships went to Japan. We were in the China Sea and did patrolling up there wherever the task force went. We were part of that task force from the beginning until the end, along with all the other battleships. We were in the battleship task group of the task force.
Did I hear you say that you resigned in forty-five?
Yes. I turned in my resignation after the war was over. The Fleet was still over there on luxury duty, with regular liberty and a peace-time routine. That was when all the redevelopment took place over there. We still kept the Fleet over there, however, I am not exactly sure for how long, because I had left by then.
Why did you decide to get out?
I had gone into the Naval Academy at nineteen, and I had gone through the war and lived the naval life to see what it was like. I decided that wasn't the career I wanted.
There were other things that you wanted to do?
I decided to get involved with something else. I didn't think I was fit for the sea, mentally. It was certainly not a waste. I was trained to defend my country and to be a part of those who were involved in that, but I felt that I could do other things, too. I preferred not to be there. I thought that was the time to get out and pursue other things.
What did you go into when you left?
When I left, I went home. Eventually, after trying several different little things, my older brother and I decided to start a bowling and billiard supply business. My father was in the bowling and billiard business and already operated a billiard room/bowling lanes together.
Was this in Huntington?
In Huntington and in Charleston. My brother did not go into the service because he had football injuries. He stayed home and took care of the store. There were four boys and three of us were in the service. My oldest brother was in the Army and my younger brother was in the Navy, stationed in Bermuda, most of the time, and at Norfolk. We lost my older brother in the Battle of the Bulge. That was another thing that influenced me in deciding to resign-- my brother's death-- because my mother and father had a hard time getting over it. I would be around and in the area near them if I left the Navy.
We felt that there was a need for someone to supply the equipment and supplies for the bowling lanes and the billiard rooms in the area. We started in Charleston and stayed there for about two years. We decided that if we wanted to be a success at this and to really grow, we had to get into an area with a better concentration of establishments. We picked Columbus because all of my brothers had gone to school there--Ohio State-- except me. Our name was known in the area so we thought we would go and start up there, which would put us in the middle of everything.
You have been in that business ever since?
Right. My brother said that he wanted me to go to Columbus because it was a bigger city and there was a better chance of finding a nice Jewish girl there to marry.
Were you successful in that?
Yes, I was successful. I have a wonderful wife and we have been married for forty-two years, with three young girls. I was thirty-three years old when I got married.
Looking back, do any recollections come to mind pertaining to any aspect of your Naval experience that you would want to share with us?
Well, I may have a couple of things. I really didn't know what to expect. I have a tendency to just take everything as it comes, to consider it interesting, but I never say, "Well, this was so exciting, or that was probably bad." I just say, "Well, it just happened." That was my feelings as I was going through this period. I can't think of anything that would be really outstanding, really exciting. I thought it was interesting in the North Atlantic, to know that we were going into Iceland and Reykjavik. I had a chance to see that part of the world and how they lived up there, and I figured I may possibly never go back there. I felt it was a big experience to have escorted the lifeline to Europe at that time, and I was glad that we didn't have to take the ships further because that was where all the hell was.
Who was the most memorable individual that you came in contact with during those years? Can you think of any individual or individuals that had a major impact on you, either positive or negative?
I think the performance and leadership of some of the officers I served under was wonderful. The executive officer on the SCHENK, Taylor, was a strong influence and showed me what was expected in an officer's performance. I think he would probably be the only person that made a specific difference.
I got a commendation from the skipper of the BUTLER for the performance of the ship and the gunnery department. I was proud of that commendation.
During the invasion, you were looking primarily toward the sky for German planes rather than toward the ocean for submarines, were you not?
And we were involved in the shore bombardment.
The blimps overhead were trying to cover the sub threat, were they not?
The surface vessels were trying to carry out shore bombardment or looking out for airplanes, while the blimps searched for the subs?
At night, which was a bad time, they couldn't see anything. Only a few times were we where there were any blimps. We were just there a short time during the invasion period.
What I based that on was seeing the old film footage of the invasion. It looked like quite a few blimps in the sky.
Well, you know, they always say, “If there was one, Hollywood put ten out there.”
Well, a lot of that film footage was actual footage rather than the Hollywood version.
That is what I thought I had been watching on some of those documentaries and stuff, actual film footage.
I don't remember much about it. I thought the blimps were predominantly over England as home protection for them.
What beach did you bombard? I mean during Normandy.
Wherever they sent us.
I imagine there was quite a bit of confusion during that time.
I don't remember. I didn't keep a very good personal log over there.
You were getting ready to say something about the post-war period.
After I let the Navy, I went home and participated in starting this business, and it grew. We decided we wanted to move. We moved to Columbus because of the greater
possibilities. My career in Columbus was a very enjoyable time. I got involved in raising a family after I got married. I got involved in the community, participating in various local organizations, with the Jewish senate and Jewish community, predominately, but also with the United Appeal and other charitable organizations. I became president of the local Jewish center. At the same time, I was active with the national organization of the Billiard and Bowling Institute. I went on its board and eventually became president. I served two years and continue to be actively involved.
Bowling enjoyed quite a growth during the fifties? I know it hit here in the South.
It grew and then it went through periods, I wouldn't say of a slump, but of plateaus. It had rapid growth. You'd hurry up and build, and then, after a while, try to find some people to fill them. Then you'd find people to fill them and you would have to hurry up and build again. Of course, there was a big growth in Japan. They build hundreds and hundreds of lanes for hundreds of persons. They built them upwards to the sky because they couldn't afford the land to build them on the level.
I stayed in that business until 1986 and then I sold out.
You said it was time to retire.
When I left the SCHENCK the skipper was nice enough to give me what was left of the old flag. He changed the tattered torn flag for a nice pretty new one, and he gave me the one that was left.
The one that had been flying on the SCHENCK?
It was normally much larger, but there was only a part left of it. I kept it for about forty-five years. Then I heard that they were collecting such things here, so I sent it to the Naval Museum in Washington.
That would be the best place for it. We do not have museum facilities. Ours is a research facility.
I went to see it in 1988. They told me that they were professionally cleaning it and getting it mounted and ready for show. It will go on show when their exhibit goes around the country. I was amazed that I was able to keep it that long. Of course, I didn't do any preservation on it myself.
[End of Interview]
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