Lee Batt: My World War II Service in the U.S. Navy

Lee-BattBy LEE BATT

As told to Pres and Shirley Hatt

My research after the war uncovered the fact that one in 26 Mariners died during WW II. Over two dozen ships were sunk off the West Coast, and about 300 ships along the East Coast. After spending time in the Merchant Marine, those numbers were not just statistics to me.

— Lee Batt

Pearl Harbor

I remember the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. I was working at the Standard Oil refinery in Richmond as a laborer, primarily moving 50-gallon drums around in the refinery. A drum full of paint weighed about 700 pounds and required a lot of hard work.

On Sunday, December 7, I took my mother for a ride in my car, and outside of Sebastopol the civil patrol stopped us for about an hour. That is when we learned that Japan had attacked us at Pearl Harbor.

How it all began

I had had some fairly interesting times growing up. I was born in October, 1923, to Leo and Hazel Batt, who lived in Eureka, California. My parents decided to name me Leo Ferguson Batt, Jr., but the doctor hated “juniors,” so the birth certificate read simply, “Lee Ferguson Batt.”

I started at the Lafayette School in Forestville, about two miles from a thousand-acre ranch where my dad worked. I was kicked out of that school in the second grade because I kept nagging a kid called George Porter.

On one occasion all the buttons somehow came off his shirt. Well, both of his parents were on the school board, so I got ejected and had to go to Ridenour School in the tiny town of Hilton, about four miles down the road from home. Before I arrived they were going to have to close that school because there were only seven kids in it, but I was the eighth kid, and that allowed the school to stay open.

Lee in sailor suit with his mother and siblings, 1926

Lee in sailor suit with his mother and siblings, 1926

I was an only son. My parents had five girls: Leona, Ruth, Marguerite, Dorthe and Louise. Then I came along about four years later as a surprise. When I was about seven years old, my father wanted to teach me responsibility, so he gave me a Jersey calf. If I didn’t take care of the calf, I would have to answer to my dad. He was a quick-tempered man of very few words, so I took care of the calf.

I went to Ridenour School in the tiny town of Hilton until 1933 when we moved to Occidental, where my dad bought a ranch of about 150 acres. My calf came with us.

Before the war, things had not been very good where we lived. Someone dropped off about 50 old sheep one time, but we didn’t have enough money to feed them. Unfortunately, after awhile they died.

My dad had to go to Oakland to work in the shipyards. My mother was crippled with arthritis, so she could not help much with the ranch. My dad came back home on the weekends until they finally were able to buy a house in Oakland.

Unfortunately back in 1922 my sister Louise had suffered an apparent allergic reaction after eating freshly picked walnuts and she died. Over time, the other four sisters moved away and got on with their lives, so by the time I was 14, I was running dad’s ranch outside Occidental by myself. Dad had started a rock quarry on the land, so I began delivering gravel in our dump truck when I was 14.

I went to high school about seven miles from the ranch at Analy High School in Sebastopol. For awhile I rode a bus with the other local kids, but one day I saw a Model T for sale for $19, so I bought it and began driving it to school. I graduated from Analy High School in 1939.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, I was working at the Richmond oil refinery, owned a car outright and was doing quite well. Gas rationing meant you could get so many gallons per car. I bought an extra car and paid $5 a month to park it in a garage while I traveled around in my 1936 Chevrolet convertible I’d upgraded to.

The war effort

When the war started in 1941, Standard Oil immediately needed crews for the tankers that moved crude oil from the oil fields at El Segundo north to the refinery in Richmond. Standard Oil only had one eight-inch pipeline to move the crude over land from El Segundo to Richmond. The war effort demanded a much larger capacity than the 9” could deliver. The crude oil was like tar and needed to be heated in order to move it in the pipeline, so the only way to increase the output of aviation gas was to use tankers up and down the California coast. Since Standard Oil owned the tankers, I just went over to San Francisco and applied for a transfer. Within a few days I was in the Merchant Marine and part of the crew of the SS W.S. Rheem on its way to pick up crude in El Segundo.

In Richmond, Standard Oil had a pier out into the Bay very close to where the San Rafael Bridge stands today. The pier handled all the cargo for the Richmond refinery, and nearby was a hotel where all the Merchant Marine crews slept and ate.

I spent about a year or so in the Merchant Marine, signing on a number of ships, including one built in 1889. It may have had some guns on the stern, but no one was very interested in firing a gun from this ship, since it was loaded with oil.

The Captain and some of the officers usually stayed with the same ship, but the rest of the crew signed on for each trip. Usually there were about 15 men on a 300-foot long ship. The officers were quartered in the bow, and the rest of the crew was in the stern. In heavy seas, when a large wave would move from the bow back to the center of the ship, from the stern you could see the deck of the ship flex by as much as three feet.

Ships were being torpedoed, and usually the entire crew was lost in the aftermath. On one of my early trips, I saw a ship sunk right off the El Segundo coast.

My research after the war uncovered the fact that one in 26 Mariners died during WW II. Over two dozen ships were sunk off the West Coast, and about 300 ships along the East Coast. After spending time in the Merchant Marine, those numbers were not just statistics to me.

Sometimes a machine gun was mounted on a fishing boat, which was then sent out with us as an escort. The fishing boats were usually about 30 feet in length, but quite often they couldn’t keep up with our ship, so that idea didn’t really work very well.

Alaska

During this period I fell in love with Alaska. From San Francisco, we would sail up the coast to Portland, Oregon. Then we would head north and enter the Inland Passage to Alaska, stopping often along the way to bring supplies to the towns on the coast. The aviation gas was carried in five-gallon cans, and our hold was full of these cans, as well as other supplies needed along the way. One time we went all the way out to the Aleutian Island chain. I really don’t remember much about that trip except it was just too cold out there for my liking, so I never signed on another crew going there.

On one trip into the Bay of Alaska, we stopped at Cordova, a port city 150 miles southeast of Anchorage, and I liked it so much I told the Captain, “I’m going to stay right here.”  He said, “OK, but I can’t pay you until we get back to Richmond.” I ended up getting back on the ship.

I worked in the engine room most of the time, but once during a break, I was out on the stern deck when I saw three planes heading right for the ship. They turned out to be gull-winged U.S. Navy Corsairs, but it sure scared the devil out of me for awhile. They flew right over us.

On another occasion, someone saw a whale and thought it was a Japanese sub, so they shot at it. The whale, however, was in no real danger from us.

Coming back into the San Francisco Bay was interesting. During the war the Bay was lined with massive cables and obstacles. It took about five hours for the tugs to maneuver us around the obstacles and up to the Richmond pier. I have no idea what obstructions were placed in the bay. After the war, however, I have often seen various large concrete structures around the bay that have rusted fittings that certainly could have anchored cables out in the bay.

Oakland shipyard

While I was waiting to hear from the draft board, I transferred out of the Merchant Marines and went to work in the Oakland shipyard for awhile.

Years earlier when I was running the ranch as a kid, I went into town one day and bought an oxy-acetylene burning rig for $20. I practiced cutting or “burning” various pieces of steel around the farm. I was pretty good by the time I got to the shipyard, where I hired on as a burner.

Let’s say you had an 8-foot by 10-foot piece of steel that needed a custom pattern cut. I would set up a template along the sides of the steel sheet that would guide an oxy-acetylene burning nozzle down each side.

The two nozzles fit into a machine that crawled down the sheet very slowly. As the torches brought the steel to the melting point, the pressure from the acetylene and oxygen would blow the steel away and cut the pattern made by the templates. Setting everything up and then controlling the machine as it slowly moved down the steel plate was an interesting job.

The Oakland Shipyard claimed that they could launch one Liberty ship a day. I suppose that was true, but they had parts of ships in various stages of construction all over the shipyard. When they got enough ship sections built, they would move them all to a ramp and weld them together into a ship.

I met a guy that sailed out of the Oakland estuary for about 10 years. According to him four concrete ramps big enough for liberty ships are still on the shoreline. If they could launch a ship every day, then they must have been able to assemble all the sections and weld one of them together in four days in a move I find incredible even today!

In the Navy

While working in the shipyard one of my construction friends, Keith Patty offered me a job building an airport in Crescent City. Three of us moved to Crescent City. I’d taken a job working on a pavement layer. In 1942, I got word from the Berkeley draft board that it was time for me to go into the military. Down at the draft board office, a group of guys were lined up, and various people were sent to different branches of the military. When they got to me they just said, “Merchant Marine goes to the Navy.”

Navy basic training was usually conducted in San Diego, but San Diego was full of trainees at that time. So for boot camp, I was sent instead to the Navy base at Farragut, Idaho. Rumor has it that Eleanor Roosevelt had flown over the beautiful Ponderosa Lake near Farragut, and after that they decided it would be a great place for a Navy base.

When my group finished boot camp, I wanted to volunteer to help build the Alaska Highway. This had been a dream of mine, so I signed up. To avoid a lot of unnecessary stuff that they had us do in boot camp, I would often spend time reading books in the boiler room. One day I came out, and everyone was in their dress blues and packed to move out. Our orders had come.

My orders were to Farragut Base. I was to stay and work on the expansion of the Farragut Base. The base was a very rocky place where the training fields needed to be expanded. About fifteen miles up the hill from the base was a sand pit. My job was to drive a 10-wheel dump truck up and down the hill, loading and dumping sand all day long.

Arlene and Lee

Arlene and Lee

Marriage and family

I got bored driving the dump truck, so I went to town and got married. I had met Arlene Witcraft in Spokane, Washington, a 70-mile train ride southwest of the base. Just five weeks after our first date, we were married on June 26, 1943.

My wife was a go-getter, and she quickly found a job taking care of the kids of the base Provost Marshall. He had a small apartment in his house where we could stay. We weren’t allowed to cook in the apartment, so on the last trip of the day a friend would ride with me out to the apartment with food. He would then take the truck back to the base.

advanced-training-acceptance-Later in 1943 I was given orders for intensive aviation machinist training at the Navy Pier Aviation School on Chicago’s Lake Michigan. Close to the school, there was a dock that extended out into Lake Michigan for what seemed a mile. On the dock was a two or three-story warehouse where all the Navy guys slept on bunks three high.  No one wanted the top bunk.

My wife found an apartment nearby where I would stay until midnight, at which point I needed to be back at the base.

My wife was pregnant when we were in Chicago, and Susan Lee Batt was born in May, 1944. By then I was stationed at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida.

PBY duty in Florida

After Chicago I got orders for Radio and RADAR maintenance training in Memphis, TN. That school was fairly uneventful. So my first active duty station was Jacksonville, Florida. I was a flying mechanic—called a plane captain—on a PBY Catalina, referred to as a flying boat.

The Catalina’s wing has two massive engines on it, with a boat hanging from a pylon in the middle. These planes flew very low and were very slow. They would cruise at about 90 knots and fall out of the sky at 72 knots.

By the time I got to Jacksonville in 1944, the U-boat danger in that area was ebbing, and the planes we flew were battle weary from the war in the Pacific. Basically we were flying missions and training new crews. We had more crews than planes, so all the planes had multiple plane captains and were kept flying as long as possible.

Most missions were flown at about 300 feet over the sea, as our main mission was looking for German U-boats. A typical mission would be to fly down the eastern coast of Florida, around Cuba and down to Guantanamo Bay and then back, all in about nine hours.

We never did spot any subs. Occasionally we picked people out of the ocean but it was really not a big deal for us. The pilot would land in the ocean, carefully taxi over to the people, and then we would move the machine gun away from the back hatch, open it and pull the people in.

When I first got there our PBY-5 did not have wheels, so we moored it in the St. Johns River, taking off and landing on the river. Later we were issued these great big wheels that we put on at the dock after we landed, and then used a tug to pull the plane up onto the ramp. To take off again, we rolled the plane back into the river, removed the wheels and took off.

pbys-grand-bahama-photo-by-lee

PBY photo by Lee

The PBY-5 has a 104-foot wingspan and two nine-cylinder engines that held 79 gallons of oil. The spark plugs had to be changed every twenty-five flight hours. Two of us did all the engine maintenance. The flight crew was typically a pilot, a co-pilot/navigator, a radio man, an engineer (me) and a variable number of gunners.

On one occasion, we had some hotshot pilot come in and spiral the plane down for a landing at around 150 knots. Now the PBY was far from being a fighter plane, but I sort of remember the pilot saying, “That’s the way we fly in combat situations.” It really posed no danger to the plane or crew. It was just a fun event.

I remember in Georgia they had a massive flight training base that used small training planes. On one day alone, they lost 19 planes to training accidents. They just stacked all the parts of the crashed planes in a massive pile that grew to around five stories high.

In early 1945, I was sent to Oak Harbor, an island base in northern Washington State. My only memory of that station was that I was in charge of mustering about 180 men. So every morning at muster, I would call out, “All present and accounted for, Sir.”

Of course, not all the men were present, but I generally knew where they were. By then we really didn’t do much flying in the worn-out planes.

After the war

I was finally discharged from the Navy on Dec. 10, 1945, at the Oak Knoll Navy Base along Highway 580 outside of Oakland.

When I was growing up, my dad had told me that a special 40-acre plot would be mine, but at some point during the war, my dad sold the ranch. I suppose that is why he helped us buy a house in East Oakland.

After getting out of the service I was just confused. Luckily we had a place to live, but I had 19 jobs that first year.

Not too much later, probably in 1946, we decided to move to Shelton, WA, where my wife’s parents lived.

We sold the house in Oakland and gave some money back to my dad, then bought a 19-foot trailer and started out. I remember that I had two flat tires along the way, but people helped each other out in those days.

After a while I got a job with the local power company, California Oregon Power. We weren’t planning to be there long but ended up staying 15 years.

My interest in flying continued, and I eventually bought a private general aviation airplane made by Mooney.

To general aviation pilots, Mooney aircraft are known as “Hot Rods.” In fact, everything about the design is driven by the desire to decrease drag and increase speed.

Lee-Batt-2‘Life is what you make it’

After my first marriage to Arlene ended, I married Ina, and we moved to the Sonora area, living on Yosemite Road outside Tuolumne City.

In total, I have 14 children from my two marriages.

That is the summary of my experience during World War II. I guess life is what you make it. It is not luck or anything else.

A loving supportive family is very important, as is knowing the value of hard work. In life it’s what you do to make things happen that counts.

 

One thought on “Lee Batt: My World War II Service in the U.S. Navy

  1. I read your article — fascinating! You always surprise me — pleasantly so — whenever I learn more about you. I tried calling you after I read this, but the number I had in my cell phone was not in service. Could you let me know how you are doing and how I might contact you? I hope all is well with you and your family.

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