Lloyd Kramer: My World War II Service in the U.S. Navy

Graduation from Midshipman school, 1945

Graduation from Midshipman school, 1945

By LLOYD KRAMER

As told to John Howsden

One day, I translated a three-page handwritten document written by a Russian astronomer. It described how one could send up a rocket at a certain speed with a certain payload. It went on to explain that at a certain speed and weight, you could launch what he called a sputnik, to circle the earth like a satellite. Reading the document then seemed like science fiction.

 I did not think anything of it until October 4, 1957, when the Russians launched Sputnik. Little did I know that the satellite I thought was science fiction would be part of the space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

— Lloyd Kramer

Early Life

I was born in 1924, in Des Moines, Iowa. I had only lived there briefly when my father, Allan, went to Arizona for health reasons, and looked for work. He worked as a shoe repairman in Gila Bend. Once he was established, my mother and I joined him. My mother found work teaching on an Indian reservation.

Lloyd with sister and mom in Los Angeles, 1933

Lloyd with sister and mom in Los Angeles, 1933

In 1929 we moved to Riverside, California. I was 6 years old, so I don’t remember much about the town. But I do remember my mother limiting me as to how much I played with the other kids. Back then polio was a serious epidemic, and no one was sure how you caught it. All we knew was if you were unlucky enough to catch it, you might end up lying in an iron lung for the rest of your life. She was just being careful.

Although my mother was concerned for my health, she couldn’t watch over me all the time, and one day my curiosity almost got the better of me. I was wondering if an umbrella would make a good parachute. I decided to find out. We had a large barn in our backyard. I climbed to the roof and jumped off, clutching the opened umbrella. Halfway down, the umbrella flipped inside out, and I plummeted to the ground. Fortunately I wasn’t hurt. I fixed the umbrella, and mother never found out about my experiment.

About the same time I was seeing if umbrellas made good parachutes, my parents told me I couldn’t take a bath. Being a kid, not taking a bath was an acceptable situation; however, it didn’t make sense until I found out later that my parents were using the bathtub to make gin. It was in the middle of prohibition, and it wasn’t that uncommon to make bathtub gin.

From Riverside we moved to Los Angeles. This is where I experienced my first earthquake. My sister and I were sitting on a big bed that had casters. The room started shaking and the bed started bucking. We held on for dear life and rode that bed from one side of the room to the other. I don’t know if the earthquake was why we moved, but we left L.A. and moved to Yosemite shortly thereafter.

Lloyd's drawing of Vogelsang Peak in Yosemite

Lloyd’s drawing of Vogelsang Peak in Yosemite

Growing up in Yosemite

Dad had landed a job as a shoe repairman in Yosemite Valley. By then I was in second grade. Growing up in Yosemite was great. While in high school, I got a job as a porter at Camp Curry, a glorified bellhop really.

As a porter I was called on to make the fire call one night. Before it was banned in 1968, employees of the Glacier Point Hotel would build a large bonfire a few feet from the edge of Glacier Point. At exactly 9:00 pm, an employee of Camp Curry would call to an employee at the top of Glacier Point, “Let the fire fall.”

Lloyd drawing onsite

Lloyd drawing onsite

Hearing the command to start, the employee pushed the glowing embers over the side, where they would cascade 3,200 feet down the granite wall, creating what was called “a waterfall of fire.” It was very popular and done every night exactly at 9 p.m. The only exception was in 1963 when President Kennedy visited the park. He was late, so they delayed it until he was there to watch.

Although I lived in the valley, I went to high school in Mariposa. I did well in school, making the honor society. After high school, I was accepted by UC Berkeley. At first my major was political science – I wanted to be an attorney. However, one of the requirements to graduate was taking two foreign languages.

I was told that if I took a common language such as French or German, I would never see a professor, because only graduate students taught these classes. However, if I took a more exotic language, such as Chinese or Russian, I would be taught by a professor. I chose Russian and was so taken by the language that I changed my major to Russian.

Military ID photo

Military ID photo

Joining the Navy

I was only 17 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I was sitting around the radio at home with my father, listening to the Chicago Round Table, when an announcer broke in and told us of the attack. My dad said, “This is it. We are at war.”

Shortly thereafter, I entered the University of California and soon after that, I received my draft notice. My friends told me jokingly that if I went into the Army, I would have to walk, whereas if I joined the Navy, I could ride. I went to the Navy recruiters on campus, who told me about their V-12 program.

The V-12 Navy College Training Program did two things. It helped prepare me for midshipman school, while at the same time allowing me to continue to work toward my degree.

The Navy provided room and board, but it was far from a free ride. They required that I take other classes in addition to my regular major classes. So I took additional courses such as math and physics, but I was never strong in math. I’m not talking about classes like algebra—I had that in high school. I’m talking about classes such as physics and spherical geometry. I had never heard of spherical geometry, yet I ended up using it in the Navy for navigational purposes. If there is one thing the Navy does, it navigates.

I entered the V-12 program as a seaman and wore a uniform, just like any other sailor, even to my classes. The Navy housed us in International House, a large six-story building on the Berkeley campus, where foreign students used to stay before the Navy took it over.

In addition to our extra classes, we had to do a lot of running and exercise. Ensuring that we got our share of exercise, the Navy declared the elevators off limits. As luck would have it, I lived on the sixth floor.

Not only did the Navy provide extra classes and exercise, they also trained us in how to jump into the water, as if abandoning ship.

We had to climb the high-dive platform and jump in a certain way. We were instructed to cross our legs at the ankles, place one hand over our groin and the other hand over our nose.

I continued taking classes at Berkeley until I was sent to Midshipman School at Cornell University, in New York. They put me on a train that must have been pulled out of some very old rolling stock, because it had oil burning lamps instead of electric.

When we were loading up, I spotted an old high school friend getting on the train. We sat next to each other as we crossed the country. Nothing spectacular stands out about the ride, except I noticed the tracks were a lot smoother in the New England states. They must have done a better job of building road beds in the Eastern United States, because the ones in the west routinely rocked the car.

Lloyd drew this Christmas card for his parents, 1944

Lloyd drew this Christmas card for his parents, 1944

Midshipman School

Once at Cornell, we were put up in dormitories, two to three guys to a room. The first 30 days of the course were essentially indoctrination. The Navy showed us films, some of which were made by Walt Disney, on various topics. One film gave us the background on Japan, and why they were on an expansionist movement to acquire more resources, such as oil and rubber.

Another film showed what the Navy expected from us and how to relate to officers. This is where I learned officer etiquette, such as when you are overtaking a higher ranking officer, you have to say, “By your leave, sir.” The higher ranking officer will reply, “Carry on,” and only then may you pass him.

Once done with the indoctrination phase, I entered into several courses. We had many courses, but my favorite was ordnance. The subject was accessible to me—meaning I liked it and it came easy. The instructor in navigation invited us to bring notes to examinations, which I thought was a poor idea, so I didn’t bring notes. Consequently I did badly.

When it came time for the final examination, I relented and brought notes—and passed with flying colors. It was a lesson for me.

There was a saying: “There’s a right way, a wrong way, and the Navy way.” I learned it was better to do things the Navy way.

It was during my Midshipman days that the Navy changed the color of the officers’ uniforms. Up until then, officers had been wearing khaki, but it was felt that this made officers stand out as targets on deck. The switch was to gray, so officers would blend in with the ship.

At the conclusion of my midshipman courses, I applied to Admiral Hindmarsh for acceptance as a student in the Navy Foreign Language School in Boulder, Colorado. On the strength of my two plus years of Russian at Berkeley, I was accepted. Virtually all of my classmates there were accepted, not on the basis of any background in Russian, but on the basis of their scholarly achievements.

The faculty at the Foreign Language School consisted of American scholars of Russian descent. The six-month course was intensive, with classes all day long for six months. One of my classmates, Robert Bunker, and I became friends. He was quite brilliant.

One day in class, the instructor put a Russian word on the board: “lozung.” The word meant “slogan.” Robert immediately noted that the words have essentially the same letters, just in a different order. He graduated ahead of me, even though I had some years of Russian, and he had not. Later, he became a member of the Office of Indian Affairs in the federal government.

Ultimately I graduated, third in my class. Not bad, but it was mostly because of my earlier exposure to the language.

Martha and Lloyd, July 1945 wedding, Illinois

Martha and Lloyd, July 1945 wedding, Illinois

It was in Boulder that I met my wife, Martha. We were married in July of 1945.

Subsequent to my graduation, I was sent to Naval Intelligence School in New York City (at the Henry Hudson Hotel). It was a short course. I was exposed to the discussion going on at the time about the relative importance of aircraft carriers and battle ships. The answer to that became clear later. We were also exposed to remedies for night vision and other matters.

I was then sent to Washington, D.C., where I did translation work in an office on K Street. One day, I translated a three-page handwritten document written by a Russian astronomer. It described how one could send up a rocket at a certain speed with a certain payload. It went on to explain that at a certain speed and weight, you could launch what he called a sputnik, to circle the earth like a satellite. Reading the document then seemed like science fiction.

I did not think anything of it until October 4, 1957, when the Russians launched Sputnik. Little did I know that the satellite I thought was science fiction would be part of the space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Secret Mission

I was still working in Washington, D.C. when I got secret orders to report to a base in the state of Washington for my next assignment. I was told only to pack my duffle bag and where to report.

Once I arrived at the base, I was put on a large passenger plane with wooden benches on the sides. We took off and I had absolutely no idea where I was going, or what I was going to do. The orders were so secret I couldn’t tell my new wife, Martha, even if I knew something.

We flew for several hours and then landed. I grabbed something to eat, found my quarters and hit the sack. When I reported the next morning, I found out I was in Cold Bay, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands.

Before going to Cold Bay, I would write to my parents and wife, letting them know how I was doing and where I was stationed. All that stopped when I landed at Cold Bay. I could still write, but I could not give my location or what I was doing. The best I could do was to draw a picture of snow on the envelope, to give my wife a hint that I was somewhere cold.

Because of my language skills, I had been assigned to Project Hula, although it was so secret, the Navy never mentioned the name or what it was about.  Much later, I found out the United States was surreptitiously transferring naval vessels to Russia in anticipation of their use against Japan.

Martha and Lloyd, Washington, D.C., 1945

Martha and Lloyd, Washington, D.C., 1945

Until then, Russia and Japan had an agreement not to attack each other. If word had gotten out about Hula, Japan would have attacked Russia before Russia was equipped to defend itself.  Of course, at my level, I was not told any of this. All I knew was that we were turning over a bunch of our ships to the Russians. In order to do this, we would board a ship and sail out to sea for 10 days. A skeleton crew of American sailors would teach the Soviet sailors the workings of the ship.

My sole purpose was to interpret between the American crew and the Russians. I covered three areas of the ship: the galley, the engine room and topside, including the bridge.

Once I was topside interpreting, when I saw a Russian sailor climbing a mast. Unbeknownst to him, he was heading straight for some high power wires that could kill him instantly on contact. I yelled in Russian for him to stop. Since I was an American officer, he felt no need to obey my orders and kept climbing.  A Russian officer, hearing my order, repeated the order. Fortunately, the sailor heeded his officer’s command and stopped climbing before getting electrocuted.

Once, while walking through the engine room, a Russian sailor pointed to a box and asked what it was. I recognized it from a picture in my physics class in high school. I knew it was called a Wheatstone Bridge, but I did not know what it did exactly. I told him what it was, and he at last recognized it.

American Lifestyle

Seeing life from the Russian side was interesting. For example, the Russian cooks liked how we had pictures of the food on the outside of cans. Russian canned goods only printed the words describing the food in the can. In America, many different companies sell the same kind of food, so they strive to win over the consumer with colorful pictures and advertising. In Russia you have one brand, take it or leave it. Capitalism had not made its way into Russia yet.

Since we had a Russian cook and an American cook on board, they took turns preparing meals, and the crew ate accordingly. The Russian cooks loved to make borscht, a hearty stew of cabbage, potatoes, sour cream and beef stock. The Russians loved their cabbage.

The Russians were good sailors, but they were a little behind in radar, sonar, and the ship’s propulsion plant. To make matters worse, initially there were no manuals printed in Russian. When I explain that the curtains on board ship were fireproof because they were made of fiberglass, they were confused, because they had not yet heard of fiberglass.

Not only did I interpret on board ship, but my language skills came in handy when we were in port. We had a theater that held hundreds of people, and the movies were in English.  During the movie I whispered to the Russians near me what was going on, and they in turn whispered to the persons next to them. In a few minutes you could hear laughter, as my translation spread across the entire hall. It was a great feeling.

Sometimes Russians asked me how to say something in English, and I would explain the correct word to use and how to say it. Once, while we were riding in an old pickup truck, I commented in Russian that there was a nasty draft. A Russian complimented me on using a correct and rather obscure word for “draft” in Russian.

In addition to seeing movies about America, the Russians had heard of our lavish life style. They wanted to know how many cars I owned. When I told them I did not own a car, I had to explain that I was only 20 years old and a student before the war, so I had not had the chance to buy a car.

Again, curious about American life, they asked if I drank milk, and did we really have it delivered to our door step? I think food was an important matter for the Russian sailors. Before the war, Stalin introduced collective farming and it was a disaster. The change resulted in widespread starvation. Some farmers protested by burning their crops or slaughtering their livestock. Millions died of famine, and the ones that survived suffered from malnutrition.

I used to watch the Russian sailors in close order drill in a field, and I couldn’t help but notice how short they were. I don’t think any of them were over five foot four. I am sure this was a result of not getting enough food during that difficult period.

Life at Cold Bay

Cold Bay is a desolate and cold place. There were no local inhabitants, and it was an apt place to conduct a clandestine operation. Cold Bay was not a place for sightseeing. The best I could come up with was seeing three bears from afar.

We did find some foxholes left by the Japanese that were littered with trash that they had left behind. However, the living accommodations were fine, the food was good, and we even had an ice cream machine.

Although the accommodations were good, the weather was dismal. Out of the five months I was there, I didn’t see blue sky until the day I was leaving. We were sailing away when the cloud cover broke, and I saw a row of smoking volcanoes in the distance.

By the time I left, I had been involved with about a dozen ships, mostly frigates, which the Navy really didn’t like and was glad to get rid of. After each 10-day cruise, we decommissioned the ship and gave it to the Russian Navy. We held a celebration each time in the hall we used for large gatherings. The Russians sang in their native tongue, and since I knew enough Russian, I joined them.

Before leaving Cold Bay, the atomic bomb was dropped. The Russians asked me how the atomic bomb was different from other bombs. I didn’t know anything about the atomic bomb, so I wasn’t much help.

Finally the day came for me to leave Cold Bay. I boarded ship and we sailed down the inside passage to Washington State. I ended up being stationed in the Bay Area for a short time, and then was discharged from the Navy.

After the War

After the war I returned to Berkeley to complete my undergraduate and graduate work. I later returned to school, and got a degree in Public Administration. My education was supported by the G.I. Bill.

This was especially helpful with respect to books. Professors augment their income by requiring students to buy books they have written. Those books are not necessarily wonderful, but we had to acquire them. At a more expensive school, like Stanford, the G.I. Bill would have been essential to pay for tuition.

In 1950, I took position at Stanford’s Hoover Institute and Library. My assignment there was to organize and catalog a large body of non-book materials  in various Slavic languages—posters, letters, government documents, etc.—which Hoover had obtained in Europe after the First World War, and had deposited in the library bearing his name.

I subsequently took library positions at Washington State University, California State University in Arcata, Pomona Public Library, California State University Pomona, the College of St. Francis in Illinois, where I eventually became vice president, then finally to California State University, Long Beach where I was associate director of the library.

Upon retirement, I purchased a 25-foot sailboat (a Catalina 25), cruised the Channel

Islands, and raced, including the Newport to Ensenada race which I did eight times—and on one occasion trophied.

Twain Harte

On an earlier occasion we had been to Twain Harte to do some skiing. I had skied at Badger Pass when I lived in Yosemite, so I knew how. We fell in love with Twain Harte, and when I gave up sailing, we moved there, and lived there for many years.

In retirement, I continued my hobby of drawing and painting. I also wrote feature articles for the Sierra Mountain Times for several years. In addition to feature stories, I drew cartoons for the paper. I collected the ones I had done over the years, and put them in a book called “The Best of Sam and Ernest.”

When we reached the ripe old age of 90, we moved to a retirement facility in Sonora, where we live to this day.  Martha and I have had a great life, and are about to celebrate our sixty-ninth wedding anniversary.  Both of our children, Andrew and Cynthia, are doing well.

I learned from my Navy experience that every institution has it own ideas of what is right, what is good, and what is necessary. These ideas do not necessarily correspond to general ideas of what is right, good or necessary. But as long as you are associated with a particular institution, it is a good idea to internalize their ideas.

As we said in the Navy, “There’s a right way, a wrong way, and the Navy way.”

At home in Sonora, Sept. 2014

At home in Sonora, Sept. 2014

Reflections

The question arises: Did I learn anything useful from my military experience? Yes, I did.

I learned that an organization evolves its own imperatives and guiding principles. These imperatives may or may not correspond well with those to be found on the outside. But it is imperative, for the good of the organization, to get with the program.

I learned this from my experience in midshipman school when I went cocked off, deciding that bringing notes to my examinations in navigation was wrong.

It didn’t do me any good, and I could well have been mistaken.

The lesson is: when you’re in an organization, stay with the program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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