Luther Neal Watts: My WWII Service as a Mechanic on Midway

Neal Watts, 1944, during boot camp in San Diego

Neal Watts, 1944, during boot camp in San Diego

By LUTHER NEAL WATTS

As told to Kaela Helmbold

You train a man for the military, then when you put him back in civilian life, you rehabilitate him. We called it R and R, rest and recuperation. Submariners who had been out for six months or so came back in to the island changed.  I don’t know how to explain it. When you’re living in close quarters – think of 90 men living in one of those boats – everything you do is related to somebody right at your elbow, everything. You have to see it.  I can’t tell you how confining it is. When they close that hatch, you’re in a sealed vault.

— Neal Watts

Oklahoma to California

I am 92 years old and was born in Hobart, Oklahoma in August, 1920, just 13 years after it became a state. The oldest of six children, I grew up and went through the Depression in Oklahoma.

My dad was away from home a lot building houses. He was also a mechanic and an engineer, and he worked on cotton gins, which his family owned.

I grew up around tractors and trucks, and worked on machinery all my life. When I was in high school I operated a hammer mill, which was a roller mill that ground feed for farmers for their cattle.  I’d work four hours and then I’d go to school four hours. I worked out my schedule so that I could get my high school education and earn some money at the same time.

I finished high school in 1938 and went to college to study diesel engineering mechanics. After two semesters I finished that course, went to Oklahoma City, and got a job was working on the loading docks for Leeway Freight. A year later I decided to go to California.

In 1940, I paid $100 for a tour driver to take me to Los Angeles, where I stayed in a hotel until I found a job working in a bookbinding company’s freight yard. Next, I worked on used cars and cleaning up in the sales yard. After a year or so, I went to work at a restaurant in the North Hollywood area.

Then I got a job with Gray Line, taking tourists through Hollywood in a seven-passenger Packard and showing them the homes of movie stars. The war came along in ’41 and ’42.

Neal Watts

Neal Watts

Tooling up

Germany was overwhelming England with lots of nighttime air attacks. The U.S. knew that eventually we would be in the war and began tooling up. So I went back to school, learning how to work with sheet metal, weld and rivet.

After Pearl Harbor, everything in the city became war oriented. The lights went out at night and everything was dark.  Car lights would have a little slit, and that was all the light you had. You drove 15 to 20 miles an hour.

I had heard that the aircraft industry was hiring and I needed a job, so I got a ’27 Chevy coupe and drove to San Diego. On the way south, there was an air raid alert and the radio said there were planes overhead and an enemy submarine in the area. All the big high-rise buildings went dark.  People used candles and flashlights.  But after maybe a week or two, things were back to normal.

I arrived in San Diego with just what I could put in the trunk of a car — nothing else, no furniture, nothing.  These government houses became available, and I went over and rented one with four bedrooms.

So there I was, with a suitcase, four bedrooms and a job building aircraft.  My parents were living in Los Angeles at the time and joined me in San Diego, where my mother got a job building B-24s at Consolidated Aircraft.

Genoma and Neal were married on Oct. 3, 1942

Genoma and Neal were married on Oct. 3, 1942

Sweetheart story

My wife and I got married on Oct. 3, 1942, and that’s a sweetheart story.  I went to work at this aircraft plant, and after a year I got a two-week vacation, so I drove with my mother and youngest brother to Oklahoma in my 1940 Chevrolet Coupe.

I had an aunt who was schoolteacher back there, and I wrote her that I was ready to get married and told her to find me a woman. “I’ve already found one,” she relied. “She’s named Genoma.”

“That little tart?” I said. “Why she was 12 years old when I left. You don’t mean her?”

“Wait till you get back here,” my aunt said. “You’ll see.”

Genoma and I dated for a week, day and night. She was a farm girl and I had to get permission from her dad and mom to take her to Oklahoma City and show her the state fair.

We courted, and I told my aunt, “I’m gonna get married. Can we use your home?” She said sure. So we called the preacher and I asked him if he had any real short sermons. “We don’t want no drawn out thing, you know, with a lot of people,” I said.

We invited a few friends on a Saturday afternoon. My aunt, a teacher, played the piano and in 30 minutes we were married.

We drove straight through to San Diego and I went back to work on a Monday morning. We moved into that four-bedroom house with what we had in the trunk. In those days we had no furniture and you couldn’t buy things. Stuff was not available like it was in normal times, but we accumulated things gradually. We’d go to a Goodwill store.

We both worked at Consolidated Aircraft. I built B24 bombers and PBY seaplanes. My wife became a riveter and worked on the same planes. We were both in the wing department until I got involved in the Navy.

Joining the Navy

I got notice while I was working in San Diego that I would be drafted.  Although I didn’t know it, my mother had earlier applied for and got me two or three six-month deferrals because I had a family and was working in a defense plant. Anyway, I was drafted in ’44.

I went through boot camp in San Diego, and there I decided to be a mechanic and went to school at Ships Repair Base, also in San Diego, to learn about diesel and gas engines.

While I was in that school an officer came by and said he needed two men to volunteer for the submarines. “Let’s join up,” I said to a buddy, pointing out that we could get double wages for sub work.

In those days, the Navy commandeered all the ships it could find.  A lot of them used to haul freight, like bananas and vegetables from South America, so the ship I took to my new post in Hawaii was called a banana boat.  Its holds were sealed off and they stacked bunks four high in there. They put 1,500 men on that ship, and it was old and slow-going.

After about five days on the sea, we arrived at the submarine base in Hawaii.  From there I went aboard the Aegir, a submarine tender. It had booms that stick out, and they tied subs to them. Three subs were on the ship, and with booms on each side, so you get six altogether. This tender had a machine shop aboard to do any kind of repair work needed.

We went straight to Midway.

Neal (left) with friend on Midway

Neal (left) with friend on Midway

USO and the gooney birds

Midway was a bird sanctuary to begin with, covered with brush that here we’d call greasewood.  Most of them were real low, so there were millions of birds. The sky would get dark with them.

Gooney birds, they called them, albatrosses with large, long wings. They were not afraid of humans, and they’d build nests right beside you and lay eggs.

The sidewalk going up to the PX had birds nesting on both sides of it. The male would sit on the egg half the time and female half.

The female would go out and get food and bring it back. Then the male would do it. When their young were hatched, they’d go south and leave those little birds to waddle down to the beach.  It was amazing.

The gooney birds would put on mating dances, and the male would strut and do things, and the female would join him.  Then they’d get to dancing, and they’d really put on a show and dance in a circle.  And then they’d go together and put their heads down, and it was amazing.

Joe E. Brown was a comedian, and when he came to the island to entertain us with the USO, he said, “I can’t entertain you boys!  These birds out here, they got the show!  They’re doing the entertaining!”

The USO building had a small outdoor stage where entertainers like Brown would perform, and we’d also show movies on the wall. Once, a couple presented “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Neal on Midway in 1944 (back row, second from left)

Neal on Midway in 1944 (back row, second from left)

Midway

The Marines were on Midway before us.

They built an airstrip, a hangar and a hospital that was partially underground.

There were no women on the island, all men from the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Army. They’d come in on the ships, then deploy to different places.

It was a meeting place for submarines. After the subs would finish their tours of duty they’d come to Midway and refurbish, put in new food and supplies, then go on new missions.

Midway was about three miles long and it was also used for ammunition storage. All it had was a big, big vault.  When the ships needed ammo, they’d take it from there.

The Battle of Midway began in early June of 1942. It was a sea battle fought by aircraft carriers with planes. The Japanese had three carriers loaded with planes and their mission was to come in, annihilate and take over.

Their planes only had enough fuel to make it to Midway and attack, and not enough to return to their carriers. It was one mission and done. That’s the way the Japanese were.

Our military got wind of the attack through the submarines.  We knew what was coming, brought reinforcements out, and we were ready. Just before they attacked, we attacked them and sank two or three of their big carriers. The Marines dug in and had their machine guns, but most of that war was fought in the air. You could see sunken ships out in the bay.

The Marines were in charge of the aircraft, and their fighters had pictures of tigers on them.  They had to extend the runway at Midway to make it long enough for P-38s to land.

The Marines would fly sailors up on their missions, on their routine flights. If you wanted to go, you’d sign up and they’d take you. I flew with them over and around the island on training missions.

I was on board a plane one time when I asked the pilot why the cockpit canopy was all blacked out.  He said, “Oh, well we’re on a training mission.” We got up in the air and here comes another plane alongside. Its pilot was talking to my pilot. When I got back on the ground, I realized that my pilot couldn’t see anything, that he was completely blacked in. Can you imagine? Listening to somebody over the headset, saying back off, back off, do this, do that?

So that was my last ride.  My earlier rides were good, but that one stopped it. That was enough.

Submarine mechanic

I was a submarine mechanic, and when a sub would come in we’d put it on a floating dry dock.  We would put the boat in a metal container, close the gate, pump the water out and the sub would be dry.  It would be reinforced so it wouldn’t roll. It’d be at deck level so you could work on it.  We’d open all the hatches and take everything off the sub, the food and everything else that was useable or loose. Then when the sub was ready to return to service, we’d do just the opposite.

We’d take the subs out for a shakedown cruise and try all the working parts. Anything that we’d worked on, we’d test it, so that’s why it was called a shakedown. So I was assigned to two different subs and we’d go out on maneuvers, and we’d call them missions. We’d go out on a couple of those, and the rest of the time was spent testing and working on ships in the floating dry docks.

You’d have to load this compartment, load that compartment, load this, load that. Loading torpedoes was hard. They were about 30 feet long and as big around as a barrel. They had little engines on them that ran on alcohol. They called that alcohol “pink lady,” and if the men could find it, they’d drink it.

Neal on Midway

Neal on Midway

R & R on Midway

R & R on Midway

R & R

You train a man for the military, then when you put him back in civilian life, you rehabilitate him. We called it R and R, rest and recuperation. Submariners who had been out for six months or so came back in to the island changed.  I don’t know how to explain it. When you’re living in close quarters – think of 90 men living in one of those boats – everything you do is related to somebody right at your elbow, everything. You have to see it.  I can’t tell you how confining it is. When they close that hatch, you’re in a sealed vault.

The subs only had 80 bunks with 90 men. So what do you do? You sleep where there’s an open place. When you live under those conditions, it’s high tension. One of the requirements when you go in the submarine service is that you cannot have claustrophobia.

I volunteered for a detachment to help these sailors rehabilitate. We had a little tavern, a kitchen and a place to dress fish, and two cooks.  We lived together and we ate together and we went out fishing.

We had five boats – three motor launches and two Japanese sampans, which were confiscated at Pearl Harbor and brought to us. As a diesel mechanic, it was my duty to get the engines running, service them, and be aboard when we’d take the men out.

The boats had radios so we could communicate.

We would take those men out fishing, which was opposite of what they’d been doing underwater aboard subs. I got pictures of some of the fish.

There were these little birds, terns, that would fly in large flocks, close together, almost like a cloud.

When they got ready to feed, they’d dive if they were going after minnows. When those birds started diving, you could catch fish. So we would pay attention to the birds a lot.

We caught big fish, in the 100-pound range, and we did that till the end of the war. And at the end of the war, we had a huge celebration.

USS Proteus subtender and 12 subs in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945

USS Proteus subtender and 12 subs in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945

USS Pilot Fish

USS Pilot Fish

San Francisco

I was on Midway for approximately two years. Then we dropped the atomic bomb, Japan gave up, signed papers, and the war was over. So all these boats (a sub is a boat, not a ship) came in off the patrols, from every direction around Midway. There were submarines tied up everywhere, their crews were on the island, and the two tenders had bands.  Some of the people in the unit played instruments, and the deck on top was flat and men all around that ship were playing loud music.

To be discharged, we had to have points in order to gain transportation back to the states.  If a ship came in and your name was on the list, you’d get to go. Mine was, so I went from Midway straight to San Francisco.

One of the highlights of my trip back was seeing the Golden Gate Bridge come into view.  Bands on these ships were playing and everybody was in a jubilant mood.  We were excited.

There were ships in every direction. San Francisco Bay was full of ships.  Flattops and submarines were all over, and there was no place to moor them.  They had Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard – they all met at one time in the bay, and all of them wanted to go home.

Treasure Island was just loaded with ships, and it became a disembarkation location. But you had to stay on your ship until there was room for them to discharge you.

I was discharged on January 16, 1946. When we made the landing in San Francisco and tied up, I was a first-class motor mechanic.  In other words just a peon, no stripes. But I was in the reserves and got to go home sooner, because reservists had no time commitment. Regular service people who had signed for three or four years had to stay that long.

When I got into port, I decided to talk to the captain of the ship, but there are signs on every deck level that say, “No enlisted men allowed,” only officers. So here I am with just a peon uniform, with people stopping me and saying, “You’re not going up there, are you?” I’d say, “Yes, I am. I’m going to the top.”  And I did go all the way to the top and I did talk to the captain.

I said, “My wife is down in Taft, California, I’ve been gone for a couple of years.  I would like to have a 72-hour pass.”  He said, “Well, it’ll cost you.”  And I said, “What’ll it cost me?” He said, “When you get back, you’ll have to work.”  I said, “Alright” and I was granted that 72-hour pass. I went down to Taft, got my car, and my wife and I came back to San Francisco. We had a hard time finding a place to live. The city was completely inundated.  If you came to a hotel and could rent a room, they allowed you two days.  You had to move so someone else could take it. But we somehow found an apartment.

Genoma with young Jerry; Neal owned a cab company in Tecumseh, Oklahoma at the time

Genoma with young Jerry; Neal owned a cab company in Tecumseh, Oklahoma at the time

Jake jumps ship

My wife, Genoma, had a brother who was on one of those flattops out in the bay.  His name was Jake Johns. His wife was in Taft and she knew he was coming in, so he left the ship without permission. He didn’t go through the captain like I did, he jumped ship. They call it AWOL, absent without leave. But Jake had one of his buddies to answer roll call for him.

I didn’t know this, so I went over to see Jake on his carrier. When you go aboard, you salute the officer of the day, you talk to him, and he checks you out.  After he knows you’re one of the boys, he lets you in, then he puts it over the speaker, “Will Jake Johns report to the fantail?  You have a visitor.” So this stranger comes up to us, and the officer of the day says, “Are you Jake Johns?” And he says, “I’m Jake Johns.” We walked away to visit and he tells me, “Look, Jake jumped ship. And I’m answering for him.” That was a common thing; people did it all the time.

We got together eventually with Jake and Clarice, and we all rented this little apartment with one daybed. We would sleep on the bed one night and move the mattress off the bed and put it on the floor, then Jake and Clarice would take it.  Then the next night, we’d switch back. We did that for about two weeks until Jake and I got discharged.

I went back to my ship after my 72 hours and the officer of the day said, “Come with me.” He took me down to the engine room and gave me a bucket of soapy water with a brush, he said, “All those pipes up there, you gotta clean those pipes.”

After leaving San Francisco, we rented a house over in Mill Valley for about a month then moved to Taft.

Genoma and Neal riding with Christian Motorcycle Association

Genoma and Neal riding with Christian Motorcycle Association

After the service

I worked as a mechanic at the Hudson Garage in Taft from 1948 to 1950.

Later, I went to work in the oil fields on a drilling rig. Each time you go out and drill, it may take you a month or two months, you never know.

You’re a part of the crew and they depend on you, and you work your shift and you sleep.  You’d work 10 days straight, and then you’d get off for three or four days.

The rig is running all the time, making holes. So you’re obligated to be on duty, and you work as long as your shift. When another shift comes on, you leave. You do that and get the holes finished, and then you move the rig; tearing it down and setting it down in a new location. It’s around- the-clock type work, very hard work. They called the workers roughnecks, and it’s really rough.

I remember one time, up near a ridge drilling a wildcat in the winter months. We’d wear at least two pairs of pants, but the pants would get wet and our legs would freeze.

The outside layer would be stiff, but the inside layer would be dry.

You’d go work for eight hours and then another crew would come in and work.

After about two years of that, I told the boys, “This is not for me, and I’m gonna look for an eight-hour a day job.” The oil field work upsets your eating schedule, your life, your family life – you don’t have any. You’re either asleep or working.

I worked there until 1979 – 29 years. I took early retirement. I was 55 years old when I moved to Sonora in 1979.

Neal and Genoma at home, July 2013

Neal and Genoma at home, July 2013

Sonora

I was looking for a little town where there was nothing to do but fish and hunt. I came here when there was one stoplight, and now there are 20.

I started a little business called Handyman Can, and I did repair work on houses for about two years. I painted houses, with my wife as my helper. I’d paint the house, and she’d paint the trim.

I bought one of the Standard company houses in about 1980 for $500. I paid $2,000 to move it to Cedar Road and remodeled it. My son’s still living in it. That was 30 years ago.

We bought a Victorian house in Tuolumne that needed work. I repaired it, we moved into it and then we built a new house next door.

But, when the brand-new one was ready to move into, Genoma wasn’t ready.

She liked that old Victorian, so we stayed over there for another few years until we started building the house we’re in now, our forever house.

Photos from a display prepared for Neal and Genoma's 70th anniversary

Photos from a display prepared for Neal and Genoma’s 70th anniversary

Family

My younger brother, Galen, was in the South Pacific, in the Navy. His main port was Enewetak.

I have four kids. Our oldest son, Jerry, was born in 1946; Gwendolyn was born in ’48; Kenny was born in ’55; and Curtis was born in ’59.

Neal Watts, July 2013

Neal Watts, July 2013

Reflections on military service

I took advantage of my military training, and it equipped me for life later on.

My Navy training helped prepare me to handle life’s problems. I learned discipline, responsibility and the value of hard work.

Today we need more regimented training and a positive mental attitude.  Life isn’t easy, but the more you establish yourself and the more you can be grounded in discipline, the more you can take advantage of each opportunity every day.

I highly recommend some form of military service for today’s youth.

One thought on “Luther Neal Watts: My WWII Service as a Mechanic on Midway

  1. Neal is my deceased grandmother Pug’s older brother and I knew he was at Midway through her stories about him. The details of this memoir were enlightening and entertaining, obviously the specifics were never conveyed to me. The Veteran’s History Project is an awesome resource for getting first hand accounts of what soldiers endured during war. Even family members like me may not know the full reality of her/his related veteran. A huge thank you goes out to Neal, Genoma, and all of the people who make this website possible and keep history alive for posterity.

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