Perry Palmer: My WWII Service in the U.S. Navy

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Perry Palmer, age 17, in 1943

By PERRY PALMER

As told to Bill and Celeste Boyd

Halfway through my Navy assignment to Midway Island in 1943, I saw something I’ll never forget. I was a reel operator in a target tow Grumman J2F biplane. One day, when I was not scheduled to fly, a pilot named Binsfield gave a radio repair man a ride in one of the Grumman J2F biplanes. As the three men flew around the island, we suddenly heard this loud noise and saw smoke in the sky. The J2F plane had collided with a Marine F4U Corsair that was landing on the north end of the island. It was a terrible shock as we watched the black smoke spiraling into the air. Both planes were wrecked and all four men were killed.

Perry Palmer

Early years

I was born in Kansas City, Missouri in January 1926 to Ruth MacIntosh and Charles (Chuck) Vedder and was named Perry after her father. They were not yet married when she became pregnant but before I was born they married in a civil ceremony.

My mother’s parents were very well-to-do and owned several homes, many investments, etc. Her father, Perry A. MacIntosh, was an insurance agent and stockbroker. He felt Charles was not a proper husband for his daughter.

He was especially concerned because Chuck was never home in the evenings. He was the lead saxophone player in Paul Whiteman’s world-famous orchestra which played in nightclubs until late at night. But I guess because he was “only” a musician his association with this well-known band didn’t matter.

After I was born, my grandfather forced the couple into a divorce against their wishes. My grandmother stood by his decision partly because he controlled all the money in their marriage. Part of the arrangement was that my mother and I would stay with her parents in their large house in Kansas City.

After the divorce was final my grandfather approached a good-looking young real estate salesman in his office. He made a proposal to Arland Palmer that if he would marry my mother, grandfather would buy them a house. After my mother and Arland were married he did purchase a nice home for them.

Mother was never very enthusiastic about the marriage but she legally changed my last name from Vedder to Palmer when I was an infant. My mother and father lived in this house for several years, but as a toddler, I was sent by them to live in my grandparents’ house. I don’t know why but guess it was because Arland didn’t like the fact that I was someone else’s child.  I lived with my grandmother and grandfather until 1935 when I was 8 years old, but never knew that Arland was my stepfather, not my real father. When I refer to him as my father it’s because I thought he was.

Arland Palmer was a real estate broker before the Depression, but he wouldn’t go out and get listings. Instead he put up a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn of his house and when people came to inquire he would talk them into becoming his customers. During the Depression he was in the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and was put to carving a piece of wood. Every day he’d go to work and carve because that was the only thing he’d do. Anything harder he refused to do. I thought he was the laziest man I ever knew.

He retired at about 45 years old but he didn’t retire from anything because he didn’t do anything.

Palmer-in-uniformDepression era

In 1929 when I was 3, my sister, Arlane, was born followed 13 years later by another daughter, Nellie. For some reason it was plain that he favored Arlane and Nellie over me.  When Arlane was little, he would take her downtown and buy her an ice cream cone.  When they returned home I would make Arlane breathe on me and I could smell the ice cream on her breath.  I always said, “dammit” because he never did that for me.

In the 1929 stock market crash Grandfather MacIntosh lost all the property, furniture, stocks, bonds, everything he owned. As a consequence grandfather, grandmother and I moved to a two-acre plot of land outside of Odessa, Missouri and back to pioneer living. There grandfather grew his own vegetables, chickens and pigs, and so we always had plenty to eat.

At the front of the property was a filling (gasoline) station and a small store. Behind it was a galvanized one-room building with a wood-cooking stove, a portable galvanized bath tub and a water well outside the front door. This was where we lived.

Once a week I brought in wood from outside to heat the bath water and Grandfather bathed first, Grandmother went next, and I was the last to bathe. The water was not very hot for my turn. We lived there for four years while I started school. I thought he must be a genius to make such an adjustment from city life to country life so successfully.

Bitter winters

During those bitter winters in my early elementary school years I put on boots and a heavy coat and trudged a couple of miles through the mud and snow to a one-room school house. Eventually Grandfather bought me a horse, Nellie, which I rode to school.  When school let out each day it was hard to catch that horse, but once mounted he would gallop for home knowing he’d get fed. (Yes, it was a gelding named Nellie.)

The Depression brought homeless families, some crying and screaming as they walked down the road in front of our store. Sometimes Grandfather McIntosh could hear them so he invited them in to the store to get warm, eat some food and then be on their way. They were in a sorry state and seemed to appreciate his kindness.

One summer grandfather put several men to work for their meals and had them dig a deep hole for an outhouse. We used corn cobs as toilet paper until Sears and Roebuck started sending a catalog through the mail. The family used the absorbent pages for toilet paper until the company started making the catalog on slick paper. It just didn’t work for toilet paper so the family went back to using corn cobs.

New Year’s tragedy

In 1934 my grandfather’s assets took a turn for the better so he bought a new house in Kansas City and we moved back. Times during the Great Depression were still very tough and apparently his good fortune did not last. Grandfather bought a $100,000 life insurance policy with Grandma as the beneficiary. He had a plan but we did not know about it.

New Year’s Eve was a very cold day that year and Grandma asked me to get Grandpa to reload the furnace with wood. I went looking for him and found him down in the cellar sitting in a big chair, dead, with my .22 rifle between his knees and the barrel in his mouth.

I was only 8 years old and I still have that picture vividly in my memory. No one ever talked to me about my reaction to this event, but I guess I took it in stride and accepted his death as just another part of my life.

Southern California

We moved to Santa Ana, California and my grandmother used the insurance proceeds to buy a small house where we lived throughout the rest of my school years. When I was about 10 years old Arland told me that from now on he would furnish food and a roof over my head (the one my grandmother owned). I would have to earn anything else I wanted including clothes, shoes and school supplies.

So I mowed lawns, sold magazines and newspapers, raised rabbits, all kinds of things I could do as a 10 year old to raise money for the necessities. He held to that statement and never gave me a dime my whole life. This man was the tightest, stingiest, most frugal man I ever knew.

I’ll never forget one time when my mother was on her knees begging him for a nickel to buy a loaf of bread. If he knew how I live now, he’d turn over in his grave. He never congratulated me on my future success or on anything I accomplished.

Athletics

The highlight of my school years happened when I was in sixth grade. Santa Ana had a citywide athletic competition and even though I stood at only about 5 foot 3 inches, I went out for high jumping. I completed a jump of 4 feet, 8 inches and won the tournament. There was another boy who was favored to win but he didn’t jump as high as I did, so I was very happy to get the prize.

I was also very strong so I scored higher than anyone in gym competition and the decathlon, too.  I could do 20 pull-ups, 100 sit-ups, and 100 push-ups.  I was well built and I liked to box during the P.E. periods, so no one ever challenged me to fight or prove myself.

I attended junior high and high school in Santa Ana. I was never much of a student so in March of 1943, when the government offered young men a high school diploma if they volunteered for a branch of the service, I went for it.  I signed up for the Navy when I was 17, and my father was very happy that I did – I suppose because he wouldn’t have to put up with me any more.

About that time, my mother showed me my birth certificate and told me that Arland was not my real father. That explained a lot to me about how I’d been treated and why he had favored Arlane and Nellie over me. I’d always suspected there was something that I didn’t know about our relationship. The bright side of his behavior was that it created in me a belief that to get something done, I had to do it myself.

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Quonset huts

In the Navy

When I decided to enlist, I sold the Ford Model A car with a rumble seat I had purchased for $50. I’d had the engine overhauled for $10 and was able to sell it for $75. Then I joined the Navy and went to boot camp at the San Diego Naval Training Center.

I remember that I loved the food and milk. At home I got up from every meal still hungry, so this was a real treat to me. All the guys griped about the taste of the food, but the quantity was so much more than I’d had at home that I gained 10 pounds in boot camp.

After we got our first paycheck, I put mine into a small bag and left it hanging on my bunk. Later when I looked for it, it was gone.  I thought I knew who had taken it but couldn’t prove it.  I told the Chief Petty Officer and asked for a transfer to a different Quonset hut. I fit in better in the new group and remained there until our graduation, sending most of my paychecks to a bank account I had opened in Santa Ana.

My first assignment was in Norman, Oklahoma at the Aviation Mechanics School. We were nearly all just teenagers with no technical background, so they taught us the principles of aerodynamics to understand how planes fly.

These airplanes operated on a four-cycle engine and we knew nothing about that, so we learned how one works and how to maintain it. We had to know the name of each part on the airplane and be able to check each one and the system it was in. We also learned how to identify every kind of airplane from the ground by its silhouette so we could report sighting enemy planes.

Since we were in school, our lives were very routine. We got leave on weekends and I’d go into Norman, stay in a hotel, see a movie or get a meal.  It was small and I liked it better than Oklahoma City. I wasn’t into drinking alcohol but some of the men were, so they’d hit the bars. I didn’t have a taste for beer, didn’t like it. I did like to dance in the bars, pick up on girls and that sort of thing. I was kind of a loner and I didn’t really care what the other guys did. Another thing I remember about Oklahoma was the strong winds and the red dirt.

My next assignment was in Oregon, at Tongue Point Naval Air Station near Astoria on the mouth of the Columbia River. It was an assembly and repair station. I cleaned spark plugs, checked and cleaned starters and generators on planes, and generally refurbished them.

On leave I liked to go to Portland and Seattle on the buses. They were both good towns, with a lot of interesting things to do.  I remember it rained nearly every day in contrast to the dry, hot weather in Oklahoma. I was only in Oregon about three months before I was transferred.

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Squad of Navy pilots, reel operators, mechanics, etc. on Midway Island; Perry is at the far right standing on the wing

From Hawaii to Midway

The next stop was in Hawaii, where I contracted rheumatic fever. There was an epidemic on the base, and the whole barracks was full of sick men. Both doctors and nurses were on duty, but there was no hospital.

I was ill for weeks, but I loved that I could get all the cold milk I could drink for as long as it took to recover. Much later I qualified for some disability because I ended up with a heart murmur and heart valve problems from the rheumatic fever.

From Hawaii I was sent to Midway Island right after the battle that was so costly in American lives. I stayed there a year, three months beyond the usual nine-month rotation. I liked it so well because I was making overseas pay, combat pay, and flight pay on top of my regular pay. Marine fighter pilots were stationed on the island to protect Navy personnel in case of an attack.

One of my duties was to fly with a Navy pilot in a J2F Grumman Duck biplane towing a target for the Marines to practice shooting at to perfect their aim on flying objects.

Target practice

The target, called a “sock,” was an oblong object about 20 feet long on the end of a length of cable reeled out from the plane. We had to throw the sock through a big hole in the bottom of the plane. The reel would stretch out about 200 feet or so, pulled by the sock, and the Marines would shoot at the sock from the ground.

When I understood that the Marines shot at the airplane to hit the target that bothered me a little so I would always let out a little more line if possible. I don’t remember if we were strapped in above the hole in the plane floor, but I do remember that if the weather got rough we’d hang on for dear life to the sides of the hole so we wouldn’t slip through.

Our two Navy pilots were very good and we liked both of them. There were three reel operators, so about every third day I went up in the plane as a reel operator.

Only two men were in the plane as we pulled the sock; the pilot and the reel operator. At the end of practice we’d fly over the Marine Base and trip a lever that disconnected the sock and sent it careening down to land. We called it a “fish” but I don’t remember why. The shells the Marines fired at the sock were different colors and left a stain on the sock so they could check to see whose shells hit it by the color around the shell hole.

One time a Marine pilot mistakenly landed on the tail of his F4U as he came down the runway. The plane was about 100 yards away from us when it blew all apart. I was in the revetment, a pile of sand which protected the biplane from attack.

Bullets were flying all around me because the ammunition in the plane exploded. No one on the ground was hurt, but unfortunately the pilot died. I felt lucky that no one was injured or killed.

Along the length of the runway there were little huts where red flags were stored. One of our duties was to be in the one of the huts to raise a red flag when a plane was landing so everyone would clear the runway. Once the plane landed we would lower the flag.

Birds and bombshells

Things were not too eventful on Midway, so our entertainment was to watch the goony birds land on the asphalt or sand instead of in the water. They couldn’t scoot like they could on water, and they’d just tumble over.

We were fortunate to have the USO come and entertain us once, and we saw Betty Hutton, the “blond bombshell.” She was the only woman I saw in 12 months. Another way to while away the time on the island was to play cards. I didn’t like cards so I spent time swapping stories with the other guys.

The Navy pilot I flew with loved to land on salt water, which meant I had to wash the whole plane down after every flight.  I was responsible for maintaining the systems on the plane and making sure it was flight ready.

These were really old biplanes so when it had a tear in the wing I had to patch it with epoxy and resin.

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The J2F Grumman Duck plane used to tow targets for shooting practice on Midway Island

Mid-air collision

One day, when I was not scheduled to fly, a pilot named Binsfield gave a radio repair man a ride in one of the Grumman J2F biplanes. He’d never been in an airplane and just wanted a ride. The pilot sat him in the copilot seat and the reel operator crouched in the back.

As the three men flew around the island towing the target, we suddenly heard this loud noise and saw smoke in the sky.  The J2F plane had collided with a Marine F4U Corsair that was landing on the north end of the island. Both planes were wrecked and all four men were killed. I knew both the biplane pilot and the reel operator, whose name I can’t remember but who slept right across from me in the barracks. It was a terrible shock as we watched the black smoke spiraling into the air.

I helped to bury the Navy men at sea the following day. Each body was wrapped in a weighted canvas sock, placed on a large slab of wood and taken out into the ocean on a PT boat.

I still remember the sound when we lifted up the slab and one at a time the bodies fell into the water. It is one of those things that stays with you forever.

A few months after the mid-air collision, the Navy replaced the J2F biplanes with single-wing TBMs, torpedo bombers newly outfitted to tow the targets.

At the end of my tour of duty I was assigned to work in the large motor repair shop back on Oahu. About that time the USA dropped the A-bombs on Japan and the war was over. I had been assigned to a desk job there and was just sitting at my desk when the announcement came over the speaker that the Japanese had surrendered. I was happy to have served but even happier to know that my service was over.

I was mustered out in San Diego in March 1946. I stayed there for about 10 days and then hitchhiked the 100 miles home to Santa Ana. Arland told me I could sleep in the garage since the bedrooms were occupied. I needed a car so I bought a 1936 Chevy coupe and overhauled the engine in my bedroom (which was the garage!)

I took odd jobs such as digging ditches for plumbers, working in a laundry and at a fish cannery but didn’t much like any of them.

I would rather push a pencil than a shovel, so I decided to go to college to be something other than just ordinary.  Arland stated that I would never make it through college because I wasn’t smart enough.

Of course, that only added to my determination to make a success of myself.

Back to school

In 1948 I enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and thanked God for the G.I. bill, which paid my tuition, books and an extra $50 a month. There were no women enrolled then, and I stayed for two years.

Arland’s advice was to major in air conditioning but I didn’t like it. I had to draw all these plans and sit at a desk when I really wanted something dealing with people. So I transferred from San Luis Obispo to San Jose State, where I majored in psychology and philosophy.

Eventually I looked at getting a job with those two majors and it didn’t look promising. My girlfriend, Shirley Sharfen, talked me into going into Education. I enrolled in classes to become a teacher and graduated with a BA in Education.

I married Shirley in 1952 and we had two children, Mark and Cheryl. We both took teaching positions at Guerneville Elementary School in Northern California, where I taught fourth and fifth grades for two years. Guerneville is a beautiful little town next to the Russian River.

We each made about $3,200 a year then, and the principal, William Conrad, took offense to the fact that being married, we both got a paycheck. I didn’t much like the pay but I did like the location. Unfortunately the school flooded every year because of being so close to the river. That was a nuisance but also, because I was a male teacher, I got all the behavior problems assigned to my classroom every year.

Even though we liked our location, we decided to move to Santa Rosa where we bought a two-bedroom house for $12,500. I taught fifth grade, my favorite, at Belleview Elementary for two years under Frank Scheiber.

I also taught at Gregory Gardens Elementary School in Concord where the principal, Tony Steffani, took a liking to me. When he became superintendent of Niles School District in the Fremont area, he talked me into teaching there.

School administrator career

I wanted to become a principal; that was my goal. I went to Stanford summer school for three years and graduated with a master’s degree in school administration.

When the City of Fremont was created from five different townships in 1956, the six or seven districts that ran about 30 schools became Fremont Unified School District. I became a principal at Niles School, then transferred to Alan G. Norris, a K-6 school named after a local doctor.  I stayed there for about seven years.

Eventually I transferred to Millard Elementary, a K-6 school and part of the Fremont district. Two other schools in the district had been closed, and the students and staff were sent to Millard bringing our enrollment from 500 to about 800 students. The district brought in some portables to hold the new classes but did not add any administrative help.

The merger wasn’t going well. There were student fights every day and the teachers didn’t sit together at lunchtime or work together well.

I tried several tactics to change the climate, including organizing games on the playground and playing soccer with the students every lunch time so I could get to know them. I kept a notebook into which I entered the name and story of every student who was disciplined. I called their parents and tried to work together to make a plan for their child to succeed.

Things began to calm down, and by the time I left, they’d calmed down so much I was almost bored.

Through college and during the following decades I had become very involved in the sport of archery. I made many friends, loved the sport and especially enjoyed competing. I was a very good archer and won many tournaments in Central California during those years. I still have the trophies and pins that I won.

I belonged to archery clubs in San Jose and Santa Rosa, and for a long time I kept in touch with some of those friends.  But when we moved to Sonora there was no archery club, so we lost touch.

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Perry caught this big guy in Stampede Lake

A new beginning

Things were not going well in my marriage, and Shirley and I were divorced in 1969.

In 1970, I was the principal at Norris School and met Margaret Santos when she walked into the office and said she was the substitute secretary.  I thought she was “one good-looking woman” but I was recently divorced with two children and didn’t give any thought to a relationship.

However, Margaret and I did start to date one another and fell in love. We were married in January of 1972. She brought her three daughters, Victoria, Darlene and Christine, to the union. Some have said anyone who would marry a divorced woman with three kids had to be “nuts or in love.” It was the best decision I made in my whole life.

After we were married we spent vacations traveling all over the West in our motorhome. We both loved fishing, boating, water skiing and camping. We always took the kids along, all five of them, plus two dogs.

Our favorite place was Stampede Lake, 30 miles west of Reno. We fished for Kokanee salmon and crawdads, which Margaret cooked into delicious meals.

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Perry on the roof, building their house in Healdsburg

Building a retirement home

I retired in 1982 at the age of 56, and we moved to the lovely little town of Healdsburg, California. There, with Margaret’s help, I built a beautiful home on six acres about five minutes outside of town. I studied books and visited job sites to learn building skills and was able to complete all the framework, electrical and plumbing. However, Margaret insisted on paying for a mason to build the fireplace because she was afraid the house would catch fire if I built it. After she and I installed a Spanish tile roof, we were so tired that we paid to have the outside of the house stuccoed.

We filled the six acres with trees and flowers and had a garden full of vegetables. We hired a contractor to bulldoze a pond, which was 22 feet deep in the center for swimming and fishing. Our children and grandchildren swam in it, and we stocked it with fish so everyone could enjoy catching them.

I loved living in Healdsburg and it reminded me of my childhood living on the farm in Odessa, Kansas. That farm was called Windy Hills and because a breeze blew at our Healdsburg place, we named it Windy Hills II.

We had the house built on a hill because I was always conscious of the flooding that occurred in Guerneville.

Shortly after Margaret and I were married she convinced me to look up Chuck Vedder, my real father. When I found him in San Bernadino County, the relationship started out well. However, both Margaret and I were working and when we moved to Healdsburg we were building the house in our spare time. My dad was “down and out” so we offered to have him live with us. He wouldn’t come and his daughter, Yvette Vickers, was an aspiring actress in Hollywood and busy with building her career so had no time to take care of him.  It took us eight years to finish that house and Chuck made no further effort to contact us or come see us so we drifted away from one another again.

During her marriage to Arland, my mother, Ruth, was completely controlled by him since he held the purse strings. However, after her children were old enough to move out, she went to work and became financially secure.

My mother became ill and was diagnosed with cancer.  She’d lost all her hair in the treatments but she wore a wig to try and look pretty. She tried to find Chuck Vedder but she was so weak from the treatments she couldn’t spend much time looking. She never succeeded before she passed on. Later when we found Chuck we told him she had looked for him, and tears ran down his face. It was such a sad story of two people deeply in love but kept apart for their lifetimes.

Arland died a few years later and did not include me in his will … no surprise!

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Perry Palmer, December 2015

Tuolumne County

While we enjoyed the life in Healdsburg for 13 years, Margaret tired of living in such a rural area and the maintenance that was required on a large parcel. We yearned for a quieter life and decided to start looking elsewhere. I had a friend who recommended we look in Sonora and we loved it right away.  In 1995 we moved to Tuolumne County where we bought a two-story house on Saddle Drive. We lived there for about eight years until we decided to downsize and moved to our present location in Soulsbyville.

We enjoy life here and have made many friends; we love to entertain and dine out together.  One favorite place is the Black Oak Casino where we have gotten to know the employees and spend time there with our many friends.

I will be 90 years old in January and because I am legally blind from macular degeneration I use both a walker and scooter to get around. I think this condition is hereditary because my father, my sister, and my grandmother, who lived to be 101, all had it.

Margaret and I will be married 44 years in January and it’s been a wonderful time. Margaret is a thoughtful and caring wife who helps me out in so many ways.  All five children – John, Cheryl, Victoria, Christine and Darlene – are thriving with families of their own.  We have 13 grandchildren and 14 beautiful great-grandchildren who have lightened our lives. Our three little Yorkshire terriers provide us with love and entertainment as well.

In the Navy, I learned that the armed services benefitted officers, not the enlisted men. After my discharge I wanted to get ahead as a civilian and enjoy the benefits of rank. I wanted to get an education and thanks to the G.I. Bill it happened.

I benefitted from many of my Navy experiences and am grateful that I was able to serve.

I was just the opposite of my stepfather. I had ambition. I wanted to get ahead and achieve things. And I did.

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