How I became Grandpa Don

Chapter 5
The Navy
1951- 1953

Recorded by Donald J Plefka (Grandpa Don) January, 2001

There were some very good times and some bad times. 
In spite of sea sickness when the weather was bad, 
this was the smartest thing I could have done at the time.
How about a getting a bag of Chips - Ahoy  (or whatever brand you have) while you wait for the pictures to show up. Be careful not to drop crumbs on the keyboard.

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The Navy - USS New Kent - APA 217

When I got to boot camp at the Great Lakes Navel Training Center, I wasn't sure that it was such a good move. I had never really been on my own and being a very "private" person, it was rough. But by the time boot camp was over I was thinking of a Navy career. I applied for the Annapolis prep school. My boot camp grades were good enough that I was scheduled for "Fire Control" training school. Fire Control is the control of the ship's major guns. However,  I was kept in "casual company" while waiting for the Annapolis test.  The test was no problem except for a section on literature. I knew nothing of the classic books, their characters or authors. There would be no Annapolis for me, another thing I  blamed on Leo HS.

Boot Camp 
We learned how to march, tie knots, survive in the water, and do all kinds of "Navy" things. This included the mandatory Fire Fighters School. We got plenty of exercise and could even hold our class mates in our hands.

 I was transferred to the Amphibious Forces in Little Creek, Virginia. I had missed my training school! I didn't like Little Creek. They had us clearing brush in a snake infested area near a base housing project. Also, I was quite sick until my system learned to accept the well water of the base. To make matters worse, the Navy lost my records during the transfer and they did not pay me for two months. I couldn't even go on liberty. My caddy days came in handy one Saturday when I got into a black jack game with my last quarter and ran it up to $15. That allowed me a good weekend in Virginia Beach. 

My time at Little Creek included a stint at the Fleet Air Defense Training Center at Dam Neck, VA.  We were trained to fire twin and quad 40mm antiaircraft guns.The base was on the beach and the back of the barracks was all swamp with signs posted to warn of poisonous snakes. A remote control drone was our target and we weren't expected to be able to hit it. One day I shot it down, ending our practice for the day.

After a short time, I was transferred to the Naval Station at Orange Texas where we took the USS New Kent out of "moth balls" and re-commissioned it for duty. I started as an ordinary "deck hand" but then was assigned as the messenger for the Executive Officer. That was a great break because all I had to do was run errands for him and whenever he was off the ship, I had liberty. I was one of a few who carried my liberty card with me at all times. There was nothing in Orange so we hitch-hiked out of town for liberty. On a couple occasions I got a ride from the Texas State Police. They were always willing to assist a service man.

The "Moth Ball" Fleet
Rows of ships on the Sabine River between Texas and Louisiana

Hatches and ports were sealed and holes were cut between compartments for circulation of warm dehumidified air. The large dehumidifiers (foreground - right) were mounted on the decks. Our job was to remove all that, reinstall the rigging and restore all equipment to working order. 

 Orange was on the Louisiana border and the area was 90% swamp. The mosquitoes were unbelievable! We took our liberty in Port Arthur or Beaumont. Beaumont is where I met Myrtle at the VFW Club. She lived with her mother and two sisters and we had some very good times. Her older sister had a car and we often went "honky-tonkin" at the area bars.  To really get adventuresome we went to Louisiana where there were some very rough bars. The music and Lone Star beer started to grow on me.  

On some evenings we would just "drag Main". (Ride up and down Main St. waving at other sailors along the way.)

For USS New Kent Information Click here.

Myrtle had a brother who impressed me as a very good person who had a troubled life. He had been a merchant marine during the WW II and survived two ships that were sunk. He was working as an orderly at a hospital and was going for therapy. I later found out that he was gay. Several times he offered to drive me back to Orange but I always declined the offer. I was sure I didn't have anything to fear, ... But ...

Leaving Orange, TX
Crew's cars loaded aboard
for the trip to Norfolk, VA

When communication circuits were installed and commissioning was near, there was no longer a need for messengers and I was given the opportunity to select duty as a radar-man "striker" (apprentice). This was a great break even though I no longer had my flexible liberty privileges.  I must have made an impression on the Executive Officer.

The ship left Orange in November of 1951 and we went to our new home port, Norfolk Virginia. I wrote to Myrtle for a while but thought I would never get back to Texas, so the letters stopped. 

In February of 1952 the ship went into dry dock at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. I liked that city because there was a lot to do and they treated servicemen well. There were free tickets to plays and other events.  At a USO dance I met Janet and dated her while there. I wrote to her for a short time but that ended due to mutual lack of interest.

The New Kent was an APA (Attack Personnel Auxiliary). We carried landing craft, quarters for troops and cargo holds for their combat supplies. The  rardarmen worked in CIC (Combat Information Center), where the radar tracked surface and air "targets". At first my job was to stand behind a large transparent plot board and mark it with the information. We wrote in "mirror image" so the officers in front of the board could read it. Soon I was trained to operate and read the radar. 

For training purposes, convoys would be formed, go to Ocean City, SC to pick up marines and proceed to make an assault landing on Vieques between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. We would then return to Ocean City, pick up another assault force and return to Vieques where the first group would act as the defenders. There would be a couple weeks of "war games" and on weekends, we would take a double load of marines for liberty to San Juan or the Virgin Islands. After the "games" we would transport the marines back to South Carolina. Unfortunately it wasn't all fun and games. There were accidents and casualties, some of them fatal. It was at San Juan in May of 1952 that one of the miracles of my life occurred. More of that in the next chapter.

San Juan, Puerto Rico - 1952 
We saw the Spanish fort and toured the city on foot. I was impressed with the "Old Town" but we stayed clear of the slums. These were the days of Rum and Coca Cola.

Liberty boat  - St. Thomas - 1952
I loved the swimming and the warm welcome given to us at the local hotels and restaurants. At that time there were no docks for large ships and even cruse ships had to anchor out in the bay and send in small boats.

I applied to go to school to become an Electronics Technician. The Radar Officer, Lt. Smith, said he would process my application. After a couple of months, one of my friends in the ship's office told me that Lt. Smith had told him to "bury" my request. Using my previous association with the Executive Officer, I went over a few heads directly to him and told him of my problem. My request was approved that week for attendance when the next class session was scheduled to start in several months. Lt. Smith treated me very well while I waited. 

I found the work aboard ship to be easy and the liberty to be great except for Norfolk. Sailors had a reputation there. One day, when leaving a movie, a girl, about 12, pulled her younger sister away saying, "Get away from him.  ... He's a sailor !".

When I got transferred to Great Lakes to Electronics Technician School in July of 52, I called Anne and went out with her. We had exchanged a few letters. She let me know that she was currently dating someone on a 'steady' basis so I didn't pursue it. (I already knew that you don't push Anne.) While at Great Lakes I made some good friends. Al was from Buffalo, NY and was very interested in Ham Radio. The two of us applied for permission to set up a station on the Naval base but the commanding officer said there was too many regulations and red tape. In stead, he put us in touch with the nuns at Barrette College where a radio studio had been built but was not being used. So for a while, I was a ham radio enthusiast. It turned out that Gloria, a girl I had dated in 1950 was going to school there and we dated a couple of times. Al and I enjoyed being two sailors in a Girl's college. The nuns swore us to secrecy when we needed to enter a small room to connect our equipment. It contained a one way mirror that the nuns used to check the girls in the adjacent study hall. (We used it too.)

Dot (Sis) and her dog

 One of the Marines in our class was from Milwaukee and we were invited to his wedding. I met a girl there and dated her on weekends for a while. My parents didn't understand why I wasn't coming to Chicago for my week end liberties. Another friend, actually two, was Barney and his wife Dot (Dorothy). They lived in a trailer on base and Al and I spent a lot of time there. After a while, I invited Barney, Dot and Al to my parent's home. We all became very close. Dot's parents were dead and she said she would like to share mine. She referred to me as her brother and to me she was 'Sis'.

I was on Christmas leave when on my dad had a second heart attack and died. I was devastated. Uncle Charles was our savior. He helped Mom with everything she needed. I was surprised when Anne and her mother came to the wake. Anne was very fond of my dad.  

After that we dated occasionally . There was a great enlisted men's club at Great Lakes and I took her there a few times. There was a live band and dancing on weekends and Anne got to meet Al, Barney and Dot. But ... Again, I was more interested in Anne than she was with me. 

In April of 1953 I graduated from ET School and went back to the New Kent.  Anne and I wrote letters but she was afraid that I would be too involved with caring for my mother. I was sending home an allotment from my pay to help support her and she was not in good health. 

The leading ET (Richard) and I became very good friends. We went on liberty together most of the time. We enjoyed swimming at Virginia Beach and on one occasion hitch hiked to Williamsburg for a week end. We also hitch hiked to Silver Springs when the ship called at Ft Lauderdale, FL for a week. 

Another favorite activity was having a good meal and some wine at Rossetties in Norfolk and then a movie.

When in a Caribbean port, we went spear fishing for lobsters with spears made from portable radio antennas. 

Electronics Technician Don,
tuning long range transmitter.

Each stage of signal amplification had to be tuned and that effected the tuning of the previous stage. Tuning and retuning the 5 stages for optimum output sometimes took an hour.

Another good friend was 'Woody". He was the most religious person I had met. On payday his first stop was the ship's post office where he sent money orders for most of his pay to several charities. He also prearranged contact with a church in every port we visited and would go to youth group events church services. 

Woody didn't eat meat at all during Lent but he did eat meat gravy. He was not following any church rules, so he could do that. He said he wanted to be a minister when he left the navy and that if he were a Catholic he would be a Jesuit missionary. 

I went to Mass when it was convenient and once in a while when it was not. My obsession with trying to make religious beliefs fit into a nice logical package continued, unsuccessfully. I still wondered if it was real. My literature of preference was still science fiction.

Transfer Catholic Chaplin - - - - - - - - Navy VS Marines on #2 hatch

When on exercises we practiced everything including the transfer of Chaplains between ships by shooting a line across, and setting up cables to pull a "boson's chair" back and forth. (The Chaplains must have had a lot of faith) If the ships moved apart, the cobles could snap. And, if they moved closer together, the chair and passenger would be dipped into the sea. We had mock air attacks along with gunnery practice. To prevent boredom of the troops who's quarters had bunks stacked six high, there were movies on deck and boxing matches. When troops were aboard, we could not distill enough fresh water for everything, so you had to take salt water showers with special soap. That was a bummer. 

After Richard was transferred, I became the "leading ET" and I brought my mattress up to the electronics shop. During the day it was rolled up under the work bench and at night the work bench became my bed. I was the only enlisted man with a private stateroom with porthole and electric fan.  My "stateroom" was one level above the Captain's and opened to a private "balcony" high above #3 hatch. To add to my comforts, I had rigged an antenna connection to the ships galley for a radio. In gratitude, the cooks shared their private supply of cakes and snacks. I had transformed the New Kent into my private cruse ship.

I enjoyed going to the bow of the ship and having the wind in my face. (Shades of "Titanic") Often you could see porpoises playing in the water at the bow. One made game of swimming ahead of the ship and letting it catch up. When the ship touched it's tail, it would leap far ahead and do it again. On another occasion  a giant ray cut across our bow. It just glided through the water. There were water spouts to see and sometimes when it was very hot, we would go off course to cool the ship down in a nearby rain shower. There were beautiful sunsets and nights with more stars that I ever thought possible. 

It was not beautiful all the time. On one occasion, a hurricane tore two of our boats off their supports on deck and we lost them. On another occasion we were in Chesapeake Bay with two anchors out and the engines at top speed while a hurricane slowly moved us backward.

One night, I was awakened and told to go to the bridge. The lieutenant who had the con told me that the radio direction finding equipment was malfunctioning. It did not agree with the star sightings he had just made. I could not find a problem and asked if he verified his location with the fathometer. When we did that, we found that the water was much more shallow than it should have been if he was correct. But that depth agreed with the readings from the electronic equipment. Then I casually asked him what all those lights were to the starboard. He looked and shouted "Hard left rudder". We were less than a mile of the coast of Florida, not the five miles he had calculated. 

USS New Kent, one of five Atlantic Fleet Amphibious Force ships taking part in a recent TransDiv exercise, steams into Havana, Cuba, leading her boats like a mother chick. 

During joint exercises with other ships, or on independent trips, we visited Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Havana Cuba. Havana was great. We went to a beautiful beach and then to a night club that was right out of the old movies.  When you went into a shop, you were offered a glass of brandy or rum. There was one unpleasant incident. Looking for directions, we approached a Cuban Navy guard . He pointed his machine gun at us saying, "No English!" We retreated immediately. The second day there, I was on duty and had to bring battery packs for the radios to the shore patrol station set up on the dock. The batteries were in storage a long time and wore out quickly. On every trip, I dumped the old batteries and put 4 bottles of rum in the case. Three bottles went to the sailor that bought them and one went to me. I had become a smuggler for a day! That night, we were drinking rum and coke in the radar room when the new Executive Officer came in, saw an extra cup of coke  on the table and asked if he could have it. (We thought we were dead!) His comment was "That's mighty fine coke!"  He asked if there was more and when we said no, he told us to go get more cups of coke from the machine in the rec room and he went to his cabin for a bottle of rum. After that round, he said, "Let's not ever have this happen again !"

I had two disturbing incidents during this time. The first, in Miami Beach, was when a bus stopped right in front of me. I stepped aside and let an elderly colored (that was the term for black people at the time) woman get on before me. The bus driver made me and the woman get off so I could get on first. The second was in Norfolk when I got on a bus went to the back where there were plenty of seats. The driver came back and told me the buss would not move until I got into the white section where I had to stand because it was full.

In late February of 1954, I went home on leave for two weeks. That is a good point to pause and start another chapter.

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USS New Kent Information

Web Site: 

Haskell Class Attack Transport: 
Laid down 11 July 1944 under a Maritime Commission contract, (MC standard type VC2-S-AP5)
 at Permanente Metals Corp. Yard No.2, Richmond Ca; 
Launched 12 October 1944; 
Acquired by the Navy from the Maritime Commission on loan-charter and 
Commissioned USS New Kent (APA-217), 22 November 1944; 

Placed Out-of-Commission-in-Reserve 29 July 1949; 
Laid up in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, Orange Group; 

Don Plefka, Seaman Apprentice, assigned July, 1951

Recommissioned 10 October 1951; 

Don Plefka temporary assignment to Electronics School, Great Lakes  June, 52 - April, 53

Placed Out-of-Commission-in-Reserve 12 July 1954; 
Laid up in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, Orange Group; 
Don Plefka remained assigned for decommissioning work until Dec. 1954
Assigned to USS Gyatt DD712

Struck from the Naval Register 1 October 1958; 
Returned to the Maritime Administration for lay up in the National Defense Reserve Fleet; 

Final Disposition, unknown.

Displacement 6,873 t. (lt) 14,837 t (fl); Length 455'; Beam 62'; Speed 19kts; 
Complement 56 Officers 480 Enlisted; 
Troop Capacity 86 Officers 1,475 Enlisted; 
Cargo Capacity 150,000 cu. ft, 2,900 tons; 
Boats; 2 LCM, 12 LCVP, 3 LCPU; 
Armament 1 5"/38 dual-purpose gun mount, 4 twin 40mm gun mounts, 10 single 20mm gun mounts;
Propulsion 1 Westinghouse geared turbine, 2 Babcock and Wilcox header-type boilers, 1 propeller,
design shaft horsepower 8,500. 

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