Editor’s Note: The following is the first-person account of sailor Paul Betcher as told to Kari A. Clark.
Roseburg has been my home since I moved here in December, 1945, after my enlistment in the Navy was completed. So I feel like a native, but I was born in Loma Linda, California, on July 21, 1922, and graduated from San Bernardino High School.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I wanted to rush right down and enlist in the Navy. A bunch of my old high school buddies had done just that, but Dad didn’t want me to go.
I had a good, steady job with Kaiser Steel in nearby Fontana, and since Kaiser was a leading maker of steel, an important war industry, I could have easily gotten the deferment that Dad favored for me. But I didn’t.
In September of ‘42, I enlisted in the Navy.
My first naval training began in San Diego, but next I was sent all the way across the country to New York.
In New York, on Pier 27, I trained in diesel and mechanics on an LST — Landing Ship Tank.
They were like no other ship, designed for those invasions where tanks, rigs, various supplies and squadrons of personnel were pushed onshore without requiring conventional piers.
The need for these vessels became clear after the disastrous evacuation of allied troops and civilians at Dunkirk, France, in May and June of 1940.
Due to that event, Prime Minister Winston Churchill requested the aid of the United States, not yet in the war, to assist in the design and manufacture of LSTs in 1941.
By the time I enlisted, the vessels were manufactured in many places in the U.S., and the time to build them from start to finish had gotten down to less than four months. Before I got out, that time was down to only two months. That’s how essential the LSTs were during that time. From the beginning I was proud to be a part of an LST crew.
LSTs were not made for travel on the high seas and offshore could be uncomfortable. This I learned vividly in one horrible, gigantic storm where waves tossed the ship as if it was a paper bag. With each wave, the craft was lifted higher.
At times it seemed a marvel we were on top and not under that huge mountain of water. Suddenly we could be dropped down again. This terrifying action happened over and over during that storm. No personnel were lost on that day, but I remember after the storm was over, our vessel required towing to join the rest of the convoy.
Near the end of the war, I was based in Italy. Heavy warfare was still going on, although the allies had secured major cities, especially along the coast.
As necessary as weapons of war were, also needed were the basics of survival for servicemen. That’s where outfits like the one I was then attached to, ten miles off the coast of Naples, came in. Ships brought in food and supplies that were processed at the base and shipped out. My mechanical background helped there, as the base also was a huge engine repair facility for vehicles and ships.
Unlike any civilian sort of work, these jobs required immediate and total completion. When a job was begun, it was work until it was all done. I remember many times working all day and then all night on a job. On one particular job, we worked for five days straight, no stopping for sleep or hardly anything else. Work had to be done. Fast.
The island where I was stationed had no name, and when I wrote to my mother, I was never allowed to say we were even on an island. To this day, I still don’t know the name of the place; I can’t even find it on a map.
Some of my best Navy memories, though, are from that time. Shore leave in Naples was good, not just due to the good beer and the very pretty girls, but amazing souvenirs that were everywhere. I collected some very interesting old guns and also found a gilded Madonna on a lovely chain, which I planned to give to my mother.
Not all of my memories of Naples are happy. On a day I’ll never forget, I was walking with another sailor when a plane went over and bombs were dropped. Seconds later there was an explosion right in front of me. Among the bundle of black stuff was a head — all that was left of my companion. The swiftness of death and shortness of life itself was then made very clear to me.
Nowadays, I don’t think much about the war, except when I happen to glance at the Madonna. It’s the only survivor of my stash that I was able to bring home. At the airport in Los Angeles, while I lay dead to the world, waiting for my flight home, various antique guns I’d picked up were stolen. The reason I still had the Madonna was because it was hidden in my pocket.
Thinking about it now, I realize the guns were just a reminder of the horrors of war anyway, something I’d just as soon forget.
In December 1945, I happily became a civilian again. I was glad my time was over, but also proud to have served. During that time I earned five medals: Victory Medal World War II, Point System, African-European-Mid-Eastern—1 Star, American Area, and Good Conduct Medal. My rank was Motor Machinist Mate First Class.
None of the awards I earned in the service equals the one I received the very next year.
My parents had moved to Roseburg while I was in the service, so I moved here when I got out, and I ran into my younger brother’s girlfriend, a wonderful girl, Barbardel Fream.
He had told her to keep track of me and see that I could get around, because I didn’t know a thing about Roseburg. First thing you know, I was in love with her and I married her. He was a little upset, but it was his fault. He finally got over it though.
I had the most wonderful marriage until she passed away at 91. She became my life partner on Dec. 22, 1946. We had 71 happy, contented years together.
Though she left this life on March 13 of this year, Barbardel is still with me in my dreams. My award — having her as my wife — is the very best of any honor awarded to me.