It was interesting to find photos from the actual commissioning ceremony of the USS Gherardi. I looked to see if I could find Lester among the faces, but wasn’t able to identify him. He does say that the ship is very crowded, so it is likely that only part of the crew is visible in the photos. The ceremony took place September 15, 1942, which was the 17th birthday of Lester’s little brother. No wonder Wallace didn’t hear from him for his birthday.
September 17, 1942
I received your letter today and am glad to hear from you. Thanks for sending the addresses, I will probably go to Washington on my first week-end. I didn’t know that Alice and Irene were there. I came out on liberty tonight, partially because I would have had to work if I had stayed on board ship.
We are living on the ship now as we moved on at four this afternoon, immediately after the commissioning ceremonies. There wasn’t much to that. We marched on board, the flag was raised, the anthem played, a short speech by an admiral, another speech by our captain, the guard was posted and it was finished. You have no idea how crowded it is but I guess we will get along okay.
We had to eat chow at the station as they didn’t have things ready for us in the galley. I put on a clean suit of whites then got drafted to carry some stores down in the hold so I missed out on chow. We were supposed to get some sandwiches on board but I didn’t stay for them. I left as soon as possible as I rated liberty and wasn’t supposed to have duty today. I wouldn’t have minded the work if I’d had on dungarees but I got my whites all dirty. I’m wearing my blues tonight and they are pretty warm.
I met a buddy on the street up town so we came over to the “y” for a swim and to write some letters. My address remains the same for awhile I guess.
I had a nice time over the week-end, or rather on Sunday as I didn’t go out til Sunday. I went over to Camden, New Jersey as I hadn’t been in NJ yet. As I was coming back just about noon I saw a friend “Jerry” on the sidewalk so I got off the bus and we ate dinner together. We were in school together but are on different ships now. We decided to come back to Philly to go on a tour of the historic places but Jerry had some friends that he wanted to see so he went to see them while I saw some more of the town.
We had agreed to meet at a certain corner and while I was standing there waiting for him, a couple of girls came up, inquired who I was amd invited me to go to their home. They were in the family that Jerry had gone to see and he offered to eat his hat if they could get me to come back with them. He didn’t eat his hat but they certainly didn’t let him forget his promise. We had a very good dinner then the mister took the two girls, Jerry and myself to the War show. It was supposed to be very good but we were disappointed in it. After we got back to their house about midnight we had waffles for supper. Boy were they good. She was a swell cook. All of them were nice and a lot of fun. We stayed and visited until two o’clock Monday morning!
It was three when I got back to the station. We had a terrible time getting on the bus because of the crowd. It was more like a bunch of animals than people. The bus driver had to separate two women who started to fight after one had crowded the other in getting on the bus. What a time.
Thanks for the clipping, mom. I had read it somewhere before and I thought it very good. Wallace, I thought about your birthday though I didn’t get to send you anything but I’ll say best wishes and many more happy birthdays.
Paul why don’t you write and tell me about your train ride? I’ll bet that it was fun. Every time I come to town I ride on the street car that wobbles from side to side. In Camden I rode on an electric bus. It was on rubber and was steered but got its power from a trolley line. Mom, there just aren’t any rocks in town back here and I don’t get a chance to go out in the country but I’ll keep trying.
Love to all
Quote printed on lower edge of the USO stationary: “Idle Gossip Sinks Ships”
September 5 – 1942
I’m having quite a time to keep all of my mail answered so I’ll answer mom’s and Wallace’s letters together. Thanks for the card, Paul, it is very nice. I received four letters yesterday and two more today. I answered two of them last night but I still have several to write.
I’m having a terrible time to get any letters written as I can’t think of anything to write about. I haven’t been out on liberty since a week ago when I went to New York. I went to church this morning and stayed for the broadcast by Horace Heidt and his troup. It was called “The Treasury Hour”, sponsored by the Treasury and devoted to selling war bonds. They read letters from boys in different camps all over the country The strange part of it was that every letter asked the people to buy more bonds. At the start of the program it was announced that they were playing before a crowd of 5,000 sailors. He must have been seeing things because there were only about five hundred of us there. I guess five thousand sounded better.
Is Anne in Washington, D. C. now? If she is there, I’d like to get her address as I think I’ll go and see Washington while I’m here. If you could get Walter Cobb’s and Annie Millers addresses without too much trouble, I’d like to have them also. Are there any others there whom I should know? It isn’t too far from here.
I’m sure stiff and sore today from the exercises that we had yesterday. We take them only about three days each week, just often enough to keep us sore.
I went to the show tonight, “The Chocolate Soldier”. I thought it quite good.
Did you get the mattress I sent home? I couldn’t take it on board ship and I didn’t like to just throw it away. I’m sending you two dollars to pay for the express charges. If it cost any more, let me know.
I can’t think of anything more to write so will close for this time.
Love to all
Lester’s days are filled with activities, learning his new job, and orientation on the ship. The discussion about his assignment is crucial to his future activities. Haring must have decided to hold out for a lifeboat assignment with the diesel engine training. Lester volunteered for the refrigeration crew when no others stepped up. This will prove important in days to come.
August 27, 1942
I am over in the sail locker tonight and am not busy so will start a letter. I don’t work in the sail locker very much now as we have been going on board ship the past two days. It isn’t nearly ready to go but we go on board and look around to learn where things are at.
You have no idea how many men are working on her or how crowded it is. Everything is very compact. We were assigned to jobs today and it looks as though I would have to take care of the refrigerator system. That will be a good job but I was hoping to get on one of the lifeboats as they have the only Diesels there are on the ship. Haring, one other fellow, and myself are the only ones that know the Diesels but when they asked for refrigerator men, I was the only one that spoke up. Haring had it in school along with me but he slept most of that course.
I have been very fortunate in getting good jobs so I shouldn’t complain. Our ship is to be commissioned on September 15th so I will start drawing sea duty pay then even though we won’t be going to sea for some time after that. Sea duty means an increase of twenty per cent in pay or about ninety-three dollars per month. That will be pretty good wages. My bond and insurance takes out twenty-two dollars every month.
We seem to have a nice bunch of officers, however we don’t have our captain yet. My chief seems very nice. He and I went aboard another ship today to look at her refrigerating system. I am on the auxiliary crew and we have charge of the upkeep of the refrigerating system, reducing valves, air compressors, the galley (kitchen), the laundry and the lifeboats. There are only eight of us including the chief so I guess we will have enough to do.
There are lots of airplanes flying around all the time, all day and part of the night.
Haring and I went on liberty together last night. We went first to a town shop where he had ordered a suit of tailor-made blues but they weren’t ready for him. I had a suit of dress blues cut down so they would fit me better and bought a suit of tailor-made whites. The whites cost five dollars. Regular issue whites cost a little over three dollars but they are worth the difference.
After we left the tailor we started out to find Independence Hall. On our way we heard music coming from someplace. As we crossed a narrow street, there was a merry-go-round mounted on a one-horse wagon. About eight or ten children were riding the wooden ponies. An old man, an Italian I think, was furnishing the motive power to turn the merry-go-round by operating a crank such as is on our corn-sheller. Men and women were crowded around to watch and listen to the music. I certainly never expected to see anything so old-fashioned back there though the whole town seems antique. This was out in the Italian settlement, in the older part of the city. The sidewalks are of brick or stone, rough and broken. Some of the streets are paved with wooden blocks, about four by six inches, set on end. They seem to make a good road. I think I have told you that the houses set right up to the sidewalk and are joined together. They have no lawns or separate homes. This is all the older part of town which I have been describing to you. As we walked along the sidewalk we could look right into their rooms. I wouldn’t like that, would you?
We continued our search for Independence hall. Finally we stopped and asked a cop where we could find it. He surprised us by telling us that we were looking at it right in front of us. It looked like a new building to me. It was dark by that time so I am going back to see it in the daytime and go inside. Haring and I are planning on going to New York this week-end so I’ll tell you what that little burg is like. We are going on the week-end so that if we get lost we will have time to get back. I must close now but will write again. Don’t forget to put my address as it is on the envelope.
Love to all
Saturday night August 22 – 1942
I received your letter today so will try to answer it. I got letters from you and Josephine and a card from Aunt Mabel. Josephine had written her letter the twelfth and sent it to the Lakes. I got it today. So you see that it is just as well that you didn’t write and send it to the Lakes. I wish we would have some cool weather as it is hot and sultry here. I’m getting used to my hot room so that it isn’t too awfully bad. Its nice that Josephine and Kenneth were able to visit Melvin though I was quite surprised since Mabel has just returned.
You said that dad and Wallace were helping Ross to thresh. It seems pretty late to still be threshing, isn’t it? I saw a few small fields of oats still in the shock on the trip back here. Yes, this has seemed like a long week though I don’t mind my work. In fact, I don’t have to do a great deal of work.
I get up at 0530, clean up, eat breakfast at 0615 and go over to the sail locker and stay until six or seven at night. I work from eight until ten and from one until three-thirty in the afternoon. We whip ropes and make eye splices in ropes and take care of the hammocks that the boys turn in after they scrub them. We take care of the hammocks all day long, whenever they bring them in. There are lots of dirty hammocks that are sent in from the barracks that no one claims so boys with extra-duty have to wash them. They wash about two hammocks apiece. One boy got into trouble of some kind and he has to scrub 52 of them. I’m sure glad I’m not in his shoes.
James Hedgepath has been quite fortunate in getting furloughs, hasn’t he? It seems that he has been home several times. Yes most of us are in good shape but I don’t know just where the credit should go.
It is surely too bad about Mr. Stewart and for the rest of the family too. I’ll try to write to him soon. I had been thinking about writing to Leslie but don’t have much to write about yet. Is Norma in Denver now? I suppose Carrie enjoyed her trip. It seems like there is lots of travel now.
Sunday night, August 23
I didn’t get to finish this last night so will finish it tonight. I went to church this morning and have been in the sail locker the rest of the time. Did you happen to listen to “We, the People” tonight? One of the fellows knows the three sisters who were first on the program so it was quite interesting to us.
My friend’s name is Haring. You see we were picked alphabetically for our jobs. He is on mess cook duty so I’m eating pretty good. He gave me an extra slice of ice cream today for dinner.
I will send Paul a picture folder as soon as I get a stamp. Must close now.
Love to all
Lester’s life changed quickly from study and preparation in Detroit to assignment on a battleship in World War II. His ship, the USS Gherardi, was a Gleaves Class destroyer. It served through WWII and the Korean War, later being pulled from service. Its story ended in June 1973 when it was sunk off Puerto Rico as a target ship. Since the Gherardi no longer exists, I will illustrate many of Lester’s upcoming letters with photos from the USS North Carolina, now a museum in the harbor at Wilmington, North Carolina. Though the North Carolina was a different class ship, one can imagine Lester roaming its decks like he did the Gherardi.
Aug 20 – 1942
I have a few minutes before going to work so I’ll write a few lines. I’m working in the sail locker now so I won’t have to do any mess cooking. The sail locker has charge of all hammocks, seabags & ropes.
I eat chow at six, ten-thirty & three-thirty. Pretty early isn’t it? I like it pretty well here now. By the way, I think that I misspelled the name of my ship. It is spelled “Gherardi”. It will be quite a long time before she will be ready to leave. It is all steam so I won’t have a chance to use my Diesel knowledge. Maybe I can get transferred later to a Diesel. I’m studying on steam every night.
Its time for me to go so I must close.
Love to all
In a document stored with Lester’s letters is a page of specs on the USS Gherardi. There is no indication who might have written this description, but it was obviously someone very familiar with the ship. The Gherardi was 348′ 3 5/8″ long, with a width of 36′ 1″. The tonnage, fully loaded, would approximate 2600 tons with an expected mean draft of 13’8″.
“The ship will be driven by twin screws, turbine driven. The rudder is of the balanced type on a streamline form, carried entirely on the rudder stock. There are two bower anchors, one port and one starboard–each weighing nearly 3000 pounds and each bent to 109 fathoms of 1 1/8” steel die locked chain. On each side is carried one 26′ Diesel powered motor whaleboat with a capacity of 24 men each. There are also 8 balsa wood floats, capacity 25 men each.
“There are two firerooms (boiler rooms) and two enginerooms divided from forward aft into fireroom, engineroom, fireroom, and engineroom in that order. The forward engineroom drives the starboard shaft and propellor, and the after engineroom drives the port shaft and propellor. Each fireroom has two high pressure boilers, numbered in order, 1 and 2 forward, 3 and 4 aft. If it is desired, boilers 1 and 2 may be used to drive the after boilers and similarly, boilers 3 and 4 can be used to drive the forward engine. Under wartime conditions we use both engines with one forward and one after boiler.
“The tank capacities are: Fuel oil and reserve–129,373 gallons; fresh water and reserve feed–25,442 gallons; Diesel oil (can be also used to mix with fuel oil for boilers)–11,336 gallons.
“Contrary to many rumors, the Gherardi will not exceed a maximum speed of forty knots by much. However, that is very fast for a surface ship of this size and type.
“The main battery of the Gherardi will consist of 4, 5″ 38 caliber guns in mounts, two forward and two aft. These guns can be elevated to 85 degrees, almost straight up, for fire at planes and are the main defense against high level bombing attacks as well as surface targets. The maximum effective range of the 5” 38s is about 15,000 yards on the surface and with their director and computor are the last word in naval gunnery.
“The anti-aircraft battery is also the latest type and consists of four 20 MM Oerlikon anti-aircraft machine guns and two twin mount 40 MM anti-aircraft machine guns. The 20s are located, one on each side of the superstructure deck and one on each side of the admidships deck house. These 20MM guns shoot a maximum of 450 half-pound high explosive shells per minute each, and are very effective against dive bombers and low-level attacks. The 40 MM anti-aircraft machine guns, located on the top of the after deck house, shoot a larger projectile and have a longer range. They fire at a maximum rate of 80 rounds per barrel per minute.
“One quintuple tube torpedo mount is located on the centerline admidships between the stacks and can be trained for attacks on either side of the ship. The latest type 21”, 21 ft. torpedo is fired from this mount on the Gherardi.
“On the fan tail are two depth charge racks holding eight 600 lb. depth charges for rolling off the stern. On each side of the after part of the ship are three “K” guns for projecting the 300 ob. depth charges to each side.
“Also on the fan tail is located a smoke screen generator, for laying down a screen. This device can be rolled off the stern by pulling a lever in case the dangerous chemicals contained are let loose by accident.
“The Gherardi, as a typical destroyer, will carry no protective armor plate that will stop any projectile larger than a .50 caliber bullet. However, a very extensive damage control system and water tight integrity have proven to be effective on similar ships so that they have been able to sustain direct hits from torpedoes and remain afloat. The well-designed sprinkling and flooding system, if used correctly, should prevent any loss by fire.”
Aug 17 11:30 AM 1942
Well, here I am in Philadelphia, safe and sound. We had a nice trip back though the Pullman cars we had were terribly dirty. We had a steamer the first part of the trip and the soot and cinders were terrible. We were just black all over and couldn’t keep clean. Somewhere in Pennsylvania they switched to an electric engine and we had a clean ride the rest of the way. I’ll tell you right now that I don’t know how long I will be here, maybe a week and perhaps two months. I will go on a destroyer, the Gherardi. Some of the fellows say that she is still under construction and hasn’t been commissioned yet. That may be right and maybe it isn’t. I don’t know yet. One of my buddies is to be on the same ship and I met another boy who is to be aboard with us. He is a very nice fellow.
I’ll let you know as soon as I learn anything definite. There were six of us Diesel boys in this draft and the other four are leaving right away. If they put me on KP duty, I’ll be wishing they would ship me out.
We left the Lakes about seven o’clock Thursday evening and got here at five Friday evening. We didn’t get out of Chicago until dark so I didn’t see any of the country between there and eastern Ohio. Ate breakfast just west of Alliance, Ohio. The country around there is very poor and the farm buildings are in bad shape. I didn’t have a map so don’t know just how we went but I think that Pennsylvania joins Ohio. Anyway, all the country west of Pittsburg is very poor. You don’t see any very good farms until you reach Harrisburg. Of course it would be good with a name like that!
I didn’t like Pittsburg very well either, too smoky and dirty because of so many factories. We saw tugs pushing some barges up and down the river. We also saw some ships being built along the river. From Harrisburg on east there was considerable farming, mostly corn with quite a bit of tobacco. We saw them cutting tobacco in one field. They were using one mule to pull the box-like cart on which they hung the leaves. It seemed that all the farms were small with very few fences and not much livestock. The soil was red but most of the crops were pretty good. I liked the country east of Harrisburg.
I haven’t seen Philadelphia except as we came thru it last evening but I liked it very well. Nearly all of it is quite old. Most of the boys have gone out on liberty to see the town but I wanted to get some letters written. This is the first chance I have had. Maybe I’ll go out tomorrow. We can go out any time we rate liberty as we have liberty cards and don’t have to check in and out as we have been doing. If we don’t rate liberty, we have to muster three times each day so they can put us on work parties. Today after dinner they sent us to work. There was a little trash in a pile on the deck so I swept it into a dust pan and emptied it. That was all I did on my work party.
We have been plenty busy though. We had cards that had to be signed by about a dozen different people before we could go on liberty tonight. We had a gas drill with tear gas. We put on our masks, went into the gas chamber, opened the mask a little to sniff the gas then took the mask off and stumbled outside. Then we all had a good cry. That stuff isn’t dangerous but it sure does burn for awhile and makes you cry like everything. We had to scrub our hammocks and turn them in as we sleep in bunks here. There was a lot of other stuff such as being assigned to our ships, etc.
I’m up in the attic of the main building, on the fourth deck. We don’t have any tables to use for writing so I’m lying in my bunk to write. It is sure hot up here but maybe it will cool off enough I can sleep. There are a couple of fans in the next room but they don’t do much good in here. We have met some of the boys who were with us three or four months ago. Some of them have been to sea and are back here.
We have lockers here to keep our clothes in instead of our sea bags. They are sure lots nicer as we won’t always have to be digging clear to the bottom of a bag every time we want something. We have to scrub our clothes on tables and benches outside and have only cold water for it which makes it rather bad. I scrubbed my clothes this evening so I won’t have anything to do tomorrow.
I’m going to write to Josephine but it is going to be just the same as this so don’t go comparing notes on me. My address is at the top of the first page. There isn’t any barracks or anything as we go to the post office for our mail.
Love to all
Back on duty after a memorable trip home, Lester reviews the return train ride. In a hurried post script, he tells the news. He’s heading out in a few days–to Philadelphia!
Tuesday morning August 11 – 1942
I haven’t much to write about as we don’t know anything new. I got back in the barracks at five minutes before twelve but they didn’t take muster until one o’clock. We had a quiet, fast trip on the train to Chicago. From Chicago to the station we rode in a special train for soldiers and sailors. It was packed like sardines in a can. It was eleven-thirty when we reached the station and it took 25 minutes to walk from the gate to the barracks. Most of us slept a good share of yesterday. We don’t have much to do except sleep as we don’t have any guards except here in the barracks. I went to the show “Sergant York” last night. It was pretty good.
There is so much noise I can’t think so I’ll write again later.
Love to allLester
I had sealed this but since then have learned that I am going to Philadelphia this Thursday. Six of us are going there. I’m going with a swell bunch and I’d just as soon go there as any where else. I’ll write as soon as I get there.
Evidently, Lester’s leave to go home for a week was re-instated. Though there are no letters surviving with final news of his travel plans, a series of photos from his visit has been treasured and circulated in the family for decades. Perhaps he telephoned home to announce his travel plans. If so, all the neighbors would have known the plan instantly on their party line. Perhaps he sent a telegram. Given the previous on-again, off-again yoyo of anticipation and disappointment surrounding his leave plans, it seems likely that the folks dared not believe he was really coming until they could see him with their own eyes and hug him with their own arms.
However, he did spend a wonderful week at home in early August of 1942. Imagine the parties! The dinners, family reunions, visits with aunts, uncles, cousins and classmates who were still nearby.
Imagine the joy and pride felt in the hearts of his parents, his fiance, his sister and his younger brothers.
Lester’s leave was granted as he completed his training course, and shortly before he received his navy ship assignment. He would not be spending any more time in Michigan. He would be going on, part of a crew on a navy destroyer destined for distant places.
My grandmother, Lester’s mother, recalled his visit home in August of 1942 with misty eyes. Decades afterward, she would tell her grandchildren (none of whom were born yet in 1942) about Lester’s last evening at home. He sat outside the farm house, gazing across the fields, staring and staring for a long time, as if he couldn’t get enough. He didn’t want to forget what his home looked like, for this is where his heart would always belong.
It was almost as if he knew on some level that he would never be back. He would never see his childhood home or his family again. And they would never see him.
This was Lester’s last journey home.
Only two days after Lester’s joyful letter announcing his leave to visit home, he writes another story. All leaves have been canceled. What a tragic turn of events. Since the family had already canceled their trip to visit Lester at the Great Lakes, they would have received this news with heavy hearts. Things changed so quickly for the Navy boys in 1942 America.
Lester included a hopeful note by saying that some of the unit would be granted leaves. With his kind and generous heart, he admitted there were those who deserved a leave more than he did. What could possibly happen next?
August 3, 1942
Well, here’s the bad news. All of our leaves have been cancelled. We may get them later but for the present we are under 24 hour orders, prepared to leave at any time. I’m sorry to have it happen after we had planned on it and you gave up the trip up here. It is just as well that you didn’t come though as we had only from Sunday noon until midnight and the boys didn’t get out the gate until about two o’clock. They said that they cut down on our liberty because we were getting nine-day leaves and didn’t want us overleave on liberty.
The lieutenant announced the cancellation this morning while we were taking tests for rates. We don’t know yet who passed the test but not many of us think that we passed it.
I understand that we are to be divided into groups. Some of us will get leaves. Some of the boys have been in a year with no leave so they deserve a leave before I do. If I can possibly get a leave, I will be home, you can be sure. I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to come up here as we may go out at any time with only short notice and again we may get our leave later. I don’t think I will call you as there isn’t anything I could say. If I do get sent out right away, I’ll write as soon as possible. You can write to me at barracks 614. My telephone number is Ontario 4548. However, I don’t imagine I would know anything if you did call me. I can’t think of anything else now so will close.
Remember I may be home yet.
Love to allLester