Name: Michael Malpier
Rank: Second Class Petty Officer
Date of Birth: January 1, 1919
Place of Birth: Melrose Park, IL
Dates of Service: 1943 – 1946
Branch: US Navy
Locations: Philippines, Eniwetok, Ulithi, Leyte, Panama Canal
Today is Monday, September 20, 2010. This is Fidencio Marbella with the Melrose Park Public Library in Illinois. Also present is Margaret Flanagan, Reference Librarian here at Melrose Park. Today we will be speaking with Mr. Michael Malpier. Michael served in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946 aboard the USS Lamar, APA 47. This interview is being conducted for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Let’s go ahead and get started here.
Mike, why don’t you tell us when and where you were born and a little bit about growing up.
Well, I was born in Melrose Park, January 1st, 1919. I lived at 906 North 24th Avenue, just off of Lake Street.
Can you tell us a little bit about your family?
My father’s name was Tony Malpier, they called him Donato, I believe, and my mother’s name was Millie Iosco. Her parents were born in Italy. That was in the 1860s I believe, and they came to this country and they lived at 1108 North 23rd Avenue, right down the block from the Mount Carmel Church. In fact, my parents, we were five children, and we were orphaned very early in life. My father passed away when I was only seven and my mother passed away three years later.
We lived with different relatives. My brother Vito and I, we lived with my grandparents, my mother’s parents at 1108 North 23rd, and my brother Tony and my sister Jo Jo, she lived with my Aunt Theresa, who lived at 124 N. 24th Avenue. My oldest sister, I believe, she was kind of on her own. She was working, but I don’t remember where she worked. My grandparents were quite old at that time, so we finally moved upstairs where my Uncle Tony, who was chief of police of Melrose Park, was. We lived with my Aunt Bertha and her children for quite a number of years. And he was very thankful for us.
We went to Proviso. My brother and Vito and I were football players on the football team and they used to call us the Malpier twins. Well, my brother Vito was better than I was, but we were very good. In fact we went through a football [season] one year without being defeated by any of the schools we played: New Trier, Evanston and—so many of them—Oak Park, and I can’t remember them all, but we were pretty good for four years. But then my brother graduated, he was a few years ahead of me, and he married and worked at National Malleable in Melrose Park there on 25th Avenue off of Lake. And, that’s where he worked all his life. And, let’s see, my brother Tony worked at American Can and I worked there during the summers of school piling cans and what into boxcars.
I grew up with five fellows I used to pal around with all the time. We just, we lived right close to each other and at that time we did a lot of things to keep ourselves busy as little kids. We used to play Kick-the-Can and all kinds of games, and I’m trying to think of some of the other games that we played. We used to play a lot of ball. We played a lot of sixteen-inch ball and we had a very good team in Melrose Park, and that was one of the biggest things around here, was playing ball. And we used to play with a 9 inch hardball—we didn’t have any gloves at that time—you just played with your bare hands, catching that hardball. And, I remember, some of the fellows were much older than I was, and I played with them, and Lefty Ortenzie was a pitcher. He was well known at the time. He was a very good pitcher with this nine-inch ball. We had a very good team, but it didn’t last. We went into sixteen-inch and that’s where we stayed. There are a lot of names that I can remember, Provenezi [Ravenesi], he was a left-handed pitcher. They had a baseball team here in Melrose Park, hardball, regular baseball–what the pros are playing today. And he was very good, I’m surprised he didn’t make the majors or even the minors, but he didn’t. I think he ended up with a business there on 25th where they sold all kinds of machinery and stuff. Today I see it’s gone, it’s all torn down, there’s just tall buildings there now.
One incident I’ve got to tell you about was when I was a little kid, and Melrose Park was very good about this. They had a, like, two-by-tens, they made a V out of that and they connected it in the back and had it horse-drawn, and they plowed the snow for the people, they plowed the snow on their sidewalks. Now, I’ll never forget that as a kid. We used to watch them as when they were pulling—trotting the horse and pulling the sled.
Another thing I remember when I was a little kid, I remember a fellow used to come by with his little truck and he had crates of chickens. And he would be yelling in the middle of the street, going down the street, saying “galina, galina, chickens, chickens for sale,” you know, and people were buying them, but that was kind of interesting–one of the things I remember way back when I was a little kid. Other than that, like I say, I went to high school at Proviso and graduated there.
So what did you do after you graduated from Proviso?
After I graduated from Proviso, I tried to go to college, twice. I went to the University of Illinois—stayed there for a week—and I was with a fellow living in a basement there, he had a job in a kitchen somewhere, so that was helping him. He really didn’t need the money because his parents had a store here in Melrose Park. I don’t want to mention the names, but I thought he would help me get a job so I could at least continue with my education, but he didn’t. So I spent the whole week there living on doughnuts and coffee, so after a week I finally gave up and said “I can’t do this, I can’t live like this,” and I couldn’t get any help from home—there wasn’t any money, so I came back home and went to work at Richardson’s. Before I did that, I ran into my coach from Proviso East, his name was Chuck Kassel. And he was one of the star ends when Red Grange played football. He played on the same team. So he wrote me a letter so I could go to the University of Iowa. I went down to the University of Iowa with some doctor on a bus and was introduced to the coach, I can’t recall his name, I should but I don’t. [Nile Kinnick] was a guy just like me, my size only he had a little more weight than I did and he was one of their stars there and so when I talked to, oh yeah, I think it’s A— can’t think of the last name, Anderson [Eddie Anderson]? It might be Anderson, not sure—but anyway, I talked to him and he looked at me and said well, he says, well you’re a little too small, you know you don’t have the weight and everything, and so that was the end of my college try. I did go to night school a couple of times for different subjects and I decided while I was there just to work so, from there I kind of bounced around. I was married at the time and my wife never knew where I was working because I was working with some outfit [John E. Wahle & Co.] that used to send us all over to different companies to solve some of their problems in designing, because I was a machinist. I went through that and I also was a tool and die maker. When I got out of the service I went back to the place I worked for (Stroms?) Steel Ball was the name of the company and we made ball bearings and I really didn’t have to go into the service because I had a One-A card that told me ball bearings were very necessary for the industry and they need that and I decided, aw, I’m going into the service anyway, so I enlisted in the Navy. And I was very happy I did that. Getting back to what I was talking about, I went to work, well I was bouncing around with this engineering company for quite a while and like I said my wife never knew where I was, and we started to have children. We had two girls, beautiful children, and so I finally ended up at Illinois Tool over there near Des Plaines somewhere and I worked there for about a year and from there I thought, well I needed more money because I had just bought a home. I talked to the superintendant there and he said “Gee, Mike” he said, “you’re making as much as the others who’ve been here eighteen years, and we can’t get you any more money than you’re making now,” and that was very little as it was. So I said, “Well I just have to leave then” so he said, “Can you stay at least a week” and I said, “Yeah, I’ll stay.” So in the meantime I had taken the stuff I had designed there over to Borg-Warner in Bellwood, Illinois, and I was interviewed there by the sales manager by the name of Art Welch, who was a very wonderful person, he became the CEO at Borg-Warner later; and Jack Becker, the chief engineer; and Dan Gillespie, who lived on 9th Avenue here in Maywood, I think; and one more fellow I that was interviewed by, I can’t think of his name [Ernie Ferris]. But anyway, they all looked at what I had and they were kind of amazed and said “Can you start now?” and I said “Well, no, I have to give the company at least a week.” “Well, as soon as you finish, you’ll start, you’ll come to work for us.” I did and I stayed and worked there for a little over a quarter of a century. I got a small retirement. I left early, at sixty-two, I didn’t want to stay because it wasn’t worth it for the three years—at that time anyway, but now I wish I would have stayed. I would have worked there, but I couldn’t see getting ahead for all the stuff I knew and my background. I was very good in what I did. But, I guess, the boss I worked for didn’t quite see that, so, I thought, well I’m getting out of here, and I did. So, after I did that, I did a lot of drawing at home and monkeying around, designing different things. I don’t know if you want me to go into the rest of it.
Maybe we can come back to that later on.
Okay. But, like I say, I worked at Borg-Warner for over twenty six years. I enjoyed work. I had a lot of wonderful people there who were very nice. It was a nice place to work for. It still is, they’re still there. The economy’s come down but I think they’re doing okay, though. So there are still a lot of people working there yet. I would advise anyone to work there because, they’re, like I say, they are very good.
Okay, let’s go back to the early 1940s. Do you remember where you were when you heard about Pearl Harbor in 1941?
Yeah, I think, and I’m kind of guessing on this, but I’m pretty sure I was, I went to the Aragon or the Trianon, one of those places, they were dance halls, you could go to and dance with women, girls, and I used to like to dance. So, I think that’s where I was when we found out that the war broke out. I was shocked, and didn’t think we were going to get into it. So, anyway, when the war did break out it was, what, 1942?, ‘41 I think it was, yes, December of ‘41, so I was watching all my friends being drafted and I thought, I’m not going to get drafted. I want to choose the service I want to be in. In fact, the only reason I kind of thought of this was way back a fellow who was my godfather for confirmation at Mount Carmel, his name was Paul Maggio, and he was a very nice man and my parents were already dead and I was eighteen or nineteen and just getting out of high school and he says, “Mike, why don’t you join the Navy?” And that kind of stuck with me all the time. So when it came time when the war broke out, I thought I’m going in the Navy, because he was in the Navy. So that’s what I did, I joined the Navy, and went into boot camp at Great Lakes, at Camp Green Bay. We spent, I think, three months there, something like that for boot camp.
So what were some of the things you learned in boot camp?
In boot camp, that was an interesting thing, like I said, I had never been out of Melrose Park, and joining the Navy, I’m thinking, my God, I’ve never been on the water in my life, you know. Anyway, getting back to Green Bay Camp that I was in, we were quite a few, we took up one whole floor of this Camp Green Bay building and we used to stand fire watches at night, you were assigned duty for that and we had to learn how to make our beds, everything had to be no wrinkles or anything else. They were kind of fussy and like I said we had fire watch every so often and then we had other details like cleaning the washrooms and all that, make sure everything was very neat and the Navy was very strict that way. They were very clean. We had a very good chief that was our teacher. I got to know quite a few of the fellows, but they never got to the ship that I was on. Nobody there from that camp went on the same ship that I was on. One thing that I will say is we got all our shots before going overseas and in order for us to get rid of the soreness from all the shots, that we had before going overseas for cholera and all that stuff that was prevalent out in those foreign countries. They used to get us all together and say okay, five of you, groups of five, now the last guy standing is going to be the winner. You had to throw, like a little wrestling match with these guys, and I won in my section. I felt pretty good that way. I might have been a year or so older than some of these guys, young kids, so maybe that’s what it was.
Plus you were a football player.
Yeah, I was a football player at Proviso East.
Now you had a pretty good mechanical background but you ended up being a signalman. Can you tell us how that happened?
That’s a strange thing. I was a machinist where we made, what did we make at this company, I can’t even recall. We used to take rivet machines and make them ball bearing machines. We had to convert them. We were doing that and after I learned quite a bit from there I went to, I quit to get a little more money, I went to work for Strom Seal Ball. That’s where we made ball bearings. It’s a strange thing, it’s a very good business. Balls can be made almost any size you want, like if you take, say a quarter of an inch, point two five oh and you wanted that to be a tenth or two tenths less than that size or over that size, we could do that. They had very special machines that did that and we used to do them, these machines used to handle these balls by the hundreds. They were fed to them by feeders and they went in a big circle like that and they finally went out and they tested them. When they found the size they want that shut it off. That was very interesting. In fact when I was at Borg-Warner where I worked another fellow and I, Ray Satini his name was, he was in the same group as I was at Borg-Warner. We went out to a big company that took these balls and actually made bearings out of them. Races, inner race, outer race and a separator that keeps the balls separate from each other while rotating these outer and inner races. I went from being a machinist to being a tool and die maker and I quit a job where I was making I think $1.29 an hour, somewhere in that area and went to being a tool and die maker and starting off all over again in that trade for seventy five cents an hour. But it paid off in the long run because I put in my time and while I was doing that I thought, well gee, the dies started getting bigger and bigger and bigger and for my size my, God, I thought I better start doing something else, so I thought, well, why don’t I start designing. So I went to night school under the G.I. Bill and I spent two years at night school my wife used to holler at me, “my God, you never get out of the basement” because I was constantly designing because we had lessons that we had to have completed when we went back that day when we had school. I did that for two solid years and I graduated from there with a diploma and then I left tool and die and got a job as a designer and that’s how I ended up with this company with all the years we went to all the different places and I decided, well I’ll go get a steady job. I went from Illinois Tool to Borg-Warner. That’s where I’ve been since I retired.
So once you got back, or finished with boot camp, you were assigned to a ship? How did that happen?
When I left boot camp, they assigned me into, I went to the University of Illinois to learn signaling. Now why they made me a signalman when I was here with all this background of machinists, machinery and stuff, when I could work any machine in a machine shop and being a tool and die maker and a designer on top of it, and then being, well I wasn’t a designer at that time, I was still a tool and die maker. Why they chose me to go to signal school, I couldn’t believe that. So anyway, I spent three months at the University of Illinois at Urbana learning semaphore and Morse code and learning all the flags, because you had to know the flags. A flag when it’s hoisted up to the halyard on a ship is the biggest, the fastest means of getting a signal across because the signal wouldn’t go into effect until you pulled the yardarm down and got that flag down. As soon as that happens the maneuver starts. If the ships had to zig-zag that’s when they were going to do it, as soon as you executed pulling that flag down. That was the fastest communication, faster than Morse code or semaphore or light or anything. That was fast because they already had the books, the captain or whoever was in charge on the bridge because that’s where everything happened, on the bridge where the signalmen were on a ship. I’m sure that’s prevalent today too. Ships are much more modern than they were back then. Anyway, we had to learn all that at the University of Illinois and I graduated from there as a first class seaman and there’s a long story there, I can go on. I don’t know if you want me to go on about that. The teacher that I had was a second class petty officer, second class petty officer as a signalman and he had two stripes on his right arm, showing that he was a second class petty officer. Anyway, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. From the University of Illinois they sent us down to Fort Pierce, Florida where we learned small boat training for landing troops onto the beaches for the invasions. We spent a couple of months there, I’m pretty sure it was that long. Maybe a little longer than that. Then from there we got onto, they were finally going to assign us to a ship that we were going to get. We got onto a train, the whole group that went through this training and left Fort Pierce, Florida on a train that was very, very dirty. Our clothes were filthy when we got to, went to Brooklyn, New York to pick up the ship, APA47 the Lamar. When I got there we were assigned to the ship and that’s when we went down on our shakedown cruise off of Norfolk, Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay. We spent, I think, about six days going through all these maneuvers on this ship to see if it was going to be seaworthy. After the ship passed everything that it was supposed to pass, and being a young kid from Melrose Park and never being on water, the first time I ever got seasick, naturally, I had never been on water and the ocean was quite rough. When I got sick I was leaning over one of the decks, and here the captain was up on top watching me and laughing at me! Great, thank you very much! But that was the last time I got sick. From being on the ocean like that it was pretty rough there. I did get sick once in little boat training down in Fort Pierce, Florida. The only reason I did was because the boat I was on conked out, it died out. The engine, the diesel engine conked out, wouldn’t run and we were stuck in the water and it was very, very rough there. I’m trying to help this young fellow get the engine going again and we were getting all these diesel fumes into our system and breathing in. Oh my God this is terrible! I almost got sick then and that was the last time I ever got sick.
Now you mentioned earlier on the shakedown cruise that the Lamar went pretty fast at one point.
On the shakedown cruise we got up to thirty knots. Now, I can’t really explain it. Thirty knots [one knot] is like 6,080 feet. Now a mile is 5,280 feet so that’s a difference of like 800 feet per hour faster than our English, 5,280 feet so naturally that was only our shakedown cruise that the ship, how fast it could go. We never did reach that speed once we got into convoys going into these battles, into these invasions. The most we ever travelled then, the highest was eighteen knots, usually it was ten or twelve knots being that we were constantly in convoys going to these operations. You never went in a straight line. You constantly zig-zagged. All ships zig-zagged and you knew exactly when you had to do that because the flags we had to fly would signal telling them that you have to zig-zag at certain points. That’s how they did that way back then.
So why did the ships have to zig-zag?
Mostly in the case of mines or meeting an attack by submarines, Japanese submarines. Even when we had escorts, there weren’t that many escorts. We had destroyers and like I said there weren’t that many, maybe five destroyers for a whole column of ships going out on an invasion and that’s not very many. Not only that, but I always felt that the ship I was on, the Lamar, had more firepower than some of our destroyers because we had two five inchers, one forward and one aft, and two twin forties aft and thirty something twenty millimeter guns all over the ship. There were six on the bridge alone where I spent most of my time. But anyway, like I said, they constantly would zig-zag. The only time we went in a straight line when the war with Japan was over. Then we had running lights and everything else, otherwise you couldn’t even light a cigarette because a light could be seen all the way across the horizon which would be maybe ten, twelve miles out at sea. So everything was dark at night. Just before darkness came everything was black. You had to feel your way for where you were going.
After your shakedown cruise was over, the ship headed towards the Panama Canal?
Yes, we went towards the Panama Canal and that’s an interesting thing. I don’t know if you want me to mention this.
The Panama Canal was started in 1888 by the French and they gave up, saying it was impossible to ever do this, build that canal because the mosquitoes were so bad and the terrain was so bad, so they just pulled out of there. Before 1900 the United States decided that they were going to build it and they didn’t do this. They went through mountains and blasted two hundred feet through this mountain and they would float ships through this canal and that’s exactly what they ended up doing. It took ten years for them to build this canal and President Wilson opened it in 1914. It was opened for ships to go through the canal. It took 100,000 men to build this canal and it cost 375 million dollars to do it. The engineering and the American people accomplished this very hard task. Before they started digging this they sent a medical team down there to get rid of all the mosquitoes and they did accomplish this. So that’s one of the big help they had, they weren’t being bitten to death by these mosquitoes down there. But today we don’t own it anymore. We turned it over to the Panama people. I don’t know, I think that might have been a mistake. It’s done. I think part of the early Carter [administration] turned it over to them. It was interesting going through the canal though with the ship. We had taken aboard fifteen hundred marines for our first operation.
Once you got through the Panama Canal you ended up crossing the equator?
No that came quite later. Once we headed through the canal we headed straight to Saipan.
With those marines?
Then we were called back because they didn’t need us. Shortly after that we headed to Guam, which was our first operation. That was kind of hard because of all the coral. The coral ran out almost a hundred feet from the shore. A lot of ships, small boats, got hung up on these reefs, on the coral. Had to fight to get off. But we were fortunate we didn’t get any of the reefs. One incident I could point out to you though, while we were circling around the officer that was in charge of the boat that I was on said “Why don’t you guys jump over the side and look for mines?” I thought this guy has got to be really something! So we did and I had a terrible experience personally. I was swimming around thinking oh my God if you find a mine you’ll be blown to pieces. When I was swimming, my hand landed on a body, only half of a body. I don’t know if it was an American kid or Japanese, but that was enough. I jumped back into the boat and that was the end of that. That was an experience there while we were there for over five days, I believe. Then we left from there and went back to Pearl Harbor, I believe, I’m not sure just where we ended up after that, after Guam.
But you did participate in other invasions such as the Philippines?
Yes, we were in five operations, five invasions actually. Eniwetok, from Eniwetok we went to Ulithi and from Ulithi we went to Leyte, the Philippines. While we were getting there, there was a battle going on between the U. S. warships, the Japanese ships and we could see all the bombarding that was going on and it was fortunate that we weren’t right in the middle of that because we didn’t know that this was going to be going on. We didn’t even know there was going to be a battle there. We assumed on the beach there would be but we didn’t think the warships would be fighting each other. It ended up where the Americans defeated them at that point. We went into Leyte and then Luzon. Then we got to the equator. When I’m talking about the equator, when you’ve never crossed the equator you’re called a Shellback, no called a Pollywog and the Shellbacks were people that were already on a ship that went through the equator. There’s a time difference there, like a whole day difference. This was really a lot of fun; well I look at it as fun. These Shellbacks, we played games on them the night before and tried to trick them, but they got even with us the very next day because what they do is they make a canvas circle, they sew that together. It’s about thirty feet long and they take all the scraps from the kitchen, bones and all that and they throw it in this big canvas ring thirty feet long. Then you had to crawl through that, through all that garbage but before you got through that they had towels that were wet and they were trying to tap you on your butt, smacking you while you were going through that. I can say that it was a pleasure to finally get to the other end of this tube. Then they got even with us, these Shellbacks. As soon as you got through the tube, they grabbed you and put you in a tank of water and clipped all of the hair off your head and then dunking you down into the water and holding you there for a while, under the water, helping you up and then as soon as you got a breath push you down again. It was a very good experience. One of the officers was very high in command. He wasn’t the captain, he was, I think he was, I want to say a lieutenant j. g., but he would be higher than that. He was just under the captain. They had him, with a big pack on his back, heavily loaded, all in uniform, there’s this one spot that’s a little higher than the bridge. He had to go up the ladders to get up on that thing and do some maneuvers up there and then he had to come down again and then he had to go back up again, they really treated him; I felt so sorry for him, this officer, but he did it all. Like I said, going through the equator was a real experience, believe me.
What was life like aboard a ship like the Lamar?
When we started it wasn’t so good because the water the men were taking showers in was saltwater. It was very hard to try and soap; saltwater just didn’t work and eventually they changed to freshwater, which was a godsend, really. It was very clean being in the Navy. I personally took showers twice a day, morning and night, before you retired. A lot of times I didn’t even sleep on my bunk, it was so hot, a lot of times I would get out of my bunk and take a blanket and go sleep on the deck under one of the boats. I remember a number of times sleeping there because I knew the boat quite well, where the bridge was and all that and I was always near the bridge. Other than that it was, our uniforms were special, you had dungarees and a blue shirt and they always had to be long sleeve, they always had to be buttoned and a blue hat. Like I said it was very clean to be on a ship. The ship had to be cleaned, the decks had to be cleaned. To me I was glad I was in the navy, even though we went through all this, these five operations that we had. It was a big experience and I was very glad to have served our country this way. I just wish that the VA would have done a little more for the returning veterans because back in 1990 Congress changed something that said we were no longer to get free health care or whatever happened to us, from the VA, which was a bad thing because I just recently went through a problem with the VA here at Hines in Maywood. I have a, I don’t know if it’s from way back when or not, restless leg syndrome. Very difficult sleeping because your legs are on the move all the time and your wife wants to throw you out of the house. I was getting cramps in my legs then, then my legs and my fingers every time that I worked hard I would get cramps and I went to my regular doctor and he put me on quinine tablets and all of a sudden you can’t get them anymore. I usually cut them into quarters, quarter pieces and they’d let me sleep and be calm; my legs would, I wouldn’t get cramps or any of that. But I can’t get any anymore because the doctor says they don’t make it anymore so I went over to the VA on a Saturday and I went to the emergency room and I was there for two hours. After almost two hours a nurse came and took me inside and there were four or five of them and they were all sitting around with a magazine and I’m looking where I’m sitting waiting for some help and the nurses should have helped and I’m thinking what am I doing here? I’m not getting any help and other people were in these other booths waiting for help and they aren’t getting it either. I can’t take this, I’m leaving and I did that mostly because I have a wife that’s three quarters blind. She has macular degeneration in one eye and can’t see out of it at all and in the other one she can barely see out of because she has glaucoma in it, so I thought I can’t leave my wife like this, I’m just leaving. So I went up to the desk and said I’m leaving. I’ve been here almost two hours and got no help from you, so I left. I get a bill for this! There was a note for fifty dollars or something like that, and I can’t believe I’m getting bills when I didn’t get any service at all. I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but it happened. I thought, well I’m going to complain about these bills I’m getting. I didn’t get any service for this. So I did. I went to the adjutant there and he looked at me when I told him what I’m telling you. He said, “My God!” You don’t have any bills. He said zero, right now. He thanked me for coming in and I left. That was the end of that. I have an appointment with a nurse practitioner that I was going to all the time and she tried to help me. I guess it was beyond her, I don’t know. When she moved out of that position she was in, I don’t know where she went to. How can I get to see a doctor, a doctor so I can talk to a doctor. They put me like two months away and I thought holy cats! I couldn’t make the first appointment, so I called. You’re supposed to call when you can’t make your appointment, so I did. Told them I couldn’t come because I was sick or something or something happened to my wife. So that made it even worse. That’s when they put me two months away. I won’t be able to go there until the fifth of October. That’ll be the first time I see a doctor. We’ll see what happens.
Yes, I am.
When you were on the Lamar, you were a signalman. Where were you usually stationed, being a signalman?
On the bridge. I spent all of my time on the bridge. On the last six months that I was on the bridge, oh an incident that I should tell you about. After these invasions and we got back in to Okinawa, not Okinawa, the Philippines.
Pearl Harbor. I ran into this teacher that I had at the University of Illinois. Like I said, he was a Second Class Petty officer and I had the same rank he had and he was shocked when he saw me with the same rank because he remembered me. I was only a seaman when I got out of the University of Illinois. I thought I should have been at least a Third Class Petty officer. He didn’t see it that way, but when he saw the three stripes on my arm, he was shocked. But anyway, getting back to the ship, I served most of my time on the bridge. You always had to have coffee for the officers. The coffeepot on the deck of bridge was on for twenty-four hours a day, just to keep them satisfied. Kind of losing my thought here.
You had mentioned once before about having to climb up on a mast to re-run the line . . .
Wait, I finally realized where I was. The last six months I was on the Lamar I was transferred from the small boat crew into the ship’s company, finally after a year or so. The last six months I was a first class petty officer. I was promoted to first class and I had eighteen signalmen under my command. I took on that responsibility. Now there was one incident that was mentioned and I’m pretty sure this happened. One of the halyards on the yardarm, four lines on each side of the halyard, the post that has the yardarm there, all the lines coming down, clip your flags to haul them up then you haul them down to make the execution. Well that line broke, and being the man that was in charge, I didn’t dare say listen, you do this. That would be unfair to them. So I , like a, I’ll say dummy, but I wasn’t really a dummy, I decided, well, Mike, you need to do this, not somebody else, so I did go up the ladder, beyond the yardarm. The yardarm, there’s a guide wire that goes through the yardarm to the pole and I had to hang onto that yardarm and get on this narrow yardarm and put this line through that last pulley. I was so thankful when I got through with that. I got down and oh my gosh, thank you God for letting me to be able to do this. We were underway, we were not in a harbor or anything, the ship was, with the waves you’re not really going smooth; you’re bouncing around a little bit. I was scared to death, believe me. I did do this and thank God I did and not have to worry about one of the guys falling, that was different.
So you were a couple of hundred feet above the ocean.
Holding on with one arm.
Yes, holding onto that guy wire.
While the ship was moving at about eighteen knots.
Well, maybe ten knots, ten to twelve knots.
You mentioned earlier too that the Lamar was actually hit by a bomb at some point during an invasion.
Yes, I’ll never forget this. We were going to, I can’t remember whether it was Luzon or Leyte for an operation there, invasion. I was sitting in this little well where we made the coffee. Usually when we wanted to smoke, we’d go in and close the door at night, especially. During the daytime you’d go in there and smoke. I was sitting in this little well where the door is and we were underway for this operation and at the time we had what we called a group, who we called “the flag.” They were usually with an officer who was a very high man in command, who ran the operation, really. I was sitting in there and all of a sudden the chief from that group said “Mike, come over here and take the light. There’s a signal coming in.” As soon as I got up from there and started to walk, a bomb hit exactly almost where I was sitting. Oh my God! All three sailors who were manning the twenty millimeters on that particular side of the ship, because there were six of them on our ship, three on each side, well they were hanging from the gun straps because they got hit by the shrapnel from the bomb. So I was very, very fortunate. I don’t think I’d be here if I was still sitting there. I would have been killed, I’m sure. God was with me and I guess it wasn’t my time. So I took the message and gave it to the chief that wanted it. That was the end of that. That was a horrible experience seeing these other guys hanging where they were. Of course they all got Purple Hearts for this and they deserved them. One of our signalmen got hit in the leg from some of the shrapnel. He was from one of the southern states, I can’t remember, he was a second class petty officer. Very smart, because I remember I used to play checkers with him and he used to beat me all the time. Finally he gave me the clue in how you beat somebody. It got pretty easy after that. It was an experience, believe me.
You also mentioned at one point that you saw an aircraft carrier that you thought one of your cousins was on.
Yes. I’ve got two cousins that were in the navy. My one cousin Peter Impastato, he was on an LST. He was in the Coast Guard. My other cousin, Mike Impastato, his brother, he was on a converted cruiser which they made into a carrier for planes. When we were at sea in the Pacific, I happened to spot this carrier going by and I’m saying “My God, that’s the Kalinin Bay where my cousin Mikey was on!” So I right away got on the light and I flashed, kept flashing, flashing at the ship and finally the signalman out there caught the light and I sent a message “Please say hello to Mike Impastato for me. This is his cousin Mike Malpier.” By that time, I got the okay that they got the message but I never heard from him because they were already gone. I never did see him until when the war was over. But that’s another story.
Okay, we’ll get to that later. So the last operation you were on with the Lamar was Okinawa?
Okinawa was the last operation. We were in on the initial operation. Going there we had the roughest, well second to roughest seas that I’ve ever been in. At that time there was a typhoon. We were riding the tail end of a typhoon going to Okinawa. I didn’t think we’d make it because being on the bridge, which was a very high point you couldn’t walk across to get through from port side to starboard side – you flew across. That’s how bad the seas were. We were, if it leans over forty-five degrees, you’re gone. We were listing quite a bit and bouncing quite a bit and I thought, my God, I’m going to make this or not! Everybody was concerned. We finally did get through it but there were some boats lost even though they were chained to the decks they were lost anyway because of the seas, and the storm was so terrible. I never forgot that, going to Okinawa. That was the second roughest seas I’ve ever been in, in my life. We were lucky the ship didn’t tip over, really, with everything that we lost.
Can you tell us much about the Okinawa landings?
I think we were at Okinawa for five or six days unloading, because I was in ship’s company now, I didn’t have to worry about going into the beach with troops. I was kind of happy for that. I didn’t have to worry about getting killed out there. If I get killed on the ship, okay, but on your landings, you’re more at risk like the soldiers or Marines; you’re landing, going into the beach. Now Okinawa, the heavy equipment like the cruisers and the battlewagons, any operation you go into, the first thing that happens before you go into the beach is they get bombarded, I mean tremendous firepower is going into all these beaches where the troops would land, and that’s a fact. I mean the bombardment; you cannot believe how anything could live. Sixteen inch guns pouring these sixteen inch shells into that beach and the explosions. That happened on every operation. One of the funniest things I ever saw was at Guam, the first operation we were in. These ships were pounding the devil out of that beach. When they got through and we sent boats, I was in small boats at that time, and the boats are ready to take the troops onto the beach, what happens? I see civilians come up onto the shores! I couldn’t believe it! There weren’t that many, but there were some civilians. I thought how could they possibly live through that! They must have been underground; one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen, on one of our operations. Getting back to Okinawa, though, I don’t think we fully unloaded, we had to go back and finally get rid of a lot of the equipment that had to go onto the beaches. We finally unloaded and left there and went back to Pearl, Pearl Harbor. Shortly after that, the war was over. We were finally running with lights. Finally, you could open the door with a light on. At least our starboard red light was on and the green light was on the other one, the port side. That was a pleasure to see the lights finally after the war was over with Japan. A lot of interesting things happened, believe me. A real experience.
So after the war was over you still had other missions for the Lamar.
Yes, the Lamar, we went back to Corregidor and we took many of our people that were imprisoned there by the Japanese. You could see a lot of them were very thin and, I can’t think of the word, but they looked terrible because they weren’t fed properly. We had quite a few of them from Corregidor and some of them were really bad where they had to go to, where we had to go to for medication . . .
The infirmary, they had to go in there because they were so badly, they just weren’t right. But we did have quite a few of them with us, a couple hundred of them, maybe more, I’m not sure. We had prisoners also with us. In fact one incident I should probably mention, we had Japanese prisoners, one of them anyway. They were taking them to lunch. This solid looking, short fellow and he decided he saw, he thinks we’re near land. So he dove overboard into the ocean. We were in convoy, mind you. This guy started swimming around and he realized there was no land anywhere near him, so somebody, one of the sailors threw a life jacket out there for him. So he put it on, swam to that jacket right away and put it on because he knew he was in trouble. Now we’re leaving him behind, we were the last ship in the convoy, so we sent a message to the flagship through the ship ahead and they said, well, stop and pick him up, throw a line over but don’t stop completely. If he reaches for the line stop and get him. If he doesn’t, continue on. Well, in the meantime, a sailor threw a ring out. Do you believe this gentleman got out of the jacket, the lifejacket and swam to the ring and hung onto the ring to get to that line and get back on the ship and we saved his life because he would have died out there. I don’t know what happened after that. I was on the bridge and he was way down on the main deck. That was kind of a funny incident that happened on our ship. We had some burials at sea. Usually when somebody was, or an Army guy was killed, they usually tied a five-inch projectile to his body, and they had a board and they slid him over the tail end and buried him at sea.
Was that to weight the body down so it would sink?
Yeah, so it would sink. We had a couple of those, I think. It was sad, really sad.
After the war was over, though, you continued in the Navy?
I was ready to get married; my girl had been waiting for me. I was given a thirty day rehabilitation leave . . . It was like three years later and during the rehabilitation leave I was married, took a couple of weeks to get everything arranged and was married for a week and went on a honeymoon for that week and I was still in the navy, and I was called back and we were at Navy Pier, believe it or not. In fact they had everything for the sailors and that’s where we were. I wasn’t getting out anyway. Being a third class petty officer with three stripes they had me take about seventy-five sailors to Norfolk, Virginia to replace some of the sailors in different jobs, going to ships or whatever. I had to carry all their records and give them to them and I was there for a short time, went back to Navy Pier and lo and behold I wasn’t there long before they gave me the same job again and went back a second time to Norfolk, Virginia. I was kind of disgusted, being married for one week practically and I thought, my God, when am I going to get out of here? Anyway, I was there for six days the second time and I thought I’ve got to get home so I can get out. I had enough points to get out. I finally ran in to a yeoman that was on our ship and he was working there and, I can’t remember his name though, I wish I could, but I can’t. I asked him, “Hey. When am I going to get out of here?” He said “I’ll let you know.” So he did. He said “You’re going back to Navy Pier. Tomorrow.” Thank you very much. So finally I got there and finally was discharged and got home. My wife was happy to see me!
You had an interesting story about going home. You were assigned to a bus? You were taking a bus home?
When I had my thirty day rehabilitation leave I got off in San Diego and that was a strange thing. I just missed the plane, the service plane, an Army plane that wouldn’t have cost me anything, but I missed it. I was like, how am I going to get home? The only thing I could think of – I didn’t want to get on a train, it’s slow – I’ll get on a bus. So I got on a Greyhound bus. I had to fight to get a seat. These civilians, I don’t know, I was a sailor with my sea bag and everything else and I had to fight to get a seat on the bus, which was kind of strange. I guess people were funny. Anyway, it did take me seventy-two hours to get home and I did manage to talk to the driver that we had to drop me off at 25th and Lake. I’ll never forget that. He did manage to get me there and drop me off at 25th and Lake Street in Melrose Park. I got my sea bag and thanked him profusely and he said, “No, it’s my pleasure.” So I walked home, it was just a short way from my home. That was how I got home.
So you were finally discharged in January of ’46?
Yes, almost three years because it was January of ’43 when I went in and got out in ’46, three years. It was a good life, really. If I wasn’t getting married I probably would have re-enlisted and I would’ve been a chief then, maybe made it my life, but I decided not to. I just wanted to get home. I thought I’d had enough, and then we got a different captain. The captain that we had by the name of B. K. Culver, was a very strict man. He knew the service very well and he was in for a long time and there was a story that went around back then that he was on a cruiser before he ever got this ship, the Lamar. The story goes that he sighted the Japanese coming into Pearl Harbor way out at sea. They didn’t know exactly where they were heading but they were going to Pearl Harbor. They were told, this is the story now; don’t know how true it is, they were told to keep radio silence, and then Pearl Harbor happened. So how true this story is, I don’t know. I have no idea, all I know is it was scuttlebutt, maybe. Anyway, we did get this man that was an executive officer on that cruiser who became the captain of our ship, the USS Lamar.
That’d be interesting if it was true.
Yes it would, but I don’t know how true it was. I don’t know if it was meant to be or what.
Do you have any other stories you’d like to share with us today? Any closing thoughts?
I’m very happy that you people asked me. I hope I satisfied what you’re looking for.
This is your interview, so whatever you want to say.
I’m thankful to be alive and back. War is hell, war is always hell. There are, nobody gains in a war, it’s always a loss. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’ll say it anyway. I did not personally, did not agree with President Truman doing what he did to General MacArthur. General MacArthur was one of the smartest persons who ever came out of West Point. He was a very brilliant general. Had he gone, had he done what he wanted to do, go to the Yalu River up to China, maybe a lot of stuff wouldn’t have happened. They denied him and then they were captured. Another thing I disagreed with was the bombing of the Japanese like they did. They say, yeah it saved a lot of American lives, but the Japanese people were finished anyway even though they had a lot of stuff they were going to throw at us. We would have attacked Japan which would have been next for sure, but bombing those people and killing all those innocent people I think was wrong. To me it put us in the same category as Hitler was in, but that’s only my personal thought. I don’t think it should have been done. Those people were innocent even though they were our enemies, I don’t think they should have been killed like that, just like what Hitler did with the Jews. I wasn’t right, but he was the President and he made the decision to do it. There was nothing I could do, but like I said, personally I disagreed with that position.
Thank you very much for coming in today and sharing your memories with us. Thank you.
Thank you for having me.