U.S. Navy – World War II, Korean War
One fine spring day in 1944, Greenville High School senior Tom Hodge became one of the 10,110, 104 men who received “Greetings” from the Selective Service System during World War II. He was sent to Erie for a physical and initial processing.
“I went to a table manned by a lieutenant commander in the Navy and a major in the Army,” Tom said. “As you put your papers on the table, they stamped one ARMY, the next one NAVY, next one ARMY, and so on. By chance I got into the Navy. I was with a boyhood friend of mine. He wanted to be in the Navy so bad he could taste it. I said I don’t care that much. We decided to talk to the officers thinking maybe they would switch it. They wouldn’t even listen to us. Later on, I was glad I was in the Navy because it worked out better for me,” he said.
During boot camp at Sampson, New York, everyone took placement tests, including one on the ability to understand Morse Code.
“I had learned Morse Code in Boy Scouts, so I got a good mark on the test,” he said.
While many from his boot camp class were sent to amphibious forces preparing for the D-Day invasion of Europe, Tom completed a five-month radio school course right there in Sampson. Along with two of his buddies, he was assigned to the radio station at the headquarters of the Fifth Naval District in Norfolk, Virginia.
“We were seaman first class at this point,” he said. “The first three months all we did was make coffee for everybody else. It was good duty. It was mostly all WAVES there and they were excellent operators and knew their business. I had a second class WAVE supervisor. She said I’m going to make a radio man out of you or know why. She did.”
After those three months, they started standing watches on the radios. For two days, they were on from 7 a.m. to 3 pm. The next two, from 3 to 11; and then two from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
“You were sleepy all the time because you never caught up on your sleep,” he said. “We had to type out all of the incoming messages and key the outgoing messages.”
The radio operators had to type the incoming messages and key in the outgoing. All messages were encoded in groups of five letters. Some were one-to-one ship to shore transmissions, while others were broadcast to all of the ships and land bases in the navy through two transmitters, one in Washington, DC, and the other in Hawaii.
“The only excitement I ever had on the radio was one evening when I was sitting on a ship to shore circuit. All of a sudden I heard this loud message come through – a repeated O O O O meaning ‘urgent.’ The ship was trying to reach Charleston, South Carolina, but they weren’t answering. I broke in and said I could forward their message to Charleston. He sent me a message in plain language, which threw me because I wasn’t used to copying plain language. They said they were being attacked by a submarine. German submarines were cruising up along the Atlantic shore, sinking a lot of ships. So I gave message to my supervisor who sent it by land line to Charleston. I never did hear what happened.”
Tom was very content with his duties there, but one of his friends wasn’t. “After about 3 or 4 months, he decided he wanted to go to sea. He requested sea duty on the part of all of us, against my will. We were sent to a receiving station at Norfolk where we sat around for three or four months. Finally our orders came through. We were being sent to be sent to the Azores.”
They sailed on a troop ship to Oran, in North Africa.
“That’s where the British early in the war had sunk the whole French fleet to prevent its ships from being captured and used by the Germans,” he said.
After a week there, they took a train to Port Lyautey, Morocco, then flew on a B-24 to Lajes Air Base on Terciera Island in the Azores. It’s a small island, only about nine miles long and six miles wide, with two small towns, Praia de Vitoria and Angra do Heroismo.
“I remember them well,” Tom said. “I use to go to them on liberty.”
Tom manned radios with a “split circuit” controlled with a toggle switch. One ear heard messages from Bermuda, New York, Norfolk, and Agentia, Newfoundland; the other from Londonderry (North Ireland), Paris, and Port Lyautey, Morocco. Besides the international messages, they handled a lot of air-sea traffic with ships in the area.
“So I encompassed the entire North Atlantic on those two circuits,” Tom said. “When traffic came in, I flipped the toggle switch so I could only hear with one ear to keep from being confused.”
One night he heard a message from Norfolk.
“I knew all the WAVES at radio station there. I sent a message, ‘What is your call sign?’ It turned out that I knew her. So I started asking her questions in Morse Code: what’s so and so doing, how are things in Norfolk, blah blah blah. This was during the war. That was strictly forbidden. A Long Island station captured all this on the log, so the captain of our base got a notice that someone was doing unauthorized transmission. They looked back and sure enough there were my initials on the log. I got a Captain’s Mast, a low-level disciplinary action – basically, a reprimand.”
When the war was over the “point system” was used to determine eligibility to go home. As one of the youngest, Tom had the least points.
“So I was one of the last to leave,” he said. “I had option to go back on B-24 as its radio operator. We landed in Argentia, and were socked in about a week. Then on to New York City. I had never been there. You could go anywhere on the subway for a nickle.”
When Tom was processed out of the Navy at Bainbridge, Maryland, he was receptive to the pitch they gave about joining the inactive reserves.
“It sounded good. We wouldn’t be called up unless there was a war,” he said. “Then in late forties, there was trouble with Russians, so I signed up for active duty. I didn’t hear anything for several years. During that time I graduated from Thiel College with bachelor’s degree, got married, and had two children.”
Then came the Korean War. Tom was activated. After refresher training, he was assigned to the reconditioned USS Wasp aircraft carrier.
“During re-commissioning, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bernard Baruch came aboard and spoke,” he said. “Captain McCafferty, the ship’s captain, said he would see to it that the Wasp would be a taut ship. And he did. He was a good captain.”
The USS Wasp had 3000 people on board, including the radio crew of 50 men. There were ten radio shacks, each with five radios.
“We weren’t too busy,” Tom said, “but during General Quarters (emergency alert), all radios were manned. I was a pretty good operator so they assigned me to radio central during GQ.”
The Wasp headed for Guantanamo Bay for a shakedown cruise. On the way, they had operational exercises.
“Landing on an aircraft carrier is very difficult,” Tom said. “The ship would be tossing backward and forward and side to side. They had to catch a cable that brought them to a halt. We lost two new pilots right out of training who missed the cables and didn’t have the power to take off.”
The carrier didn’t have the same planes all of the time. “Squadrons would come and go. We always were glad to see the squadrons leave because that meant chow lines would be a lot shorter.”
Tom was released from active duty almost exactly one year after he had been recalled. He credits the Navy with giving him discipline which made him a better person.
“I went in as an immature kid,” he said. “For the first six or eight weeks I was so homesick I could hardly stand it. But once I got into radio school and had something to learn, I enjoyed it from that time on.”
That’s not too surprising, given the nature of his duties. “I was always warm and comfortable with a mug of coffee right at hand.”