Merryvale Assisted Living in Oxford is home to a number of World War II veterans. These five recently sat down to reminisce about their experiences. Shown are, seated, l-r, Ross Bacon, George McLaren; standing, Jim Doucette, Tom Eakins and James "Bo" Cordell. -- Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- Veterans are a unique breed, armed with individual talents as well as the dexterity to utilize their military training and experiences as productive members of society. The Merryvale Five are such men.
As we assembled for their "group" interview in the Merryvale Assisted Living armed forces room and library, it became apparent the labeling of "assisted living" in no way dampened their memories of service, sense of duty or sense of humor. One veteran, Ross Bacon, said, "I hope we can remember our military days because I don't think most of us remember what we had for dinner last night!"
The field of slapstick comedians missed a good one when Bacon chose a different career. "Hey," he said. "Have you ever eaten mountain oysters?"
Porterdale native James "Bo" Cordell stated, "I tried them once, didn't like them."
Cordell joined the Air Force in 1954. Trained as a mechanic on Allison J35 and J47-GE turbojets for the six-engine B-47 Stratojet, Cordell witnessed a near-catastrophic war in the Middle East while stationed in North Africa during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. As doppelganger Middle-East politics go, America was nose-to-nose in a political standoff with France and England.
Cordell recalled, "I was selected with 22 airmen out of 2,000 for a special mission in case war broke out." Sent into the desert to find a barren site with ground hard enough to handle aircraft, Cordell and other airmen fought off scorpions while awaiting the alarm that would send great nations into a great conflict. "Thankfully, the other sides blinked," he said. Cordell served three years with the Air Force, worked on various types of bombers, and eventually retired from Delta Airlines.
"You think desert heat is bad?" Bacon said. " Try 108 degrees in the jungles of New Guinea, now that's hot."
WWII Navy veteran Jim Douchette said, "Well, Key West, Fla., had wonderful weather, and we only had German submarines to worry about." A Massachusetts native, Douchette spent four years in Key West aboard destroyer escorts as an electrician. "We had to chase a few subs but never caught one," he said. "I went inside a submarine once. It was OK, but I prefer a destroyer."
Asked if they ever fired on a German submarine, he said, "No, I guess we were lucky because we never got fired on either."
"Well, you should have been in New Guinea with me," Bacon said. " The Japs fired at us all the time."
Tom Eakins grinned. A North Carolinian farm boy from humble beginnings, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard during the Korean War. "My ship, the USCGC Mendota, called Wilmington, N.C., its home port. We chased weather balloons all over the Atlantic. I trained on radar, but we stood watch and did other tasks too."
To collect proper weather information, the Mendota had to keep the balloon at a certain angle. "We had to change course frequently and run against stiff winds," he stated. "I liked the Coast Guard. We survived some really bad storms but they never scared me."
"Survive a typhoon on New Guinea then tell me you're not scared," Bacon said.
Iowan George McLaren saw his share of bad weather in England. After enlisting in the Air Force in 1950 during the Korean War, he worked in supply at Travis Air Force Base in California for four months, but with a background in telegraphy received a transfer to Communications. "I trained in Cheyenne, Wyoming," he said. "Then they offered me a choice of duty assignments; Libya, Saudi Arabia, or England. England sounded like the best choice." Crossing the 'Pond' via troop ship, McLaren reported to the R.A.F. base in Manston.
"We lived in tents for two years in perpetual fog and rain," he said. "Even with the bad weather, I liked England." Englander Patricia Ann Morrall may have had something to do with that; the couple married on Aug. 1, 1953.
McLaren supported clandestine photoreconnaissance flights over Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union. "We normally flew the North American RB-45 Tornado out of Manston and refueled over Denmark," he said. "In foggy weather we had to turn on the 'Fidos', an invention of Winston Churchill. They were burners on both sides of the runway. The smoke burned off the fog."
McLaren left the military in 1954, completed his education at Northwestern University, and retired from McMillan Publishing. He and Patricia authored several books.
"I joined the Air Force because the Navy hacked me off!" Bacon said.
Here is a small part of his story.
Born in Hopkinsville, Ky., population 3,000, Ross Bacon was drafted into the U.S. Navy during WWII. "I trained as a radioman in Memphis, took my gunnery and aircrew training with torpedo planes in Miami. I was flown to New Guinea in a seaplane with the mailbags. Mailbags make a lousy bed."
Bacon was 18 years old.
"We lived in tents with dirt floors. We didn't see many snakes, only a few pythons bothered us."
Although a Navy aircraft, Bacon's torpedo bomber was always land-based. "We flew all over the Pacific bombing the Japs; we were never hit, but I never hit anything as a gunner either."
With layovers on several islands, including Guam and Saipan, one vision still jars his memory. "Native women on Saipan didn't wear bras, can you believe that?"
Bacon's twin brother, Allen, served in New Guinea on a PT boat, 17 miles away. Neither brother knew.
"I got to see Bob Hope," he said. "That was real nice, but I had a real bad upset stomach once and that wasn't. Our outhouse stuck out 40 feet into the ocean, a five-seater. A nurse was in real bad shape too, so I had to let her in. She was two seats over. We talked and laughed. I mean, what else could we do in that situation?"
Bacon finished his Navy stint as a Petty Officer 3rd Class then retired from the Air Force as a technical sergeant. He served in Europe, Italy, France, Turkey and Germany.
Asked if he liked Merryvale, Bacon replied, "I get three hots and a cot. Ya can't beat that."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist, and free-lance writer. He can be reached at: www.aveteranssstory.com