It was a long time ago, but I served my country

“I was born in 1925. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and went to St. Elizabeth’s grade school. I was the oldest of four– two brothers and a sister. We grew up during the Great Depression. My dad was a chief photographer at the Kansas City Star, so he had a job and we were lucky. A lot of the kids I went to school with were really poor.

“When I was in high school, only one kid had a car. Nowadays you go by a high school and you can’t find a parking spot. We just lived on a lot less. We appreciated what we had. When I was a senior in high school, I forget what the occasion was, but we were at a get together in the gymnasium on a Sunday when we heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Hardly anybody knew where Pearl Harbor was. I graduated the following spring and I knew I wanted to go in the service. My dad had been in the Navy during World War I so I was preparing for the Navy. He didn’t talk about it too much, but he was a radio man on a couple different ships. He was quite young– he went in when he was only 17. 

“I was only 17 when I graduated, so I got a year of college plus some Navy training at Park College in Missouri. I left that summer after my freshman year, and was assigned to midshipmen school at Notre Dame University. It was all Navy, and it was all men. We took some hard courses in navigation and damage control. I got my commission as an ensign. I was 19 years old. From there I went to Virginia. We’d formed a crew for an LST; LST-1039 it was called. We trained our crew in Norfolk and from there floated our ship down the Ohio and Mississippi down to New Orleans and to the Gulf of Mexico. We went through the Panama Canal and we got our final orders once we got to Pearl Harbor: we were headed for the invasion of Okinawa. We were in Hawaii about two weeks and then we headed out. I remember being on the Pacific Ocean for several days with nothing in sight but the ocean.
“I was still only 19 years old. I learned how to command men. As far as I know, they pretty well respected me even though I was just a kid. Some of the old Navy chiefs that were on the ship kind of took me under their wing, really. I got along real well with all of them. I took care of the navigation. I had to keep a log of where we were each day, using a sexton and celestial navigation and I kept track of it all in my War Diary. We didn’t have GPS back then.  

“We were at Okinawa about a month. We were right in the middle of it. There’s a movie that just came out, Hacksaw Ridge, about the invasion of Okinawa… pretty bloody. There’s a scene in the movie that shows some cruisers coming around and firing into the hills to support the troops. But anyway, I was there. Of course, we were anchored out in the harbor when all that was going on, but that’s one thing I can remember– these cruisers coming around in the morning and firing into the hills. Then the kamikaze planes would come over, usually close to sunset, and the whole harbor would open up. It looked like the 4th of July with all the tracers going up. A ship got hit fairly close to us. From the air, I’m sure the LSTs looked like small aircraft carriers. It was a lot of young Japanese pilots. See, they were just kids that they recruited, and they knew they were going to die for their emperor but they were very inexperienced. So they’d go after our LSTs. That was my extent of firing at the enemy, firing our anti-aircraft guns. But to see all those tracers going up at sunset… it was really a beautiful sight. 

“I don’t ever remember being afraid. I was young and stupid, I guess. We did go through a typhoon while we were in a convoy, and that was pretty scary, but like I said, I was young then. And faith played such a big role. For a while, on Sundays, when it was possible, I’d conduct a Catholic service on the ship, and our Executive Officer would do a Protestant service. We were in danger quite a bit, but I always thought if it was my time to go, I’d go, and if it wasn’t I’d make it through. I never worried about it. 

“We were ordered back to Pearl Harbor to load up for the invasion of Japan. We were all hot to go. We were ready. We were about a day out of Pearl Harbor when we got a radio report that the bomb was dropped. We didn’t know what the heck an atomic bomb was. By the time we got there, the war was over. It was a pretty happy day. If we would have had to invade Japan, I probably wouldn’t be here. We would have been one of the firsts to go in to Sasebo, which was a big secret Japanese Navy base at the time. I tell my kids President Truman saved my life. 

“We loaded up with Marines again and went back for the occupation of Japan. We were there for about a year then. We went to Saipan and loaded up with Korean civilians that the Japanese had kept as slave labor, and went to Peleliu and loaded up with Japanese soldiers that had been there, to take them back to Yokohama. The soldiers were just docile. They appreciated us taking them home. In fact, their commanding officer wrote a really nice thank you note to our commanding officer for taking them back. During the occupation, the Japanese people treated us like saviors… like they loved us. 

“When we finally came back to the states after being overseas for a year and a half, the first port we hit was San Francisco. I’d always heard about the Top of the Mark in San Francisco. A couple of my friends and I went and darned if they didn’t ask for an ID and I wasn’t 21 and they wouldn’t let me in! That really ticked me off. I celebrated my 21st birthday not too long after that. I met Mary Ann toward the end of that summer, 1946. When we got back, most of the guys I knew went back to school like I did. Some great people came out of that generation. All of my school was paid for. They really took care of us. 

“I stayed in the active Navy reserve at the time. We took a cruise every year. Then the Korean War started, and they started calling everybody up. I was going into my senior year of dental school and I transferred to the Navy Dental Corp. I was a two striper, but had to go back to ensign when I went back to active duty. Mary Ann and I got married in November of my senior year, 1950. Our first child was born in the Navy Hospital in Balboa, and I had orders to go to Korea with the First Marine Air Wing. The baby was 3 months old. I brought them back to Kansas City to stay with my wife’s parents while I was gone. We drove clear back from Laguna Beach, and we got stuck in a blizzard for 3 days. I finally got them back to Mary Ann’s parents’ place and left and went to Korea.

“Korea was so backward back in those days. People were still using oxcarts. I lived in a Quonset hut with Marine pilots. We got to the Marine Air Base, and nearby was an orphanage run by a French priest. We kind of adopted them. We took excess food and supplies to them; we did whatever we could do to help out this old priest, Fr. Deslanden. I was over there about 9 months and I had a little dental clinic. One thing I discovered later on was that Ted Williams, the baseball player was a Marine pilot stationed at our base and John Glenn, who later became an astronaut, was also a pilot. I knew who Williams was, but John Glenn wasn’t famous yet. Williams was his wing-man apparently. I got along great with the pilots. They were flying close air support, so they were often in danger, but our base was far enough back that we were never attacked while I was there. 

“It was quite joyful coming home. I was still in the reserve, and I had thought about getting in an active reserve unit again, but then I thought better and resigned. If I hadn’t, I probably would have gone to Vietnam. So I severed my ties with the Navy. I served a total of 12 years. It was different deploying to Korea than World War II. In Korea, I didn’t have any contact with the enemy. But I was proud of my service. We loved our country. We thought our country could do no wrong back then. If I could do it all over again, I’d do the same thing. 

“I practiced dentistry for about 30 years before I retired. I just had my 91st birthday in June. Strange as it may seem, I’m among the youngest of World War II Veterans that saw any action. Mary Ann and I just celebrated our 66th wedding anniversary November 25th. We have six children, 19 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren so far. We dated for about four years. We knew we couldn’t get married while I was in school, so we dated other people during that time. It was pretty tough on us. We were in love. And we still are. A good marriage certainly helped during Korea. She kept all the letters I wrote her. I think it was probably tougher on her than it was on me. She had a new baby and was worrying about me. 

“If I had to give my great-grandchildren advice, it would be to appreciate your country. I saw some living conditions that were pretty bad during my years in the service, and since then I’ve been to places like Haiti and Dominican Republic. It’s made me appreciate being an American even more. Back during WWII they had rationing. You had to have a sticker on your car which allowed you so many gallons of gas per month, and a lot of food was rationed. Nowadays, there are people in the United States that aren’t suffering a bit while some of our soldiers are being killed overseas.

“I appreciated the experience I had when I was in the Navy. It was a long time ago, but I served my country and I appreciate all that I have. I have a lot to be thankful for.”

2 thoughts on “It was a long time ago, but I served my country

  1. Dr Hense, thank you for giving so generously to our country. Your goodness passed down to your children in fine fashion. I know Karen and Marcia well. You and Mary Ann gave great sacrifice for us all and reading this is helps us appreciate our blessings as Americans. God bless you!

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