Week 37: September 13, 2014
Anchors Aweigh… U.S.N. Harold “Clayton” Bryan
My father enlisted on September 4, 1945 in the United States Navy, but that wasn’t the first time he joined – how he originally joined is quite the interesting story! Daddy ran away from home at the age of fifteen and joined the Navy! How you ask? Somehow he managed to acquire a fake ID and it seemed to have gotten him quite far as he ended up joining – and even receiving a real navy ID! What I’d like to know is how was he caught? Boy he really pulled the wool over their eyes!
Clayton Bryan was a strong willed boy growing up, and from a young age he regularly skipped school – to play cards! Imagine a twelve year old boy playing cards with grown men? I can only assume he played very well – which leaves me to wonder – who taught him that skill? I’m told his father was called weekly – that he wasn’t at school. My grandfather would go find him, take him back to school – only to find him at home when he arrived there. It’s said he was a very good card player, and always had money in his pocket – the men even picked him up, bringing him to the mill or wherever they were playing. What were they thinking? They were allowing a young teen in poker games! Both his parents never played cards – again – who was the culprit that taught him – and taught him well!
I can’t imagine how my grandmother dealt with my father – I’m sure he received many a switching – if she could catch him. I know one day he received a big switching out behind the barn. Daddy and brother, Floyd, were left home for the afternoon – big mistake! Grandmama and granddaddy arrived back home to find all the chickens in the yard standing very, very still! Upon further investigation they found the reason – they had nailed their feet to the ground! The boys soon received a new job, killing and cleaning all those chickens. All the chickens had to be killed – I guess chicken was on the menu for days! Now who’s idea had that been – my father or his older brother? I’ll never know now, but knowing my father, well….
Daddy was not a scholar, but a bright scheming boy. By the time he was an adult, he’d become highly knowledgeable in the field of electronics – his expertise resulted him being highly sought after in his work at Warner Robins USAF Base. He was well known on base for those skills – one summer he was sent to Vermont to oversee the installation of security systems in planes. That on-the-road-job took him hundreds of miles from his home in Georgia – but closer to me – as I was now living in Connecticut. The work he performed there was all hush hush – he wouldn’t even divulge to me, his only daughter. No matter how hard I pleaded to know what he did – he always told me he had secret clearance and couldn’t divulge! I hated those secrets of his – and he’d pull those same answers out of his hat whenever I asked about his Mason Society also. Those answers never stopped my mother though – and one evening she crashed one of those secret society meetings. She and her girlfriend, Willie Mae, snuck up to their meeting site and mama, the brave one, shimmied up the pole by the window – on the second floor. She watched as they put on cloaks and hats and began walking and sometimes crawling around the room making gestures with their hands. Daddy happened to look out the window and saw her – well, down the pole she flew and the two ran all the way back home. When he arrived later, he was quite mad – but I’m sure Mama and Willie Mae had their laughs by then and didn’t care! Never tell my mother she can’t do something – as that’s an open invitation!
Well you’ve had a little insight into my father’s character so let’s get back on track with the enlistment Navy story. The story I’m told is that he first ran away and enlisted in the Navy. Whatever papers and signatures he had – got him enlisted. I don’t know how long it was before his father was called to bring him home, but they eventually discovered that he was only fifteen! His fake ID added three years to his real birth date, so he showed as being eighteen years of age, weighing 150 pounds with brown hair and hazel eyes. It seems I inherited my hair and eye color from him.
Daddy hated school and when he turned sixteen – he quit! His parents were not happy over that and told him that if he wasn’t going back to school, then they’d sign for him to join the Navy. They weren’t going to allow him to quit school, stay home and just do nothing. No sooner than he signed up in Macon, Ga. – actually two days later – he said goodbye to his parents and was soon on-board a bus to boot camp in San Diego, California. And it wasn’t long after that – he called his parents and wanted to come home! They firmly told him No! I’m sure my father was one of the youngest in his unit, but he dug in and during the four years served, he worked also toward receiving his GED – remember he had quit school. Joining the Navy was probably the best thing that ever happened to him – they grew him up, taught him skills in electronics that carried him in throughout his life, and gave him the opportunity to see the world.
I’ve always wondered – Did my father want to enlist in the Navy because of older brother Floyd and his uncles already there in the Navy or because of Uncle Sam?
His classification when joining was “AS” – which meant – Aviation Support Equipment Technician – their job was to perform intermediate maintenance on aviation accessory equipment at naval air stations and aboard aircraft carriers. Boot Camp was in San Diego, California at the Naval Training Center – at the north end of San Diego Bay. He was there from September 11, 1945 through December 1, 1945 – his rating soon changed to S2 upon entering – which meant Seaman second class. At the NTC, my father as a new recruit, underwent quite a transition from civilian to military life. It was there he learned the history, tradition customs. and regulations of the Navy – “You’re in the Navy Now.”
He first shipped out on the USS Washburn in September through October of 1945 on the ship rosters and the personal diary I found on Fold3.com
My father must have remained there for other schooling as he’s listed there until March 18, 1946. During his training he received two ten-day leaves, with the last one being right before shipping out on the USS Blue Ridge and now listed in the gunnery division.
I’m sure he didn’t go home as he was on the West Coast and a bus ride would not have gotten him home and back in time, and they didn’t fly back then, like today – So what did you do on that leave Daddy? I can only imagine you found a few card games and maybe were able to buy a couple of drinks at the many bars nearby, and there were always the young girls hanging around Navy yards. He was a small-town boy in a big city now – I can bet he lived it up – lots of drinking and gambling.
On March 22, 1946 daddy shipped out on the USS Blue Ridge (AGC-2) from San Diego, California. The Blue Ridge is named for the south-easternmost ridge of the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia and North Carolina.
He was just a country boy from a small Southern town, and having no experience of ever being on the water – I wonder what was going through his mind when he learned he was shipping out! What were his thoughts when he first saw his ship? Why didn’t I have this interest when I was younger ? I could have asked my father so many questions on his Navy career – first being why he wanted to join the Navy at age fifteen and how he accomplished that feat of joining with a fake ID! From the several photos I have of him with his Navy buddies – he sure looked like he had a good time. My father made friends easily and was very out-going. He could hold a conversation with anyone, having the gift of gab.
As Daddy passed under the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time on June 12, 1946 leaving the San Francisco area; was he on deck taking in the scenery – thinking – I could be going to war – and worrying about his safety as well as his parents alone at home? I can only assume what might have been in his mind and visualize him standing there, looking up at the belly of that huge red bridge as he sailed underneath. He had no idea what loomed ahead for him – but his ship was headed for “Operation Crossroads.” Maybe they weren’t even told of the mission they would soon witness on July 1, 1946 – just two days before his 17th birthday. Wow – what a birthday present!
From other vets stories who served on-board ships at Bikini Atoll, I learned that they were not told of their mission until en-route there. Many mentioned their ships also left from San Francisco – heading West under the Golden Gate Bridge. Four to five days later, the USS Blue Ridge first touched base at Honolulu, Hawaii. It was there they picked up the general and flag officers of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps along with United Nations officials for transportation to Bikini Atoll. to observe the Atomic Bomb Tests. The USS Blue Ridge hoisted the flag of Vice Admiral Harry W. Hill for this trip.
Before they left Hawaii, they were told to turn in their dress clothes, Navy blues, and all their white pants. They were now given field clothes – that was an early sign that their mission was going to be dirty. It was during the voyage from Hawaii to the Marshall Islands, that most likely, my father learned about the bomb tests. I imagine they’d already heard inklings – secrets always get out from loose lips. Now what is the old saying – “loose lips sink ships” – well you can see how that would happen. They soon were en-route to Kwajalein Atoll – they arrived on June 28th.
The USS Blue Ridge was an amphibious communication and command flagship of the 7th Amphibious Force with always a flag officer on-board, and this was usually a Marine Brigadier General. There were only two ships in the Navy at that time designated as such. Their decks were specifically designed to accommodate the many types of communication antennas so the general could stay in touch with all the troops he commanded.
My father was now seeing the world – first the Golden Gate Bridge, which I’d love to see – Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and soon witness history in the making – the first atomic bomb tests. I never remember hearing my father talk about his Navy days – I do remember seeing his Navy pictures – and what I wouldn’t give to be able to have that talk now – to hear first hand of his account…
I do remember he had a tattoo of Navy origin – and I’m sure he acquired that while in the Navy. Most boys back then in the Navy came home with a tattoo – and there were probably a lot of angry mothers! I keep closing my eyes and trying to visualize Daddy’s tattoo – finally after much searching and distraction from writing, I found a couple of photo’s of his left arm. It looks to be a swallow, but the writing underneath I can’t identify at the moment, but it almost looks like his name – Clayton.
The swallow tattoo was a symbol used historically by sailors to show off their sailing experience. According to one legend, one swallow tattoo signified he had traveled over 5,000 nautical miles. Another legend is that since swallows return to the same location every year to nest and mate, the swallow would guarantee a safe return home for the sailor. Now where did he actually have that tattoo done? Home port or overseas? So many questions remain unanswered for me.
Back to Bikini Atoll…
Operation Crossroads was a series of two nuclear weapon tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in mid-1946 and the first to be publicly announced beforehand and observed by an invited audience, including a large press corp. The purpose of these tests was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on warships. To have witnessed that from a ship on the scene – what ran through daddy’s mind – did it make him feel we were closer to war?
The government chose Bikini Island, part of the Marshall Island chain, because of its location and sparse population – less than two hundred Bikinian’s in residence. They graciously agreed to relocate to another island from all I’ve read, but they felt they’d be allowed to return to their homeland at some point – but that never materialized. The government continued to test nuclear weapons there into the late 1950’s; the last weapon test was called Bravo. It became unfit for farming and fishing to ever return to that area. Bikini still remains today uninhabited due to radioactive contamination.
Things were soon to change in this quiet peaceful lagoon of Bikini…
The USS Blue Ridge arrived at Bikini Atoll on the 29th of June and took its place as one of the command and observation ships off Bikini for “Able” on July 1st. The island of Bikini is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which is the furthermost point from Union Point, Georgia he’d ever been – this would be my father’s first glimpse of life across the ocean. I’m sure he must have enjoyed a swim in the warm ocean waters before the tests as temperatures soared at 100 degrees and higher, which encouraged the sailors to enjoy time in the water. I do know he swam in the contaminated water afterward against orders and that caused him to permanently lose all his teeth a couple of years later.
Many of the sailors spent time on Bikini Island checking out the abandoned war planes, climbing the plentiful coconut trees and beer if available, and if he went on the island – he found it!
The first atomic bomb test was named Able and the bomb was called Gilda after Rita Hayworth’s character in the 1946 “Gilda” – a black and white film. Isn’t it strange how so many planes, and now I’ve learned even bombs were named after women during WWII. Bomb Gilda was dropped from a B-29 Super-fortress of the 509th Bombardment Group on July 1, 1946, It was an air burst bomb and detonated 520 feet high above the target fleet.
A fleet of 95 target vessels were soon assembled in Bikini lagoon to test the results of dropping nuclear weapons in an area containing a fleets of ships. The Pacific ocean soon saw much traffic as they sailed and dragged those vessels – they placed four obsolete U.S. battleships, two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, eleven destroyers, eight submarines, numerous auxiliary and amphibious vessels, and three surrendered German and Japanese ships. That’s a substantial amount of ships to gather in just one area – I can’t even imagine how long it took to position them in place! The battleship USS Nevada was designated as the target point for Able and painted bright red to stand out in the center as the target ship.
There must have been much excitement among the sailors as they prepared on-board to watch. From my research I found there were a few having camera’s that documented it for themselves, but unfortunately I found no photos among my fathers Navy pictures. The USS Blue Ridge took a safe position of at least 10 nautical miles east of the atoll. Test personnel were issues special dark glasses to view with, but they soon decided the glasses might not offer enough protection. They were then all instructed to turn away from the blast and shut their eyes. I’m sure many quickly turned on the countdown to 1 – to witness a once of a lifetime, giving disregard to their health at the moment. Knowing my father – he probably was one of those sailors who quickly turned – no matter the consequences – to witness the fiery mushroom growing on the Pacific horizon.
At 9 a.m. on July 1, 1946 Gilda was dropped from the Boeing B-29 Superfortress – but they were soon disappointed. The bomb missed its aim point by 2,130 feet and caused only a small amount of ship damage. The battleship USS Nevada had been the aim point for Able – it had been painted red – and it failed to sink! Only five ships actually sunk – and not immediately.
So who was to blame? After much government investigation of the flight crew of the B-29 bomber and the bomb itself – they finally concluded that the miss was due to a miscalculation by the crew. Twenty four days later on July 25th, the second test Baker was scheduled.
The USS Blue Ridge did not remain for any clean-up and soon called at Ponape and Truk in the Caroline Islands. They didn’t precede back to Kwajalein Atoll for “Baker” until July 23rd. The USS Blue Ridge once again served as observation flagship for the second atomic bomb test on July 25th under the flag of Rear Admiral Glover – my father, once again witnessed history.
The bomb for this mission was known as Helen of Bikini and it was detonated 90 feet underwater and was barely seen. The radioactive sea spray caused extensive contamination. There was no blinding flash like Abel on this one. Ironically, Daddy would soon marry a woman named Helen and she wore many bikinis!
The large “Wilson” cloud and the vertical water tunnel are distinctive of what was produced in the Baker test. The photos showed the battleship USS Arkansas and others uplifted in the water cloud tunnel. There were only nine surviving Baker target ships that were eventually decontaminated and sold for scrap – they sunk the rest at sea after decontamination efforts failed.
The sailors soon had their work cut out for them; even as far away as the viewing ships stood, the sea spray blew contamination on their decks. That is probably why all their uniforms had been confiscated in Pearl Harbor. They soon began scrubbing their ships – top to bottom. Every nook and cranny needed to be decontaminated – and it took multiple scrubbing’s.
The USS Blue Ridge hauled down Rear Admiral Glover’s flag on July 27th and set sail on July 30th. Once again, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco welcomed her home as she navigated underneath to berth at Terminal Island in the Naval Shipyard for inactivation overhaul. She decommissioned on March 14, 1947, but remained in reserve until January 1st, 1960 when her name was struck from the Navy List. She was then sold for scrapping on August 26th to Zidell Exploration Incorporated, Portland, Oregon.
After discovering my father’s Naval records several years ago, my dream was to be able to board one of the ships he served on. Needless to say, both of his ships were scrapped. I had hoped to have found at least one of them as a floating museum somewhere, but that did not happen for various reasons.
My father spent about five months aboard the Blue Ridge before leaving her on August 17, 1946 in San Diego. His records did not show another leave – he soon headed out again to sea on the USS Washburn on September 4th. On October 25th, his rating changed to S2RDM, which meant Seaman second class radar-man.
The USS Washburn (AKA-108) was a Tolland-class attack cargo ship of the Pacific Fleet Amphibious Force of the United States Navy, and named after Washburn County, Wisconsin. She launched on 18 December 1944 and was designed to carry military cargo and landing craft; the latter would have been used to land weapons, supplies, and Marines on enemy shores during amphibious operations. She served as a commissioned ship for 24 years and 11 months. While he served on-board she mostly carried passengers and equipment between various locales in the western Pacific in continued support of the American occupation.
Was it on one of those trips on the USS Washburn that his ship crossed the Equator? My mother remembers him talking about the crossing and all the shenanigans that took place on-board. When a ship crosses the equator, King Neptune comes aboard to exercise authority over his domain and to judge charges brought against the Pollywogs – the newbies. I’ve read it’s quite a ceremony, with them dressing in elaborate costumes and holding King Neptune’s court on deck. The sailors, after paying proper homage to the god of the sea, become Shellback’s, a trusted son or daughter of Neptune. Once initiated, they are then presented with a certificate to mark their transition from Tadpole to Shellback. I never found such certificate among daddy’s papers.
After leaving the USS Washburn, he was sent to Ground Control Approach School, Naval Air Technical Training Unit, Olathe, Kansas for radar training. After completing several weeks of training he was sent to Memphis, Tenn. to Millington Naval Base; at last he was closer to home. His first leave was on December 30, 1946 – he didn’t make it home for Christmas but he was there for New Years Day. I’m sure his mother made a special meal of all his favorite foods.
The USS Washburn continued in service until 16 May 1970 at which time she was decommissioned. Soon thereafter, she was placed in the National Defense Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay, California, but then on September 1st, 1971, she was transferred permanently to the custody of the Maritime Administration. Later on October 1st, 1976, the USS Washburn’s name was struck from the Navy List, and she was sold for scrapping. The Washburn earned five battle stars during the Korean War and six battle stars for Vietnam service; she had a much longer life than the USS Blue Ridge.
Several shore leaves appear on his records in 1947 and on one of those leaves, and maybe while in uniform, he met my mother Helen McKinley – soon to be his bride. She was with her best friend and her boyfriend, which happened to be daddy’s best friend – and from that day forward they wrote to each other – dating while home – and shared many phone calls – when he could catch up with her. Phone calls were a hit and miss as she had no phone at home, so he called her at Willie Mae ‘s fathers hotel (City Hotel) on the weekend – in hopes of catching her.
It wasn’t long before they married one rainy Friday evening on May 28th, 1948 – just the two of them, no family – only their two best friends. They were married at the home of the minister just outside of Siloam. Then it was off to Richmond’s in Greensboro for a night of dancing and celebrating before the groom returned to the Navy Base, just outside of Memphis, Tenn – without his bride. It was several months before money could be saved so she could join him; she lived with his parents and worked at the mill in town – where everyone worked! She hated it and soon moved back home with her parents in Siloam. It wasn’t long before her father bought her a ticket and sent the new bride by bus to Tennessee; daddy had found a room to rent in a sailors home for them.
Apartment life was started with barely nothing, but many of their married friends stepped up and gave them their extras. Mama said they didn’t even have the bare necessaries like silverware, but his buddies quickly remedied that by stealing utensils at the mess hall. A few pieces managed to survive the years and I still have them. Mums the word on that – hope no one tells the military police on me….
On July 1st, 1949 my father was honorably discharged form the Navy and they both returned to the small town where he was born in Union Point, Ga. to begin a new life together and start a family.
When I began searching for information on Bikini Atoll, I was intrigued with all I found in newspapers online – so much that I still haven’t had time to really sit and read. I’ve included a few articles here.