WWII Seaman Al LeFevra Served Aboard USS Gemsbok in South Pacific

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“From everyday small feats to undeniably heroic efforts, the accomplishments and achievements of America’s Navy are vast and significant. Since its birth on October 13, 1775, the Navy has been involved with more than ten major wars and countless battles in the effort to bring security, democracy and prosperity to the American people and to the international community.” from US Navy Ball website.

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I didn’t know sailors could wear facial hair until my interview with Al LeFevra. When he showed me a photo of himself dancing in a hula skirt and wearing a beard, I could hardly believe my eyes! Here is Al’s story as published in the News-Sentinel on Oct 12, 2015. All of these photo materials are printed with permission from the newspaper and the veteran.

 

They were provided by Al LeFevra from his collection of war mementos.

HEADLINE: Dad’s advice, hula skirt, asbestos helped make Navy life bearable

Believing his son Al would soon be drafted during WWII, Rene LeFevra, a WWI veteran, shared information about his own time in the Army with his son. “He told me how he lived in fox holes, had little to eat and bathed rarely,” said Al. “He thought it would be an advantage for me to be in the Navy because I’d have good food and a clean place to sleep. That was all he needed to say!”

Al LeFevra was born in Woodburn in 1922. After graduating from Central High School in Fort Wayne in May 1942, he enlisted in the Navy in Indianapolis in November.

After completing basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago, he was sent to Treasure Island Naval Base in CA. LeFevra signed up for sea duty and was assigned to the USS Gemsbok (means ‘African antelope’).

The Gemsbok, which held a crew of approximately 100, was a supply ship converted to a tanker. “The conversion was to fool the Japanese,” he said. “During combat, they dropped bombs on tankers to destroy fuel. Many of our tankers carrying oil were getting sunk. Regular fuel ships measured approximately 900 feet in length and held about 100,000 barrels of fuel. Supply ships were half that length and carried half the fuel.”

On January 12, 1944, LeFevra’s ship received orders to head for Hawaii and then the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. There they would join the US fighting fleet under the Vice Admiral William Halsey.

Although a destroyer escort surrounded the Gemsbok for protection, LeFevra was not afraid of the enemy. He had more to deal with. “The water between the US and Hawaii was rough so many of us were seasick,” he said. Crackers helped LeFevra’s stomach.

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At Pearl Harbor LeFevra saw sunken ships from Japan’s December 7, 1941, invasion. He also grew a beard, which was allowed in the Navy, and paraded in a hula skirt he purchased when not on watch. Al still has this skirt today and uses it during talks at schools about the war. He said kids love it! Please excuse the photo’s quality which has deteriorated over the years.

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Notice how this bill is stamped ‘Hawaii’ on the right. It was issued by the US government after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

At the Marshall Islands the crew had permission to go ashore. It was LeFevra’s first experience on a beach. “Other sailors from battleships, airplane carriers, destroyers and escorts had landed and cleared the area of Japanese soldiers,” he said.

Two months later the crew of the Gemsbok received orders to go to the island of Eniwetok. It was also deserted and served as the crew’s home base. “During our six months at Eniwetok, we furnished oil for fighting ships from Mariana, Majuro and Kwajalein islands,” said LeFevra.

A passing British ship appreciated when the crew of the Gemsbok shared fuel and food. One sailor pointed out his ship’s ‘head’ (toilet). “It overhung the water off the fantail (stern/back) of the ship,” said LeFevra. “It looked like an outhouse. I suppose that way they didn’t require a flushing system.”

The chief of the Gemsbok’s engine room was transferred and LeFevra tested for the position of water tender first class petty officer. He passed the exam and being the next highest sailor on board to a chief, LeFevra became acting chief of the fire and engine room.

He no longer had to stand watch and could eat in the chow room separate from the rest of the crew, but he had to be available in case of emergency. “I had to see all of the men under me did their job and report to the executive officer daily,” he said.

Fresh water was in short supply until LeFevra devised a solution. The Navy had a unit that processed salt water into drinkable water, though the water tasted salty. LeFevra took loose asbestos, mixed it with water and pressed it around a jug. After the solution dried, it formed an insulation. “We poured cold water from our ship into it and it stayed fairly cool with no salty aftertaste. When others found out about my water, they drank all of it. I made no more fresh water!”

In their spare time the sailors played sports. LeFevra was good at boxing, having learned it in high school. “When other sailors challenged me, we didn’t try to knock the other out, but had fun,” he said. “No one came out of it too bruised.”

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Al LeFevra served on the USS Gemsbok during WWII.

In July 1944 the crew received orders to head for Saipan and Tinian. “As we anchored off Saipan, we saw fighting on Tinian four miles away as Japanese soldiers hid in caves.” The Marines bulldozed rocks and tons of dirt to fill in caves. When no one wanted a Japanese rifle that had been found, LeFevra claimed it. “I was told not to load it with our ammunition because our ammunition was too powerful for that gun,” he said.

A new officer came on board who had seen much action in fighting. When planes flew over the Gemsbok, he hit the deck. “I learned this officer had seen stress conditions,” said LeFevra. Two weeks later the officer was transferred to a hospital in Hawaii.

In January 1945 the crew received word that Admiral Chester Nimitz was the new commander of the fleet. In the following days, B29 bombers flew toward Tinian, which was now secured and provided air support for B29s. “We didn’t know until much later that the atomic bomb used to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima called Little Boy was unloaded there in July 1945,” said LeFevra.

Soon the Philippines were liberated and the Gemsbok sailed to Leyte Gulf and was there with many other ships in September 1945 when the war finally ended.

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“Ships shot flares into the air like a Fourth of July celebration,” said LeFevra. When the celebration was over, the Gemsbok headed to Guam but ran into a hurricane that lasted three days and four nights. No one was allowed on deck. “Surprisingly, I didn’t get seasick, probably due to the excitement,” said LeFevra. Eating utensils had disappeared so the sailors ate sandwiches for four days.

At Kure Bay the crew went ashore to see the destruction to the city from the Allies’ recent bombing. “Everything was destroyed, so it was surprising how friendly the people were,” said LeFevra.

After the treaty of surrender was signed by the Japanese emperor and the Allies, the Gemsbok sailed for Hawaii. LeFevra had earned enough points to be discharged, but when his skipper asked him to stay aboard until the ship sailed to Alabama where it would be decommissioned, he agreed.

They sailed through the Panama Canal, then through the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile. On April 30, 1946, the sailors of the USS Gemsbok were called to order on deck under the US flag and the ship’s pennant. Each US Navy ship flies a pennant at the top of the US flag.

As they stood at attention and saluted, the US flag was lowered. The pennant was twisted, so LeFevra climbed a rope 12 feet to retrieve it.

The Captain presented it to him. “I was the only original sailor remaining from the ship’s commissioning,” said LeFevra. “He said I was one of the most honest men who had ever worked for him and gave me a letter of commendation.” LeFevra still has the pennant today.

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LeFevra takes his military mementos to schools for talks to students about his part in WWII.

When LeFevra was discharged, he held the rank of First Class Water Tender earning $100/month. He took home his Japanese rifle, camera, and ship’s log (diary) among other items.

After arriving in Fort Wayne, LeFevra was thrilled to see his brother Don, who had enlisted in the Navy with parental permission at age 16, to serve aboard a submarine tender, USS Prairie.

Al LeFevra worked at General Electric as a sand blaster. Adept at math, he attended Purdue University in Fort Wayne for drafting and later worked as a Senior Designer at BAE in Fort Wayne. He retired in 1987.

In 1947 LeFevra married Betty Elizabeth Willey from Marion. She and a son are deceased.

In 2013 LeFevra accompanied the Honor Flight for Northeast Indiana to Washington DC. “I feel everything went good for me while I was in the Navy,” he said.  “People from our church wrote to us and people sent cookies. We put them on the table and shared them. That meant a lot to us. We didn’t have much time to be homesick. Dad was right.”

The End

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More than two dozen stories like these are available in my book, World War II Legacies: Stories of Northeast Indiana Veterans. It features stories based on personal interviews from men/women in nearly every branch about their military service.

This would make a unique gift for a history, military lover or a person who loves America! It is written in easy-to-understand language so non-military people can understand, include students in middle/ high school. It would be a great addition to a school library.

The book can be purchased at this Amazon link.

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Remember to thank a veteran today for his/ her service!

 

British Naval Officer Lived in Churchill’s Home

British-born Dorothy Blue holds book about Winston Churchill which mentions her military service during WWII.

British-born Dorothy Blue holds book about Winston Churchill which mentions her military service during WWII.

 

 

 

 

World War II involved more than American soldiers. I say that facetiously because of course, many countries were fighting for years before the US was involved.

 

I had the privilege a few years ago of meeting a gal who was British and who had an unusual connection with World War II. What those poor people experienced is hard to imagine. If you’d like to get a good idea, I recommend Foyle’s War, available on DVD and Acorn Online. This is an EXCELLENT series about Britain’s role in WWII from the viewpoint of a policeman who solves crimes along the coast.

This show has received many awards and continues today after 8 seasons. I’ve viewed it many times and always learn something about the war. It was created by Anthony Horowitz who also wrote many episodes. I’m interested in other personal, untold stories about WWII. Please let me know if you have one you’d like to share.

Stories like this make up my book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans. If you’d like to order a copy, click on the Paypal button at the top of the Homepage of this site.

Tell an American military veteran thank you today!

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It was a wedding Dorothy Blue of Ossian, IN, was sorry to miss. Unfortunately, Blue, 88, didn’t feel well enough to travel, especially the distance from her Ossian home to the location of this special occasion. She sent an apology letter at having to miss the happy union.

Attending the happy event would have indeed meant a great deal of travel and effort. For one thing, the union took place overseas, in London, to be exact.

 It might have also been a challenge traveling through the streets of England’s capital to Westminster Abbey where the wedding would take place. As it happened, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world had come to London, hoping to glimpse the famous pair being wed. 

On April 29, 2011, Blue watched the wedding to which she had been invited on TV. Prince William and Catherine Middleton were made man and wife in an event that was surely one of the most exciting events in England’s history for the past several decades.

Blue’s invitation to the Royal Wedding was the result of more than half a century of friendship between herself and that of the famous British leader of World War II, Winston Churchill.

 

“During the war, I served as secretary to Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician,” she said. “Mr Churchill and I met through that acquaintance.” Churchill’s grand-nephews had issued the invitation to Blue to attend the wedding.

 

Blue’s six degrees of separation to meeting Churchill began when she joined the British Navy in 1939.  Born in 1923 in England, Blue had won a scholarship to King’s College in London at age 16. For two years she studied music and psychology.

 

When in 1939 England declared war on Germany, Blue was ready to volunteer. She and her parents had been bombed in an air raid shelter and lost their home. Dorothy joined the military; her parents lived in the air raid shelter for five years during the ensuing war.

 

Blue served as an ensign officer in the British Navy. Her duties included serving as secretary to Dr. Charles McMoran Wilson. Lord Moran, as the doctor was known, was Churchill’s primary physician from 1940 when the latter became Prime Minister until Churchill’s death in 1965.

 

Born in 1874, Churchill was the most dominant figure in British politics during the war against Germany. According to Blue, Churchill became ill during the latter part of the war and Moran and Blue resided in his home for six months while he recuperated.

 

What was it like living in Winston Churchill’s home? “Mr. Churchill had a large, luxurious home with maids and a butler,” Blue recalled. “While living there, it was hard to remember there was a war going on.” As for the man himself, Blue observed, “He drank brandy and smoked cigars and was very loyal to England. He was a nice man.” At the time Churchill’s wife lived at another residence.

 

Blue’s dedication to her work and the Prime Minister was such that when Lord Moran wrote his book, Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran (published by Houghton Mifflin 1966 in Boston) he dedicated it to her. The dedication stated, “To Dorothy who has been given back to me and to John & Jeffrey (Churchill’s grandsons)”. Lord Moran also included incidents about her in the book. “The dedication referred to a time when the military had re-assigned me to another position and then returned me to work with Lord Moran,” said Blue.

 

On the day of our interview Dorothy Blue said her daughter had the invitation to the Royal Wedding.

 

In 1945 Dorothy married John Mead, an American soldier. They left England to move to Mead’s hometown of Huntington, Indiana. The couple became parents to a son and daughter and later, three grandchildren. Dorothy worked for many years at the Huntington Court House in the Auditors office.

 

John Mead died in 1983 and Dorothy remarried Harold Blue in 1991. They moved to Ossian in 1996.

 

Sadly, Dorothy’s son from her first marriage, Kent who was an Air Force pilot, died in a training accident at Sawyer Air Force Base in 2000. Harold Blue died within three weeks of Kent.

 

Dorothy died in 2013. Her life was unusual and sometimes difficult but she continued to contribute to her community by volunteering with various craft groups and her church. “I tried to take everything in stride during my life,” she said. “The war was everywhere and I saw much sadness, but overall I’ve led a fantastic life.”

 

 

 

Downton Abbey Brings My Family Together!

Daughter Mandy, my sister Lyn and I attend a free tea at our local library honoring Downton Abbey.

Daughter Mandy, my sister Lyn and I attend a free tea at our local library honoring Downton Abbey.

As this is a blog that honors well-written stories, I’m taking the opportunity to mention one of my favorite filmed shows– Downton Abbey!

Some of you are part of the craze that’s swept the English-speaking world that is Downton Abbey. If you are not a Downton Abbey fan yet, you should be!

Downton Abbey is the name of the most-watched show in PBS’ history. It is based on the lives of an aristocratic family in England in the early 20th century, as well as the large staff that serves their daily needs. I like the show because the rich people are not snobs and care for their staff. No one is perfect but there are some characters I’m tweeting with on Twitter and learning more about them!

Attendees of the Downton Abbey tea were treated to hot tea in china cups and lemon curd.

Attendees of the Downton Abbey tea were treated to hot tea in china cups and lemon curd.

Downton Abbey is filmed in England in a gorgeous place called Highclere Castle. If you’ve not yet viewed this cultural phenomenon, I highly recommend watching it from the beginning of Season 1. Many libraries have DVDs and it has been on Netflix at times.

The show has run for three seasons and is currently in the middle of Season 4.

Mandy visits with a guest at our table while sitting at elegantly dressed tables adorned with pretty china dishes.

Mandy visits with a guest while sitting at elegantly dressed tables adorned with pretty china dishes.


Recently, the Allen County Public Library in Ft Wayne Indiana geared up for the intense interest in the show with a free afternoon tea catered by Fort Wayne’s premier tea house, Sweet Violets Tea & Antiques (www.sweetvioletsteaandantiques.com).

My sister Lyn, daughter Mandy and I gathered with other fans of the show to talk about the show’s intricate plot lines and relationships while partaking (that’s an English word, isn’t it?) of complimentary tea and pastries. We had tasty lemon curd, scones and tiny cakes. Delicious!

Registration was required and space limited to 30 people.

I dressed for the occasion in long gloves, white feathered headband and jewelry reflecting the time period. Other fans dressed full-scale in longish dresses and costumes. Cool!

As a separate act, our local PBS station coordinated a free viewing of the first hour of Season 4 at The Embassy Theatre in early January. My husband, two grown daughters and I all attended and had a wonderful time! There was a huge turnout and it shows that people love to gather for good stories!

OK, enough fawning about the show. Watch it and determine for yourself if it is worth the fuss. I’ll be surprised if you do not agree that it is one of the best mini-series to hit TV in a long time.

If you’re a fan of the show, who is your fave character? What was your fave episode?
Other appropriate comments are welcome.

Cheers!