Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lindsey Z. Wilcox – Still at Sea – Final Part

Once more I sat down with World War II Veteran, Sailor and Baytown hero, Lindsey “Zeb” Wilcox. He is a survivor of the USS Indianapolis tragedy, a local hero of mine and one of the folks legends are made of. Without further ado, I continue his unique story. “880 men died, 317 survived and 79 remain with us and only 7 are Texans”.

“About midnight I was relieved of duty and made my way to the deck to lay down, when there was a tremendous explosion and fire came out of the forward starboard and port passageways, extending half the distance of the quarterdeck. We had been hit by 2 Japanese torpedoes and the ship was listing badly, so I grabbed my life jacket and literally stepped off the side of the ship into the water. I quickly swam about 50 feet away and donned my “Mae West” jacket. The ship, all 615 feet of her, sank within 15 minutes of being hit”.

“I saw a life raft and got inside and those of us who were unhurt began giving up our place in the raft to all the injured sailors and Marines. I found a “floater net” and grabbed onto it to conserve energy. We all voiced concern about our situation and whether an SOS was sent out. The sharks began appearing – they were 6-7 feet long and gray. We had a lot of wounded, folks with broken limbs and burns. We prayed that God would give us strength to get through this ordeal and our lives played out before us, but the most important thing I did was tell myself I was a survivor – then it was okay – I knew I would survive”.

“The first day was not too bad. We had about a 150 men on the 2 life rafts and several floater nets, but day two was a different story. Men started hallucinating, seeing islands and airplanes, giving everyone false hope. Some got into fights thinking the others were the enemy. A few went underwater and claimed they ate chow or drank fresh water. We started losing men and below us we could see sharks everywhere. By day three, men were losing their minds. Drinking salt water does this to people and they would become combative, swim off and sink – then the sharks would get them”.

“But on day four, I was awakened when a couple of sharks pulled me underwater. I came up fighting to face two gray sharks staring at me. Both were 10 to 12 feet in length and about 10 feet away from me. I think they were trying to see if I was dead so they could eat me, but I told them “You don’t bother me and I won’t bother you”. I realized I had floated away from the group and they were nowhere in sight, but about this time, I saw them in the distance on the far side of the sharks, so I swam between the sharks and they followed me all the way to my friends”.

“On day 5, we were finally rescued at 0400, August 3, 1945 by the crew of the USS Bassett. My group was taken to the hospital in Samar, a province in the Philippines for 2 weeks and then sent to Guam. The war was over and we came back to the States. I was honorably discharged when I turned 21, at the Naval Air Station, New Orleans, Louisiana. I moved back to Dequincy to be with my wife and finish my apprenticeship with the railroad. I’ve never regretted my time in the US Navy or my time on the USS Indianapolis – Still at Sea.

Authors note: I asked Mr. Wilcox if he had suffered nightmares and he said “I had many many nightmares and they were always of the two gray sharks staring at me, but I haven’t had one now in over a year”. Mr. Wilcox is 82 years old and God bless his soul.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Making a mark on history

By Barrett Goldsmith Baytown Sun Published November 20, 2007

The Bayland Park boat ramp will soon be the site of a pair of historical markers honoring Baytown’s past, and organizers hope it will be the prelude to a renewed sense of historical appreciation in the community.

The Harris County Historical Commission worked with local resident Bert Marshall and other area history buffs to create a marker honoring the Confederate Naval Works at Goose Creek, a naval shipyard that produced warships during the Civil War. The marker was purchased entirely from a donation by Bayer Material Sciences.

Marshall said he was excited to do the research on the shipyard and make a contribution to Baytown’s historical landscape. The HCHC approached Marshall in March of 2006, and Marshall had already been looking into the history of the shipyard.

“I don’t think people realize there was such an involvement in this area with the Civil War,” Marshall said. “They built the little schooners that could go into shallow waters. Six ships were built right there. Goose Creek has a lot of history, and we’re gradually developing that so people can take pride in the area.”

Brothers Thomas and John Chubb created the Chubbs Shipyard in 1854, and answered the call of duty to convert it into a naval shipping yard. The brothers continued to manufacture ships for the government and private mariners until selling the land in 1869, and it later became part of the Goose Creek oil fields.

The parks department is also planning to relocate the existing marker for the Bayland Orphanage, also at Bayland Park. The school was chartered in 1866 and at one point housed 250 orphans, and the board of trustees included prominent citizens of the day. Before the turn of the 20th Century, however, the school was moved to Houston, then to Bellaire, where it became the Bayland Home for Boys.

Parks director Scott Johnson said the marker’s current location is not in an ideal spot, facing as it does an abandoned parking lot. He and the historical commission believe it will be more prominent next to the shipyard marker near the boat ramp. The signs will likely be placed sometime in the next few weeks, Johnson said.

“Baytown is strategically located with the oil fields and the naval yards, and we’re not far from the San Jacinto battleground,” Johnson said. “A lot of things have happened in our neck of the woods that have been important to Texas. Any historical spot needs to be recognized or else another generation comes and goes and nobody will know what took place.”

The HCHC will host a formal dedication of the site sometime in the spring of 2008, likely March, said commission secretary Trevia Wooster-Beverly. Her middle name is no coincidence, as she is a former resident of the Wooster subdivision in Baytown. A graduate of Lee High School, Beverly said

“I’ve been concerned for a while that there are a number of markers that should be in Baytown,” Beverly said. “Maybe this will be the catalyst for getting people interested in some of those things. This is a phase of the Civil War that happened right here in Baytown, and very few people know about it. There’s a lot of history in this county that has not been told. We’re volunteers, but the pay is good when we see something historical noted.”

More information on the naval shipyard is available at Beverly said anyone with additional questions on the orphanage could contact the historical commission at 713-864-6862.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lindsey Z. Wilcox – Still at Sea - Part Two

This week I sat down once again with World War II Veteran and Sailor, Lindsey “Zeb” Wilcox. He’s a survivor of the USS Indianapolis tragedy, a true war hero of the best kind and one of the folks legends are made of. Without further ado, I will continue his unique story. 880 men died, 317 survived and 79 remain with us.

“The railroad work taught me skills early on and I never went without a job. I bid on an opening in my hometown of Dequincy, Louisiana in 1941 as a Roundhouse Clerk, which was the fellow that worked on the turnaround or roundtable for locomotives, but lost it to another fellow who was also promised the job. I was taken in by the Master Machinist even though I had no family connections and was accepted for 65 cents an hour pay. I entered the program in 1941 and was able to complete it after the war in 1948”.

“After 6 months, I was given a raise of a half cent an hour. Back then I paid $5 per month full hospital insurance too. I worked 6 days/48 hours a week and learned the trade at work and through lessons I received in the mail. One day in the shop, we heard the whistle blow, which meant to stop work. The tool room had a radio and we heard President Roosevelt talking about Pearl Harbor and just like that, we were at war. We were shocked a bit, but after a minute, we went back to work. We thought it wouldn’t affect us and it was Washington’s business”.

“We were aware of trouble in the Far East and Europe, but didn’t think much about it, but times in America changed anyway and when I turned 17, I enlisted in the US Navy in New Orleans on what was called a “Kiddie Cruise”. At that time, if you were under 18, your initial enlistment could only last until you reached 21 years of age. I boarded a train for San Diego and after 5 long days in a seat-only car, locked at both ends to prevent us from wandering around, we brand new sailors arrived for boot camp in the US Navy. I was in group 42-692 and for 8 long weeks we ate awful food and faced real mean drill instructors”.

“My instructors were all first class teachers though and we learned our jobs well. From there I went to trade school in San Francisco Bay at the Samuel Gompers building where I learned to be a Tool and Die maker. While in San Francisco we had Life Saving classes where we jumped off a 20 foot platform into the water wearing our “Mae West” life preservers, which had a 72 hour buoyancy lifespan. I didn’t think we would ever need that training and anyway, I could swim like a fish, from back when I was first thrown in over my head by my first cousin, Louise Ross. I got where I could swim across Lake Worth up in Ft. Worth, while Louise rowed a boat beside me”.

“I was finally assigned to the USS Indianapolis. I was 18 and a Fireman 1st class, but I got sick with what was called “cat fever”, which was nothing but being ran down and the standard treatment was 2 aspirin. They wouldn’t let me board ship and it sailed, so they sent me by train to Bremerton, Washington. Another locked train car full of sailors with no sleeping quarters and a long trip. We played cards and told a lot of jokes and stories to pass the time and we had meal tickets so we could eat. My job in Bremerton was fire-watch on old cargo ships being converted to small Carriers. I had a key and I walked all over the ship, putting the key in clocks to show I was checking things”.

“About 3 weeks into this, I was sent up to Dutch Harbor, in Unalaska, Alaska to an old encampment the Army built called “tent city” and it was on top of a mountain, up a road about 5 miles. You could see the tops of the clouds up there and we 80 or so sailors split into 2 work groups and went down the mountain to do general work while we waited for our ship to arrive. If you missed the truck returning to camp, you had to walk up, so we didn’t miss it. Next, we were sent to Kiska. Kiska is an island in the Rat Islands group of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska – no mans land. You could see Russia from there”.

“American P-38’s and P-51 Mustangs landed on corrugated steel runways there, as the whole island was nothing but volcanic ash. I worked food service for about a week and then the USS Indianapolis arrived and I shipped out for – San Francisco! Our great Portland-class heavy cruiser saw many engagements over the next 2 years and carried the first atomic bomb to be used in combat to Tinian Island on July 26, 1945. We were in the Philippine Sea when attacked at 00:14 on July 30, 1945 by a Japanese submarine, (but that story will have to wait until next week).

Next: Ship sinks and we are afloat…with sharks everywhere.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lindsey Z. Wilcox – Still at Sea

This week I sat down with World War II Veteran and Sailor, Lindsey “Zeb” Wilcox and I must say he is bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm. He’s a striking-looking man with wide shoulders and I reckon he was no one to truck with, back in the day. As a survivor of the USS Indianapolis tragedy, he’s certainly earned his place in history and the many books written about the sad event. In short, he’s a true war hero of the best kind and one of the folks legends are made of. He’s made of the fiber Baytonians love to brag about and he represents all that is good about our city, state and country.

Today’s article will be part one of three or more parts chronicling his life and the four hellish days he and his fellow Sailors and Marines endured, floating in the Philippine Sea after Japanese Submarine I-58 hit their Heavy Cruiser with 2 “fish” or torpedoes. The sinking of his ship is noted as “the worst single at-sea loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy” and he lived through it all to tell us his story.

The truth of the USS Indianapolis account was relatively unknown and kept mum until 1974 when the movie “Jaws” brought it to the public eye and this event, according to Mr. Wilcox allowed the survivors a chance to reunite and bring a sort of healing to their ranks. His memory is crystal clear and he is a walking encyclopedia of events, not to mention he is a thoroughly delightful man.

The USS Indianapolis, after many engagements, was dispatched “at high speed to Tinian, Northern Mariana Islands, carrying the component parts and uranium projectile of the atomic bomb "Little Boy" which was soon to be dropped on Hiroshima”, and delivered successfully, setting US Navy speed records.

On July 30, 1945, while cruising at 17 knots towards Leyte, Philippines, the USS Indianapolis Heavy Cruiser, designated CA-35 and the flagship of Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance commanding the U.S. 5th Fleet, was sunk by two Japanese torpedoes, in less than 12 minutes. Two SOS signals were sent out, but through a tragic series of miscommunication, no one was aware of the sinking, or came immediately to their rescue.

So, that is the background of the ship and the war which made him a hero and now onto his story. “I was born in Dequincy, Louisiana. I was 16 when I graduated from Dequincy high school, which had only 11 grades at the time. The draft was in full effect as this was 1941 and some of my classmates, who were 19 and 20, were drafted even though they were in school. We knew about trouble in Europe and the Philippines, but we really didn’t think it would involve our country”.

“I got a job in Baytown, Texas, while visiting my aunt, working for the Missouri Pacific railroad off of Harbor Street at the old depot. My job was a porter/trucker, which was sort of like a handyman/janitor and a freight man. I did a lot of cleaning work and I remember one particular day, we iced-down fish in a barrel for transport to a far away place”.

“At times, we would see as many as 50 Interurban electric cars a day on their circuit runs and I would ride a car to work and back to my aunt’s house, next to the Trophy barbershop. I remember from her house to SH-146, Texas Avenue was a gravel road. I was 16 and since all young people were working jobs, I was as secure as anyone. My folks didn’t worry; I was on my own”.

“About this time, I was bumped out of my union job by someone with more seniority and I bid on a job down close to Baton Rouge, a place on the Mississippi River called Anchorage. My job there was a Yard Clerk and since I didn’t know anyone, I stayed at a place called “the Beanery”, which offered room and board for $1.50 per day. My job was to check every RR car to make sure it had a seal on the door and since a giant RR switch yard is a scary place at night with hobos and all, sometimes it was a bit of a challenge. All I was given was a flashlight. If we caught a hobo, we would turn them over to the RR “Dicks” or detectives and we did catch a few”.

“The Beanery was a lively place and when we slept, the RR tracks were almost within arms length and when a train came through, it shook you almost senseless. The food was good though and later that place became a factory of sorts. They also processed sugar cane in the area. It was very loud there”.

“In Anchorage, there was a giant switch yard and RR cars would be ferried across the Mississippi River on a giant paddle wheel boat with two train-tracks laid on the deck. It would hold about 16 cars and since the river rose and fell with the tides, there was a pontoon bridge set up to hoist or lower train cars onto the paddle wheel. It was a sight to see. There were 4 or 5 old WWI Russian Steam engines set up with teams of men to operate them and they would move cars onto the boat for crossing. They were expert”.

Next: Transferring to Dequincy and entering the US Navy.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Little Stupidity Goes a Long Way

“Stupid people should seek out other stupid people and restrict their communication to those individuals”. I first became aware of this bit of advice a number of years ago and regrettably, I get daily reinforcements of its simple wisdom. I don’t think it should become law though, but if somehow the message could get out, it sure would make conversation a lot easier for those of us who have taken the time to get an education and learn social graces.

In my formative years, my Dad, who was and is a great man in my eyes gave me continuous instruction concerning this very subject and unless he’s mellowed considerably without my knowledge, will not tolerate stupidity in any form.

So, what exactly is stupidity, especially in the context of my initial quote? Stupidity implies that the attributed party is not mentally retarded but rather is willfully ignorant and/or unintelligent, and displays poor use of judgment or insensitivity to nuances.

Being stupid does not mean a person has a low I.Q., or is mentally challenged in any way, as opposed to being an imbecile, a moron, or an idiot; terms used of old to denote levels of mental dementia. Sadly, these terms have lost their original meaning and are used carelessly in common conversation and truthfully, have lost all meaning. Folks will call someone an idiot for some reason and it means absolutely nothing. “George Bush is an idiot”. “My teacher is an idiot”. “That idiot kid of mine”! “My boss is an idiot”!

What stupid verbal garbage and total waste of audio bandwidth. An idiot is traditionally defined as the severest form of retardation, so is that what they are trying to communicate – I think not. The word stupid is a much better fit.

Stupid people reveal themselves by asserting uninformed strong opinions. They broadcast their stupidity by refusing to become educated on real facts and social graces. They go even further by publishing stupid and ignorant statements on public forums and get angry if anyone questions their “facts”. Their opinions and biased remarks are the result of inbred and rebellious anti-social tendencies and most of the time lack common courtesies necessary for social interaction. They charge in, where a reasonable and educated person would fear to tread.

They spew nonsense into conversation and social exchanges with crude insulting remarks, as if everyone is privy to their misinformation and in agreement, not having a clue that the group gets the impression their words and thoughts are uncouth and uncivilized. Many times they reveal themselves as stupid by delighting in base and vulgar talk, as if everyone were equally amused by its decadence. They pose questions which have no solution and demand an answer.

Unfortunately, those of us who read and post responses on the online local forums come in close contact with these stupid people every day. They have no sense of right or wrong, or social grace. An example is someone posts the loss of a loved one and the stupid poster replies that they were trashy and needed to die anyway. Fully half of the Forum agrees the person who died had their share of problems, but only the socially challenged stupid poster would ever voice it.

Our society has a way of dealing with people who regularly vomit caustic social intercourse – we ostracize and label them…and avoid them. The online Forums and Boards, as they are called, offer these stupid people a clown’s mask by hiding their identity. No one knows who they really are, so the stupid anti-social person feels free to insult anything and everything with impunity.

I am all for protecting the identity of honest posters by allowing anonymous log-in monikers, as it encourages the free exchange of information, but like all such liberties we enjoy, someone is going misuse it and this brings up another great quote:

“Freedom of speech might better serve the welfare of its citizenry if restricted to those individuals who understand and adhere to its limits”.

That last quote, like the first, is mine and I officially enter them, tongue planted firmly in my cheek, for your consideration. Can we get them added to a list of rules somewhere? It sure would make conversation (conversating in today’s vernacular) and the exchange of ideas a lot more pleasant.

The sad sad sad reality is the very people I am writing about, for the most part, are not reading this column. They couldn’t care less, so they will continue on, as before, spreading worthless, senseless and hurtful tripe; their paths strewn with victims and verbal litter.

My younger brother, T.J. Bustem once told me something I will never forget and it was after I complained about something hurtful I had read in an online forum. “Don’t waste your time on stupid people”.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Alive and Kicking She Is: Ms. Myrtle McDaniel

It was my pleasure recently to spend an hour or so with long time area resident Myrtle McDaniel. We sat outside Green Acres of Baytown Nursing Home on Beaumont Street and enjoyed the warm sunshine, cool temperatures and low humidity chatting like old friends.

Ms. McDaniel is 88 years young and came to Baytown when she was just a child. Her father retired from Humble Oil after 44 years service. Her mind is sharp as a tack and we talked about old times, laughing like two little kids.

For the last many years, McNair has been her home and we both knew Tyree White, now passed on. “Tyree was a BBQ cooking fool” I said and she laughed and said he sure was. While we chatted, her in her wheelchair and me on the large oversized rocker, everyone who passed by had a kind word for her and she a “Hey, baby”! I asked if she knew of Granny Adcock out in Highlands and of course, she knew who she is. Granny, like Ms. Myrtle are local treasures.

She told me this has been her home area all her life and she loves the area. She told me she knows so many people by “face”, but she can’t keep track of their names “but I know their faces alrighty”.

She has a son in Houston who comes often and takes her with him for a visit. She loves baseball and basketball, but “football gives me the shakes. It just looks like they are tryin’ to hurt each other”.

I pulled out a partially opened package of sunflower seeds and asked if she minded if I ate some while I waited for my bride to visit her mother, “Ms. Verna”, as the staff know her and Ms. McDaniel, said “No, it’s alright. I’m chewin’ backer”. Sure enough, she pulled out a box of Prince Albert pipe tobacco and showed it to me. I, being an old ex-tobacco fiend from way back (and quite the brown leaf brand expert) commented that Prince Albert was pipe tobacco, not chewing tobacco.

She said it was and she acquired a taste for it when she was only nine. “Backer” was something she just took a hankering to and she said she’s never had a bit of trouble (or worms) since day one. Her Dad was a Chesterfield cigarette smoker and had a nasty cough, but her Mom chewed the “backer” and was just fine.

I told her I began my nefarious romance with the brown leaf when I was seven and we shared a good laugh. She’s a thoroughly delightful soul and said at her age; folks ought to realize that a few “little old” vices shouldn’t be looked down on. Take for instance the fact that there are few combinations in life as good as a baseball game with your friends and family and some “backer and beer – or what I call B and B”. She still enjoys an occasional can of Budweiser. “Not no Bud-Light, or any of that stuff – the real thing”.

“Now don’t get me wrong, I chew a lot of gum and even sunflower seeds, so I don’t overdo the Prince Albert”. At this time, I gave her my unopened bag of sunflower seeds.

I’m looking forward to our next visit. With her popularity, I might have to take a number.

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