The Unknown Sailors

Over fifty years after these boys first set sail, their ship has finally come in.

Physical problems prevented Jones from being sworn in until January 1, 1942. By then, the country was officially at war. "Heck, I didn't know where Pearl Harbor even was," Jones recalls. "Can't say I saw it coming. I just wanted a job."

When he arrived in San Diego for assignment, "It was the first time I had ever seen the ocean," Jones says. "And it was big, big. I was saying to myself, 'I gotta cross that? What am I doing here?'"

He'd hoped to become a radioman but instead was told he was going into the Armed Guard--which he'd never heard of--and was sent to gunnery school. The first time he went to sea, on a destroyer for gunnery training, he got seasick. "But so did 80 percent of everybody else," Jones says. "We each had our own bucket."

After a few weeks of training, Jones was assigned to the SS John Lykes.
"At least I got a good 'un," he says of the ship. "She was fast and could outrun most trouble." Loaded up with goods for the Russian front, the Lykes was soon on its way to what was then part of India (and since has become Pakistan). There the goods were unloaded for transportation north and the ship reloaded with raw materials.

Jones would make dozens of similar trips during his service on half a dozen ships. And although he experienced both submarine alerts and air raids, Jones was one of the lucky ones who made it through unscathed. Larson and Flenthrope were not so fortunate.

Larson came from a family of farmers and ranchers. His grandparents had emigrated from Sweden and homesteaded in the Longmont area. But he was raised near the Denver stockyards.

"It was a rough place to grow up," Larson recalls. "There weren't any gangs or nothing. But if you came from the other side of the river into our neighborhood, you better be ready to fight."

He was sixteen and staying with his parents, who had recently moved to California, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. "There was a lot of panic on the West Coast," he says. "People were 'seeing' submarines offshore, and everybody thought we were going to be invaded that week."

Larson, who calls himself "a real flag-waver," tried to enlist in the Navy while in San Francisco. "But they caught me on my age."

Instead, he took off for Denver to see what the guys in his old neighborhood were doing. "Most of them were joining the Marines," he says, shaking his head. "They were a rough bunch. But I knew I didn't want to do that. I turned seventeen, and me and a couple of my other buddies--we were fifteen, seventeen and eighteen--signed up for the Navy. We talked Murphy's dad--Murphy was the fifteen-year-old and a real tough little Irish kid--into signing the papers for us. I was even thinking about making a career of it, because my dad had been in the Navy until he was disabled in World War I."

It was April 1942. "They asked what we wanted, and I said radio school, because they had one in Boulder," says Larson. "So they sent me to gunnery school in San Diego." There, like Jones, he was "volunteered" for the U.S. Naval Armed Guard. His first trip, in early 1943, was to transport Marines to British Samoa for jungle warfare training.

"That first run, there were no subs," he says. "Unfortunately, we blowed a boiler and I got transferred to the MH De Young."

The new Liberty ship was loaded with Seabee equipment--bulldozers, trucks and other construction gear--and left San Francisco bound for Tonga. They traveled alone.

"I was sitting on the boat deck when we went to general quarters," Larson recalls. "The first torpedo missed. I was running to my gun station when the next 'fish' hit. It lifted the ship out of the water, and we lost all our lifeboats on that side."

Larson was knocked off his feet, struck by a small piece of shrapnel and had his front teeth busted in two. Still, he and the other guardsmen went to their guns as the merchant marine crew and two dozen passengers abandoned ship. Soon only the Guard and those wounded in the engine room were left.

"The submarine surfaced," Larson says. "It must have been out of torpedoes and was going to try to finish us off with its deck gun." The De Young began firing. One shot struck the submarine's conning tower but did little damage.

"I still think someone grabbed an anti-aircraft shell," Larson says. "If we'd hit him with an armor-piercing shell, we would have knocked his conning tower off."

As it was, the De Young's gunners still managed to drive off the submarine. "Everybody was a little panicked," Larson recalls. "Rumor had it that a couple of ships had been dumped ahead of us and the crews machine-gunned. And it was getting dark."

The disabled ship sat helpless through the night. All hands peered into the dark for the shadow of a periscope or the white wake of a torpedo. In the morning, though, a U.S. plane found the ship. It was followed soon after by a New Zealand sub-chaser.

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