4 carrier veterans reunite in Tyler for what could be their last journey together
BY JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONSjsimmons@tylerpaper.com
Bob Wood, 90, of Tyler, served as a World War II radioman on the first crew of the CVE 18 USS Altamaha, an escort carrier that served in the 3rd and 5th Fleets. Dozens of young men were assigned to the ship between 1942 and 1946, the year it was taken out of service.
The carrier was later scrapped, but the men of the USS Altamaha never forgot their beloved ship or each other, gathering annually to catch up and swap old stories.
"It broke our hearts every time we look at her website," Wood said. "They didn't save a one (carrier) ... but we still remember her."
Wood brought them together again this week for the 25th and possibly last shipmate reunion.
Only four of the USS Altamaha's crew could make the journey, joined by widows and children of others. The group also is affiliated with the Escort Carrier Sailor and Airmen Association.
"It's really great seeing them," Wood said. "Our last reunion was in Tucson, and it was supposed to be our last. I told my girlfriend, 'We can't let it end like this. ... Do you think we can do one?'"
Reunion attendees said Thursday it's difficult to fathom the idea of no more get-togethers, but acknowledged advancing ages can complicate travel.
The group's first day together started at the Tyler Rose Garden, where old friends took the opportunity to stroll and reflect. The visit wraps up Saturday with a noon visit to the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum.
Dave Hoy, 86, another radioman, came from Maine to see old buddies.
"When he (Wood) got off the ship, I got on," he said. "We really look forward to these reunions. I still think about the guys and some of the interesting stories. ... We were colorful."
Wood jokingly agreed, "We rearranged furniture in bars up and down the West Coast."
Gordon McBride, of Castro Valley, Calif., said his most dramatic moments aboard ship came from weather, not war.
The drama unfolded in December 1944 when Typhoon Cobra roared through the Philippines, capsizing three destroyers and killing more than 750.
Numerous other warships and aircraft were either damaged or destroyed, records show.
"We had the dubious distinction of losing the most airplanes," McBride said of aircraft parked on the flight deck. "They had been tied down the previous day. We (the ship) rolled further than she was supposed to, and when the ship rolled enough, the ropes broke."
The planes plunged overboard, but no casualties were reported among the Altamaha's crew.
The typhoon "destroyed more airplanes in that one day than the whole situation," Wood said. "We lost 43 planes on my ship alone. ... That was a bad day."
Altamaha veteran Jim Griffin, 87, of Grand Prairie, was in charge of the ship's laundry and used the position to barter for extras, such as offering freshly ironed shirts in exchange for two helpings of dessert.
"We didn't know everyone aboard ship," Griffin said. "But after going to the reunions, we feel more like family. They say this might be our last one. ... I guess we'll fight that battle before the weekend is out."
Washington siblings Marianne Kolden and Molly McNamara came to honor their father, Chet McNamara, who worked in the ship's machine room.
He died in 1998 without realizing there were opportunities to reunite with old shipmates, they said.
The women have been gathering data on the ship and its men in hopes of building a detailed online archive.
"As the guys get older, they really want to talk," she said. "We began asking, and the stories he told were so fascinating. ... We really miss our dad."
Ms. McNamara said, "Being here makes us feel closer to Dad, they all remind us of him. When we found out this (reunion) was happening, we jumped through hoops to be here."
Former B-24 bomber pilot Bob Gunderson, 90, of Louisiana, was in the U.S. Army Air Forces during the war, but started attending the Navy reunions for two reasons: friendship and love.
"Seventy-five years ago, I dated a girl that dated a Navy guy, Larry Sommers, a good friend of mine," he said. "When Larry passed away and my wife passed away, we got together."
He originally attended the occasions wearing an Air Force cap, but the guys gave him a Navy one, which he wears with pride.
"They adopted me," he said. "I'm one of them now."
Wood's daughter, Gloria Goodrich, called this week's reunion experience priceless.
"It's wonderful," she said. "To put this on for my dad is a blessing. I knew it would be a lot of work, but it's been worth it. To see the smiles on the men's faces, for them to be able to see each other for maybe one last time, it's definitely worth it."