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|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Chuck Nevitt, Jr., United United States Coast Guard during World War II.
Chuck Nevitt Interview
28 July 2004
Conducted by Tom Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; C: identifies the subject, Chuck Nevitt. Open brackets
[ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling for the word is unclear - in that order).
T: It's July 28th, 2004 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the Oshkosh Public Museum with Chuck Nevitt who served in World War II. And Chuck is going to be telling us about his experiences in that war. Let's begin then by having you tell me when and where you were born?
C: Chicago in 1920.
T: Chicago in 1920. Were your mother and father both from the Chicago area?
C: No. She had physical problems and needed a specialist. And went down there. She was originally from Clinton, Iowa and Dad of course was Oshkosh.
T: I see. So there was a temporary residence for your mother's ah,
C: Just for maternity.
T: I see. Okay. What did your father do for a living Chuck?
C: Well he sort of was in various… He was at Paine Lumber Company first. And then…
T: What kind of job did he have at Paine?
C: He was in the office doing research work for adhesives.
T: So he was studying for a Ph.D. or something on that order?
C: No. He just worked there.
T: I see. I thought you said he was researching a thesis.
C: No. He was just doing for the hollow door construction. Started making glue out of milk.
T: Really. That sounds interesting.
C: It was what they call casein glue. Bought raw product from, oh boy, I guess I've forgotten.
T: Well I guess they made glue from all sorts of animal fibers, hides and things like that. Do you have any brothers and sisters?
T: Tell me about your childhood. Where did you live in Oshkosh and where did you go to school? And what sort of activities did you engage in after school?
C: After school I was in the service.
T: Well I'm thinking of when you were in the grades and how you had recreational activities of various types.
C: Oh boy, there wasn't too much really. We lived on the corner of Park Street and Jackson. It's now Amherst of course. And then in 1929 we moved to our new house on what then was Lake Drive. Which is Bayshore now. Then I went away to prep school for high school and then two years of college.
T: Where did you go to grade school in Oshkosh?
C: Training School.
T: Where did you go to prep school?
C: It was a school called Todd, T-0-D-D in Woodstock, Illinois.
T: So that took you through high school. And then from there you went to college?
C: Two years in St. Louis.
T: St. Louis? What was the name of the University there? The University of St. Louis?
C: No. Just outside actually. Principia College.
T: How do you spell that Chuck?
T: Do you recall the Depression in Oshkosh? Perhaps your family wasn't really affected by it and then again maybe they were. Can you recall any events of the Depression and how maybe it affected friends of yours, pals that you may have had?
C: Not too much.
T: Its been said that Oshkosh was deeply affected by the Depression because everything was woodworking and when that went down, everything else went down.
C: Well, somehow Paine Lumber Company got through it. But that's what my family were mainly tied up in. So I don't know.
T: In the late 30's and the early 40's there was war in the Far East and there was war in Europe. Did you give much thought to those events that were occurring pretty far away from us? Did you ever think that we would be involved for instance?
C: That's pretty hard to tell. Of course the draft was in force and I knew my number would be coming up soon. So I just enlisted.
T: When did you enlist, Chuck?
C: September of 41.
T: So that was before Pearl Harbor. Did you feel at that time that war for the U.S. was Imminent? That it was something that was rather close?
C: I don't know. It was rather hard to tell. I must have figured it was because I did have, while I was at… I took a semester at what is now the UW-O to make up some credits. And one of em happened to be, I think it was two or three credits we could get for taking the Civilian Pilot Training. So I took that and got a pilot's license in 1940.
T: Was that done out at Wittman field?
C: Yeah, Steve was there, the prime instructor.
T: I guess he was very good.
C: Oh, he was a character, yeah.
T: Where were you when Pearl Harbor happened?
C: Having breakfast in the Reed House Hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
T: What were you doing there?
C: Well in the fall of '41 after I was in the Coast Guard, first I was a few days at Chicago Life Boat Station, then was transferred to Sturgeon Bay Lifeboat Station. And was there for not too long. Was sent down to patrol the Manitowoc River around Manitowoc Shipyard where they were building submarines. And then went into Chicago again on a 36-foot Chris Craft. Was in charge of that. And it ended up we, eight boats were sent to Chattanooga for the winter to start instructing on boarding duty for commercial traffic going through the TVA locks.
So then when the war started, I was put in charge of patrolling the Chicamauga Dam, which was just outside Chattanooga. And stayed there for the winter. Then brought the boat back to Chicago. Went on a 65 foot [Burger] that had been owned by the Walgreen family.
And then heard about the "Atlantic" coming into Coast Guard, which was still, I remember seeing it up in Sturgeon Bay all covered up. I had been sailing for a couple years and so I thought heck, that sounded pretty good. I volunteered to go on the crew of that. And we brought it down to Chicago. Primarily we were going out to the North Atlantic. But at the last minute they changed our orders to go to New Orleans. So we had to pull the masts out and so on to go down the Industrial Canal to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans.
T: Let's go back just a little bit, Chuck. When you were a young fellow, teenager and so forth, and lived in Oshkosh, you must have done some sailing. Was that a big hobby of yours? Did you do a lot of sailing?
C; Well as years went by, yes. Both ice boats and sail boats.
T: I can remember the guys that lived next door to me were always fussing with their boat. They were the Wittmack boys, Charlie Wittmack's kids Jack and Bill. They had a boat that…
C: Yes, Jack crewed for me once in awhile.
T: And I can remember going down and watching off the Legion, seeing the A-boats sail - the scows. Did you sail on that type of boat?
C: Yeah. In '38 I had a Class E. That was a 28- footer. And of course when I went in service I sold it. And then I didn't get back, well I crewed after the war. I crewed for Tom Anger and Phil Sawyer on their A-boat.
T: As we were talking before we recorded, you really didn't have much in the way of basic training when you went into the Coast Guard. Why do you think that was, Chuck? Because that usually was a given for most guys.
C: Yeah it really was but I think it was just that they were trying to get us moved around fast and get us out of Chicago so that they could put in a new bunch of suckers.
T: I see; so they needed bodies and they needed em now.
C: That's they way it seemed to me anyway. When I got to Sturgeon Bay they did put me in charge of the surfboat, checking the buoy lights and stuff like that because not much was automatic in those days.
T: Was that, I think you said you enlisted in September. Was it sort of during the winter months that you were doing that work up at Sturgeon Bay?
C: It was the first part of November when we started for Chattanooga. And got there on Thanksgiving Day. So they just found out I had run powerboats and sail boats and put me in charge of the surfboat I guess. I think the only training was when the Chief Warrant Officer went out with me in the surfboat to see how I operated it. When I came in and docked it, he said, "Well, you do all right. My only recommendation is when anybody's docking a boat, always pretend that your reverse won't work. Come in slow." (Laughter here).
T: I guess that's probably pretty good advice. How long were you up on the Great Lakes in that particular phase of your service? Was it just a matter of a few weeks?
C: Well yeah. Considering that I enlisted in September.
T: You were on your way to New Orleans in November, right?
C: Because we, I forgot just what the dates were when we left and when we got to New Orleans. But it was late that fall before anything iced up.
T: What were your duties in New Orleans? Was that just a sort of a way station? Did you have specific duties there that you had to…?
C: We were a Coast Guard vessel, Coast Guard maintained, flying a Navy commission pennant because of course, they took over the Coast Guard operations. No other identification was allowed. And what our specific duties were was weather patrol in the Gulf of Mexico down into the Yucatan Straits. And eventually we had submarine equipment. There were [ ] equipment. We had facilities for detecting them.
T: What did that consist of?
C: Underwater sonar and radar.
T: How long did you do that type of thing in the Gulf area?
C: Well, until November '45.
T: I see. So then that was your main area of operation all through the war. I can recall that there was a fair amount of German sub activity off the East Coast of the U.S. And was it similar activity in the Gulf area?
C: Yes. They didn't allow, at first they didn't allow any vessels out after dark. And finally as we got enough smaller boats and so on to patrol and watch for subs, then they were allowing freighters and so on to operate.
But they found, when they sank a few of em like off Florida, they found dated bread wrappers and theater ticket stubs from the crews of the German vessels. So they knew there was a lot of illegal goin on. And they even found the sheriff of a parish at the mouth of the Mississippi that was supplying diesel fuel for the subs. So it got a little hairy.
T: I'd like to have you describe for me if you can, a typical patrol your boat, your vessel might make. Now you, the thing could carry sail. Did you go under sail?
C: Mostly. We could take the weather a lot more than a power equipped vessel. I mean what they call "six-bitters," they were seventy-five foot cutters. But they came out to relieve us for the week or so that we were off duty.
T: How large was this vessel that you crewed on?
C; It was 100 feet on the water line. 138 overall.
T: and it carried a crew of how many, Chuck?
C: Thirty-two we usually had.
T: Was this vessel armed in any way?
C: Yeah, we carried eight depth charges, good for 600 feet. And a three- inch rifle. And two 50-caliber machine guns.
T: I see. What were your specific duties on board the ship? What kind of work did you do on the ship?
C: Well, I was in charge of what they call The Record of Public Property for all deck equipment, including the guns. And all the rigging maintenance, sail making and cable splicing. Rope splicing.
T: What was this type of ship called? Was it called a sloop or was it, I'm not familiar with the nautical terminology and I know that there's a difference between a sloop and a ketch and so on and so forth. What was this classified as?
C: It was a three-masted schooner.
T: How fast could you go when you were under sail in fairly ideal conditions?
C; Oh, ten to fourteen miles an hour. It was a fairly fast sailing vessel. We were a little surprised sometimes.
T: And you were looking for German submarines. Is that correct?
C: Well, we were…
T: Or were there other things that you looked for?
C: There were other things too. We were one of the few ships not on radio silence because we had to be within touch of the Miami weather station every hour. And we tracked all the hurricanes in the Gulf during the war years. I think there were seventeen of em that we accounted for.
And then another thing we got, we kinda wondered what was going on. We had to take the water temperatures down to 400-foot depth every hour. And we had what they call a bathythermograph. It looked like about a two-foot bomb on an electric winch and a small cable. And it had a little smoked glass slide inside it. And a stylus that marked in there. Then you put it on a graph when you got it out and you could read the temperatures. And every time we'd get in port, they'd ship it up to New London, Connecticut. And all of a sudden things started to get a little, "We need it quicker." So there would be a vehicle waiting for us at the base. When we'd get in they'd fly it to Connecticut. Well it ended up, what they were doing was trying to plan for the invasion of Europe. And they'd give it, I think it was around three weeks when the Gulf temperatures reached the English Channel. So they wanted the temperatures because that was kind of a basis for weather.
T: That's an interesting thing, that they would rely so much on that type of thing. I suppose they were probably sampling those temperatures elsewhere along where the Gulf Current went.
C; Could be. And trans-Atlantic ships of some kind. Maybe they, well the Gulf Stream leaves the coast around Hatteras. So the smaller vessels wouldn't be equipped north of Hatteras. But we were the only one I know of that was doing it in the Gulf.
T: So that was a daily operation then up to the …
C: Hourly. Oh yeah, we did it every hour. We had a whole cased…
T: And every day you were sending this information in to the …
C; Oh no. We weren't sending that. Just the straight weather. As far as Miami was concerned. But the slides, they wanted the actual slides out of the…
T: How often did they pick those up?
C; The only time they could was when we were in port.
T: I see. How long were your patrols? How many days did they last?
C: About a month. We'd be out at sea for about thirty days then off the patrol for about eight.
T: What was life like when you were out on patrol, as far as food and your, where you slept, how you slept? Was it a difficult type of life or were conditions pretty good on this particular vessel?
C: Well it was kinda crowded with thirty-two on board all the time. But we had a real good chef. He was from Appleton. And served good meals.
T: Did most of the fellows come from different parts of the country or were they a group that happened to come from the same geographical area.
C: Well we were known originally when we got into New Orleans as the "Yankee Clipper." But we ended up with some more diverse locations where people came from.
T: What was the food like? Pretty good? You didn't do the C-ration thing like the GI's.
C: Well we had it aboard in the life rafts and stuff like that. But we avoided eating it. (Laughter).
T: I guess some couldn't avoid it. It was the only thing available.
C: No, we hadn't, they hadn't really developed freezers before the war so we weren't equipped with that but we had three great big, almost walk-in refrigerators. So we were well stocked. And then every week Carl would bake a couple of pies and stuff like that.
T: Were the refrigerators cooled by means of a refrigerant or were they cooled by ice?
C: No, we had refrigeration. But that was the goofy part of it, everybody thinking, "Ah, we'll have sailboats. The submarines won't hear em." We ran all the equipment, radios and stuff. We had to have the generator goin anyway. So we weren't that silent.
T: Did you have any contact with submarines that you can recall?
C: Well we carried a Navy specialist, high frequency radio reception. And at nights he'd sit up on deck with a portable receiver and direction finder and he'd listen to the different submarines talking. And if one sounded fairly close, he'd take a bearing on it and radio it into headquarters. And we got credited for two assists on sinkings.
T: Can you tell me about how that transpired? What your ship did?
C; Well, we just sailed around the Gulf. Our territory was everything outside of…
T: Well, you got credit for two assists. Was that because you were, were you dropping depth charges?
C: No, we were just listening to the radio broadcasts.
T: You were trying to pinpoint their location as much as you could. Okay.
C: And one night the captain of that sub was kind of crazy. He came up behind us and followed us. He followed us for better than an hour I think.
T: How did you know that he was following you?
C: He was right in the path of the moon.
C: We couldn't figure out why he stayed there.
T: I would think that would have been rather foolhardy of him to do that.
C: Yes. They took some of his identification silhouettes, that's what we saw. All it looked like was a little outhouse out there. And he was on the surface, obviously. And we found that as all of us described it, it was an Italian sub. We didn't even know there were any.
T: Maybe that's why he followed you so closely.
C: He wanted to be sure we knew who he was. Sure!
T: I didn't know that the Italians had subs operating in that area.
C: We didn't either. Nobody really did.
T: And I don't imagine there were Japanese in that area.
C: They were in the Pacific.
T: Your unit apparently did not suffer any casualties then as a result of…
C: No. We had no Purple Hearts or anything.
T: Were there fellows that were injured in the course of their duties? I would think that on a sailing ship there were probably some things that could go wrong where people could get into trouble.
C: Oh you mean just in the normal…
T: The normal course of operations.
C: Well yeah, you could sprain an ankle or stuff like that.
T: Did you have someone on board that acted as a medical person, probably not a medical officer but a first aid man of sorts that could patch people up?
C: Yeah we had a couple of guys but we didn't end up with any serious accidents though. I don't know how. We didn't know any more.
T: Did you in the course of your work feel any pressure or stress? For instance, if you knew that submarines were in your area was there apprehension? Because your particular boat was not I would think, well prepared to contend with a sub that would surface - seeing those guys spilling out and getting that gun ready to go.
C: Well we did have a three-inch gun but it was good for six, I've forgotten what the range was on it.
T: Was a torpedo a possible threat for your vessel or didn't you draw that much water?
C: Not that we didn't, we couldn't really figure out. Most torpedoes were, minimum depth was eight feet. And we drew just eight feet so we weren't really too worried about it.
T: A savvy sub captain probably wouldn't waste one on you maybe. Knowing that you're pretty shallow draft, they'd just be gone.
C: Unless they were following or knew that we were broadcasting every hour or so.
T: Do you know if they could change the depth on those torpedoes or were they pretty much…?
C: Oh I guess they could to some extent. I don't really know.
T: Did you formulate an opinion about the enemy? About the Germans? Would you have considered them a pretty tough opponent? Were they smart, wily?
C: We had no idea.
T: Did you dislike the Germans or did you just not think about that sort of thing?
C: We didn't really think about it too much.
T: It was just part of the job that you had to do in the war. Tell me about some memorable experiences that you had in the course of your voyages in the Gulf area.
C: Well I think it was kind of interesting, when we first were down in the Yucatan area, the red snapper fishing fleet out of Mobile and all the coastal areas around the Gulf didn't, couldn't figure out what we were doing down there.
T: You didn't provide them with any information did you?
C: Finally one of em, after a hurricane went through, one of em came over and hailed us to ask what our actual position was. And so we started chatting and they said, "Well, what are you doing down here?" "We're just sending a weather report back to the United States and listening for subs." "Oh!" And he said, "You want some snappers?" And we said, "Oh sure." We started on a barter deal with some of the guys down there. One of em gave us a twenty-pound red snapper just because we gave him a pound of butter. Because they couldn't get butter. And of course their refrigeration was pretty bad. They'd leave port with a full hold of ice and hope to fill it up mostly with snapper before it all melted. And so they didn't waste it too much in the line of perishable foods. But we'd trade canned hams for red snapper, stuff that we had plenty of.
T: What was your daily life like? You mentioned the responsibilities that you had. Were you busy all the time, all day long or did you have a lot of free time?
C: There was a lot of free time of course. What have you got, a bowling alley here?
T: There's a bunch of kids coming through.
C: Okay. Jeez, it's a noisy place.
T: It's an old building Chuck.
C: I tried to keep the rigging and stuff in good shape. Had a regular routine replacement schedule. So even stainless steel, you can't say it's impervious to salt water. All of our rigging, well a lot of our rigging, the main stays and so on were heavy steel, plough steel. And all our running rigging, that was all 3/8's stainless, into the rope tackles. And I'd be replacing those about every couple of months. Well there's a lot of wear and tear on em too.
T: Were you under sail or at sea when you had real bad weather? You mentioned having a hurricane. Were you always able to make port before those bad…
C: Oh we'd get around behind them.
T: You were able to avoid the main effects of these storms.
C: We could usually hear from weather reports if they had a hurricane coming up through the Yucatan Straits. And so we'd go down into the Bay of Yucatan area or try to if we could. And then circle around behind it and sail into it. And stay on port tack coming in because the winds are all counter-clockwise. And sail into it until we had a maybe 20-25 mile an hour wind. And then hold it there and we could sail and as the wind varied in velocity, we'd change our course and knew where we were going. The skipper always wanted to know what shape the rigging was in. So we could take it.
T: Well I can imagine that even then there were probably some fairly heavy seas that you had to contend with.
C: It was surprising. Not what you would think. We were surprised how far in we could get. And it got a little hairy once in awhile.
T: I can remember being on a troop transport that would roll so much you'd think it wasn't coming back up. It's over so far it's not gonna come back; eventually it would.
C: The nice part of a sailboat is that you can hold it at one angle. Pretty much.
T: Were you able to go on leave when you were down there?
C: Oh sure. We'd never get like a month off but we'd schedule em ahead and we'd get a full week. And be able to take off as soon as we hit the shore, and get back in time to leave again.
T: Were you ever able to get home to Oshkosh during that particular time?
C: Oh sure. It would take a day and a half on the Panama Limited to get to Chicago and then four hours up, daily train. And so we'd have three or four days here.
T: I see. And I imagine being stationed where you heard from home plenty often. You had correspondence by mail very frequently.
C: It was kind of interesting, a friend of dad's, manager of the Remington-Rand branch in New Orleans, of course they did a lot of federal government work. And so George always knew when we were coming in. And so I would spend a couple of days with them. And it was interesting, when he transferred back here after the war they lived in the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the next block. And he ran the Remington-Rand office along with Jack Birmingham here in town.
T: Most of us who were in the service can remember guys that were unique in some way. Some were real characters. In your crew did you have any people like that, people that stood out as a real odd ball or weird?
C: We had some interesting ones. One fellow came in, he was a full lieutenant in the Navy, Coast Guard I mean. And every once in a while we'd get an officer aboard that needed some sea training or sea duty. And he said, "Yeah, I gotta come aboard for a month." And his name was Joe Dockery. It ends up his family was quite the cotton growers over in Mississippi. And he was from Dockery, Mississippi. They owned the town and everything.
But what his real duties were in the Coast Guard was going around in the bayous and enlisting the help of some of the fishermen down in there, teaching them the routine of speaking English and stuff. Because if a plane went down in the bayous, they only had a couple of days to live because of the mosquitoes. The Cajuns were more or less immune to it.
So he knew all the Cajuns down there and we'd stop at a couple of places on our way from New Orleans to the Gulf because it was 118 miles. And I've forgotten the town we usually stayed, stopped at. Either one of the guys in town would take us over or we'd lower a power launch and go over to a guy's house over on the far side of the bayou. And for fifty cents we'd have a gunnysack full of oysters. We could hardly carry em back. But we got a lot of good seafood. I don't know how many stops we made there. They knew us pretty well.
T: Where were you when the war ended, when the Japanese surrendered?
C: I think we were out at sea. It's a safe bet because we sure didn't spend much time in port. But of course everything was slacking off by that time anyway.
T: I suppose that the German subs weren't really a threat. When did they no longer become a threat, would you say? Was it early in '45 or wasn't it that soon?
C: Not really. They kept up a, they were pretty much around all the time. Of course with the high freq (frequency) radios, they weren't FM's, they were AM radios and so you could pick up the skip off the clouds in the stratosphere and all kinds of stuff. And so a lot of our receptions were from several hundred miles away maybe. But a few of em were very close.
T: I've often wondered where the German submarines who operated so far from home got their supplies like fuel and other things. Where did they get that stuff?
C: Oh from subversive activities on the coast.
T: Really! I hadn't thought of that.
C: Well, like with the bread wrappers and theater tickets you'd find when they'd sink one of them on the east coast. And as I said, the sheriff of the parish down there was even supplying diesel.
T: So patriotism was not a universal thing then by any means.
C: Not too much.
T: It's rather a sobering thought. When you heard about the dropping of the atom bomb, how did you feel about that? I imagine for most of you fellows it was a joyous occasion. It's over.
C: Oh yeah. That put an end to it.
T: And I think you hear varying opinions but on reflection, it probably saved lives on both sides if you think about it.
C: Well that's the silly part of it, yeah. In the long run, my God, considering the number of troops that we were losing daily. Everybody complains nowadays about civilian casualties and so on. Boy it was a free for all during the war on civilians.
T: That's right. Civilians were fair game on both sides. Not deliberately necessarily but they just part of the action, the casualties of war.
C: Sure. When you figure those bombs the Germans were sending over, they were just promiscuous; you never knew where they were gonna hit.
(The first tape ends here).
T: Early in the war when we were suffering a lot of setbacks and right after Pearl Harbor, was there any doubt in your mind whether we would win this war, or did you have some doubts?
C: Pretty hard to say. I don't remember really…
T: You didn't really think about that?
C: Not too much.
T: I think most people that we've interviewed really pretty much felt that we would win, early on. Were you awarded any medals or citations?
T: Good Conduct Medal?
C: Oh yeah. Reenlistment…
T: When were you mustered out of the service? When did you get discharged?
C: That was in November '45.
T: Did you make any rank when you were in the service? Did you get promoted at all?
C: I went from Seaman to Bos'n First.
T: I don't understand how it works in the Navy and Coast Guard. Is a Boatswain's Mate 1st Class, what would that compare to in the United States Army?
C: I've often wondered.
T: You would be considered a non-commissioned officer? Something like that?
C: Oh considered non-com, yeah. The next rank would be Chief and then you're Lieutenant 2nd.
T: After you were mustered out of the service what did you do then? Did you go back to school? Did you go to work?
C: I went in with, Dad was in the insurance business and I went in with him.
T: When did he start in the insurance business. I remember him being in Oshkosh for a long time when I was a kid. When did he go from Paine's to the insurance business?
C; I'm not sure just when he did. I don't know.
T: How long were you with your dad in the insurance business in Oshkosh?
C: Well, he left and went in as president of Paine Lumber and then he turned the whole business over to me. And then I finally sold it in 1968, '67 or something like that.
T: What type of insurance did you handle? Did you handle all types?
C: General, yes. We didn't get into life insurance either. Although he was on the directorship of Wisconsin National.
T: When did your father go from insurance over to Paine again? Can you remember when that was?
C: Well, after Nathan died, he went in as managing the finishing up of the art center. And I guess Jesse, Jesse put him in as president or something like that. I don't know. His mother was Nathan's sister. That's the connection there. His granddad was an attorney and something came up at Paine Lumber and they needed another attorney. And one of em said there was a young whipper-snapper starting out as an attorney called Charley Nevitt. So they, well, gave him a try. That's how he met his future wife.
T: How did you meet your wife? And when did you get married?
T: I see.
C: Well I had been married before and was divorced.
T: Do you have any children?
C: We've got four daughters.
T: Are they by your second wife?
T: Do they live in the area?
C: the oldest one, she's in, oh I don't know what her term is, like public relations with Citizens First Credit. And the second daughter, Betsy or Elizabeth has her own attorney's office. She's in Neenah. And number three, she lives just south of Oshkosh. She teaches at North Fond du Lac. And our youngest is program manager, I guess it is, for Fox Valley Symphony in Appleton.
T: Well it's nice to have them all fairly close by. That doesn't always happen.
C: Polly, number four, was living in Atlanta and Betsy graduated from the University of Oklahoma law. And she was with an attorney's office in Oklahoma City. And in fact she just left their office which was a block from the Murah Building. In fact she just left their office which was a block and a half from the Murah Building. She had just left on a, for a meeting somewhere, wondered where her car was, and when she got back to the office, they were all goin nuts.
T: I imagine that was a terrible shock.
C: Well, the goofy part of it, we'd seen it because we were down there a couple of times when she graduated. She was president of the class. But this law firm that she went with had bought this old building which was about a half a block long. Three stories. And they completely updated the thing. All thermopane and everything like that. And added on to the size. Somehow you never know where the added on was because they found some old brick that perfectly matched the rest of it. But from the end of the building you could see the Murah Building. And the impact or the repercussion from, broke or at least cracked a good portion of the windows. And all of em, it broke the seals. So they had to replace all the thermopane. And when the contractor's checking the place, he was up on the third floor, he said, "What do you want to do about the roof?" They looked at him, "What do you mean?" He said, "It looks like your roof moved." It had lifted the whole roof and it came back down and you could just see where the plaster cracked around the edges. So they had a helluva project.
T: That was a horrendous thing. Do you think that the war, and your participation in it, do you think it changed you in any way, Chuck?
C: It broadened my scope of navigating, handling vessels. That's for sure.
T: I suppose in a way it was a valuable experience since you were interested in boating anyway. It just was right up your alley.
C: I wouldn't have known much about sail making, and rope and wire splicing and everything.
T: Did you lose any friends from Oshkosh during the war. Can you recall any of your pals that were killed in the war?
C: There must have been. I can't think of any right now.
T: I can think of only one fellow that I knew, and very slightly. He lived a few doors from me. That was Frederick Reimer on Washington. He was killed. That's the only one I can think of. I remember the gold stars going up in the windows all around for the guys that were killed.
T: Do you think of the war very much today?
T: Does your unit that you were attached to have any reunions, get together?
C: No. Never been contacted. It's kind of interesting. I tried to find my copy. Couldn't find it, Maritime something or other in Milwaukee. They put out a little publication every month or so. They had a write-up on the Coast Guard "Hooligan Navy."
T: Hooligan Navy?
C: Yeah. And it was all about the ship that I was one. And I was trying to find it because they had a list of all the guys that had served aboard it. All that sort of stuff.
T: Why do you think they call it the Hooligan Navy? What was the reason for that?
C: I don't know. It cropped up during the war, I think. I can remember the term.
T: Do you recall you guys calling yourselves the Hooligan Navy?
C: We called ourselves a lot of funny things. Yeah. There was this Coast Guard, "What the hell did you do?" A bunch of em ran taxi services for the invasions.
T: I'm sure the Coast Guard played a very important role in the war. And you fellows did too. You may not have thought about it too much at the time but I'm sure that the role that you guys played was very important.
C: Well, all the hurricane weather that you heard during the war, that was from us.
T: Were there other vessels like yours that were doing the same thing in that area?
C: No. We were the only one in the Gulf. There were other sailing vessels on the East Coast, in the Atlantic.
T: I was going to ask how many of that type of vessel was really active during World War II?
C: I have no idea.
T: I never thought of that type of vessel doing anything in World War II, really. I figured it was everything under power but if your vessel was active, there must have been others.
C: Oh there were.
T: You don't have any idea how many there were?
C: I wouldn't have any idea. One other one was, we were going to go to the East Coast with it. And that was a steel-hulled sloop owned by the [Freund] family. I think they were from Milwaukee. She was still at Sturgeon Bay when they brought the Atlantic down to Chicago and had her masts on our deck. But when they changed our orders, they had to transfer the masts to her and tie them down so they could go on to the East Coast. So that's the only one I know of. After the war, Jim Kimberly bought it. And had it down to Chicago. That was another interesting thing about this publication. This group in Milwaukee, they had a list of the owners and the various names of it. And sad part of it, she'd been in Bermuda and she was on her way to New York for the "Tall Ships Parade" in about '97, '98. And guys replenishing the oxygen tanks for scuba diving, one of em broke out of the clamps and blasted through the hull. She sank in 12 minutes.
T: No kidding!
C: Yeah. She was supposed to be the lead vessel.
T: That was?
C: The Atlantic. Yeah. I probably got the only part of her that's left. This thing right here. (Shows location on photo). That's where the running lights are. Red, green.
T: Oh I see.
C: I've got the port side one.
T: Well how did you manage to get that?
C: Well it's surprising what you can pack into a sea bag covered with a hammock.
T: Were there other items that disappeared like that when you guys left?
C: I think the skipper, although he's since died, I talked to his brother who lives in California. He knew nothing of it. I think he was going to take the starboard one and he says, "Charley, why don't you take the port?" "Okay." The damned thing's about this long. Wrapped the sea bag and and then put stuff in the hammock because we still had hammocks. We didn't use em. Put it outside the sea bag and tied the hammock around it. Away we went.
T: Now when you sold your insurance agency in '68, is it still in operation?
C: No. The guy I sold it to cheated everybody and sold it to Doc Conroy. So what happened after that, I have no idea.
T: Well, Oshkosh has changed a lot. I was born and raised here but I haven't lived here for over 40 years. In that time we've seen a lot of changes. And you hear about the Main Street and so forth. Do you have any thoughts on that score? Is Main Street gonna come back or isn't it ever going to be the same as it was?
C: I have no idea. An interesting comment about Main Street, Granddad had fooled around with real estate and stuff and he said, "You can own real estate but never own dwellings. Forget those. People are too picky. Always get retail or business property. But not on the east side of Main Street; that'll never develop. Just the west side."
T: Really! That's interesting to hear commentary like that from way back.
C: We ended up, between dad and me, we owned what was then Henderson-Hoyt. And Dad had what was the Newberry Building on Main. And I had the Western Union through the Coffee Cup Tavern. Those were some that Granddad had.
T: I imagine that you've been active in the sailing business after you came back to Oshkosh after the war. Can you tell me a little bit about that? About your involvement in boating in the Oshkosh area?
C: Oh boy! Well…
T: Have you owned a boat?
C: I don't own one now. I had one. I picked up an old antique Lyman Islander, an 18-foot with a little inboard on it. The kids said, "What are you going to call it?" I said, "I don't know." "Well why don't you call it 'Boat'?" I said, "Well, that's a good idea. I'll go you one further." I sat down and I listed out, I said, "We'll call it 'Boat Nineteen'." It was the nineteenth boat we had. That was counting sail and power.
And I did sail iceboats for John Buckstaff. And ended up with "the Flying Dutchman."
T: That was the boat that broke the record, is that correct?
C: That was "The Debutante." John broke that. I did it unofficially during a race because I covered the two miles between buoys in 53 seconds. They figured that somewhere in there I was doing close to 160 (mph). But because they set a watch when I rounded the weather mark and stopped it when they saw me go 'round the leeward mark. And so I was accelerating from maybe 60 miles an hour at the top mark and then I coasted the last half-mile down to the leeward mark. The vibration was so much I couldn't see it.
T: What was your favorite type of craft to sail, to be in. You've mentioned iceboats, and powerboats and sailboats. Which would have been your favorite?
C: Well, the sailboat as far as being able to use it more, but actually the best boat was our last one that we, the big one we had, was 53 feet. A ketch-rigged sailboat that we bought out in Connecticut and brought it back by water.
T: Where did you keep that boat?
C: After I got back with it, I kinda designed the docks for the Pioneer. So then, what was the routine on that now? It was '66 when I brought "Stardust" in. And that's when the Pioneer was being built. So just before I went East to get it, I showed em an easier way to make the docks. And when we got back there was still some C.R. Meyer equipment, booms and so on over there. So I put in there with the boat because we had to pull the mainmast out coming up the river. It was higher than 50 feet. And so we pulled in there and Ken Zinzow was the manager, prime contractor, manager and everything else. And he says, "Yeah, just put it in the slip here. Be interesting." So I put it there and a few days later he says, "Wait a minute, I need a harbormaster. Why don't you take over and manage the harbor?" I did that for the first eight years it was open.
T: This large boat that you describe, you had to get that thing out of the water in the wintertime. How did you manage that?
C: Clark and Lund, what's now Boatworks, they had a 20-ton hoist.
T: They could handle that, get that thing out of the water?\
C: Oh yeah. She was 19 ton.
T: And that could be powered by either sail or motor.
C: Yes. Because all the way through the Erie Canal of course, we were under power. You only had 14-foot clearance on the Erie Canal.
T: With a boat like that, wouldn't it have been a lot more fun out on Lake Michigan?
C: Oh we went there. She was well equipped. Had all propane stove and oven. And had a little cast iron fireplace and burned briquettes. That was fun during cocktail hour.
T: I can imagine.
C: Wrap our potatoes in foil. When the potatoes were done, so were the cocktails. Time to eat. We had the time during the spring and fall with cruising. But I kept it at the Pioneer most of the time. We built a house in 1960 out on [ ] Road, just in the Neenah school system. And we lived on the lakeshore on the south side of the house, and the channel on the north side. So I kept the boat in there a lot too. That's where I told em, C. R. Meyer, not C. R. Meyer, [ ] Miller. They had an excavating outfit in town and he was doin the work out there, building a road and filling lots. And so I had him put the dock in. He said, "What do you mean, just three pilings for a 44 foot dock?" I said, "Yeah." "Okay." So he drove em and I said, "Now I got an angle iron here, a shelf bracket on the shore side." He said, "I don't know what you're doin but okay." So he put em up.
What I had done, when I lived in town, built a dock 44 feet, with two steel horses in the water. [ ] shore. And I'd set it up and take it down myself in an aluminum fishing boat. And he said, "Yeah, well what are you doin now?" I said, "I just, instead of steel horses I'm hanging the dock on your pilings." So well, I used 22- foot steel roof joists for stringers.
T: I see.
C: And then just built the deck part with 2 x 6's, nailed em together in six foot sections and took each section out one at a time, laid it down. The 2 x 4 stringers under the sections I had to match up with the space [ ] the steel roof joists so it wouldn't slide. Then when I get it all set, I just take a couple turns of wire in case it ever, well at one time the waves were big enough and water was high enough that it took the tops one at a time and piled em up on shore. Well, what the hell, a couple turns of wire will last the season. Take em off in the fall. So that's how we built the Pioneer because Bernie was in charge with their equipment. And it was interesting because Zinzow had planned to put in floating docks. And I said, "Oh boy, on Winnebago, you're in trouble."
T: Yeah, it wouldn't make sense really.
C: No. I said, "You've got a helluva maintenance on joints all the time, each section and all that. So he figured it all out and what it came to, it cost him a hundred dollars per slip more to build it my way than it would have for the floating docks. And he said that, "Compared to the maintenance I find that the floating docks would have, I'm making money." Of course that was back in the early 60's. Now it's a good deal more than that, that he would have saved.
T: I would think so. Well Chuck, is there anything else that we should cover as far as your war experiences go? Anything that we've missed?
C: Oh, I wanted to say the complicated system that we were on, we were the main branch of the Navy, Coast Guard and so on. We were operating out of the Coast Guard Repair Base in New Orleans under Navy orders out of Miami, which were augmented and reinforced by the weather bureau of Miami. The only identification we had was the Navy commission pennant. And we weren't allowed uniforms or to wear them.
C: No. We wore civilian clothes at sea.
T: What was the reason for that?
C: They didn't want anybody to know what we were doin.
T: You went and told these guys were snapper fishermen what you were doin…
C: Well, sailors are a friendly bunch. Heck, they knew. Well Buras that was a little town on the bayous on the Mississippi that we always stopped at. They knew what we were up to because we were pretty regular stoppers.
T: What was the name of that again?
T: How do you spell that?
C: B-U-R-A-S I think it was.
T: Well, I didn't realize that you didn't wear any uniform.
C: Well we hardly ever needed heavy equipment anyway. Although we had all been issued it because our original orders were for North Atlantic. So I've still got a heavy jacket.
T: You never had the cold weather to contend with like the guys …
C: Well New Orleans was the coldest I had ever been.
C: Oh, God that stuff went right through you. Jeez!
T: The humidity maybe was the thing?
C: Oh yeah. I had Dad send my sheepskin down. That didn't do any good. Wore that and it was moist and damp inside and out. I think the goofy part of the story, when that gets through (clock is striking).
T: It's going to happen eleven times, Chuck.
C: Okay. Is it that time already. But ah, where were we on here?
T: Well, we were talking about the weather and your clothing and so forth down there.
C: Having sailed a lot, I was always wearing my Topsider shoes and God, we tried to get em through the Coast Guard of course. Several of the other fellows including our skipper were sailors. And we couldn't get, they wouldn't issue them. They didn't have facilities. On the way going out from Mississippi we always stopped at the Navy base at the mouth of Southwest Pass. There were air-sea rescue boats in there from Army Air-Sea Rescue. All those guys had Topsiders. So we ordered a few through the Army Air-Sea Rescue Service.
T: Sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing.
C: Yeah, it was crazy. The only colored ones I had ever seen were the ones we got from the Army. They were all brown. Now of course they make em in all kinds of pastels and everything.
T: I would have thought that type of footgear was very much an essential for your type of work.
C: That's what we figured too. As far as I knew, they never did issue them.
T: Well, it's been nice talking to you Chuck. I appreciate your coming down here like this.
(The second tape, and the interview ends here).
|Oral History Interview with Chuck Nevitt, Jr..
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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