Photo of the West Point supplied by Dodie Frost.
I served five years in the war, all of it at sea. I served on four different ships, all under dangerous war conditions. I served in the entire eighteen-month drive from Australia up to Okinawa. Many of you who are religiously inclined, and those who are not so inclined, may reflect on this fact. Not a single man or a single ship that I served on lost either a man or the ship. I served on the USS West Point the first two years of her military mission.
In October 1940, President Roosevelt ordered all Naval Reserve Divisions to active duty, officers and men. These divisions drilled once a week and served two weeks at sea each summer. This way we all maintained our battle efficiency and progress in our ranks and ratings.
We were ordered to Newport News (Hampton Roads), where the West Point was finishing up conversion for troop transfer service. Captain Frank Kelley was skipper and Commander Giles Stedman was executive officer. Commander Stedman was skipper of the SS America when it was transferred to the Navy for troopship service. He was a wonderful and valuable support for Captain Kelley while he was getting acquainted with his command.
I was commanding officer of the Reserve Division at Springfield, Massachusetts. The divisions at Portland Maine, Worcester, Massachusetts and my division at Springfield, plus the four (4) Boston divisions were assigned as the entire crew (plus many highly trained regular Navy personnel). Commander Stedman called all of us division commanders into a little conference. Stedman asked us what duty each of us would like.
The others (not me) said "Navigator". Now Navigator is a very important job, but it does not require the regular daily drudgery and responsibility of the various divisions on board a ship. The engineer was ordered separately from the Merchant Marine.
When Stedman asked me what I wanted, I replied, "First Lieutenant". Now that is not a rank. I was Lieutenant Commander at the time. It is sort of a collegial title for the housekeeper of the ship. His actual rank can be anything. He is responsible for the smooth operations and good condition of all equipment on board, and smooth operation of the Personnel arranged in various divisions.
Stedman looked at me, curiously, I think. The Executive Officers quarters were elite and large. The entrance door opened onto a balcony of the very large auditorium, used for religious services, plays, and other similar activities. At the other end of his suite a door opened to another stateroom. This room was very large and furnished like a normal livingroom or parlor. It also had two comfortable beds and a very large adjoining bathroom with tub, hot water, and every convenience. Stedman showed me the room, He said, "this is your stateroom". I guess he really liked me.
I had the duty of organizing the men into divisions, watches and similar routines. On all of my summer cruises, I was the officer to do this duty. The West Point was a very large ship, with several divisions to organize. But being a very dumb, stubborn Suede, the size of the ship did not bother me. I did the job. The next Executive Officer, about a year later, turned out to be a classmate of mine. Of course, I kept the job.
For many evenings Commander Bunker came into my room through the connecting door, and we sat down at a card table putting together a manual, describing the organization and operations of handling passengers, civilian or military, such as messing (serving food). We did finish the manual and it was printed up in our print shop. I am so sorry that I did not pick up a couple of those pamphlets for posterity.
In late l941 we were traveling in convoy with the three other large troopships, carrying 20,000 Canadian troops from Halifax to Singapore. When we were two days out of Capetown, where we were to stop for fuel, Pearl Harbor was hit. Nobody was surprised. We were actively fighting the Japanese and Germans for nearly a year without a declaration of war. So their reaction was both natural and they felt, justified.
We unloaded the Canadian Troops at Bombay, where they went through a series of quickie training, and for operating in the strange territory of Singapore. We waited at Bombay for about a month and took the Canadian troops back on board for the trip to Singapore.
At Singapore we (the West Point) were docked next to the power station. The USS Wakefield was docked astern of us, and the Japanese were bombing us every hour. The British had no more aircraft and no anti-aircraft guns that would reach the high level bombers. The Wakefield got her whole bow blown up.
We left Singapore just a week before the surrender. All ships were loaded with refugees, bound for England. The Wakefield had to limp her way up to Karachi for temporary repairs, and then to Honolulu for a better job. One more week and we would be Japanese prisoners, and losing our four big transports. It is fortunate for us that God was in that battle for us.
From then on we carried our own troops, which included two companies of U.S. Army nurses each trip. The USS West Point really covered the world. Return trips usually carried refugees. One return trip we carried 6,000 Italian prisoners of war from Casa Blanca to New York City. They were trustworthy and had the freedom of the ship, as well as doing many of the chores necessary for their transport, like messing (food, cooking, dish washing).
I became friendly with many of the nurses. Their cabins (eight troop bunks to a room) were nearly opposite my stateroom. They were officers and had quarters in the officer section of the ship. I used that situation for my own advantage as well. I kept searching for a proper nurse for my second wife after the war, I found her and married her in 1948. She was Captain Jennie Calhoon US Army Nurse Corps. She gave me fifty years of the most wonderful life together that a man and woman could ever have.
You did not expect to hear about romance on board a warship in such a terrible war, did you? But it happened and the full account is in my book "The Soldier, the Sailor and the Singer" just published by Freesong Publishing January 2001. The Singer, Dodie Frost, was an Army brat. (That is the slang term for a child raised on Army bases and among Army personnel.) Dodie is the co-author of my book.
Dodie's father joined the Army soon after Pearl Harbor. He was a career man and achieved the rank of Master Sergeant in WWII and on into the Korean War in Army Intelligence. He transferred from military intelligence to become a civilian in the Office of Naval Intelligence and worked at Navy Headquarters in Washington DC under President John F. Kennedy.
Dodie's oldest daughter, Denise served four years as a Security Police Officer in the U.S. Air Force; from Lackland Air Force Base to Carswell, Texas and on to Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. And, her son Todd joined the U.S. Army, trained at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri and is still serving his country in the Army Corps of Engineers in Massachusetts.
I did give many years of public school teaching after retirement from industry. I had acquired my Master's degree in Education, and had a considerable amount of State certification.
I will always have a special love for the West Point. It was both mother and father for me for two years. I have had no family except for a very few in my younger years. The Navy was my family. The West Point and the Navy rewarded me when I met the woman who would become my second wife on that tour to Bombay. She served me completely as friend, partner and lover for fifty years until her passing in 1997.
If you want more information about the romance and blessings in my life received by serving on the West Point (as well as picking up a lot of history that is never publicized in the Press or learned in a Classroom) you can find it in our book, written by Dodie and me. It covers at least three of the four bases to score a homerun!
This is my story of the first two years of the greatest thrill of living and serving aboard the USS West Point.
Commander Donald O. Burling, USNR (Ret)
Born November 20, 1901
Grateful thanks to Commander D. Burling for writing this story, and to Dodie Frost for forging the link to Cmdr. Burling.
It is very sad to write that this fine gentleman has passed away -April 2003. His contribution to the memories of the West Point story has been most valued.
Condolences are sent to the many people who knew him, especially Dodie West who greatly assisted Cmdr. Burling to present his story.
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