Tom Edwards of Deep Creek, Fla. was a Navy man through and through. He joined the Navy when he was 17 on Nov. 25, 1940 — his birthday — and made it his life for 22 years .
In World War II, he ended up in New Guinea in 1942. Edwards spent most of the war there.
“I was in a landing craft repair unit. My job was to find damaged Higgins Boats (wooden landing crafts) and bring them back to the shop for repairs,” the 83- year -old former sailor explained. “The idea didn’t work well because the people in the war zone didn’t want to wait for us to return their landing craft to them. They had other things to do.”
As a consequence, the Navy found odd jobs for him to do behind the lines. One was taking an LCM (larger taking-carrying steel landing craft) and load a water truck aboard. He would take the truck upriver in New Guinea to get fresh water and bring the truck back to the coast, where U.S. troops were fighting the Japanese.
About the time the war ended, Edwards was assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. His job was to take Naval Academy cadets aboard a 50-foot work boat in Chesapeake Bay on a daily basis.
“Every day I’d go out in the bay with two classes in the morning and one class in the afternoon. There would be a commissioned officer aboard and the midshipmen. The cadets would be put through flag drill and learn how to handle mooring lines.”
Edwards’ next tour of duty in 1946 was aboard the light cruiser USS Manchester, which left for an around-the-world cruise shortly after he came aboard. The ship sailed out of Boston Harbor and headed for the Mediterranean.
When the cruiser sailed into Naples, Italy, and a half-dozen other European ports, the ship’s crew was standing tall. The Manchester’s duty was to show the flag. Edwards and the rest of the cruiser’s crew would greet dignitaries who came aboard.
Before the six-month voyage was over, the Manchester had sailed to the Middle East, South America, through the Pacific to Japan and as far east as China.
Edward’s high water mark in the Navy may have been when he piped former President Dwight Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, aboard the destroyer USS Mitscher, at Newport, R.I. during an America’s Cup Race in 1968.
A yellowed newspaper clipping the old sailor cut out and framed that was hanging on the wall of his office tells the tale. The headline reads: “President Sees Race Start.”
The story notes, in part, “A bluejackets band played ruffles and flourishes and ‘Hail to the Chief’ as the President boarded the sleek gray warship.
“Other blue-garbed seamen manned the rail, and the destroyer’s officers stood at attention on the fantail.
The President was piped aboard by Boatswain’s Mate 1/C Tom Edwards, 35, of Selma, Ala.”
The 35-year-old boatswain’s mate had a major problem about piping the former resident aboard that he had to discuss in detail with his skipper, he said.
“When the dignitary’s foot hits the commendation ladder (from the dock to the ship) that’s when you’re supposed to start piping. You pipe until he walks up to the captain and salutes.
“In this case Eisenhower had Mamie, and she was going to be slow coming aboard. I can’t keep piping all the way until they both reach the captain,” he said he told his captain. “The skipper told me to figure it out and told me how I was going to handle it. I decided not to start piping until they were halfway down the boarding ramp. Everything worked out just fine.”
They had a fine time aboard the Mitscher, saw the start of the race and apparently enjoyed themselves immensely. When the former first couple left the ship, Edwards piped them off the destroyer.
Shortly before he retired from the Navy in the 1960s, he was stationed in Key West with a test and evaluation unit. Its job was to test the effectiveness of the torpedoes used by U.S. submarines.
The Navy used submarines and destroyers that played war games off Key West firing dummy torpedoes at each other. Edwards’ job was running a 50-foot towboat that brought the torpedoes back to port for repair and reconditioning for re-use.
After serving 22 years in the Navy, Edwards retired to Homestead, Fla., where he spent the next 30 years in tropical bliss waiting for Hurricane Andrew to arrive. When the big storm showed up in August 1992, it scored a direct hit on Homestead with its 140 mph winds.
“It blew my house apart and flattened Homestead Air Force Base a few blocks away,” he said.
Four years ago he decided to get out of future hurricanes’ paths. He moved to Port Charlotte, Fla. and bought a house in Deep Creek, just in time for Hurricane Charley, which scored a bulls-eye on Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte on Aug. 13, 2004. Again, his house took a beating in the big blow, and again he rebuilt.
As retired Chief Tom Edwards sat in his den surrounded by service memorabilia, pictures, commendations and scrapbooks of his life in the service, he said: “Sometimes I come in this room and sit and look at the pictures on the wall and think of the wonderful life I had. The smartest thing I ever did in my life was go in the Navy. I was 17 when I graduated from high school in Selma, Ala., my hometown, I went to sea and saw the world.”
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, May 21, 2006, and is republished with permission.