Bernie Strapp of North Port, Fla. joined the Navy at 17 in February 1943 during the middle of World War II. Because he had taken carpentry in high school he wound up working in a ship repair unit in San Diego, Calif.
“There was a nationwide call to arms for all able-bodied men to joint the service that appeared in our local newspaper. It took me about three months to convince my parents it was a good idea for me to sign up,” the 86-year-old former sailor said.
“After I left for the Navy a wave of patriotism hit my mother and she decided to sign up with the WACS (Women’s Army Corps),” he said. “She spent her time in the service working as a secretary in the States.
“Someone in the upper echelon of the Navy came up with the idea to make a ship repair unit and set up a giant repair base closer to the battle. We were put on an old Dutch ship that was headed for the Admiralty Islands, 300 miles off the coast of New Guinea,” Strapp recalled.
“When we landed on the island, after 42 days at sea, the Army was up in the hills fighting it out with the Japanese. We came ashore and started knocking down coconut trees and started building shops for every conceivable repair a ship might require,” he said.
“We knocked down mahogany trees in the jungle and cut them into boards. Our warehouses were all made of pink mahogany,” Strapp said. “When we finished building all the shops, I was outside the harbor in a catamaran and here came the British Fleet. As far as the eye could see there were battleships, cruisers, air craft carriers, destroyers, tankers and troop transports.
“The free world was gathering its forces for the invasion of the Philippines. Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur said, ‘I shall return.'”
“Tugboats from the U.S. pulled single sections of dry docks out to our island in the Pacific. They put 10 of these sections together and if a battleship came in with damage we could submerge the dry docks, pull the ship right in and lift the battleship out of the water. We could also repair two cruisers at a time on these submersible dry docks.”
During the time he worked on the island as part of the repair crew Strapp worked on hundreds of damaged ships of all sorts.
“We had movies almost every night. We strung up a bed sheet between a couple of palm trees and used it as a movie screen. Often time it was raining so hard and we’d be sitting there in our ponchos and couldn’t hear the dialogue because of the heavy rain.
“A lot of the ships we repaired took part in the Philippine Invasion. We felt really good about what we were doing. After the invasion an occasional ship would drop in for repairs,” Strapp said.
“After the war passed us by I made a glass bottom box and used it to walk out into the water with. There were bushels of shell casings left behind from the war. There were also many unexploded Japanese mines in the water. Nobody ever bothered to remove them. I guess they gradually rusted away,” he said.
“I was still on the island when V J-‘Day came and the war ended. The beer line was a quarter-mile long,” he said. “I didn’t drink beer. The guys really got friendly hoping to get my beer tickets.”
It took Strapp and his unit a week to reach Seattle, Wash from the Admiralty Islands which was a big improvement over the 42 days it took them to sail there during the war.
“I took a train from Seattle to Chicago where I was discharged,” he said. “My mother got home from the war just before I did. We were all happy to be back together and happy to go back to work.
“I went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a conductor on long distance freight trains. It was about the time steam trains left and with them some said the railroads’ romance. I loved working for the railroad,” he added.
After Strapp got out of the Navy in World War II he signed up with the Naval Reserves. In June 1950 the Navy was activated for the Korean War.
He found himself aboard the Battleship Mississippi.
“I was in the carpentry shop on the Mississippi. I worked a lot on the ship’s 50-foot wooden motor launches. Sailors were always running these wooden boats into the side of the battleship and damaging them,” he said.
The Mississippi became an experimental craft during the Korean War. The Navy removed its 14-inch main guns and replaced them with rocket launchers.
“We’d go to sea for a week at a time, fire our rockets and returned to port to make all kinds of modifications on our experimental equipment, Strapp explained. “All of this was the preliminary work for the guided missiles our Navy uses today.”
After two years aboard the Mississippi, he was discharged. By then he had eight years of service, was a 1st Class Petty Officer with two hash marks on his sleeve.
“I went back to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad and worked for them for 15 more years. I eventually became a conductor.
“Then I decided to take my family and moved to California. I went to work for General Telephone of California. I worked on testing many of the phone company’s main power boards when they went down. I worked for them for another 15 years and then retired and moved to Florida.
Strapp and his wife, Arlene, moved to North Port in 1997. They have six children: Bernie, Mary, Michael Allen, Brian and Joel.
Name: Bernard C. Strapp
D.O.B: 13 Sept. 1925
Hometown: Akron, Ohio
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Service: Feb. 1943 – Feb. 1946 and Oct. 1950 – June 1952
Rank: Petty Officer 1st Class
Unit: USS Mississippi
Commendations: Good Conduct Medal, American Theatre, Asiatic-Pacific Victory Medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Aug. 13, 2012 and is republished with permission.
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