Joe Medina and a buddy were shooting pool in a Tampa, Fla. pool hall in 1946 when the two of them got the idea to join the Navy. Both were 18.
“We went down to the recruiter’s office and got some information about the Navy and were given a date to come back and sign up,” the 84-year-old former Navy man said. “I came back and was sworn in, but my buddy didn’t return with me.
“I went to boot camp at Bainbridge, Md. After that I was sent aboard the light carrier USS Wright (CVL-49) to work in the engine-room. I spent the next three years aboard the carrier that was training young aviators to land on its flight deck off the coast at Pensacola, Fla.
“When I wasn’t in the engine-room I spent a lot of time on the bridge watching the planes land. Sometimes they’d have trouble landing and end up in the water. There was always a destroyer close by to pick them up,” he said.
“Since I grew up in Key West I wanted to get back there while still in the Navy. I lucked out and got a job working as a mechanic aboard a sub tender at Key West,” Medina said. “I worked in the boat shop overhauling small boat engines. Some times I would be sent to work on submarines that would pull up along side our tender.
“When I wasn’t working for the Navy I was tending bar or waiting tables at the Bamboo Room in Key West. The bar was on Bahama Street near the Strand Theatre around the corner from Sloppy Joe’s that was on Duval Street (the main drag in Key West),” he explained.
“I’d get off my Navy job about 4:30 p.m. and show up at the Bamboo Room. I’d put on my civilian clothes, work there until 2 a.m. when it closed, go home and sleep a couple of hours and go back to work for the Navy the next morning,” he said. “I was 18 and could do it then, but I couldn’t do it now.
“Working at the Bamboo Room was interesting because we had people like Ernest Hemingway come in for a drink. Occasionally I’d greet the famous author and shake hands with him as he walked into the bar with his party,” Medina recalled.
“Bogart was a regular at the Bamboo Room. He owned a house nearby. Rita Hayworth would come in from time-to-time.” After that tour, Medina was sent to Boston to board a new destroyer being built up there–the USS Henley (DD-762).
“She was commissioned in Charleston, S.C. and after a shakedown cruise I went aboard the Henley for a world cruise in 1951,” he said. “We sailed from Norfolk to Japan. While there we visited Nagasaki, where we dropped the atomic bomb. They were still rebuilding the city from the bomb attack during World War II.”
Medina recalls: “The people we met in Japan during our cruise couldn’t have been nicer.” The Henley sailed on to Iraq, Egypt, the Suez Canal, Naples, Italy and back to Bermuda, the Panama Canal Zone and the U.S.
Because he spoke Spanish, Medina was one of the destroyer’s two Spanish-speaking interpreters aboard ship. When the captain needed an interpreter he or another sailor aboard the Henley was called to the bridge to interpret.
After serving three years aboard the Henley, he returned to Key West and shore duty.
“I was in charge of the small boat shop for the Navy in Key West. In addition to keeping the Navy’s small boat fleet afloat I was also in charge of collecting the dummy torpedoes shot by our subs in Key West,” he said. “We had a 50-foot boat with four racks on the stern we used to pick up the dummy torpedoes and bring them back to the sub tender.”
Medina went right back to tending bar after he wrapped up his duties with the Navy in the evening. After this hitch he retired from the Navy with 20 years service. He joined the Navy Reserve and spent another decade as a reservist.
He retired from the navy as a Chief Petty Officer in 1966.
“My wife, Gloria, was a hair dresser at that time. I decided to go to hair dressing school and establish a beauty salon with her. We opened ‘The Fountain of Beauty Salon’ in St. Petersburg about 1970,” Medina said.”The women loved a man doing their hair. I wore a fancy shirt with ruffles. They loved it,” he recalled with a smile.
Three years in the beauty salon business was enough for the old sailor. He and Gloria eventually retired to Port Charlotte in 2000. They have three sons: Joseph, Frank and Johnny.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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