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History and Heritage

Of Medals and Mettle:

The Men of World War II

My father, Bert Bishop, exemplified much of what characterizes the people Tom Brokaw dubbed "The Greatest Generation." Stubborn, skinny, and hardworking, he first enlisted in the Army, then transferred to the Navy to "see the world."

It was 1938, and this awkward, backwoods 20-year-old soon got his sea legs in the submarine-infested North Atlantic, the turbulent route through which Roosevelt quietly sent supplies and aid to Great Britain. Like all career Sailors, my father told colorful tales laced with humor and adventure. He had stories about the dog, Rex, who had official transfer orders with my dad. Some stories featured the unfortunate schools of blackfish often mistaken for submarines in those days of rudimentary radar. There were narrow escapes, debauchery, and liberty withheld; stories of kind and generous officers who commanded respect and deep loyalty, as well as tales of small-mindedness and petty squabbles. Since daddy's rate put him in the boiler room, his stories were about the men who kept the ship steaming. One story, about one shipmate, tells a larger truth about the Navy.


When World War II ended, spirits were high all over the country, and the Navy was no exception. My dad finally got his first shore duty, married his Philadelphia sweetheart (a college-educated W.A.V.E.), and began serving on an YF-54, a small tug used to tow larger ships into the harbor at Long Beach, California. The crew was a tight-knit group of experienced, efficient Sailors, who teased and tormented and trusted each other. Throughout the war, all had been to exotic locations, but it was through the "little YF boat" that they learned one another's cultures - Varela's Mexican delicacies, Howell's Georgia Peach accent, Cookie from Brooklyn. Nobody talked about the war. At least not until a medal case fell out of Varela's footlocker.

It contained a Silver Star, one of the highest honors the Navy bestows, awarded to Gilbert "Gus" Varela "for gallantry in action as a member of a beach party from the USS President Adams at Bougainville on 1 November 1943."

Mr. Varela's story is about much more than one man's bravery.

The United States Navy moved into the South Pacific in 1942, after rebuilding the fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbor. During the frantic, fear-filled months of rebuilding, the seemingly unstoppable Japanese commandeered island after island, displacing natives and firmly entrenching troops. Unfamiliar locales became the stuff of the propaganda-soaked newsreels: Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Midway, Saipan, Iwo Jima; island strings known as the Solomon's, the Marianas, Palau Islands. These previously unspoiled natural paradises saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

This a map of guadacanal.

(Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

North and a little west of Guadalcanal lies Bougainville Island.

The Allies needed a beachhead in Empress Augusta Bay, on the western side of Bougainville. A convoy gathered there during the last days of October, 1943: four battleships, eight destroyers, and ten troop transports, one of which was the USS President Adams, the ship to which 21-year-old Gilbert (Gus) Varela was assigned.

Photo of and LVCP carry troops.

(Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

Varela was a Machinist's Mate 2nd Class, a skilled enlisted rate requiring an eight-week training course. His job was to keep gasoline and diesel powered equipment running smoothly. He would have spent most of his time below decks in the hot, dirty engine room doing maintenance and repair, adjusting speed as needed, monitoring fuel and oil storage, and routinely testing engines. But on November 1, 1943, Gus Varela was assigned to the beach party, a group of men pulled from various parts of the ship and sent to unload landing craft and facilitate movement of ground troops and their equipment from ship to shore.

This trip began a few miles out to sea, where the large, ocean-going troop transport vessel lowered much smaller landing crafts over the side of the ship. The most common landing craft was the Higgins boat, made of wood and steel, armed with a .30 caliber machine gun (sometimes two), and carrying either soldiers (30-36 battle-ready men) or equipment (jeeps and artillery). The men, usually Marines, would clamber down a rope rigging, in full gear, then crouch shoulder to shoulder for the uncomfortable trip to the shore. Jeeps and artillery were rolled down a gangplank onto the landing craft.

Each Higgins boat had its own three-man crew, all enlisted. The boatswain's mate (formerly known as coxswain) piloted the craft from a rudimentary control point at the rear, aided by the engineman; the crewman kept watch and manned the gun mounted toward the rear, near the other two crew positions. These experienced Sailors were specially trained to maneuver the unwieldy, heavily burdened landing crafts in the rough waters near shore, dispatching their loads close enough to the beach that men could wade and vehicles could be driven the rest of the way. The islands, remember, were already occupied by the enemy. This effort demanded courage, cooperation, and concentration - hallmarks of Navy personnel then as now.

The Adams discharged her bevy of war instruments, both men and machines, in four waves a few minutes apart. As a member of the beach party, Varela would have been dispatched before the first wave of soldiers, as his job was to help unload. Under heavy fire all morning, the Higgins boats kept coming ashore, and courageous young men kept moving into enemy territory, and the beach party kept unloading men and weapons. One badly damaged Higgins boat lurched to shore near Gus Varela; no crew remained on board. Five unharmed Marines climbed out and waded into battle; the remaining 25 or so men were either dead or wounded. Varela, a mechanic with no experience piloting a Higgins boat, managed to back the crippled craft away from shore, turn it around, and get out of the line of fire. According to the captain's report of this incident, the landing craft had been hit in the rear three times by 75 mm shells, which explains why there were no crew members on board. As the control point for these boats was at the rear, piloting the damaged boat would have been nearly impossible. But that is exactly what Gus Varela did. He rescued the only five men on that boat who could move, getting the survivors into life jackets and onto a boat returning to the convoy.

Mr. Varela certainly couldn't have acted alone. Nor was he the only hero, even among those Sailors on the beach with him that day. The officer-in-charge of that beach detail, for instance, crawled-literally, just like you see in the movies-through enemy lines in order to figure out where, exactly, they were supposed to set up the equipment he was in charge of getting to the island. He, too, earned a medal.

Imagine the chaos of that morning. Fighter pilots strafing enemy positions from above; battleships firing from afar; boatload after boatload of soldiers wading or driving ashore, shooting their way into the jungle; Higgins boat crews expertly maneuvering notoriously difficult crafts in and out of the beachhead, avoiding further chaos with their skill; medics attending the wounded. And ordinary enlisted men like Varela keeping things moving, taking cover as needed. Sounds like a scene out of a John Wayne movie, doesn't it?

Except this was real life. Boats sank, airplanes and jeeps blew up. Wounded men fell overboard and drowned before their landing crafts could get to shore. All those men were just doing their jobs. Some would die, some would be decorated, but most would simply survive the ordeal however they could.

How many times were scenes like these repeated during those tumultuous, uncertain years? Guadalcanal, Midway, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Okinawa, Casablanca and Saipan, each with their similar actions, similar situations, similar sacrifices and similar heroism. The veterans came home to parades and pretty girls, parties and the G.I. Bill.

My dad lost touch over the years with most of the men from that long-awaited and greatly-needed shore duty for the combat veterans of the YF-54 boat. Mr. Howell went back to his beloved Georgia and built a successful real estate business and Rex (the dog) stayed in the Navy.

Through the wonders of the internet, I was able to peek into Mr. Varela's post-war life. He went home to Tucson, where for a time he served as a police officer. He participated in American Legion events, and his wife was a hospital volunteer. They hosted parties for their children, planned community events, and attended dances at nearby Davis Air Force Base. They celebrated babies and weddings, mourned at funerals.

One news story from May, 1954, shows Mr. Varela's courage under fire in a civilian situation: "Early last Monday morning, Patrolman Gilbert G. Varela luckily escaped serious injury or death in the alley behind the Stag Grill at 100 E. Congress St., when he saw a man emerge from the cafe's back door with a radio in his hand and start to drive away in a waiting car. The burglary suspect jammed the car in reverse and knocked the officer into a pile of garbage cans when he attempted to question him. The car drove off at high speed, but the officer obtained the license plate number." Gus Varela would go on to testify at the trial, also covered in the Tucson Daily Citizen.

My dad brought his East Coast bride back home to Little Egypt, the rural, hilly, economically depressed little pocket of beauty at the southernmost tip of Illinois, where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet. He would become a highly respected, highly educated teacher, but he always saw himself as just a "snipe." He made a difference through teaching, an opportunity he wouldn't have had without the Navy, the war, and the G.I. Bill.


Illinois author Studs Terkel dubbed World War II the "Good War," in a similar vein with Brokaw's term "Greatest Generation." Certainly, the people who overcame the country's greatest economic upheaval and deadliest war deserve the superlatives. We owe them our deepest respect. They persevered, carrying their scars close to their hearts, maybe hidden in a medal case or a journal or a hobby or a career spent making the world safer for their children.

But they came home different.

The story centers on one hero in one war. But the story of this battle is bigger than Gus Varela's impressive courage. Does it matter whether the jungles were in the South Pacific or Vietnam? Whether the desert was in North Africa or Iraq? Whether the mountains were in Korea or Afghanistan? The scenery changes but the story doesn't.

We owe a debt of gratitude to all veterans. And we owe care for the wounds - whether spiritual, physical, psychological, or economic. Our veterans continue to defend our democracy, to keep us free to criticize a country that often shortchanges those who have served. We owe strong legislation that protects and supports those who "stood the watch" ("The Watch", William Whiting).

To all Sailors, from those on active duty to those who "have the watch" from above: Thank you for your service, your imagination, your spunk, your humor, and especially for your stories!

The Watch

For twenty years,
This sailor has stood the watch.

While some of us were in our bunks at night,
This sailor stood the watch.

While some of us were in school learning our trade,
This shipmate stood the watch.

Yes...even before some of us were born into this world,
This shipmate stood the watch.

In those years when the storm clouds of war were seen
brewing on the horizon of history,
This shipmate stood the watch.

Many times he would cast an eye ashore and see his family standing there,
Needing his guidance and help,
Needing that hand to hold during those hard times,
But he still stood the watch.

He stood the watch for twenty years,
He stood the watch so that we, our families,
And our fellow countrymen could sleep soundly in safety,
Each and every night,
Knowing that a sailor stood the watch.

Today we are here to say:
"Shipmate...the watch stands relieved.
Relieved by those YOU have trained, guided, and led
Shipmate you stand relieved...we have the watch!"

"Boatswain...Standby to pipe the side...Shipmate's going Ashore!"

(William Whiting, 1860)

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