Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
More than 71 years ago, J.W. “Joe” Herman, watertender first class, disembarked from the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans at Philadelphia and put World War II astern.
He went back to Topeka, Kan., his hometown, and to Barbara, the girl he met there, the girl he’d mailed an engagement ring to from Hawaii.
World War II was his past. Barbara was his future. She still is. They celebrated their 70th anniversary in September.
Herman took part in at least 11 battles during his time on the New Orleans, one of the most combat-tested and highly decorated ships of the war. But he did not bring home any medals for his service.
Men like Herman, enlisted men, men who fired up the boilers in a ship’s bowels and swabbed up the heavy oil that dripped from those boilers onto the floor beneath, men such as that, didn’t think about medals.
“During the war, the only ones who got medals were big captains,” Herman said last week.
He was sitting on a sofa, next to Barbara, also 93, in the Northeast Albuquerque home they have lived in since the Santa Fe Railway transferred them here in 1968.
“The only thing they were thinking about getting was getting back home,” she said of men like her husband, men separated from loved ones by too many miles and too many months.
But there on the sofa between Joe and Barbara was a packet containing six medals with colorful ribbons and two military lapel buttons, decorations Herman had not thought much about over the years, if at all.
Brigitte Herman, a daughter-in-law, urged Herman to get his medals because she believes his descendants – five children, 20 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren (and two on the way) and one great-great grandchild – should have something to remind them of the sacrifices Herman and other men and women of his generation made, some tangible evidence that World War II is not just something you see in movies.
“It is our desire that our children and grandchildren not forget that our freedom has come at great cost,” Brigitte Herman said.
It took six months of phone calls and paperwork, but now, more than 71 years after he was discharged from the Navy and just in time for Memorial Day, Herman has his medals. He’s always had the memories. You can’t leave those behind.
‘Say your prayers’
“One time,” Herman said, “there was an airplane attack, and the officer of the day gets on the speaker and says, ‘You guys better say your prayers because there are too many damn planes.’ ”
They were Japanese planes and this was somewhere in the Pacific. Somebody must have been praying, because the combined anti-aircraft fire of the New Orleans and accompanying ships repulsed the attack.
“Twenty-eight planes came in, and three got away,” Herman said.
He said the New Orleans is credited with destroying 17 enemy aircraft during the course of the war.
“One time, I saw a plane coming right in on us and this guy wheeled a five-inch gun around and knocked the plane right out of the air,” Herman said.
He remembers another time the New Orleans sank an enemy ship during a late-night battle, and he remembers bodies in the water following another engagement in which a 16-inch shell from an American battleship – the USS Iowa or the USS New Jersey – destroyed a small Japanese transport ship.
“The first (Japanese) I saw was just half of one,” he said.
The New Orleans was docked at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, but the cruiser suffered only minimal damage. However, during the nighttime Battle of Tassafaronga, on Nov. 30, 1942, near Guadalcanal, a torpedo detonated the New Orleans’ forward ammunition storage area and gasoline tanks, severing 150 feet of the ship’s bow.
Herman was just 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was inducted into the Navy in March 1943 and joined the New Orleans after it had been refitted with a new bow. He said only three men died on the ship after he joined the crew.
One died of natural causes, Herman said, if an excessive affection for alcoholic beverages can be considered natural.
Another, a radio man, was killed when he fell from the wing of one of the scout planes the New Orleans launched by catapult. The third man was killed on April 22, 1944, when a disabled plane from the American aircraft carrier Yorktown flew into the New Orleans’ main mast and then slammed into the ship’s gun mounts as it tumbled into the sea.
Fire room duty
Herman was below deck when the Yorktown plane crashed into the New Orleans. As the man in charge of fire room No. 1, he was often below deck.
A fire room is a boiler room. The New Orleans had four fire rooms and there were two boilers in each of them.
“And there were 2,705 tubes in each boiler,” Herman said. “I know because I had to clean all of them.”
As the name might suggest, it was hot in the fire rooms.
“It’d be 120 degrees,” Herman said. “We’d go around with our shoes unlaced just to get a little air. But you didn’t want to work without a shirt because if anything backed out of those boilers, you were burned.”
It was pretty noisy down there, too, especially during battles.
“Those eight-inch guns do make a noise,” he said.
Thinking back over the years, however, Herman remembers some of the good things about serving on the New Orleans, things important to a young man who had been a child during the stark years of the Great Depression.
“We had some of the best men at making coffee,” he said. “That was good coffee. And when we were working (night duty), at midnight, everybody got something to eat. Two little sandwiches with good (made-from-scratch) bread and three little Vienna sausages. I still like Vienna sausages.”
They all came back
If you ask Joe Herman about his worst day on the USS New Orleans, he will probably not tell you about bodies in the water, or planes crashing into the deck, or the fierce heat in the fire room. Likely, he’ll tell you about the day in the summer of 1944 that he got the telegram telling him his mother had died.
“I didn’t get to go home,” he said. “The chaplain told me that if it had happened a month later, he could have got me home. But at the time, it was too dangerous to get a seaplane in. She was only 51. No, 52. I think she died of hard luck.”
His mother had endured the trying times of the Depression and given birth to 12 children – eight boys and four girls. Herman, four of his brothers and a brother-in-law served in World War II and all of them survived to return home.
Joe was the only one of the Herman brothers to serve in the Navy. Peter “Augie” Herman and Edward Herman were in the Army. Lawrence Herman was in the Coast Guard and Sylvester Herman was with the Merchant Marine. Clarence Stedler, the brother-in-law, was a Navy man.
Back then, it seemed as if everyone was in the military service. Herman said the first time he went below deck on the New Orleans, he ran into Jack Hewitt, a friend who lived just two miles from the Herman home in Topeka.
Joe met Barbara at her home during a 1942 going-away party for her brother, Ambrose “Bud” Artzer, and Joe’s brother Lawrence, both of whom had just joined the Coast Guard.
They started dating before Joe went into the Navy, and then for more than two years Barbara wrote to Joe, addressing the letters to the USS New Orleans.
Six months after he was discharged from the Navy, they got married.
“Guess where we went on our honeymoon,” Barbara said.
Yeah, that’s right. It was New Orleans.
The USS New Orleans received 17 battle stars for her service in World War II. She was decommissioned in February 1947 at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and sold for scrap in 1959.
Joe Herman moves slowly now and with the aid of a cane. His hearing is not what it once was and neither is his eyesight. But he’s not ready for scrapping.
He’s still got Barbara and his memories, and now, all these years later and just in time for Memorial Day, he’s got his medals.