Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Prairie Sailor
There was no work in 1938, so Dad joined the navy right out of high school , going to the Great Lakes Training Station for three months of boot camp. He was then assigned to the USS Helena, a light cruiser being built in the Brooklyn Navel Yard, living and sleeping on board as the finishing touches to the ship were being completed.
The ship was being sent to the navel base in Vallejo, California after it was commissioned, via around the Horn of South America on its shakedown cruise. Dad had never been on board a ship, and it took him a week to get his sea legs and not get sick when the sea got rough. They stopped on the Equator, holding kangaroo court for the new sailors that had never crossed the line, and it was a pretty rough initiation, finally ending up with a slide down the garbage chute, along with the garbage, into the sea. They were no longer called pollywogs.
One of the stops they made was Montevideo Bay, Uruguay. While there they were able to spend a lot of time ashore, seeing the sights, including gauchos, South American cowboys, as they demonstrated the using of bolas to trip and hobble livestock. Dad was very impressed with their horsemanship and skills.
The War was starting up between England, France, and Germany, and the Germans were raising havoc on British shipping lanes, sinking merchant ships carrying war materials. The main German ship was the Graf Spee, a combination cruiser/battleship, called a pocket battleship, equipped with huge guns and up-to-date technical equipment including the first German radar. After finally being run down by three British ships, the Spee was damaged to the extent it couldn’t get home and sought refuge in Montevideo Bay, hoping to have several weeks to repair the damages to the fuel system, only to find that neutral Uruguay would allow them only 72 hours of refuge. The German sailors were popular among the people of Montevideo, and the American sailors, Dad included, bonded with the German sailors in their finely tailored uniforms. Since America wasn’t in the war yet, this sharing of customs was not unusual.
When the Graf Spee started back to sea after 72 hours, thousands of people lined the shore, expecting to see a battle between the German ship and the British ships waiting in international waters just outside the entrance to the Bay. Instead, they saw the Graf Spee unload its crew, then explode in flames as the captiain ordered the ship scuttled. It sank into the mud 30 feet below the ocean, remaining partially submerged, smoldering for days. The sailors were later sent home, the captain shot himself a day after sinking his ship.
Although American sailors were ordered to steer clear of the sunken ship, many sneaked on board, taking pictures of once was the most feared ship in the German navy. Dad was one of those sailors, bring pictures home of the smoldering towers and guns. It was two more years before America joined in the fight, and even though Germany was a terrible enemy, Dad always had the utmost respect for the German sailors, young men, much like himself, far from home, loyal to their country and sacrificing their lives if need be.
After reaching California, the USS Helena was sent to Pearl Harbor, and remained there until December 7, 1941, when it was hit by a torpedo and was heavily damaged. The ship limped back to Brooklyn for repair, and returned to action. Dad transferred to aviation school in Florida, where he met my mother. They were married in 1945. Dad always regretted not staying in the navy, he liked the discipline, but after seven years in uniform, he longed to be back on the ocean of prairie in central South Dakota, riding horses instead of waves. I’m glad he came home.