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‘Tell me about Papa’

A bond between brothers gains new strength

Don Williams

Brothers Joseph Lee Williams and Donald Arthur Williams shared many lifelong lessons as they grew up on a farm in Lyon County near Russell, Minn. With just one year difference in their age they were constant companions during their early childhood years. This bond strengthened through the years as they grew into adolescence and shared the love of horses, spending many summer days with neighborhood boys as they played cowboys, sheriffs and outlaws, riding their horses throughout the countryside.

“We rode horse and played with all the other boys in our neighborhood. There were quite a few that were our age. We would get together all summer long. There were the Lange brothers, Dick and Larry, the Schank boys, Eugene and Lyle, Don Meyer, and Joe and I. We got to be pretty good riders, we could ride our horses under a tree branch and pull ourselves up into the tree and let our horse keep going. Then when the one chasing us would come along we would drop down out of the tree and capture them. It was a lot of fun, and we became real good friends. I will never forget those adventures,” said Don  Williams.

With bonds like this it is no big surprise that five of the seven boys would grow to be men and would one day join the Navy and travel the world while serving their country. Joe was the first the join and did so at the age of 18 in 1956.

Joe Williams

“I really hadn’t thought too much about joining up, but when my brother, Joe, came home from boot camp he said to me. “You should join the Navy then I could get an extra week on my leave, and maybe we could end up on the same ship.” I thought about it and figured what the heck, why not, so I went in and signed up, and he got an extra week at home.  Then I went to basic training or boot camp, and Joe went back when his leave was up and was assigned to the destroyer, the USS Monnsen DDS 798. Some of our old cowboy friends enlisted, too, and some of us graduated from basic training at the same time, and our folks traveled together to the naval base in Great Lakes, Ill., for our graduations,” said Williams.

“I am a shell back, that is what they call a sailor who sailed across the equator. Before the ship passes the equator they hold an initiation for all the pollywogs, that is what they call you before you cross the equator. They stopped the ship and lined us all up on deck and made us take our clothes off and put our underwear on backwards then we had to get down and crawl to the upper deck to meet the royal family. If you didn’t crawl fast enough they would whip your butt with a short hunk of hose. When you got to the upper deck there was King Neptune, the queen and then the royal baby, who was the ship’s cook – he had this big fat belly that was smeared with mayonnaise and mustard. You were supposed to crawl up to the royal baby and kiss his belly, but when you got close enough to kiss his big belly, he would grab your head and squish your face into his belly. Your face was full of mustard and mayonnaise, in your eyes and nose. You crawled away from him and crawled to the royal doctor, who told you to open your mouth so he can check your tonsils ,and he would squirt a bunch of hot sauce in your mouth. Then there was the royal barber, and he would crack an egg on your head and rub it all over. Then you had to crawl back down to the lower deck and crawl through the garbage shoot that was full of garbage they had been saving for a few days. Then there was a big tub of water. They made you lean over the tub, and they would dunk your head under, and when you came up they would ask you what you were, and you were supposed to say shell back. I remember one guy that was so shook up from the initiation he kept saying he was a pollywog, and they just kept dunking him. They dunked him five or six times. I thought they were going to drown him, and then finally, he figured out to say he was a shell back,” said Williams.

While on the USS Monnsen, Don was in the engine room, and Joe was in the boiler room. One of the biggest jobs of the engine room was to make fresh water from the salt water.  There were a lot of big pumps to bring the water in and take it through the purification system. In the boiler room there were three big wheels on a panel and gauges they had to watch and open valves to increase the speed of the ship when needed. Joe had scars on his legs from a time when something burst in the boiler room, and the steam escaping burned him. They had to be careful to not let smoke go up the smoke stack or the captain would be on them because smoke would make the ship too easy to be spotted by the enemy.

“We were in the middle of the Lebanon Crisis, and we always traveled as a fleet of 15 to 20 ships, with carriers, tenders and battleships. The destroyers and destroyer escorts always stayed on the outside of the fleet to protect the other ships. They were built to block the torpedoes and depth charges.

I remember one day when we took off full blast and separated from the fleet. We traveled for two days, and we (the crew) had no idea where we were going or why. Then all of a sudden we felt the ship tipping on its side as we turned and headed back to the fleet. Later the captain told us that he was fine with taking on a sub, but there was no way he was taking on five enemy subs. We had no idea how much danger we were in,” said Williams.

Though Don never suffered from sea sickness, he recalls the waves being so high they would not be able to see the carrier they were sailing right next to. The destroyer would ride a big wave and the crew would be looking down on the ships they were escorting.

“One time were in in Cape Hatteris and were sent to help a Greek cargo that had been torpedoed and sank. It was us, a sister ship and two coast guard ships that were sent to help. The water was so rough the ships were making 90 degree rolls. Men on deck tied themselves off so they wouldn’t be washed over. We were trying to pick up bodies. After two days we found 18 bodies. They all had life jackets on, but there were only two that survived. The rest were white from the salt, wind and cold. We had to tie the bodies to the upper deck, or they would have rolled right off the deck. We tried to get one guy that was a little skittish to go up and check on the bodies, but he refused. He was too scared. They looked pretty bad all white like they were. One man dove off the deck and disappeared, we had no idea where he was, the ship rolled and he ended up going all the way under the ship and came up in the other side, he had a pretty wild ride,” said Williams.

During Don’s four year hitch in the Navy he visited locations around the world such as: The Rock of Gibraltar, Barcelona Spain, Cannes France, Naples Italy, Island of Crete, Lebanon, Turkey, Athens, Greece, Cuba, and Jamaica. Along with three or four ports in South America and US spots which include Newport New York and Jacksonville.

Don has always treasured his Navy days and has enjoyed sharing stories about the many experiences he had but the memories have become even more important since the death of his older brother, Joe, who passed away in March of 2014. Don and several family members traveled to Mt. Vernon, Missouri to attend Joe’s memorial service.

That trip to Missouri offered Don an opportunity to become acquainted with his brother Joe’s eight-year-old grandson, Jason Williams. For the first five years of his life, Jason spent every day with his grandfather who he fondly nick named, Papa. Joe became the primary male influence in Jason’s world. Jason was very sad at the time of the memorial service for Papa and was drawn to his great uncle Don. Jason became fascinated with Uncle Don’s legionnaire hat which was decorated with many pins that represent the United States and military events that Don has collected over the years.

Jason asked many questions about what each pin meant and soon Don was moved to remove a pin and give it to Jason and let him wear the hat. Those attending the service were moved and smiles replaced tears as the little boy walked around with his chest puffed out in pride. In a short time Jason was the happy recipient of a second pin as he sat on Don’s lap and asked question about being on the big ships and what Papa had done in the navy.

Not long after returning home to Lynd, Minnesota Don received a letter from Little Jason saying; Dear Uncle Don, I know you are sad because Papa died but do you remember you and Papa riding a ship together. Please write sometime. Jason. This letter also contained a picture of a ship that Jason had drawn for his Uncle Don.

This sweet note prompted Don the purchase another pin and mail it to Jason which prompted yet another letter from Jason saying; Dear Uncle Don. What did you do on the ship with Papa in the navy? Do men have guns in the navy? Did you have a gun? Do you know what Papa did in the navy? Do the navy people have cannons?  From Jason to Uncle Don.

“After that letter I went and bought him another pin, a sailor hat so he would have something to pin the pins on and wear and a flag to send him, I put them all in a cylinder and mailed them to him. I think it is pretty cool that he wants to learn more about what Papa and I did on the ships and he seems to be reaching out to me, I am sure he misses Joe a lot,” said Don.

Don’s own grandchildren live in Arizona and he doesn’t get to see them as often as he would like to so the friendship Jason seems to be looking for is giving Don a good feeling and offers him the opportunity to instill the importance of pride in our country in a very young man.

Jason seems determined to keep this special long distance friendship going as Don recently received a gift that Jason picked out for him at Disneyland and sent it with yet another letter which reads like this;

Dear Uncle Don, I know you miss Papa too but here is a present for you from Florida and Disney World to thank you for the hat to put my pins on and the flag. I hung my flag on the end of my bed. I am giving you this pin to replace the pins you gave me. I picked this pin because it reminded me of you and Papa in the navy together.

I am playing baseball and going to basketball camp.

My favorite character at Disney was Soccer Mickey, my favorite ride was Splash Mountain and my favorite show was Fantasmic. What are you doing this summer?

I love you, Jason.

The pin Jason had picked for his Uncle Don is two Disney chipmunks together, wearing Uncle Sam hats and waving flags.  It is apparent love can reach across miles and generations.

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