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The Sailor That Couldn't Swim

By Michael R. Reilly 

Last Updated: 12/29/2010

    My father, Robert E. Reilly, served in the Navy during World War II, but before I can tell you about his Navy experiences, I have to regress to events that occurred the year prior to his enlistment.

    About nine months before his Navy life began, Robert, or Bob as he preferred to be called, ran away from his parents home on Water Street in Menomonee Falls. Times were tough in the Spring of 1942, rationing was in effect,  and Bob's parents were especially demanding of their children. He and a close friend, Allan Sturm, hitched rides on trains heading West to seek a better life. But in those days of war, the trains were heavily guarded for they carried the supplies vital to the war effort. Bob was only 16 years old and Allan about 18 when they encountered the guards and special security on and around those trains when they stopped in towns and cities along the way west. They were chased by the police and guards in many rail yard, ducking and rolling under the box cars to escape them. They were escorted out of towns and told not to be seen again. Dad said he practically walked across Texas.

    They finally made it to Yuma, Arizona where Allan had an uncle in the hotel business, he was sure the uncle would give them both jobs. Instead he gave them each a quarter and pointed to the railroad tracks that led out of town back to home. Both of them had suffered the cold, suffered hungry, and had been accosted by railroad detectives and hobos. They had had enough. He was broke, felt bad, was scared and there was very little he could do about the situation he was in.

    There was little traffic on the road then because of the gasoline rationing that was in force but between hitchhiking and hopping freight trains again they both managed to make it back to the Falls. But life hadn't changed there during the months the two of them had been gone and Bob had to run away again, but this time to the Navy.

    Bob turned 17 years old on December 27, 1942 and on January 3, 1943, all 117 pounds of him was on the way to Great Lakes Naval Station. He had no money and the first payday was slow in coming to the new enlistee. To earn a little money until it came, he washed other men's laundry in a pail that was provided for just that reason. With it he was able to treat himself to an occasional candy bar from Ship's Stores.

    He spent one month in boot camp at Great Lakes during which time he was asked to choose what type of position he wanted to pursue. His first selection was Yeoman, for he had learned typing and clerking during the short time he was in high school. The second choice was Ship's Cook. Dad had worked various jobs at Held's Cafe & Bowling Alley (picture to right-->) including short order cook when he wasn't setting pins. Held's was near the corner of present day Main St. and Appleton Ave. in Menomonee Falls. As soon as they saw his cooking experience (which also included flipping burgers at a truck stop/whorehouse in Independence, Missouri when he was coming back from Arizona) they shipped him off to Cooks & Bakers School in Jacksonville, Florida after Boot camp. After three months of training he came out with an additional stripe besides the regular seaman's stripe. He said this was the equivalent of 4 stripes in the army.

    When he was asked what kind of ship he wanted to serve on, his immediate reply was a sub for the extra pay. Sorry, they said, but we have enough men for submarine duty so you're going to serve on a destroyer escort. Dad learned quickly that the Navy did ask you first, but then told you what you were going to do. He went to Norfolk, Virginia for destroyer escort duty on board the U.S.S. Henry R. Kenyon DE-683 which had been newly commissioned on November 30, 1943 out of Charleston Navy Yard.

   In the Navy all sailors were expected to learn how to swim. Now Dad had a fear of the water that had developed when he was a youngster living in a cottage on Pewaukee Lake near his Granny Tibbets house. The children were not allowed in the lake by their parents and could only sit on the pier with their feet in the water. One day too much goofing around led to him falling into the water, where he would have drowned if his father hadn't yanked him out. In training the men first waded around in the shallows and then were told to go to the deep end and jump in. Dad wouldn't have anything to do with it, and told the instructor that if he tried to push him in he would get a grip on him and he was going to go in with him. Dad was a scrapper from way back and the instructor decided not to pursue the issue with him. To the day he died, he never learned how to swim. 

    One thing Dad told me about being on a ship was if anyone challenged you, it was your duty to put on the boxing gloves and go out to the fantail and fight. Knowing Dad, he probably made that trip on many an occasion.

    From January 29 to May 30th of 1944 the DE-683 sailed in the Caribbean Sea area until it was ordered to the North Atlantic. In the North Sea the ship had several "encounters" with German submarines. While on leave in Glasgow, Scotland, Dad met a pretty Scottish girl that took a liking to him and wrote to him during and after the war. I'm glad he didn't have her come to the U.S. as she wanted.

    The ship also made an excursion to the Mediterranean Sea and saw action in North Africa. They had been in the Atlantic for almost a year when on April 20, 1945 they were ordered to the Pacific Theater.

    On May 26, 1945 they made a stop at Galapagos Island after sailing through the Panama Canal before heading to the Philippines. They took a route that led them through most of the South Pacific island groups that had been the scene of much fighting only months before. They survived a typhoon in the Philippine Sea on July 25,1945 that sunk an accompanying ship, the Underhill.

    Between August 6 and 7th, 1945, they came under Japanese air attacks northeast of Formosa (Taiwan). After the Japanese surrender the ship was ordered to Japan where the sailors where allowed to go ashore for leave. Dad brought home a number of souvenirs, Japanese dolls, fans, and the like but unfortunately he never saved anything for very long and he eventually tossed them out along with his uniform. The Kenyon remained off Japan for the week of October 7 to the 15th and then was ordered to steam for the U.S., along the way they strung up a huge banner from the mast to the stern proclaiming they were "HOMEWARD BOUND". On December 17, 1945 they entered the Navy Yard in San Diego. All together the U.S.S. Henry R. Kenyon DE-683 steamed 123,166 nautical miles during its tour of duty and Dad had spent nearly two and a half years aboard her.

    Dad was granted shore leave and he decided to return home to celebrate Christmas and New Year's. He was coming out of Leo Hagen's (the current DUGOUT) in Lannon one night after the area had been hit by a big snow storm and jumped over a 3 foot snow bank to get to the street. He slipped and fell on his backside (this happened only two doors away from where his future wife Marie Miller lived with her parents). He had done something serious to his tailbone but had to report back to the ship in San Diego.

    With his backside swollen, he boarded a troop train heading west. A soldier seeing the pain he was in, offered his trunk to him to allow him to stretch out across it and the seat since he couldn't sit upright. Within a 1/2 hour after reporting back to the ship, he was on his way to the Naval Hospital. There they found a cyst on the tailbone and to treat it, they cut away chunks of his buttocks to reveal it. They then scraped the tailbone on and off until they got all of the infection. He would sit for hours in a water filled tank to irrigate it, keeping away returning infection. Dad spent 10 days to two weeks in the hospital and was then given his discharge papers from the Kenyon.

    Another troop train returned him to Great Lakes and along the way he was allowed to keep his sleeper down all the time because of his condition. During his tour of duty, Dad had faithfully sent home most of his paycheck to his parents for their use, and he only had about $30 to his name. One night on the train, he was walking around in his shorts and came upon a craps game going on attended by soldiers and some black porters. He was let into the game and as he put it, the dice were hot. He stuffed over $300 dollars in his shorts and left the game before the other players thought he was cheating.

    After getting his mustering out papers and pay at Great Lakes he bought himself some decent clothing from his winnings, the first he'd ever had. Dad had been in the Navy for three years, three months ,and 6 days. He then went back to Menomonee Falls and helped he father set up a power transmission equipment parts store on Third Street in Milwaukee, across from the Journal building. That involvement only lasted several months and he was again off on his own to "discover" himself. That lasted until he met my mother.


This is for my father. Little did I know when I was taping an interview with him (to learn more about my mother's life, and his), that five weeks later, he was going to die following an operation to remove a brain tumor that no one knew he had.

Robert E. Reilly c. early 1990's


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