DeGhetto, Kenneth ’43

DeGhetto, Ken, Interview at USMMA , February 12, 2004

I graduated high school from Clifton High in June of 1941. My brother was older by a year and a half. He was already in the Air Force. That again is an interesting story , which maybe I’ll bring out in the discuss ion.

I wanted to join the Navy, but I needed a parent’s consent because I was only 17. My father said , ‘Til tell you what. They’re giving the examinations at the high school for Annapolis . If you take them, and do not get in, I’ll sign the papers, and let you get in the Navy”. So I took the exam , and a couple of months later, lo and behold , I get notification I’ve been accepted to the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point. I’d never heard of it.

I was 17 years old and in those days had to wait until I was 18 before I could enter Kings Point. I turned 18 on April 1, 1942 and was sworn in at Kings Point on May 1, 1942. When the war started on December 8, 1941 they had changed the four year Kings Point course which included one year of sea duty to 18 months and a minimum of 6 months of sea duty . When we arrived there , in my recollection –of course , we slept in what I always used to think was Quonset huts, but it really wasn’t. When I saw McCready’s films , I realized they were the old CCC camp housing that we slept in, and had classes in. The glass house that they had on the campus there was the greenhouse . They made that into the head — painted the windows — and the showers . And about the only thing we learned there , we did go to class. We learned how to put a uniform on; learned how to take a few orders ; didn’t have any athletics. And after about two and a half or so months, I think it was maybe the first part of July , we were assigned ships .

I was assigned to the S.S. Hegira, which had a reciprocating steam engine . I was an Engine Cadet, as we were called in those days . The Hegira was in New York Harbor. I found out it was built in 1915. Sherwood (Woody) Schwartz a Deck Cadet was assigned to me, Woody lived on Long Island, but now Florida. Hell of a nice guy . We were together again at our sixtieth anniversary . We shared a room on the upper deck . I recall now, we were supposed to keep a daily log. We had a project to complete during our sea duty. I must admit I don’t remember what it was, but obviously it was something to do with the engine room.

We joined up a convoy out in the harbor, and we stopped , I believe, in Halifax as well to increase the convoy . We then made to Glasgow , Scotland with war supplies. Loaded not only in the holds, but also I remember jeeps, and so forth, on deck. Almost daily you would have a submarine scare or attack. And if a ship dropped out because it had engine trouble– which we did on one occasion , for a couple hours– it usually got torpedoed in the summer of ’42. So, to arrived in Scotland ; keeping the engines going was a really good idea. It was interesting how we used the reciprocating engines as clothes washing machine– you know, on a reciprocating engine you have big rocker arms on it. So they had brought on board a big milk can. We tied on to one of the rocker arms a rope down with a little plunger on it. We put our clothes into the milk can with soap and water . When the engines were running, it would be going up and down washing , just like they do on a regular washing machine.

Fortunately, we made it to Glasgow. And as the ship was offloaded , they were loading, believe it or not 80,000 cases of scotch whiskey to bring back to the States . Woody and I, both smoked in those days . Fortunately , I gave it up in 1946. However, for a pack of American cigarettes , the longshoremen opened up a case, and they ‘d give you a bottle of scotch. We each got one, we went ashore , and got stoned out of our mind. To this day, I can’t drink scotch , believe it or not. It wasn’t only do to the drinking , because on the way back we hit very heavy seas, and some of the cases broke open, and one of the many the job I had was pumping the bilges. I would get this scotch smell.

We returned to the States but then we went back on the ship again, and made up a convoy , and went on to Casablanca . Obviously , when we left, we didn’t know where the heck we were going, or that they even were contemplating an invasion. But we were there right after the invasion . Again, if you read the reports you’ll see running into submarine attacks and so forth. When we arrived in the harbor at Casablanca , which was shortly after the invasion, there was the Jean Bart, which was a big, French battleship that they had scuttled in the harbor. Still the superstructure was above the water level , and it was sitting on the ground. We docked and offloaded . And one night, New Year ‘s Eve 1942 to ’43, German bombers came over . The first experience I had with an air attack . Believe it or not, when you’re young it’s rather exciting . You’re out there absolutely yelling , you know , “Hit them, hit them, hit them !” with all the search lights on them, because it was at night. Then pretty soon the shrapnel from the five-inch guns as they exploded would come down and start hitting the deck . We didn’t have helmets, or anything . So we immediately had to run under cover .

All that iron shells they’re throwing up there has to come back down . You know, when you’re young you don’t think of that. Fortunately, nobody got hit in the head. Then we came back , right back in New York Harbor . And almost six months to the day, we were very fortunate , because a lot of the guys, as you know , would go around the Horn of Africa , and not get back for a year , or two years, a year and a half, I mean. At the time we arrived back , they didn’t have any bedrooms out at Kings Point for us. This was the middle of January in my recollection . The Emory Rice was tied up in the Battery downtown , and we were assigned to that temporarily . I was shoveling coal, because they had coal-fired boilers to keep heat. We slept in hammocks. And that lasted about two weeks ,and then they had room out there . We were assigned to Barry Hall, which was , I guess, one of the very first ones that was built. Quite a big change from when we had left the place. I mean, they did some super job there ; O’Hara Hall comes to mind. And obviously , the construction was pretty good, because they’re still standing , you know.

We then studied . Basically, we studied for our license. We didn’t digress into anything other than , in our case, to get your Third Assistant Marine Engineer’s license. We were there for about eight months.

We then sat for our license. I was then activated by the Navy in September of ’43 , and I was sworn in as an Ensign in October of 1943. I was 19 1/2 years old . Yet we still won the war.  I was obviously a little bit upset because the big money was being in the Merchant Marine, as opposed to being in the Navy, but on the other hand, as I was later to benefit from my Navy service to be able to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) under the Gl Bill and receive my BME degree .

I was sworn in as an Ensign in New York , Pine Street. I was then assigned to the USS Cimarron , AO 22, a fleet oiler. Interesting ; if you go to the museum , you’ll see the Cimarron ; the SS Cimarron was built for Exxon in 1939. It was never put in maritime service . The Navy activated it as a Navy ship , and it was the class ship for fleet oilers in the Pacific . And we were very heavily armed . We had four five-inch guns, two in turrets. We also had about 6 twenty 20 millimeters , and four 40 millimeters gun mounts. We shot one Japanese plane down in the war. I was in seven (7) major battles and have seven battle stars on my Pacific ribbon. I sent the history of the ship to the museum. I’m not sure what they did with it. But the Cimarron received twelve battle stars for twelve separate engagements . I was division officer; first “A” , then “B” , then “M” division officer.

Reflecting on my experience at Kings Point, it really taught me the value of an education and this value was enhanced by my Navy experience. I knew when I left the Navy I needed to continue my education in the field of Engineering On board the Hegira, they had an old Scottish Chief Engineer came out of retirement and back to sea, because they needed everybody . He used to call me his “Gadget”. He took me down one time . We were in the engine room. He said, “Look, I’m going to show you how to repair this pump. He would ask “Do you know what this is”??” I said , “Yeah , I know what that is.” He said, “Look , when a guy like me with my experience , I ask you something , you should never say you know it. Just listen. You may just learn something that you don’t know when you think you do.” It’s a lesson I never forgot, by the way .

Anyway , with that experience I now get aboard the USS Cimarron, built in 1939. They always had a problem with the midship oil transfer pump , for transferring the fuel oil from the tanker to the destroyers , cruisers battleships , or Aircraft Carriers , the midships transfer pump would breakdown . Now I’m “A” division officer . I’m 19 years old; 19 and six months old,. As “A” division officer , I had a first class Machinist Mate in charge of the Enlisted men assigned to the “A” division . During the next fueling operation , the midships pump broke down . I went down with my Machinist Mate, and believe it or not, once we dissembled the steam piston section , I immediately found , that one of the piston rings would keep turning, and when it got to where the split was in the steam port, it would snap into the port. And when the piston down it cracked it the top head off. I said, “Look , all you have to do is put a pin in the body of the piston head . Make the hole in the ring bigger so that it can’t move up and down, but not rotate.” They did that, and never had a problem . Now my respect on that ship went up at that time . It was something I learned having been at sea in Kings Point, you know, on a merchant ship .

I later was transferred to the boilers, and became a “B” division officer . Some time at that point I was promoted to Lieutenant (jg); then I was “M” Division Officer , for the main engine rooms. We used to travel right in the middle of the fleet, because they didn’t have enough screens or anything , and just before we went into the battles they would refuel all the ships, and then just stay offshore a little bit while there were engagements on landings . It was a great experience. I came after Okinawa , we were at Okinawa twice. We went there the first time , fueled the ships, then went back and fueled them . To Ulithi I think to pick up more crew, and more gasoline and diesel , and bunker C; we fueled them again. We were in suicide attacks quite frequently, and again, we were on twenty-four hours on– I mean four hours on, four hours off around the clock when we were under attack.

When I’d come up from the engine room , during a the suicide attack , it was like a game. You know, you’re there yelling, “Hit him, hit him, hit him!” I still get that bit of a thrill when I’m watching a movie today when there’s a suicide airplane attack ; I’ve just got that feeling “Hit him!” even though it was a movie.

The kamikazes they were really ship threatening . You knew they were out to kill themselves . In fact , very interesting; one of them crashed , and the pilot didn’t die. He was picked up by a destroyer , and they put him aboard the Cimarron during a operation, they transferred him to our ship. He was a young kid. He couldn’t have been more than 15 years old . He was scared to death. Being an officer , I could go down and look at him in the brig. And then we transferred him to one of the carriers for , I guess , interrogation , etc.

I’d never held anything against the Japanese. Years after the war ended, one of my Japanese colleagues who served aboard a Japanese Navy Ship during WW 11, said to me “Look , we did what our bosses told us to do. He was right. I did the same thing .

In the battle of the Carolina Islands, our ship was damaged and in late October 1944 we returned to the San Pedro Navy Yard for repairs. Anybody who lived east of the Mississippi got the first 15-day leave, and anybody west got the second 15 days . Since we had been in war zones we had priority to fly back on the DC-3, which I did . We came into what is now LaGuardia ; my parents picked me up with my girlfriend Helen, in the back seat. I’d been at sea for almost 14 months. We were sitting in the back seat going back to Clifton, New Jersey . Helen had just turned 20 . I was 20 and I asked her to marry me. She said yes and on November 5, 1944 we were married . No one thought it would last. I took her back to California on the train. We came into San Pedro while the second half of the ship when on their leave. I’d go to the ship during the day, but at night I’d come back to the hotel and went out with our fellow officers with their wives. And one night we didn’t come back. We went back out to sea. I always said to her, “You know I loved you : I bought you a return trip ticket on the train.” . Helen had never been out of New Jersey .

Shortly after returning to the USS Cimarron somewhere in the South Pacific, a radio message was received by the ship from the Red Cross informing me that my brother Robert, who was a tail gunner on a B-17 flying out of England, was a German prisoner of war . Many of my shipmates were wondering why I was so happy with receiving this news. as nine months before, I had received word that my brother had been shot down and was missing in action . My brother Bob survived , arrived home and he became a Mechanical Engineer at Michigan Tech.

After Okinawa was secured I was sent back to put a new ship in commission which was being built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard , the USS Taconic which was a communication command ship . I was Assistant Engineering Officer on it, the number two in command of the engineering department. I took the crew up to Newport, Rhode Island for training because a lot of them were young and new and hadn’t been to sea . My wife , of course , was with me in those days . While we were at Newport the war with Japan ended .

I wanted to stay in the Navy; I really liked going to sea. I had applied fo r regular Navy even though I had enough points to get out. The Chief Engineer, he got out and I became Engineering Officer; a full Lieutenant , 22 years old. While the ship was being built in Brooklyn Navy Yard I was living at home in New Jersey , and commuting every day . Then it was commissioned . I took it out on a shake down cruise , and we were gone for about 10 – 12 weeks out at sea making sure everything functioned properly on the ship. Then we came back into Norfolk , and I said, “This isn’t the life of a married guy, going back out to sea again.” So I got out of the Navy.

I guess they wanted to keep me, because they kept sending me registered letters, “Stay in,” you know. But I decided that I wanted to get an education . This was in March/April of ’46 , when all the Gls had already come back ; all the universities were pretty full. But New York State had started what ‘s now called SUNY. So I applied there , and I got into the one up at Samson, it was called, at the old Navy base on Lake Seneca . And it was a two-year course. As I say, I wasn’t a very good student in high school, but now I’m married , and I really wanted to go to college .

After completing my first two years of study at Samson , I transferred to RPI and graduated No. 3 from the top in June of 1950. My daughter was born in my last year at RPI and after graduation I wanted to go on for my Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering but needed a job . I went to work for North American Aviation on a very secret project for the design of the nuclear powered air craft specifications Mach 3 at 100,000 feet. I helped design the heat exchanger which was located in the front part of the engine transferring the heat from the sodium direct from the reactor and the air stream in place of fuel. I was going to Cal Tech at night for my Doctorate. We went on to build a test engine and then simulated a crash and the radiation spread all over and that was the end of the nuclear powered aircraft. I then came to Foster Wheeler in the Refining Division and eventually retired as Chairman of the Corporate Board of Directors.


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