Varga, Frank ‘43
Some comments were extracted from Varga’s book, Popop’s War, 2004
Entrance to Pennsylvania State Nautical School was by competitive exam throughout the state. Varga took the exam in spring 1941 and was accepted with a group of 22 men for the June class. He had to pass a Naval Reserve physical exam in order to be sworn in as a Midshipman, USNR. His commission was signed by the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. The school was on board the former Coast Guard cutter Seneca, There were about 80 cadets in four classes, plus about 6 permanent crew members and about 8 officers. The cadets slept in hammocks that were made up every morning and stowed in netting. Frank has no fond memories as a 4th classman, a ‘boot’. Life as a ‘boot’ was miserable with physical hazing, insults and ignominy the norm. In February 1942 the Navy took the Seneca for use as a convoy escort. The cadets had lost their home. The decision was made to place all except the first class into the USMMA, the second class were to do independent study for their license and the third and fourth class were assigned to merchant ships for six months; each student on the spot had to decide to choose deck or engine; 14 chose engine and 8 deck.
The cadets were sent home until instructed as to their assignment. Frank went to the New York District Training Director who assigned him to the SS Henry S. Grove on the South African run. The other cadet was Denis Daly from Brooklyn who only made one trip with him. The chief mate John Wainwright, (son of General Jonathan M. Wainwright who was in a Japanese prison camp after the surrender of the Philippines) worked every angle to keep him on the ship and to train him; but after having been at sea as a cadet for 16 months rather than six, he was pulled off the ship and sent to the USMMMA as a ‘Special’. He was given two months to have closely monitored self study under the guidance of a nautical science prof who was transferred up from the Seneca. The prof made his life miserable following the tradition of the Seneca where instructors encouraged and at times participated in the ‘boot’ hazing. Frank noted that after a week of living at the Academy while taking the exam, he passed, was given the 3rd Mate license, an Ensign commission and was told he had graduated and to move out of quarters by 1700! So much for ceremony! About a year after the war, sometime in 1946 he received his diploma in the mail.
He went back to American-South African Line, the company that he served as a cadet and they offered him a job. Frank declined to sail with Wainwright who had been appointed Captain on a new ship as he reflected “never sail with an officer over you who knew you as a cadet because” Once a cadet—always a cadet”. Frank served on several ships during the war and raised his license to Chief Mate and served on the license on the Liberty ship SS Nicholas Gilman to South America; unfortunately with an alcoholic Norwegian Master (but that is another story!).