Paul V. French
Charter member of
America's Greatest Generation
--- Like the proud ship he’d served, on May 28, 1977, my father, Paul V. French, LCDR, USN, Retired, slipped away beneath the waves. Each of them had lived hard, dedicated lives. Each of them had served their country with selfless sacrifice. Separated for years they were once again reunited in their common resting-place, the sea.
I was born in 1954, at Portsmouth Naval Hospital, VA, near the end of my fathers’ naval career. He was transferred shortly thereafter to the naval base at Key West, FL. I was surrounded by mementos of naval history there. We lived in an old ‘conch’ house off base, one with a cistern in the backyard. My early years are full of memories of beaches, coconut palms and ships. I played in a playground that had a turret from the battleship Maine and the entrance at the base displayed a Japanese mini-sub captured at Pearl Harbor. The movie Operation Petticoat was filmed while we lived there. I remember seeing mock Zeroes flying overhead while we were at the beach. My mom still has an ashtray from the real submarine used in the movie, the USS Balao (SS 285). My father took me aboard some of the ships and submarines there. I remember the bright yellow color tips of the torpedoes I saw on a submarine. He also took us to the Naval Air Station so we could watch the dirigibles and Navy jets flying.
My mom tells me that when I was very young I said I wanted to be a Navy pilot. Perhaps that is why my father encouraged my model building. Together we painted and built beautiful models of the clipper ship Cutty Sark and the HMS Victory. They were followed by scores of others; destroyers, submarines, battleships, and airplanes. My fascination with war made me want to know more about my father’s involvement in W.W.II. I knew he had been in the Navy on a battleship, but that was about it. It wasn’t until Junior High, when I had to do a term paper that I began to find out a bit more about my father’s career in the Navy. I needed to do a paper on an important event so I thought I’d do it on a battle my father’s battleship was in, the Battle of Surigao Strait. That’s how I began to learn about my father’s life aboard the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38).
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, my father was in Washington, D.C., attending Fire Control School. My mom was cooking breakfast while he was dressing. What they heard that morning on the radio suddenly changed everything. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The report was sketchy but several battleships were said to have been sunk. Dad left for Pearl as soon as he could. His ship, the USS Pennsylvania had been in dry-dock and had miraculously escaped the fate meted out on the rest of ‘battleship row’. The United States was now at War. My parents parted the following February uncertain of if or when they would see each other again.
This wouldn’t be the first battle my father had been in. For him, life itself had been a battle. His ‘old man’ was a drunk who used his mom as a punching bag. Sometimes he took the hits instead of his mom. It was a tough life. Times were hard for just about everybody then, they were in the Depression years. My father had to grow up fast and tough. One of the joys of his life though was the time he spent at the swimming hole and around town with his girlfriend, Myrtle, my mom.
He ended up flunking out his senior year in High School. With the troubles at home, High School was the least of his concerns. He wouldn’t take guff from his folks much less a teacher. Once he picked up a teacher he found particularly annoying and stuffed him into a wastepaper can. He also had difficulty staying focused on his studies. Some things just took more of his attention than others did. For example, he used to just stare at a rather large-chested English teacher who simply threw him out of her class every day. After school he worked for a time as a Texaco gas station attendant.
Finally, the ‘old man’ beat up on his mom one too many times. One day my father grabbed a gun and threatened to shoot him, but his Mom begged him not too. After that, he couldn’t stay there anymore, so in 1937, he left home and enlisted in the Navy. It was then that he discovered that his name wasn’t what he’d thought it had been. The man he’d nearly killed was his stepfather! His natural father’s real name had been Vincent, so from that day forward my father became known as
Paul Vincent French. He was assigned that same year to the USS Pennsylvania and served on her until her scuttling off Kwajeelien after the Atomic Bomb Tests at Bikini Atoll.
Those years at sea on the Pennsy demanded a lot from the men who sailed with her. The extended tours of duty meant wives went sometimes months and years hoping for some word or news about their husbands. My father spent the entire war in the Pacific. My mom, like many military wives, had to be patient and resourceful. They had married shortly after she completed nursing school. Now she, along with countless others, managed the homestead. She went for long periods of time not hearing any word from him. Any newspaper article mentioning the Pennsy would become a cherished keepsake. My father wrote my mom often but the mail couldn’t always get back stateside either because of the intensity of fighting or for security reasons. As a result, when he finally came home for good, he brought her a huge bundle of all the letters he had written her. Mom still has every one of those precious letters.
My father started out on the Pennsy wanting to be a pilot. The waiting list was so long that he took someone’s suggestion and started working his way up the chain of command. He advanced to the rating of Fire Controlman, Chief Fire Controlman, and Ensign. By the end of his service he’d made Lt. Comdr. He served in F Division as the Chief Fire Controlman in charge of the Pennsy’ anti-aircraft battery and supervised the overall operation and maintenance of the ship’s fire control equipment. It must have been a very noisy job that cost him some of his hearing. The family all knew that he was hard-of-hearing and my mom always blamed it to the Navy.
While doing my term paper on the Battle of Surigao Strait, my father and I talked some about the War and life on the Pennsy. Doing the research, I ended up reading a lot to try and find out what the Pennsy did. I read Vann Woodward’s The Battle For Leyte Gulf, Samuel Eliot Morrison’s The Two-Ocean War, and talked to my father. He helped confirm the disappointing details for me, the fact that the Pennsy never got to fire a salvo in that engagement. But he also told me some things that the books left out. He spoke of how worried they’d been by the recon reports. They didn’t have many armor-piercing shells to go up against the Japanese battleships. He said that while they were crossing that famous ‘T’, "they were scared shitless."
My father told me a couple of other things. One, that on the Pennsy they drank lots of coffee (consumed 258, 536 lbs. to be exact). They also ate a lot of potatoes. In studying the records from the Pennsy it’s clear to see that they definitely preferred real spuds to the dehydrated (1,542,122 lbs. vs. 69,918 lbs.). They must have eaten their food real fast too because Dad used to always finish his meals way before any of the rest of the family was even half through. My mom said it was a hold over habit he had acquired from the War. After studying I found that there were often times they went for days at a time at a high state of readiness watching for enemy planes. There must have been lots of meals never finished because of GQs (General Quarters). Small wonder he and lots of men like him ate fast when they could eat at all.
He also told me that after leaving one port a commandeered jeep was found onboard. Some of the enlisted men had five-fingered it for use while on Liberty. Since no one would claim it or acknowledge responsibility for it, an officer ordered it deep sixed. My father also shared with me a little about how discipline was handled onboard the ship. He told me that they dealt with a guy who was caught stealing once by slamming the culprit’s hand in a bulkhead door. It sure sounded like a deterrent to me.
He never told me about any of the horrible things that happened. Once though he did talk about how on one of their many bombardments, a Marine spotter was calling in a bombardment of their 14’’ shells practically on top of his position. That was unnerving when you think of how big a hole one of the Pennsy’ projectiles made. My mom told me of how my father narrowly escaped injury when they were torpedoed and nearly sunk off Okinawa. The way she told it, my father had just come up from below decks where the torpedo hit killing some men.
My father was present for the Atomic Bomb Tests at Bikini Atoll after W.W.II. The Pennsy was no longer considered useful for service and was designated along with many other unwanted ships as a target. True to her steadfast nature she weathered both blasts and remained afloat. Sometime during the testing my father collapsed and didn’t come around for about 3-4 days. It’s possible that this was the result of a heart attack that was never diagnosed. Years later, at his death doctors would comment that his heart showed signs of massive scar tissue, indicating that he had had earlier attacks none of us had know about.
Following the scuttling of the Pennsy my father served as Assistant Gunnery Officer and Fire Control Officer of the USS Pasadena (CL-65). He stayed on the Pasadena from late 1946 to the summer of 1949. He moved to Gunnery Officer on the USS Richard E. Kraus (DDE-849, formerly AG-151) and became Commander of a PCE for Naval Reserve Training. His last tour of duty was as Executive Officer of the USS Stormes (DD-780) involved in Atlantic anti-submarine warfare training.
In December of 1955, my father retired from the Navy after serving 20 years of sea duty. He remained active in naval developments through correspondence regarding veteran’s benefits and military affairs. He went to work for an insurance company that specialized in coverage for military personnel and their families. During his business trips he used to give rides to sailors he saw hitchhiking. He helped a young sailor one night make it back in time for the sailing of his submarine, the Thresher. He later regretted helping the sailor when we heard that the Thresher had been lost at sea. After that he stopped helping hitchhikers.
Once back on land, my father worked hard to provide for our family of six. He saw to it that mom never had to work and still managed to provide for all of our needs. Both he and mom saw to it that my brother, sisters, and I had a good home, always ate well, and studied hard in school. He felt strongly about the importance of an education. After the war he had gone back to his high school and completed the requirements for his diploma. He was very proud of that accomplishment. He even went to college and was just a few hours shy of a degree in physics and mathematics.
When he wasn’t selling life insurance, my father was writing. He wrote lots of letters. He sent those letters and articles to all kinds of magazines, especially military publications. He seemed to be always writing to somebody about the erosion of benefits to military personnel. He even produced some manuscripts based on his life experiences in the Navy. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to publish them, but he kept working trying to find an interested party to help him become a published author. I’ve inherited his manuscripts and hope to someday see one or more of them published. I owe him.
I learned from him the value of hard work and the reward that comes from honest effort. He encouraged me to speak up for what I believed in. I became somewhat of an activist because of him. When students at my junior high were protesting our involvement in Vietnam by wearing black armbands, I was wearing a red, white, and blue armband in support of the troops. In high school, I once wore a gas mask to classes to protest air pollution. My father was behind me all the way. He told me that the pen was mightier than the sword. Of all that he taught me, I value that most of all. When I won a statewide competition for a college scholarship with an essay I’d written, my father was there at the ceremony to see me meet the governor.
My father was always there for our family and me. He and Mom did countless things to guarantee we would have a better life than they were given. Their love and sacrifice are part of that vital social fabric that made our nation great and paved the way for our prosperity. I’m glad that both of them were able to see some of the fruits of their hard work. Now a father myself, I think of my father often. I hope that I can be even a fraction of the man that he was. If the need should ever arise that my country should need my service, I hope that I too will be able to give of myself as unselfishly as he did.
The years he had spent in the war and on the Pennsy were another life, one that he seldom talked about. He never talked much about it, even to my mom. Except for helping me on my term paper, he and I didn’t discuss the war much either. After all, I was a growing teenager; I was more interested in what he could tell me about dating. By the time I was old enough to really appreciate all he’d done I was out of high school and pretty much preoccupied with dating my future wife. In 1975, I got married and moved out. My Dad passed away suddenly two years later. Looking back, I wish that I had spent more time with him.
One of my fondest memories of my father is of him manning the tiller of our 20’ sailboat. I’m in the bow poised at the jib line. My mom is seated amidships, waiting to adjust the boom. I see his grinning face, those wide-rimmed sunglasses of his and his khaki cap. We’re happy, carefree and safe in the present. Life was not always this good. Everything that we know today was purchased for us all in a bloody past hopefully none of our generations’ children will ever have to know.
When I visit The Pennsy Web I see a part of that great drama that my parents played a role in. I see a great ship and a valiant crew. I feel pride and I think fondly of him. His burial at sea was a fitting gesture. Websites like The Pennsy Web help keep that memory alive.
Son of Lt. Cmdr. Paul V. French
ASIATIC PACIFIC THEATER RIBBON - 7 STARS
PHILIPPINES LIBERATION RIBBON- 2 STARS
WWII VICTORY MEDAL
AMERICAN DEFENSE RIBBON
The Battleship USS Pennsylvania BB-38