“We were so lucky,” said 88-year-old Walter Larsen, speaking of the crew of the USS Sperry — a Fulton-class submarine tender that Larsen served on from 1942 to 1944 in the South Pacific.
Larsen was a young shipyard worker at Bethlehem Steel in San Francisco when the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. “I wanted to enlist and do my duty, but the shipyard said, ‘no, I was needed.’” Larsen was helping to build destroyers for the U.S. Navy and was considered exempt from the draft.
“I decided to go in anyway,” said the Shingle Springs resident. “I was only 18 and I wanted to be on a destroyer.” Instead, the new seaman was assigned to the Sperry, a sub repair ship, because he could read blueprints. The Sperry was deployed from Pearl Harbor to places all over the South Pacific. Submarines in need of repair would anchor alongside and skilled crewmen would make any repairs needed. The Sperry crew also found ways to solve some common problems for the subs.
“We built tanks to hold rounds of six shells, two tanks on either side of the conning tower,” said Larsen. “Before we did that, they had to hand the shells from man to man from the bottom of the ship up to the guns.” Sperry crewmen also built wooden decks to go over the metal decks on the hull of submarines. “The metal decks were very slippery when they were wet and it wasn’t safe for the men to move about the deck,” he explained.
Larsen helped build camps on islands and atolls for the sub crews to rest. “They would be out for six months at a time, usually underwater,” said Larsen. “The subs would come in, all shot up. We never asked questions. They needed a place to rest, have fresh water.”
On Wake Island, Larsen said they built a desalinization plant, set up Quonset huts and built “scuttlebutts” — drinking fountains for fresh water — all over the island. “We could build almost anything on our ship. We even rolled the steel for the shell tanks and crafted the lids. We had welders, fitters, all kinds of workers on the crew.”
It wasn’t unusual to for Sperry’s crew to work 14-hour days.
The Sperry had a destroyer escort as it traveled and once, on their way to Brisbane, Australia, as the escort zigzagged behind them, the ship was directed to turn to port. “We turned and then a torpedo streaked past us, right where we had just been. That was our biggest scare,” said Larsen.
Life on land also brought its adventures. In Brisbane Larsen sampled a glass of rum. “I’d never tasted it before,” he said. The rum, served in a full 6-ounce glass, went down easy while he was talking to the bartender. “I kept talking and drinking and the next thing I knew I was waking up in my bunk aboard the ship, and I was strapped down,” he recalled. “I guess I had been walking in the middle of the tramway and the tram had to stop. The shore patrol picked me up. I was fighting them, so they strapped me down.”
While Larsen was on Wake Island, about 60 B-29 planes had to land. “They got all shot up preventing the Japanese from getting to Midway,” said Larsen. “Half of them had no tires and they belly-flopped on the runway like goonie birds.”
A fall from a wet ladder while checking a leaking hatch cover on a submarine dropped him on his back against the metal plates around the hatch. Larsen shrugged off the accident, but it left him with a life-long back problem and resulted in his medical discharge. “They couldn’t do anything for me and they didn’t want to fool with me,” said Larsen, adding that he did not want to be discharged.
After stints in a couple of hospitals, Larsen was released and went to work on a 100-foot private yacht with his uncle who was the captain. Then he married and went back to working in the shipyards. Larsen was a pile driver and carpenter for 37 years, building bridges and docks up and down the California and Oregon coastline.
He and his wife had five children and they moved to El Dorado County from the Bay Area in 1955 because his wife Patricia loved horses. “She wanted to have horses, so we bought almost seven acres and had horses and she was happy.” Larsen commuted to his jobs and he and Patricia both became members of the Latrobe School District Board of Trustees. “Our kids went to the Latrobe school and it’s a good school,” he said. “We were able to keep it independent and not part of Buckeye. That’s one of the best things I ever did.”
Patricia died in 1998 and Larsen now lives with friend and caregiver Marian Bray. “She’s saved my life,” said Larsen who has seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
On the weekend of Oct. 12-14, Larsen, his son Raymond and Raymond’s father-in-law went on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., to see the WWII Memorial. Honor Flight organizes free flights for veterans to the Washington memorials to honor them for their sacrifice. Veterans are accompanied by trained volunteer guardians who take care of the tickets and boarding procedures and escort them to the memorials.
Through his two sons who served their country as Marines from 2004-2008, Raymond Larsen heard about the Honor Flight program. “I sent in applications for my father, father-in-law Frank and a close friend of Frank’s.”
The friend passed away this summer before Walter Larsen received the phone call telling him that Honor Flight of Northern California was putting a flight together. Raymond accompanied his father and father-in-law as a guardian at his own cost. “It was well worth it,” Raymond said.
“It was a whirlwind weekend. There were about 100 people who sent us off and another big crowd that greeted us when we got to Washington,” said Walter. “A little girl about 2 years old grabbed my hand and kissed it. That made me cry.”
The 32 veterans and the guardians were met with a warm welcome and a water cannon salute from the fire department at Dulles Airport and welcomed back to San Francisco with another water cannon salute and joyous greetings from family, friends and other travelers. In addition to viewing the WWII Memorial and the Korean Memorials in Washington, the vets gathered together for a special dinner in which they introduced themselves and shared their war stories.
“For some it was the first time they talked about what they did,” said Raymond. “Also, for all of them, it was the first time they were singled out and given thanks for what they had done so many years ago. For this group I think they had a sense of closure in that chapter of their lives.”
“We didn’t do any fighting but we did a hell of a lot of work,” Walter said.
Raymond Larsen quoted Albert Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. ” He added, “Thank our veterans — they did something about it.”