Oldest living island veteran shares lifetime of memories
West, Jamestown’s oldest living veteran, spent 34 months in the Army during World War II in places like New Guinea, the Philippines and Japan, but it was the trip home from Japan aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, after the war was over, that was his most memorable.
West was born in Jamestown in 1915 and lived on Old North Road, Narragansett Avenue and Cole Street before settling in his house on Greene Lane in 1940.
“Things were a lot different back then,” West said. “We walked everywhere. There were very few cars on the island.”
He did not attend kindergarten, but started first grade at the Carr School in 1921. “In 1925, I went to the Clarke School, which is where the library is now. We didn’t take a bus, we walked from Cole Street even in the winter in the snow. And, we didn’t miss very many days either,” he said.
After completing the Clarke School, West rode the ferry to Newport, where he attended Rogers High School for two years. “My dad was a machinist who worked at the torpedo station. After two years at the high school, he told me he had supported me long enough, so I joined the CCCs,” he said.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was a public work relief program started during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. It focused on natural resource conservation, and in the fall of 1933, the program took West to Vermont.
“In March of 1934, I returned to Jamestown to caddy at the golf course on Beavertail for the summer,” he said. When the course closed in the fall, he reunited with the CCC in Plymouth, Vermont.
and ocean breeze”
About a year later, West climbed aboard a Pullman train car and traveled through 32 states to Tillamook, Ore. “We called it the land of cheese, trees and ocean breeze,” he said. “We built log cabins for the hunters, made roads and saw trees like I had never seen before. There were Douglas Fir trees that were 12 feet in diameter and 400-feet tall.”
West said his salary was $30 a month, but by CCC rules, $25 of it had to be sent home to his family. “We had $5 a month to live on, but I was very good with the money and I usually had about 50 cents left at the end of the month,” he said.
When he returned home from Oregon the next summer, he got a job with Sam and Jack Smith, who operated greenhouses on Clinton Avenue, and he did not rejoin the CCC.
“I worked at those greenhouses until the great hurricane in 1938. When that came through, the glass from one of the greenhouses blew out and smashed through the other two, so all three greenhouses were ruined,” West said.
There was so much clean up work to be done after the hurricane that West was able to work as a self-employed carpenter until he was inducted into the Army in 1943.
During that time, he met and married Alberta McNair, to whom he was married for 56 years.
“Because I was married and had an adopted daughter, I didn’t sign up for the military at the start of World War II. I waited to see what would happen and they did induct me into the Army in 1943,” West said. “I was inducted at Camp Devins, Mass. and did my training at Fort Belvoir, Va.”
West said he was fortunate that his military specialty remained carpentry. “A lot of the carpenters ended up with ratings as cooks and bakers,” he said.
Basic training was serious, he said, but was a good new experience for him. “It was fantastic. We had an interesting time to learn and be taught and I was even able to teach some of the other recruits with the skills I already had.”
His first stop after leaving basic training was New Guinea, where he helped build a recreation center. “It was so hot there. The Dutch had control of the area at the time, so the conditions were interesting. There were a lot of Pygmies around,” he said.
He then reported to the Philippines to restore a radio tower. “We put up a 192-foot tower. I had seven Filipinos working for me and we basically built the supports for the tower and then raised it from the ground,” he said. “While I was there, we also built latrines for the officers and additions onto some offices.”
He said the construction he encountered in the South Pacific was different than he was used to. “Everything was built of plywood and they didn’t use partitions like we did here.”
An honorary sailor
The war ended while West was in the Philippines, but instead of going directly to the U.S., he was sent to Japan for three months to await transportation home.
“There was one place in Japan in the Ginza area that would make you swear you were in Boston. It was so similar with the cobblestone streets and everything,” he said.
After three months, West boarded the USS Intrepid, bound for San Francisco. “It was beautiful because I was a sailor for 13 days,” he said. “There was a Calvary captain that was supposed to be in charge of us on the ship, but after I was onboard, a Navy guy told me to follow him. So I ate, worked and slept with the crew for 13 days and it was the best time.”
When West disembarked from the ship in San Francisco, the Calvary captain found him and asked where he had been. After he told the captain where he had been, the captain said he should court marshal him. “I don’t know where he thought I was. We were on a ship. I couldn’t go very far. I think he was just mad because I had all the Army guys laughing about my adventures as a sailor,” he said.
West returned home to Rhode Island with that memory and went back to work in the construction business.
These days, he still keeps busy mowing lawns, fixing gutters, trimming hedges and keeping up with his six grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
“And, when I don’t feel like doing any of that, I sit in my chair in front of my house and wave as people go by,” he said.