Fred Trapp – The Torpedo Man

 

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Fred Trapp

World War II

U.S. Navy 2nd Class Torpedo

Puerto Rico/Stateside

Mr Fred felt like his service was not that important, but before I interviewed him, I made sure he realized that it took everyone’s contribution during the war to achieve victory.  As you will see, his presence in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico was more important than most realized at the time.  Here is his story:

Fullscreen capture 962017 43311 PM.bmpMy name is Fred Trapp and I was born in Malden, Massachusetts on September 15, 1924.  We moved to Braintree, Mass. which is fourteen miles south of Boston and I went to school there and all that business. It was time to graduate from high school.  Didn’t know what I was gonna do. Didn’t have the slightest idea, looking back on it.

One Sunday night sitting at the table listening to the radio in the living room and lo and behold, the war came about.  As you know that was December [1941], so in mid-January, I took off and went in to Boston and went to the Navy .  Somebody asked me the other day, “why the Navy” and I haven’t any idea why that came about.  But anyway, I went through a physical and whatever else they had to do, examine my teeth.  Anyway I was about to be sworn in in the afternoon, and somebody, I don’t know who, but somebody came in and said, “You’re seventeen!”  I said, ”Well, yes,” instead of lying and saying I was eighteen.  They didn’t require a birth certificate. It was my word.  They said, “Well your parents will have to sign.”  So we can’t swear you in.  We’ll send them the papers.  Well the papers didn’t come until Memorial Day!

Oh, wow!

And of course, at that moment, the “stuff” hit the fan because I had not told (my family) that I went in and signed the paper.

Oh my…

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Anyway, my mother said, “You’ve got to get your diploma from high school before you can go.  So she called the principal who lived up the street a ways and I went by and saw him.  He said, “If you leave, I cannot give you your diploma.

Didn’t make much sense to me.  A few days didn’t matter, but that’s what he – I’m sure my mother gave him the word, to don’t let that little guy go.  So consequently that’s what was come of it.

The day after graduation I went into Boston with the papers signed and it took them all day long to find the papers that they had previously.  So late in the afternoon, they swore me in.  They said, “We’ve already shipped out a crew, so you’ll have to go back home and come back in the morning.”

Fullscreen capture 962017 43240 PM.bmpIt was kind of embarrassing.  I look back on this and I should have gone to sleep in the Boston Common , but I went on back home and went back again.

So I shipped out and went down to Newport, Rhode Island, which was a big Navy place.  I was in a quonset hut with six other people – six other men.

I’d never really been away from home.  Looking back on it, I wonder how I did anything, I was so green.

At that time they had three weeks quarantine so we marched and took aptitude tests and all that sort of thing.  The next week, more drilling and so forth.  Then in the tests, they found out I could use a hammer.

A hammer?

Well, being mechanically inclined.  I was amazed at how many didn’t know how to do it!  (He smiles)

Oh really?

You know, you think everybody’s  got – well my dad was good about pulling me on jobs or needed me on jobs, and he only had a sixth grade education, but he had a lot of sense.

So I ended up being assigned to go to torpedo school.

Was the school going to be there or somewhere else?

Fullscreen capture 962017 41204 PM.bmpIt was going to be there in Newport. But as it turned out they already had a class started, or it was full, and so being “T” in the latter part of the alphabet I had to wait for the next class to begin.  There were six of us.  The only one I really remember was Zollicoffer, but as it turned out four of them went over the hill (AWOL).  Kinda ridiculous you know, if you signed up to stay, why didn’t you stay? But that was their business.  I’ve often wondered what happened to those guys.

Anyway, it was 16 weeks, 4 months of classes, didn’t see a torpedo.  Didn’t have any idea what one looked like. Didn’t have anything.  Wasn’t prepared for it. Actually a lot of what I did was tap holes in concrete so that they could put up a barricade for the compressor so you wouldn’t get near it.  But the Chief who taught us did a good job.  I have a book where we drew pictures. It’s interesting.  I didn’t know I could do that part, but I did.

So I got through the school.  Christmas Eve we shipped out.  They gave us liberty in New York City on Christmas Eve. I had a blast at that time.  Big name bands were playing – the Dorseys and the Skatmettlers (?), and so forth.  And with a uniform on, you could walk almost anywhere.

For free?

Yeah, there weren’t any restrictions.  I don’t have any pictures, but the uniforms they gave us fit FAIRLY decent.  But in the Navy they like everything real tight and close, you know, ship shape.  It’s understandable.

But anyway, we went on down to Norfolk.  They have famous names for Norfolk which aren’t permissible at the very moment  (I laugh) and the reason for it was it’s a big Navy operation.  The ship that I was supposed to get on wasn’t ready to go so Zollicoffer was from around that area so I had somebody to associate with.

I guess it was mid-January before we shipped out.  And I was fortunate, or unfortunate to get onto mess cooking.

Oh, really?

Fullscreen capture 962017 41251 PM.bmpI ended up in the scullery cleaning off the trays after lunch.  I realized at that moment that I was not a sea-going sailor.

Uh-oh.

Yeah…well I did the job under much….not duress, but….not feeling well.

I didn’t know where we were going and we ended up pulling into St.Thomas.  We had to anchor out because there wasn’t enough draft for us to tie up at the docks.  And if you were on mess cooking, you had free gangway. We were going to be in for two days and being in the condition I was, I thought I’d sit it out today and go in tomorrow.  Well tomorrow turned out that the guys that went in the first day tore the town up so bad they didn’t let us off the ship the next day.

Nooooo!  Oh, my…

Yeah, interesting.  But anyway, years later my wife and I took a cruise through the Caribbean and went to St. Thomas.

You finally got there!

So I got to see St. Thomas.

I ended up pulling into San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Went to the air base.  We were in barracks.  There were double beds and you know I can’t remember if I was on the bottom or the top.  Somehow I think the bottom.  We slept under mosquito nets.  The one thing about the area is in the summer time you slept without a sheet and in the cold weather time, you slept under a sheet.  (I laugh) I hate to say this, but it was tough duty.

Fullscreen capture 962017 41023 PM.bmpI was not in the torpedo shop.  In our barracks, in the center of it were racks and we had WWI rifles – 3030’s stacked up.  We were called defense battalion and so we did a lot of drilling.  Finally, I’m guessing they finished the torpedo shop.  We kept “fish” of varying sizes.  The ones that fit airplanes are different than the ones that go on subs and there are different ones for destroyers.

So “fish” are torpedoes?

Torpedoes.  The reason I said kept, we only had one or two or three.  If a ship came in and had trouble with a fish, we were to swap it out.  I don’t ever remember that we really did it.  What we really did was break down a compressor because the chief said it wasn’t working right because we worked out of 4000 lb pressure for those fish to go.

Anyway, one day the chief came in the shop and came over and wondered if anyone knew how to use a sewing machine.  Back when, because they always had a sail makers locker for sail ships, he must have rummaged around and found himself a sewing machine, foot operated.  And I had some experience with one, so from there on out, all the rest of my stay in San Juan, Puerto Rico was making flight bags.  He found a bolt of canvas, and the only requirement was  — somehow he got together with pilots and they would come in.  The requirement was they had to supply the zipper for the bag.  So anyway, I ended up making flight bags.

What was a flight bag for? 

The reason they did that was because if a plane went down, they didn’t want anything that floated.  Okay? So if you had a suitcase, it would show.  This way the flight bag would get wet and sink.

So that was for all of their personal stuff.

Yeah, that sort of thing.

Any opportunity that I could have gotten out of there, I tried. Whenever they posted something for V-12 subs, whatever it was, I applied for it. They were all turned down. And I never could understand why.

It took years, years, and years, before I finally found out the reason they needed people down there was because Hitler was going to put a sub base and they needed a count of individuals to try and forewarn for that. He was also fighting the Russian front. But you hear all sorts of things how the submarines came down in low Louisiana and wanted oil.

According to an article written before 1940 and published in the New York Times, two journalist (one Leicester Hemingway) explored the southern Caribbean and found many signs that the Nazis were preparing for submarine attacks in the western hemisphere.  They saw many barrels of diesel fuel being stored in small ports and bays of islets off the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Many people they encountered were Nazi sympathizers. Also an attempted sabotage of their schooner in one port and an offer to smuggle fuel for the Nazis in another verified that Germany was preparing to strike against the United States with subs from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Also showing the uneasiness Americans were having about a possible AXIS invasion, an interesting set of maps was published in the March 2, 1942 issue of LIFE magazine shortly after America entered the conflict. They show six different scenarios of how the Axis powers might invade the United States.  One of these scenarios uses the Gulf of Mexico as and entry point for an invasion going up the Mississippi Valley.

For an eyewitness account of German U-boat activity in the Gulf of Mexico, read the story of a family who survived a U-boat attack on May 25, 1942.

The very next day a U-boat sank an oil tanker in the Gulf near the mouth of the Mississippi River.  Oil Tanker hit by Nazi U-boat in Gulf of Mexico May 26, 1942

Photo was taken from a plane from Harding Army Airfield (Baton Rouge) that had flown out to investigate the incident

Beginning shortly after Pearl Harbor, while the United States was still ill-equipped, U-boats were sent to U.S. shores to destroy as many vessels as possible before America could fully mobilize. The U-boats sank well over 600 ships in protected U.S. waters. The Nazis were so brazen as to off-load teams of spies from these U-boats to begin destroying key factories and other targets to hinder America’s war effort. Thankfully all the spies were captured within days.

The war came closer to America than many realize.  

Mr. Fred, based much of the time down in the Caribbean during WWII,  tried and tried to get off the island of Puerto Rico to a ship where he could use his torpedo training, but he never did. He couldn’t understand why. Only later did he discover that his presence was preventing Germany from setting up a submarine base there. Later he was able to use his technical know-how with torpedoes in a way he didn’t expect.

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Was there a U.S. submarine base down there where you were?

Evidently there was one on the other side of the island.  I don’t know that for sure, but I would assume there was.  My son-in-law gave me an article on how many German subs that were in the area.  There were a lot. And he had names.  I should have kept that article and looked at it again.

So after a year, you were put on a list to go back to the states for liberty.  Well that list was so long it took almost two years before I got flown back to Miami and had two week leave.  That was a great experience because you know, lets get outta here as fast as we can.  I thought I’d be able to get a flight maybe, but that didn’t work.  So I got the first train out thinking this is the way to go.  It took a whole day from Miami to the border of Florida.  It was a milk train.  It stopped at EVERY stop!

Oh, no.

Yeah, yeah…so I didn’t make any time on that.  But I had a blast because there were an awful lot of women who had come down with their husbands, let them off and were going back.  So that trip from Miami to Massachusetts was really a blast.  (He smiles) We had a good time. So I came on back and the war was progressing, as it were.

[Then] I went back to the States and went to Quonset Point, Rhode Island and worked in the torpedo shop.  We were on shift work, and the reason for it was they were training pilots how to drop torpedos.  And looking at the hook of Massachusetts, they used that bay to do their training.  They flew out of Hyannis, they had exercises with the “fish” and at the end of the run, they’d blow  the water out and float.  So they were picked up at Provincetown and then brought back to Quonset and we would work on ‘em.

That’s cool.

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We’d tear ‘em down completely redo ‘em.  So anyway my contribution to the war effort was working in a machine shop.

Was that midway during the war, or toward the end when you did the torpedos?

It was prior to making the advancement in the Pacific.

Ok.

Uh, I can’t really give you a date.  I’ve never broken it down, but how long were we in the Pacific? It was a long time.  These guys — they must have had some kind of training because we had fish coming out of our ears! We didn’t stop!

Wow.

That clamped down.  You know, ok, fine, they’ve had all the training they’re gonna get.

And so they were nice enough then to put me on shore patrol.  So I worked shore patrol out of Providence, not in Providence itself, but outside.

Well it being night duty, I was looking around wanting to do something, and they were looking for help at railway express at the depot in Providence.  So I applied, and they said, yes.  And across the way was the YMCA so I slept at the YMCA and worked the docks at the railroad station.

I had not applied for Social Security and so I had to there.  And as it turned out at the time, the railroad had kept its own numbers for railroad retirement, so my number is a 723 number where everybody else’s is “2 “ something, or “3” something.  The only benefit of it was that when they posted grades in college they used your Social Security number and mine was always the last of the list. So I never had to worry about finding my grade on the list. (We laugh)  There it is, right on the bottom.

Fullscreen capture 962017 43440 PM.bmpThere were a lot of interesting things that took place on shore patrol.  One of them was, V-E day occurred and so they put us on duty early on.  I was with another young man, we were all young of course, and what we did, we ended up be getting a paper bag and putting a bottle of Coke in it.  So we would walk down the street and kids would come up and want to have a drink of what was in our bag, thinking it was, you know…so we went through a big ole siege, of “No, you can’t, you  know, we can’t let you do this.”  So they’d finally work you, and you’d say, “Ok, fine.” So you’d hand it to ‘em and they’d drink it and look at you and say, “This is Coke!” (We laugh)  So we had a lot of fun doing that.  That was a great experience.

We were also, in this Shore Patrol, maybe more than half were Sea Bees.  They were in an early battalion that had been in the Pacific and came home.  Most of those – they were MEN – were from around the Tennessee/Kentucky area and they were experienced drinkers.

Ha ha! They had lots of practice?

Ohhhh! I’m telling you! One of the guys —  a close friend, Ike Beam, just to remember a name – we would buddy up on shore patrol, cause I being a kid and they being, what thirty? Old men!  Thirty or forty!  But anyway, one of ‘em was a real “professional” how’s that for drinking? And I said, “I’m going out and I’m gonna drink him drink for drink.  One of the things that happened is you walk in and you go to the kitchen and they came out with a glass of liquor for you.  They took it.  I didn’t.  I couldn’t handle it.  Anyway Ike tried and when we were to report in about midnight, I wanted to know where Ike was. A guy says, “He’s out in the wagon.”  As it turns out, he was laying out in the wagon out like a light. (We laugh)  So we managed to get him up and walking in, because he had to report in.  He said he’d never do that again!  These stupid little things you remember, huh?

How long did you stay in shore patrol until you moved on to something else?

I really don’t know.  The war is over with.  They put me back as an MA (Master at Arms) of Discharge Barracks.  So I did that till the end of the war.  That didn’t last too long.  I think I got out in January. It wasn’t much to do.  I mean these guys would come in – it was a discharge barrack.  They were here today and gone tomorrow.  It was just a matter of trying to keep the place clean and so forth.

That kind of sums it up as far as the war years.  I was going to utilize the GI Bill for going to school.  Back in Braintree, Massachusetts, tried to get in school in Boston.  I am not a brilliant student and they were taking their old students back anyway since the war was over with.

There was an opening at a business school and when I applied, the principal said, “I must tell you that you can be here this summer, but in the fall if our old students come back, we’re going to take them back. So you’re going to be out,” which wasn’t so hot to hang over my head.  Anyway I went to the business school from 9:00-1:00 or something in Boston, took the train on home.

I had a lot of odd jobs on the side and I started painting. One of the deals that came about was there was a man who was a railroad cop who worked nights, so during the day he painted and he was looking for a helper painting interiors and so forth. And after I got home from school each day, I would paint from 3:00– 9:00. At 9:00 I’d go down and drink beer til midnight with the returning vets.

And in that, found out that a lawyer in Quincy, the next town, was sending potential football players to Southeastern (Louisiana College) in Hammond, Louisiana.  How that connection came about, I never have found out, nor does anybody at Southeastern know anything about him.

Huh.

It was a real odd thing, but anyway, he sent quite a few down. There were some from the group that we were drinking beer with — there were several who were interested.

The house that I was painting at had a son my age so he and I got together and he wanted to go to school too. So we sent a request to Southeastern to get entrance.  Didn’t receive anything and the reason was one of the things that was required, was since I had started school, I needed a letter of acceptance and discontinuation from the school I had gone to. You wrote a letter saying why you wanted to change schools.  Well it wasn’t too difficult to change from business school to college.  But I needed that letter.  I had no means of support if it wasn’t for the (GI) Bill.

So we’re into August now. (And believe it or not, there were two mail deliveries a day.  I find that hard to believe.)  Well I was at the house where I was working, which wasn’t too far from the house where I lived, when the mail came. Well the fellow who lived there that was going down with me, he got a beautiful letter from the registrar saying, “Come on down, we’re glad to have you.”  Well I had to find out if my letter came!  So I took off and went home and — no letter.

Aw.

Vet Fred Trapp 3I waited three or four days and still no letter.  And I had to have it.  Whether they got our names mixed up, I don’t know, but finally I sent a telegram and said I’ve got to have acceptance from you in order to transfer. So I got a telegram back that said, “If you can get into any school in the country, then you can get into Southeastern. Come on down.”

Aw, good.

So that was enough.  I brought it in to the VA man in Boston and he said, “If you find out that this is not what you thought it was going to be, you come on back and I’ll see that you get into school somewhere. (He tears up) Those little events mean an awful lot looking back.  They don’t seem like much at the time.

 

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