Letters From Red Toon (Pt. 10): Becoming A Warrior

Red Toon was finishing up his last days of amphibious training at Little Creek when he wrote this letter; it wasn’t dated but the contents suggest September – October of 1943. He sounds  like a junior officer learning the ropes in a program where the pace and intensity of training were picking up, and with good reason. The war strategy in the Central Pacific envisioned amphibious conquests of a string of Japanese strongholds in the Solomon islands, the Carolines, the Marshalls, the Marianas, and the Palaus. Speed was essential, as were overwhelming force and two new offensive capabilities.

The first capability was the fast attack aircraft carriers (think mobile airfields) that were now available in sufficient numbers to provide their own air defense while decimating virtually any enemy air power. The second was the Navy’s growing amphibious forces, soon capable of landing marines and soldiers in overwhelming numbers…any beach, any time.

Each operation began with relentless air attacks by bombers and fighters from  the carriers against Japanese strongholds with airfields.  When control of the air was achieved, the fleet arrived and amphibious forces landed marines and soldiers in overwhelming numbers. The Japanese fought to the last man, but once they had lost control of the air and surrounding seas they were inevitably overwhelmed. Next construction battalions rebuilt the airfield—even before the fighting was over—for land-based allied aircraft. Finally, those land-based and the sea-based aviators organized for the next attack on a Japanese airfield 300 miles deeper into the Central Pacific.

But the Navy was still short of amphibious ships and forces in 1943. So training at Little Creek and Ft. Pierce, FL, was fast and furious. The fleet was waiting…

Of course, even with all the hard training, there were sometimes other things on those young mens’ minds.

Amphibious Training Base

Little Creek, Virginia

Dearest,

Your voice tonight has made me very restless, all the old longings are very strong tonight. I love you so very, very much. I was afraid you wouldn’t be home tonight, just a sort of feeling & to hear you were & to hear you and Janice too made me feel terribly lucky and terribly important too.

She sounded almost as if she were fussing or was she playing? Either way I got a tremendous kick out of hearing her. Your voice made me better able to sympathize with fellows who get so homesick they go over the hill. I’ve got a touch of the blues tonight, guess hard work will cure it though.

I seem to be a sort of middle man here. I sure see more people “blow their top.” Interesting today to act as a go-between between our Flotilla Commander & the base maintenance staff. I think I told you before that most of the men here who hold down the top training jobs are “Mustangs” i.e. old time chiefs of long periods of service in the navy. They were commissioned full Lt. and placed in charge here in general then formerly a reserve officer was in command of the base. The ensuing friction was largely responsible for the SNAFU here. Well the new boss here seems to satisfy their leathery blustery souls, he’s an Annapolis man of a family that’s been navy for years so things are smoothing out. There is still a lot of swearing at situations and each other. Of late I’m catching it from both ends of the stick.

Flotilla Commander swears at me & tells me to go tell that so & so off over in base maintenance. I listen dutifully enough, go traipse over where I’m sent & deliver my spiel. It invariably causes a storm. The person involved swears quite fluently & viciously at me & ends usually by telling me to go back & tell that _  _ _ where to get off.

It gets a little wearing sometimes but I have to admit some of these fellows here can beat my Dad even & that’s going some. You should hear me go to town when I catch it for something my division officers or men have done. The officers then in turn spread it over pretty thick with the men and the men – well, nearly every barracks has a dog. See why I go to church?

I’m glad Jack likes his watch. As far as I know he won’t have to wind it normally, just the motion of his arm should keep it wound but it can be wound if necessary.

I’m glad you’ve been able to stay at Betty & Jack’s as long as you have. I hope they know how much I appreciated the way they helped us out of our troubles. I get quite a bang out of their liking Janice so much & do think they should definitely do something about a new girl of their own.

I think you are doing the sensible thing regarding the credit due at Boyds. Frankly I’d forgotten it. Please don’t hesitate to spend whatever you please of whatever you have. It certainly won’t do us any good if it isn’t used.

Cold enough to snow here but none has fallen yet. Sure glad this watch is inside & feel sorry for those outside tonight. I have the bad watch tonight 12 – 4, didn’t get to hit the bed till 10 last night & won’t get in till 4:30 then up at 6. Bet I just make one broad trail today.

Oh yes, I seem to have fallen heir to this job of mustering the men & marching them from their barracks area to the field. It seems that when I bark out something like “pick up that step” or eyes off the deck” or “stand steady there” I sound very ornery. In fact I’m known as a very definite hard-nosed son of a _ _ _ so I’m the guy who acts as drill sergeant or whatever. Whoaie what a noise I make!!

When the powers that be say that that’s the kind of leadership they want then that’s what they’ll get. I’m still safe though as I don’t take myself seriously even if the men do.

I received a very nice complement tonight from Mr. Schwartz. He said I was the only man in the outfit who could get away with it & he’s getting so that he jumps when I yell. He told me also that the group had decided I was logical man for the job & there was no griping. Quite a relief to me. I don’t intend to sound conceited above but let me explain that by logical he meant because of age, minding my own business, staying out of petty squabbles, etc.

About liberty I don’t know. So far for our group we’ve had liberty two nights since we got the men & I had work to do both nights. A fellow told me today that in some of the other groups the Assistants got quite a lot of liberty. I don’t see how they do it unless they just fail to take care of their job which is I’m afraid what happens too often. That always makes me hot. We’ve got too many damn people that can’t yet realize there’s such a thing as ones duty to his country & fellow man that’s got to come first then he can take care of his own pleasures. I think people like that are the ones that are dragging this war out & indirectly causing men to die every day.

Honey you and I are in many ways too simple & everyday to realize that there are actually educated people in this world who actually don’t give a damn what happens to their neighbor or his son & yet have a clear conscience & are perfectly care free about shirking their jobs or doing them in a half – _ _ _ manner. Well that’s off my chest. See why I go to church?

Tell Jack the watches still exist, even oftener than before but I don’t have to stand outside down at the docks… & also about the spot promotion. I don’t get the jg as I understand it till I leave Norfolk after having been through Ft. Pierce. You see, we go there and come back here then leave from here. One more thing, an officer never has furlough, he has leave. What a joke!!

Well I certainly have been windy tonight. I love you.

                                                                                                      Your husband

                                                                                                          Warren

 These letters tell us the kind of man young Red Toon was. Recall that as a high school science teacher he was a stern task master who nevertheless respected his students and was himself respected by them. As a junior reserve officer his personal skills showed again at Little Creek where he was the logical choice for drilling young sailors hard; he could get away with it because he respected them. And he also earned the respect of his fellow officers. When he was selected for promotion, there was “No griping.”

We have one last letter from training camp, and then we’ll tell you some stories about Red’s feats in the Pacific.


 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Letter From A Patriot: Red Toon Letters (Pt. 9)

Nov. 5

Dearest Wife,

I am afraid I haven’t been too good about writing lately but maybe you will find it in your heart to forgive me when you hear my side of the story. Honestly I haven’t had time to write at all & probably won’t have much time for another week. We’ve been going to sea early in the morning and staying all day then attending classes at night. By the time class is over I’d get shot if I turned on a light as everyone sort of falls in bed & dies til reveille.

Being an A. B. G. C. does have some advantages. I won’t have to stand any more watches on the docks. I have three officers in my staff, i.e., Engineering & I don’t know for sure how many men – 36 I hear. Thank God two of my Engineer officers are engineers! I can’t yet figure out how I got the job, I hope the fellows don’t wonder too much too.

I’m glad you got to go to a ball game & I want you to go all you want. Now about the drinking you thought Jack might be making inferences…I’m innocent believe me. I haven’t been “blotto” or whatever you call it since a certain New Year’s night you remember.

We had liberty tonight is the reason I have time to write. I didn’t leave the base, went to a show here—first I’ve seen for quite a while—& am getting ready to go to bed. Guess I’m getting old but I noticed that of the seventeen men in our group that had  liberty seven of us stayed in so I’m not the only one who was somewhat pooped out.

Incidentally I’m not as tired as I might have inferred in a previous letter—I had quite a dream about you the other night.  

Norma, I’m very glad you feel about this business as your last letter showed, it means a lot to me. I’m proud of the part I’m playing in this war & am willing to make any personal sacrifice necessary to help preserve the kind of life we once knew.

That kind of living I want again & believe that the only way to have it is to fight for it. Fighting for it I realize can be done in many ways but I do feel that the way I’m doing it is the way I’d be of the most use. I never did feel that as a “specialist” I would ever know enough to develop enough skill at some one job to rate being considered indispensable & therefore kept away from the battle areas. I do know that thousands of young men have tried to develop themselves along certain lines merely to have something to hide behind but I don’t feel bitter about those  fellows only sorry for them.

Sometimes I will admit the business of strikes etc. sorta gripes me but we can’t all let our feelings get the better of our heads. Pardon me my sermon but I had to “blow it off” to you. Maybe all our troubles will be ironed out some day.

Gee I wish I could see you, I’m kinda lonely tonight. It’s the first time I’ve had time to think in a week. It’s funny about running these boats, they take a lot of concentration especially when we are running at about twenty knots in a column no more than one boat length apart. After an hour or so of that one’s nerves gets a little frazzled. They have no brakes.

Was up about half the night last night getting one repaired. Get all new ones Monday and our crews so my worst days should be over for a while.

                                                                                                             All my love,

                                                                                                                   Warren

I didn’t ask a thing about Janice but please keep writing about her. She’s second only to you. Incidentally, I didn’t even know it was November till today.

[We had to do a little research to clarify Red’s A. B. G. C. rating. It stands for Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (gasoline handler), signifying (we guess) completion of special training for handling gasoline or boat fuel.]

This is a mighty important letter. Red bares his soul to Norma here,  expressing as best he can his motivation and sense of patriotism. I am reluctant to share such private thoughts between a man and his soul mate, but I believe Red Would approve:

“I’m proud of the part I’m playing in this war & am willing to make any personal sacrifice necessary to help preserve the kind of life we once knew…That kind of living I want again & believe that the only way to have it is to fight for it.”

I knew I’d heard another American hero express a similar sentiment. I needed a while to find it…but I did. It is the last two sentences written by E. B. Sledge in his classic, With The Old Breed:

As the troops used to say, “If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.” With privilege goes responsibility.


 

 

 

Red Toon (Pt. 2): Red Applies For Officer Training, US Army Signal Corps

Red Toon and my Dad, Joe McDevitt, served together as reserve officers in the Pacific war. They were real close. (See previous blog post dated August 28, 2017.) So as soon as I finished researching and writing All Came Home, I began researching Red’s story.

That story began at 12:00 Noon on October 29, 1940, when US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson reached into a giant fishbowl and pulled out the first of 8500 numbered capsules. He opened the capsule and read the enclosed number: 1-5-8. One hundred and fifty-eight. Six thousand young men around the country gasped in surprise—and then probably—in shock. Registrants for the draft lottery assigned that number would be the first to be considered for military service in the coming conflict.

One of them was Francis W. Toon (AKA “Red” Toon, reflecting the color his hair turned as he aged). Red was a young science and mathematics teacher and athletics coach at Pleasant Plains High School in Illinois. He was one of four men in Sangamon County assigned number 158.

When I learned that Red had settled with his wife, Norma, in nearby Pleasant Plains in 1937, I began contacting friends there inquiring about Red and Norma. A research break came when a librarian provided the name of Mr. Bob White, a resident who had attended Pleasant Plains High School many years ago.  Who knows, she wondered? Perhaps Bob might recall a teacher there named Red Toon.

What a break! Bob White had completed two years of science classes from Red Toon in the late 1930s. Bob and I quickly established an ongoing dialog. He tells me about Red Toon the science teacher, and I tell him about Red Toon, Assistant Boat Group Commander.  I provided Bob a copy of All Came Home, and he has now learned more about the ship and crew with whom Red served.

I received a letter from Bob recently containing more recollections about Red. That letter includes the following passage:

“One thing I failed to mention about Warren (he’ll always be Mr. Toon to me) is that he never called the students by their first names. It was always” Mr. So and So” or “Miss So and So.” He was always friendly and accessible, but he never tolerated any nonsense. When he was in charge of Study Hall, nobody threw spit balls when his back was turned. The students respected him and he was probably the most popular teacher in school.”

My biggest break came when I located and visited Red Toon’s family in Jackson MS in Spring 2017. Most of the information in the posts to follow are based on documents shared by the Toon family.

Back to Red’s story…

After the draft lottery Red met with the Secretary of the draft board to learn more about his enlistment options. He learned about an Army Signal Corps officer training program designed to  train candidates for a new technology—radar. The program skill requirements matched Red’s scientific skills and interests perfectly. It also carried an Army commission (2nd Lt.) upon completion. Red Toon applied, was accepted, and began training as a radar operator in Boca Raton FL in 1942.

Midway through the program a jurisdictional dispute arose between a civilian branch of the federal government versus the Army over who would have first access to graduates. When Red learned that graduates would be classified henceforth as civil servants rather than commissioned officers, he resigned immediately.

Serving his country in uniform was clearly important to Red Toon. I did not understand that motivation until I read a letter that he wrote Norma shortly thereafter. That letter was as strong a testimony of love-of-country as any I have read. We will post it soon, and you will  better understand the kind of man Red was.


 

Letter from Mr. Bob White, August 4, 2017