Legionnaire of the Month
In our continuing series of stories we feature another WW II Vet—Frank Caffrey. It has been difficult to condense these articles to fit on one page and Frank does not make the job any easier. Frank is the only person I’ve talked with who served in the Navy, Marines, Air Force and Army. But we better go back to the start of his story. Frank was born on Nov. 18, 1926 and grew up in Sioux Falls. Early family life was difficult and after the 8th grade Frank dropped out of school to help his family by working full time as a delivery boy. At the age of 16 a neighbor (who was also 16) asked him to come along to the Navy Recruiting Station. His neighbor wanted to join but had done a poor job of altering his birth certificate and got “chewed out” by the recruiter. Frank said “I was tall for my age and so the recruiter asks; how old are you? I said 16 but I will be 17 soon. The recruiter replied, we need young men and if you can get your parents to sign the papers, we can get you enrolled under a Special Minority Program. I always liked the water and although I’d never seen the ocean, I thought I’d like it (he must have been right—in 4 years on some very rough water, he never once got sea sick). So right after Christmas of 1943, I found myself in Boot Camp at Farragut ID (see photo of young Seaman Caffrey). Idaho was a strange place for a Navy Camp. They were poorly equipped with no winter clothing or even weapons. January in Idaho means the only lake was frozen so we didn’t see much water.” That would all soon change.
Frank was then sent to Tacoma WA to become an 1st Loader on 40MM Seaman on an air craft carrier. He was assigned as a “Gunner Mate” shooting 20 and 40 MM guns located at the bow of the “USS Lunga Point 94” (named in honor of those who lost their lives at Guadalcanal) –those who want more detail can Google “USS Lunga Point CVE 94”. The ship and its crew survived some horrific battles, received a Presidential Unit Citation and 5 Battle Stars. It is most interesting reading!
Frank recalled more than one close call outside Owo Jima. “We always were on the lookout for Suicide Bombers. Even if we shot the pilot he could still crash his plane into us.” (The USS Bismarck 95 was sunk by kamikaze pilots killing 323 of the 900 aboard). Frank told me of one incident. “This plane came right as us at 100 MPH and I can still see the Pilot’s face as his plane slid across the flight deck, tearing off a wing and rupturing the gas tank-spilling gas as it slid. As it came to the edge it plunged over the side before exploding. I was so close to the loud explosion that I lost all my hearing. The entire deck started on fire but we managed to get the fire out without any fatalities. We had very poor medical care on the ship and my hearing loss didn’t concern them as they were tending to burn victims. We were lucky and no one was killed. Evidently back then the rules to qualify for a Purple Heart said you had to “bleed”, so I never received one. After a week some of my hearing came back and eventually more but I still have about a 70% loss.”
Although bad, this was not the most freighting or near death experience for Frank. That came during a typhoon storm. Frank said “our flight deck on those carriers are 55 ft above the water. The waves were so high that at times the ship would be at a 45 degree angle. When one big wave hit us it broke loose a tin porthole cover and water was shooting right at me. It was like being hit with a fire hose and I went hurling overboard. The next thing I remember another wave tossed me back on board the ship. I don’t remember anything more but they found me back on deck where I lay unconscious.” Looks like Frank’s Guardian Angel was working overtime!
After the war ended in 1945 Frank continued onboard for 7 months doing various missions. One of their missions was picking up released POW’s from Nagasaki. Frank said “the A bomb was dropped on the ocean side of a large hill and the ground was leveled with not a building standing. We didn’t know it then but the radiation level was still very high. The released POW’s were from all over, including the US and many other countries. Some of these POW’s had survived the Bataan Death March. There were over 200 on our ship but many of them were in very bad shape. Although they survived that 80 mile march, some never made it back home alive.”
One would think that on a confined ship space, the crew would make many friends. However, Frank said that was not the case. “We were always confined to our area and only went to the rear of the ship to eat. We didn’t have much R&R time together either. During these 4 years I had only 20 days leave”. After those 4 years, Frank had served his Navy time and was ready to go home. Others were done with their duty too and Frank found someone who was getting out the same time and could catch a ride to Omaha if he helped pay for gas. From Omaha he “hitch hiked” back to Sioux Falls.
Most military stories would end here but not for Frank. In 1950 the Korean War effort required more manpower and he was called back to duty. However, the Navy did not want him because of his hearing loss. Frank said “I was next called to take a physical in Omaha for the Marines. I didn’t even take my bags along as I was sure I wouldn’t pass my physical. The Dr. looked at me and saw I had two ears, and the next thing I knew I was in San Diego. The Marines would not accept my Navy Boot Camp so I had to go through basic training again. Because of my prior military experience I was assigned as a Drill Instructor for new recruits. I trained each platoon for 8 weeks. I always wondered what happened to those young men as most went to Korea.”
After 2 years in the Marines Frank came back to Sioux Falls and went back to work as a Mail Carrier. In 1965 he married Barbara Wermers of Dimock SD (1st cousin of my brother-in-law Bill). Frank and Barb have 3 sons and 1 daughter. In 1971 they purchased an acreage outside of Garretson. Frank went on to serve in the Sioux Falls Air Guard and later served 21 years as a Squad Leader and Platoon Sgt. in the Luverne Army National Guard. After 40 years of Military and Postal Service, Frank made the decision that it was time to retire. They have since sold their rural home and are enjoying the retirement community at Bethany Meadows in Brandon. Frank said “I was not real active in the Garretson Legion Post but had been very active with the Air Craft Carrier Reunion Group. I was President and then Secretary. We met in various states from 1950 until 2000. Now there are not many of us left and at the last reunion there were only two of us attending.”
Frank, you went through some experiences in the Pacific Theater that most of us can not even imagine. Thankfully, more than once your Guardian Angel was watching over you. You were able to continue on serving our country for many more years. On behalf of The American Legion Post 23 and the United States of America we want to thank you for your dedicated service to our Country.