Charles “Chuck” Purple served as a Coxswain in the 28th Special Naval Construction Battalion in the Pacific Theater from 1943 to 1946. Coxswain is a ranking who were easily recognizable because they wore their insignia on the right arm, not the usual left arm.
Although born in South Bend, Indiana, Chuck Purple moved around a lot even as an infant. His father, a World War I veteran, was in the newspaper business and transferred frequently by his employer, the Nixon chain. Life was very good until the Depression, when the Purples, like millions of families, suffered a reversal of fortune.
Just a young child at the time, Chuck nevertheless remembers soup lines, the eventual unemployed status of his father, and the gloom of a town full of people struggling to make do. Gasoline was 10 cents a gallon or 11 gallons for a dollar, but since hardly anyone still had an automobile, the filling station was not doing a bang-up business. Foreshadowing his adult life, Chuck and his brother Johnny sold “Liberty” and “Saturday Evening Post” magazines for 5 cents each, getting paid one penny apiece for each sale, seed packets for spring planting, Christmas cards, and any job they could find to earn some money.
Fortunately, Chuck’s father, John E. Purple, eventually found employment in Washington, Illinois, where he edited a newspaper. Chuck was about age 14 when the Purple family moved to Peoria, Illinois, for Mr. Purple’s new position as editor of the magazine of the Duroc Record Association. A Duroc is a very popular breed of hog for you non-farm folk. Chuck made Peoria his home for decades to come, save for his military service.
While in high school, Chuck set pins at a bowling alley, but picked up other jobs when he could. One Sunday he was covering for the owner of a gas station in Washington, just a few miles east of Peoria, pumping gas, checking the tires and oil, washing the windshield for the occasional automobile that stopped in. The owner had instructed him not to do any other work other than servicing any customers’ vehicles.
While listening to the radio inside the station early afternoon, he heard a special bulletin announcing that Japanese planes and ships were attacking Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Since a Japanese delegation was reportedly in Washington, D.C., negotiating a peace agreement with us, he thought he must have misheard. But the bulletin was repeated, then 16-year-old Chuck ran to the diner next door, finding the occupants leisurely chatting. He announced the news and urged them to turn on their radio.
As he remembers it, people’s minds were occupied with the war in Europe, but no one was expecting an attack from Japan because the peace talks had been ongoing. Shock and disbelief were the predominant reactions. At school the next day, “There was no studying. Everybody went to the study hall and we listened to the speech from President Roosevelt against Japan.”
Of course, Congress did as FDR requested and passed a unanimous Declaration of War against Japan on that same day, December 8, 1941. In retaliation, three days later, Mussolini, then Hitler, declared war on America and two more unanimous declarations of war against Germany and Italy were issued on December 11, 1941. The U.S. Senate also passed a resolution allowing U.S. servicemen to fight anywhere in the world. The nation’s gearing up for war had begun.
Chuck tried to enlist in the Navy shortly after that. His father had served on the Pennsylvania during World War I, and Chuck was determined to join that service. After Mr. Purple signed the papers, Chuck and a buddy went off to join the Navy. The buddy was accepted but the doctor did not pass Chuck on the physical, feeling his right eye was not up to snuff. So, back to high school for Chuck.
Uncle Sam remembered Chuck on his 18th birthday and summoned him with a very special greeting. He first heard about the Seabees when speaking with the recruiter, a Marine, about which branch to join and Chuck felt that sounded interesting. He was told to bring a bag with his shoes, shorts, socks, anything essential and meet at the recruitment office to sign his papers. Then he and the other men hopped on a streetcar and headed for the Peoria train station, where they caught a train to Chicago. Those who failed the physical were sent home, while the rest were sent on to their next destination – Camp Perry, Virginia. Chuck passed this time, the very same physical he was given before.
After the physically sound people were on the train, they were sworn in and told, “You are in the Navy now.” The day after their arrival at Camp Perry, they were given uniforms and other equipment and began boot camp the next day. After a month of basic training with the Navy, a number of them were sent to train with the Marine Corps for a month. A leave home of about 14 days duration was followed by reporting back to Camp Perry, where they were placed on a troop train destined for California.
The troop train consisted of all Navy men. It was their home for three days where they slept, ate and entertained themselves as best they could. They would disembark for calisthenics each day and on an occasion or two, were fed a meal at a local armory. Their train was greeted along the way by children, women and men wishing them well, waving to them. Chuck’s most vivid memory of the train ride is the North Platte Canteen. When the train stopped in this Nebraska city, the men were given fresh fruit, candy, homemade baked goods and tons of moral support. They could not get off the train, so the handshaking and goodie exchanges were done through opened windows. The trains with returning troops were treated to the same welcome until well after the war had ended, when the canteen closed its doors on April 1, 1946.
They were transferred to ships at Port Hueneme, California, and sent to Pearl Harbor.
At Pearl Harbor, Chuck and some of his new buddies visited Hickam Field and John Rodgers Field (now Honolulu International Airport) on liberty. The bullet holes in the sides of hangars and other buildingsand bullet shards from the air attacks of December 7, 1941, were clearly visible. A sobering sight. During their approximate three months in Pearl, Chuck’s 28th Special Naval Construction Battalion loaded many ships and performed other duties.
Orders then sent them “Down Under,” which was the term referring to islands in the South Pacific. They went from island to island, loading and unloading ships. Chuck was a winch operator, jokingly referring to himself as “A world champion winch operator.” Likely that is not far from the truth, given the many hours he put in on that job. He enjoyed his job and considered himself lucky for not being assigned a job in the lowest deck, or “hole,” where the men worked in tremendously hot temperatures doing heavy manual labor.
His unit’s job was to load ships from the hole to the top deck with supplies for troops. They unloaded these supplies onto barges and then took them to the beaches where the Marines were fighting. The Marines would land with only the ammunition they could carry, so getting the loads of ammo to the beaches was paramount. Chuck has the highest praise for the Marines, very brave, very determined men. They suffered extremely high losses in Down Under in 1943 and 1944, but never quit.
Chuck’s two and a half years in service were not without some fun and humor. When a sailor in their outfit who had been cutting their hair, that of Chuck and his buddy Jack, transferred from the unit, they were left high and dry in the grooming department. So, being typical 19-year-olds, they decided to solve the problem by ignoring it. They grew beards and let their hair grow. Turned out the beards were itchy and cold, so they shaved them. Next they had to face their long rather straggly hair. Which of them would be the barber? He wouldn’t admit which of them finally did the deed, but it did not turn out well for either of them.
During his time in the Pacific, Chuck suffered a broken arm through a slip and fall while loading a ship in Hawaii. He had been in a hospital there for about a month when his buddies mentioned on one of their visits that they were shipping out to go Down Under. Chuck was eager to go and to get out of the hospital as well but there was the issue of a doctor’s release, which the attending MD refused to grant. So, the guys took Chuck’s case to their lieutenant, who wrote a letter to the doctor, stating he would be responsible for Chuck Purple’s medical condition and subsequent medical release on the ship. He was able to ship out, with his buddies attending him for the rest of his convalescence.
Of course, everyone looked forward to news from home, especially in the form of letters from family and friends. Chuck particularly enjoyed his dad’s letters, which came typewritten, about two pages long, and packed with information about the home front including Chuck’s six younger siblings. V-Mail (Victory Mail) was available, which was very fast, but a soldier/sailor could write personal letters as well. All the mail was heavily censored to conceal any reference alluding to their location or anything referring to the war itself. (V-mail was designed to cut down on the weight in transport planes, leaving more poundage for military supplies. Letters were photographed on microfiche and the microfiche flown to its destination, where the letters were reproduced on 4” x 5” paper, censored, and delivered to their subsequent addressees.)
The medical corps took great care of the men according to Chuck. He does not remember a lot of sickness among the guys, but does recall a large number of inoculations with needles and many pills to boost their immunity to the diseases of that climate. Taking the pills as prescribed kept men healthy, but if they took too many of certain pills, they could end up with a yellowish cast to their skin. There was an outbreak of impetigo, a bacterial skin infection, one time which hit most of the men in his unit. Jack, his buddy from boot camp through separation, had a particularly bad case and in order to resist scratching the sores, he would hold onto a palm tree, grit his teeth and wait for the itch urge to subside.
A highlight of his time in the Pacific came in July 1944 when Chuck was being hauled to a ship, between Honolulu and Pearl Harbor. There was a convoy of trucks, each holding 30 men, sitting 15 on each side. Instead of the usual speedy trip, their trucks were being asked to pull over and free up the road space. They realized it had to be somebody important to merit all that commotion, and none other than FDR himself went by, sitting in the backseat of his car. (FDR visited Hawaii July 26-29, 1944, to meet with his two Pacific commanders, Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur.)
Often there are stories from servicemen about lack of proper equipment, especially proper clothing in combat zones. When Chuck’s ship was sent to the Philippines for the first time, they ran into inclement weather, rain which turned into 10 days of relentless downpour. On arrival, they had only their summer packs, but were soon issued foul weather gear, which gave some additional protection against the wet onslaught.
During this time, FDR passed away and Victory in Europe occurred, but the guys in the Pacific were a bit preoccupied with preparing for the Invasion of Japan. So, other than hearing the news of the two events, their work lives were not altered. A typical day would be showing up for work at 7 AM, getting on a boat to go to pier 2 and load or unload a ship, which might take three days. Then do it all again for another ship.
The months of intensive preparation for the Invasion of Japan, which actually began after their attack on Pearl Harbor, were brought to an end in August 1945. No one had ever heard the term “atomic bomb” before August 6, 1945, but news of its deployment was cheered by the U.S. military servicemen in the Pacific. It meant the war would be over and more thana million lives, both American and Japanese, would be spared. Although it took a second bomb, on August 9, 1945, to induce the Japanese Emperor to agree to surrender, the joy of the servicemen was undiminished. Home was in sight and they were alive. Chuck remembers that a few planes were crisscrossing the sky, discharging tracer bullets, “announcing” the surrender. It was a beautiful sight. His battalion was on their ship in Tokyo Bay when the surrender was signed.
Mustering out or separation from the service was done on a point system. Marital status, having children, time in combat zone, were some of the criteria for accumulating points. The married guys with families went home first. Serving at least 12 months was necessary to achieve veteran status. Although Chuck had veteran status, he did not have enough points to get out immediately. He was shipped stateside, got a 30-day leave, after which he reported to Navy Pier in Chicago. There he was put in charge of escorting two dozen men on a train to San Diego. He remembers being handed a huge handful of “tickets” for their meals. In San Diego he was assigned to a rigging loft until he accumulated discharge points, at which time he was sent to San Pedro, California, for separation.
Chuck and his buddy Jack were together during their entire service and they separated at the same time. They took the same train to Galesburg, Illinois, where Chuck transferred to a bus bound for Peoria and Jack continued on to his hometown, Philadelphia. The friends stayed in touch as best as they could and did manage a couple of reunions over the years, until Jack passed away four years ago in his hometown.
On his first night home, Chuck asked his dad for the car keys so he could go visit his sweetheart. After waiting patiently for two years, his sweetheart had rather recently met an Army man and they were already married. The maturity Chuck had achieved during his military service gave him the ability to take this news in stride. He didn’t waste much time on “spilled milk.” He admits he was not the most attentive or consistent letter writer anyway. He credits the service, especially the great officers he served with, for taking him from boyhood to a self-confident young man. Lieutenant Norris was especially adept at instilling a “you can do it” attitude in his men. Along with all the other young guys back from the war, he immediately delved into enjoying life, bowling, golfing, playing cards and talking to all the pretty girls he could find.
Eventually he went to work at the Caterpillar plant in Peoria, where he trained and became certified as a tool and die maker. In addition to his eight hours at the plant, he was selling insurance part-time in the evenings and weekends. Knowing he could not continue both, Chuck chose insurance and opened a small agency of his own. It was at this time that he married Mary, with whom he had a daughter, Diane. He and Mary were together 52 years until her passing.
After a couple of very profitable decades in the insurance business, Chuck retired and sold his agency. He had a brother who owned a small hearing aid business. When his brother decided to give up his business, Chuck bought it and within a few years, had the largest chain of hearing aid offices in downstate Illinois (one chain in Chicago was bigger).
In addition to his busy work life, he also joined the American Legion and became very active, including playing bugle in their drum and bugle corps, and later serving as post commander. Chuck took flying lessons and earned his pilot license, eventually got himself a plane and flew at every opportunity.
Chuck first learned of Marco Island, Florida in 1969. A man he had known from his insurance business career was selling lots on Marco Island for Deltona. Chuck bought a lot and flew in for a visit in 1970. “There was nothing here.” But he and his family became part-time residents, renting a condo for their visits. They built a house on their lot in 1974, continued as part-time residents for a number of years until he retired and sold his hearing aid business, which was over a decade ago, and moved here full time.
He met his present wife Alicia, about 10 years ago at the Marco Island Shrine Club, introduced by a mutual friend when he was asked to sit with them for lunch.
When I asked Chuck about the most memorable events of his life, he mentioned his brother Johnny, two years younger. Johnny enlisted in the Navy during World War II and served just a week or two short of the 12 months to qualify for discharge status as a veteran which would have made him exempt for the draft. Ironically, on his 18th birthday he was drafted into the army and eventually was sent to Korea, where he was killed in 1951. The other was the fact that at about age 11 he delivered his brother Tommy, who was in a hurry got here before the doctor arrived.
In response to “If you were able to relive one event in your life, what would it be,” it did not take long for Chuck to say it would be raising his daughter Diane. He is a very proud parent and can share a multitude of wonderful memories both recent and past. Parenting her is an immense source of joy, pride and happiness.
A note about the badges and pins in Chuck’s Legion hat: “I have had continuous membership, ever since I joined, 66 years ago. I’m a past commander. This is for the drum and bugle corps. This is the Philippines. These are for going to the national conventions. This is New Orleans 1978, Houston ’79, Boston 1980, and Honolulu. And here is Chicago 1982.” The other side of the hat has insignia regarding the Legion membership and activities.
Charles “Chuck” Purple, we salute you for pausing your young life to serve our country during wartime and for your continued service as an exemplary citizen. We know you consider yourself “Just one of the guys who did their jobs,” but we think you and the other guys define “American.” Thank you!