Camillus F. Eason---Interviewed by Mimi Plauché
Mills Eason is a retired police captain from the Norfolk Police Department. He has lived in Norfolk, Virginia, the home of U.S. naval and airforce bases, since the end of the war. He lives alone in a house on property on a tributary of the James River which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. A pier extends from the property out into the water and on land a yellow outboard motor boat with a cover that has not been removed for years sits on a dolly. Several years ago, because he had cancer of the larynx, part of his voice box was removed so he speaks in a strained whisper.
I joined the navy in October of 1941 before Pearl Harbor. And I went, oh I was in what they then called in-shore patrol and I was on a small ship that was called a net tender. It was about probably ..that's it right there (points to the picture of a net tender from an atlas from 1943). The U.S.S. Sandalwood. It had about, there were four officers and I think we had maybe sixty-five, seventy enlisted personnel on there. That's including the chiefs and all. I was a chief petty officer when I got out. I went in as a first class seaman.
And what we did, we built anti-submarine nets. We'd build a net across an inlet. Ships could get behind it. It'd keep submarines and torpedoes from coming in. They were made out of steel cable and chains. And, they had nets across like out here (gestures toward the water that his property backs up to) like about at the entrance to Hampton Roads that ran from the shore over to the other shore with a gate that could open and let ships in and they'd close it back up. Now submarines or anything could not get in, come through in on them.
When I joined they were doing a lot of recruiting then. That was before just before the war, before we got into it. There was a lot of recruiting going on. See this is not my home. My home was down in North Carolina, a place called South Mills. I was at the time working on an oil tanker that ran the inland waterways here from Norfolk to Morehead City, North Carolina. But the draft was about to get me so instead of being drafted I joined the navy. And I had three brothers that were drafted. They all went in the army. All three of them. My mother was real upset because the draft board got all four of her sons at one time. There were some men or boys my age that didn't even get called for the draft. That was in 1941. I would've been about twenty.
I was in the navy. One brother, that one (pointing to a few letters that he received from his eldest brother during the war) was in Europe. Another brother I don't believe he left the States. And then another brother was, well he was in the army just shortly before the war ended. So he joined the army reserve. They called him up in the Korean War, so he was on Korea. He fought over there. All three of them are dead now. They all survived the war.
I had no qualms about going to the war or going to the navy and I would have gone in the army had they drafted me which they were trying to do. But I felt that I'd rather ride than to walk if I had to go. And of course I had been working on the water for a couple of years before that. Anyway, so. I figured that the navy would be all right.
Well, I wasn't in Norfolk much of the time. In fact I wasn't here any of the time. I was in and out. Of course when I first went in we went to a place called Lorain, Ohio and picked up the ship that I was on out in the ship yard there. I stayed on that same ship the whole time I was in the navy. But from there we picked the ship up and we went out up the St. Lawrence River, down the coast to. We made several stops. The day Pearl Harbor was bombed I believe we were in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We had stopped in there. We were kind of dumbfounded. We couldn't believe it that something like that happened. Of course as I say that was a long ways away from us, but. I think everybody was scared. I guess they were scared of everything. Of course some of them believed that the Japanese people could come to this (Atlantic) coast. Of course they were afraid that the Germans were already out there in their submarines. But, I don't know. I can't recall the civilian people. I guess that's all anybody ever talked about back then. The Japs bombing Pearl Harbor. At that point after they bombed Pearl Harbor I probably had no use for them (the Japanese) at all because it was such a treacherous, such a, I would say a dirty deal. Of course maybe we knew. Maybe some of the people here knew it was coming. I think from what you read and all of that now maybe President Roosevelt knew what was going on. The English people knew what was going to happen. They probably didn't say anything because they wanted us into the war.
I don't think the Germans, I don't recall anybody having fears of them invading this country here. I don't think so. I don't recall anybody saying anything about that. But they did have a lot of submarines out there and they were sinking a lot of ships.
From there we came on down to Norfolk and got the ship outfitted and guns put on it and all that and we left here and went down to Morehead City, North Carolina. We built a net down there. Ships coming up and down the coast couldn't get in behind this net and they'd be safe. From there I believe we went down to the Caribbean. Down to Barbados. We built another one of those nets there and came back up to Norfolk. We stayed a little while. From there we went to the Pacific.
I was in Barbados about six weeks. That was in the latter part on 1942. Barbados was all right. Of course there was nothing there then. There was a native population. Most of the population was black. They were British subjects. There was only, well we had one place. A place called the Aquatic Club. It had a big swimming pool. We used to go there a lot. And we'd go down into town once in a while. One of those joints. Nothing but just blacks and us. There was a night club up in the mountains called Morgan's, I believe. That was a right high class, you know. That's where the owners of the plantations went. We went up there once or twice. But mostly when we'd go ashore we'd go downtown and drink nothing but rum and ginger. That's about all there was. But it wasn't too bad. I was on Barbados, nanny and I went in there on the QE II. Quite different. That was '72 or something. It's been a while. But it had grown a lot. When I was there the first time, a big ship couldn't go in there. A little thing like I was on was about all that could get in there.
We ran out of food one time. That was when we were somewhere down in the south. In the Caribbean, I guess. We didn't have anything but bananas on that deck. Just eating bananas for a while. Bread. I can remember on Barbados those people on that island had no bread at all. In fact they would come down to the dock where we had tied up and raid the garbage cans and pick food out of the garbage cans. And eat it. They had nothing. Ships couldn't get in there and we didn't have any bread for a long time. Course we had a cook on there. He could mess up a pot of water. He was afraid to go on deck if we were at sea. Afraid that we'd throw him over board. He made good water. That's all.
Of course, I stayed in the, my bunk was in the chief's quarters and that was right across the passage way from the galley. The officers had a cook. A separate cook. He was a good cook now. A real old black man. But I'm telling you he was a good cook. And I used to, we'd sneak in there once in a while and get something good to eat from him. But it was a lot different then, I guess, from now. We'd eat many a meal sitting on the deck, the plate between your legs, couldn't set up a table it was so rough.
We had one black enlisted man other than the cook. That cook he was black and we had one enlisted man. At that time we still had segregation there. I believe he slept with the rest of the crew down below deck. I never slept down below deck. I did for a little bit but not for too long. Since I was working on the bridge, I stayed in the chiefs' quarters so I didn't. This one guy he didn't stay on there long. It seems like he was on and off in a short while. And then all of them were black and all of them were white. Except the two cooks.
I can remember, talking about segregation, we were up in, somewhere up in Portsmouth, Portsmouth, New Hampshire or someplace we stopped in on the way down. 1941. Went ashore one night and I believe I was by myself. I went in this restaurant and I saw a black couple sitting at a table and I turned around and walked back out. I wouldn't stay in the same place with them. That's how bad it was then. How bad my prejudice was. We had separate schools where I came from. They had their school and we had ours.
Then on Barbados a gang of us went down one night in this joint. Some of the natives there got after us. They had knives and all. We had to run for our, we had to run for our lives to get back aboard the ship. They didn't catch us. I don't know what we were doing. Messing with women I guess. Black women. That's all there was there was blacks.
One night we went up to this club in the mountains. We broke everything up there and they got after us and we came back down the mountain and we got back aboard the ship. Just got there before they caught us. Half a dozen or so of us. You weren't leading the pack were you? I probably was. Things are different now. I've got a silver tray that I stole. I stole it from the Hotel Barbados when we were still down there. Felt guilty ever since. (He looks for the tray for a while in an sideboard but can't find it.) It's probably in there somewhere. I was always sorry I did that. That old hotel was torn down when I went back. It was gone. Even if I had brought it back with me nobody would've known. Nobody was there. I talked to some people that I thought would remember but nobody remembered. You know, the war days. Nobody that I talked to.
We didn't go that way until, it must have been...I remember I spent Christmas of 1944 at Pearl Harbor on Honolulu on my way out. It took a while when we left Norfolk. Down through the (Panama) Canal and back up to San Diego. We left from San Diego to Pearl Harbor which took about a month. We got in a convoy. A slow convoy to Honolulu. When we left San Diego for Pearl Harbor we were in a convoy because of the submarines and all. It was monotonous. We had watches we stood. On four off two. Three watches. And most of the time if you're not asleep, you're reading or playing cards. But I never played cards. I staked a guy and made some money. Poker. I made two or three hundred dollars. That's a lot of money in those days. I was quarter master and I worked on the bridge. What did that entail? Navigation of the ship. Signaling. I never could do much of that. I never was much of a signaler. To other ships. Lights. Morse code. I couldn't do a whole lot of it. But I mostly helped whichever the captain or the executive officer who was on duty. I'd help him in charting. You know, marking the charts, laying out courses, and all of that.
We were kind of to ourselves, I guess. It was not a fighting ship. We
didn't see any action. Although I remember one time going down going south
from Norfolk going down to somewhere down there and we had to do some ash
cans, throw some things off the stern of the ship for submarines. Try to
blow the submarine up. We called them ash cans but they've got a name. We
had a thing on the stern of the ship. They were in this rack and you'd just
roll them off and they sank down to certain level and then explode hoping
maybe there was a sub close by and you could shake 'em up. There's another
name. Depth charges. On our sonar or whatever you call it we thought we
picked up a sub and we started throwing them things off. Depth charges.
If we got them I don't know. That thing wouldn't run more than. She'd do
about ten knots maybe. That's as fast as it would go.
You never really had an fear at any time of being attacked?
Not really. I didn't think about it, I guess. It would scare the hell out of me now. Well I didn't think that I would ever see any action, no. I just didn't think it would happen to us. There were some destroyers but mostly freighters, supply ships in the convoy.
Pearl Harbor was under a curfew. You had to be aboard a ship by six o'clock in the afternoon. Nobody ashore after that. That was just, I don't know. There weren't too many people around. Some of the ships were still, you know, you could see them sunk out there. We towed a target for some ships. Practice. For about a month or so we stayed there. I remember going ashore and eating Christmas dinner with one of the guys aboard the ship and his sister. We had Christmas dinner with them. I think that that was about the only Christmas that I was away from home. That Christmas time, Christmas day.
It seems like to me now things were normal there (in Pearl Harbor) when I was there. So they had had time to quiet down. The ships had been raised. The war had of course by that time moved on in the Pacific and farther. I do remember I went to a restaurant there one time when I was there. You could get one of the best steaks you ever ate in your life for about a buck. I mean a good steak. I do remember that.
We were over there (in Hawaii), Nanny and I several years ago. I guess it's been about ten years maybe or more we went there. Quite different. Quite different.
And from there we went out to Eniwetok, a little atoll out in the Pacific and built a net across one of those places and about that time....that's where I was when the war ended. In Eniwetok. I believe we traveled in a convoy from Pearl Harbor to Eniwetok.
We were out there when Germany surrendered. I was out there when Roosevelt died. I think that was the biggest thing. Everyone was real down then.
Looking for Eniwetok on a map in the same atlas. It's probably so small it's not even on here. It's not down south. It's up north. It's in the Marshall Islands. It was uninhabited. This particular atoll. There was a landing field there. The Americans had built that. They built a recreation place. It was a lagoon like that with an entrance inside. A pretty good size. Ships could go in there. I remember there was a ship sunk in the entrance way to it.
When we arrived there was nobody there. A lot of ships in there. I ran into my then brother-in-law out there. He was on a destroyer. I went over and visited him. Or he, his ship sent a boat over for me. Picked me up and carried me to his to the destroyer for a while. When we were at Eniwetok they had a place ashore for recreation and we'd go ashore there and watch movies and set up over there on the shore on the beach.
By that time they were in Okinawa. If not they were close to it. I got
out there in March of '45 and left in September. When our people got to
Okinawa and took Okinawa I figured it was close to the end then. That the
war would end pretty soon after that. I figured we were in control. But,
I knew nothing about the dropping of the bomb. I knew it after it happened.
We heard about it afterwards. I don't think I remember having any feelings
about it at all. Maybe I thought then that they deserved it. And of course
I kind of half way believe that they did now. I think it shortened the war
and I think it saved a lot of lives. On both sides for that matter. I know
it killed a lot of people there. Would've killed a lot more had we invaded
Japan itself. I believe had we invaded Japan there would've been nothing
left. I think we would've flattened it because I think people were that
fed up with the war.
How did you feel when you hear that the Japanese had surrendered?
I can go home. I can get out of the navy. I had enough points that I could go home. So I caught the first ship available back to the States. From there, I left Eniwetok and came back to San Francisco when the war was over. I had caught a ship back and from there across country. I was discharged in Bainbridge, Maryland. September of '45. We came back on the train. A damn cattle car across country. I brought twenty-five or thirty men across. I brought their records and I told them, I said, I'm going to take your records to where we're going. And I don't give a damn what you all do. You can come if you want to. But they all got their discharge in Bainbridge, Maryland.
The first job I got I broke in on street cars here in Norfolk. Operated a street car. For about a month I guess. Let's see the run I was on. Downtown Church Street out toward Ocean View and back. In November I went into the police department.