In 1938, where the Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama borders meet, the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) created a huge lake by closing the gates on a newly constructed Hydroelectric Plant called Pickwick Landing Dam. The inundated area covered 43,100 acres with 496 miles of shoreline. To do so, 506 families, 407 graves, and 70 miles of roads had to be relocated. The timber and farming town of Waterloo, Alabama was one of the communities basically flooded out of existence.
Will Weston, a 1940 graduate of Waterloo High School, recalled, “The new lake shattered the old ways of making a living, farming and lumber. I worked a few odd jobs but when they passed the draft law I knew my future life was Army or Navy. Contrary to my mother’s wishes, I joined the Navy.”
October of 1940: “Well, there I was, an 18-year-old Alabama boy going through basic training in Norfolk, Virginia. We were young, homesick and filled with consternation about what the heck was going on.” Trained on diesel engines after basic, Weston recalled, “I studied light weight high-speed and medium-speed engines. The most interesting training was with the massive heavy duty diesels. They could provide 5,000 to 6,000 horsepower and the cylinders were so large a grown man could stand inside one.”
Assigned to a destroyer, the USS Decatur, an old ‘4-stacker’ from WWI, Weston entered WWII before his country did. “We joined the action in the North Atlantic running escort duty for convoys. America wasn’t in the war yet, but German submarines were shooting at us and we were shooting back at them. We depth charged the U-boats and had surface shot encounters.”
On October 31, 1941, America lost its first ship in WWII action. Weston said, “The Germans torpedoed the destroyer USS Reuben James. I was in the same convoy.” The Reuben James had placed itself between an ammunition ship and the submarines of a German ‘wolf pack’. A torpedo struck and blew off its front bow. Of 159 aboard, only 44 survived.
Weston took part in escort duty until May 1, 1941. He said, “Well, sir, I can’t say the transfer improved my chances for survival. My next ship was the USS Mount Baker, an ammunition carrier. I slept over 16 tons of black powder.” Navigating the Caribbean and North Atlantic, Mount Baker delivered the explosives of war under armed escort. “One of the largest ammo dumps was Argentia, Newfoundland,” Weston said. “You didn’t think about being torpedoed, you just couldn’t, we knew if it hit we were goners.”
December 7, 1941: “We were between Boston and Norfolk when we received word that Pearl Harbor had been bombed,” he said. “We got into Norfolk around 7:00 p.m. Confusion reigned supreme. There were gun emplacements on the roofs, Marines running around, but not until midnight did someone decide a ‘blackout’ might be a good idea.”
Weston slept above black powder from May ‘41 until October ‘42. “The North Atlantic and Caribbean remained our main ports-of-call,” he said. “I recall one voyage on Feb. 7, 1942. We were in a terrible storm and a supply ship in our convoy told us to change course. Luckily, our SOPA (senior officer present afloat) had sailed the North Atlantic for 28 years and refused the change of course. Our captain agreed, so we maintained our old course.” Three ships went off course that day, and all three ships went aground. Two were destroyed, USS Pollux and USS Truxtun, with the loss of 203 men.
While on a port call in Philadelphia, Weston and a shipmate visited an art museum. “We saw two nice- looking girls,” he said. “Well, we were eyeballing them and they were eyeballing us. We introduced ourselves and I was really attracted to the young lady named Dorothy St. Aubyn. We walked around a bit and while looking at art work I took her hand. Well, sir, she didn’t object, and I’m thinking, ‘This is good,’ so I told her, ‘I’m taking you home tonight.’ She hesitated, but called her mom. To our surprise her mom said, ‘Okay,’ so that’s how I met her parents.”
Sparks flew; the romance ignited. “I knew then my bachelor days were over,” Weston said.
In October of ’42, Weston transferred off the ammo ship to report for duty at Greenport, New York on Long Island to help commission YMS-184 (Yardcraft Motor, Minesweeper). Weston said, “Once aboard the minesweeper I figured we’d stay in New York, so Dottie and I started the preliminaries of getting married, the license, a blood test, and made a deal with the minister.”
After the final shakedown cruise, YMS-184 was commissioned in January ‘43. Weston said, “Our primary job was escorting ships through the mine fields protecting New York Harbor. Folks don’t know this, but we also swept for German mines that the U-boats had planted along our coastlines. We found several.” Mine sweepers are made of wood, non-magnetic, to sidestep the magnetic appeal of most vessels.
On June 1 the crew of YMS-184 received disappointing news from their skipper: “Men, we’re heading to the Pacific.” Weston said, “I received a 10-day leave and called Dottie at work to inform her we were getting married immediately. She replied, ‘Oh, my.’ Dottie called her mom, I rustled up a couple of shipmates, then we headed to Philadelphia. We went to the minister’s house to discover him gone. He’d been drafted.”
Dottie’s mother knew a friend whose son was a Presbyterian minister. Weston said, “That did the trick. We got married and headed south for a honeymoon in Waterloo, Alabama.” When asked Dottie’s impression of Waterloo, Weston replied, “She never said.”
June, 1943: YMS-184, at 136 feet in length, a crew of 32, armed with a 3” gun and two 20mm anti-aircraft guns, leaves New York, slips through the Panama Canal and sails into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Will Weston normally kept the diesels maintained in the engine room, but now, his second job assignment aboard the little minesweeper would be needed more than ever: strapped behind a 20mm anti-aircraft gun as the gun-captain.
Sailing into history, the crew YMS-184 would participate in some of the most horrendous battles of WWII, remain afloat in a typhoon that sank larger ships, and survive one of the most gruesome maritime accidents in US naval history.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.