Pearl Harbor babies are hard to locate. Joe Neely is one of the few.
“My dad’s ship, the USS San Francisco, was moored in Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked. I was three months old. The family was getting ready for church when the bombs and torpedoes fell. I certainly don’t recall the attack, but my 4-year-old brother and 7–year-old sister witnessed the Day of Infamy.”
The USS San Francisco was moored between four other ships, two on each side; damage was superficial. Joe said, “The other four vessels didn’t fair too well. Dad hitched a ride with our neighbor and reported to his duty station amid the fighting. I really don’t know exactly what Dad did that day, but I’m sure he was very busy.”
The USS San Francisco was being overhauled, especially her weaponry, so the crew only had small arms and two 7.6 mm machine guns to fight back. Many crossed to the USS New Orleans to help man anti-aircraft guns. Work on the San Francisco resumed after the attack. One week later she put to sea. In November, ’42, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal sent two Neely brothers into harm’s way and another American family would lose all five of theirs.
Joe said, “The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was a horrific sea battle. My dad, of course, was on the USS San Francisco and my uncle was on the USS Atlanta. Both were very lucky sailors; they survived.” The USS San Francisco took 45 major hits, 77 men killed, 105 wounded. She stayed afloat and finally returned stateside for repairs. During the battle, the USS Juneau transferred medical personnel to the San Francisco to assist in treating the many wounded. An hour later USS Juneau was struck by an enemy torpedo. The ship literally disintegrated, killing almost all her crew, including the five Sullivan brothers. Only 10 crewmen survived. The Atlanta was in the thick of things, fought valiantly, yet received so much damage she was eventually scuttled.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, military families were evacuated due to a perceived invasion threat from Japan. Joe continued, “Mom and the kids ended up in Long Beach, CA, but after the USS San Francisco returned stateside for repairs my father was reassigned to Puget Sound and actually served on the USS Puget Sound. I was still just a young kid, but I do remember being in Washington state and seeing all the vessels come in and out, living in one half of a Quonset hut, and seeing military parades.”
A typical “military brat,” as Joe put it, the family moved constantly. Joe said, “Kindergarten and first grade in the state of Washington, second and third grade in Long Beach, then my parents divorced. My brother and I ended up at the Southern California Military Academy, SCMA, or as we called it, Southern California Miniature Alcatraz. In 1955 I had the opportunity to live with Dad, which I did. As harbor commander in New Orleans, he obtained the rank of Lieutenant Commander until he was transferred to Mobile. I attended grades eighth through tenth in Mobile, Dad retired in 1957, and we moved back to our family roots in Newton County. I graduated from Newton County High School in May of 1960. One month later I joined the Navy with two buddies.”
Joe was, as Hank William’s, Jr. crooned, “Carryin’ on a Family Tradition.”
Within a week of signing on the dotted line, Joe and his buddies were en route to Chicago for training at the Great Lakes Training Camp.
“Well, that’s another story,” he said. “When we left Atlanta it was 92 degrees and I’m in a short sleeve shirt and a thin pair of trousers. Upon arrival at Chicago it was 49 degrees and raining, and getting colder. We were supposed to be issued uniforms at Camp Berry but none were available. We waited two weeks for basic clothing. Until then, we had the clothes on our backs. We washed our clothes every night, hung them to dry in the steam room, yet every morning we still donned damp clothing. It was not very pleasant.”
Basic training took place virtually across the street from Camp Berry at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Joe recalls, “Training was basic stuff, and our rifles were single shot .22’s with an indoor range. Ya see, you don’t carry rifles in the Navy… but our guns are bigger!”
In August Joe reported to Norfolk, VA to board his home for the next four years, the aircraft carrier, CVS-45, USS Valley Forge. “I was a fireman apprentice and should have been assigned to engineering but somehow ended up in the 1st Division for regular seamen. There you learn how to paint and clean a ship, which I did. After a week an officer stopped me in a corridor and asked why I wasn’t in engineering. I ‘enlightened’ him that I was just doing what I was ordered to do. He was livid and swore a blue streak. That afternoon I reported to engineering.”
Now Joe acquired his real trade. “I learned and maintained hydraulic systems, air compressors, steam, refrigeration, catapults, the airplane elevators; shoot, we pretty much had the run of the ship. The Valley Forge was huge, at least to this country boy, like a cruise ship. I never complained about the food either, and I enjoyed my duty.”
In the Atlantic, the Valley Forge took part in “Operation Mercury.” She recovered nose cones from space shots at Cape Canaveral and in Sept of 1960 rescued 28 seamen off the merchant tanker Pine Ridge. Joe recalled, “By the time we reached the Pine Ridge she had broken into two pieces. I saw the aft section with the bridge standing straight up in the water. The 28 seamen were clinging to the still-afloat stern section but we were able to rescue the entire crew.”
In July of 1961, the Valley Forge was modified to suit her new role as an Amphibious Assault Ship LPH-8 (Landing Platform Helo). Joe stated, “In September we trained with troop-carrying helicopters which was good because a crisis soon developed in the Dominican Republic. The Trujillo regime was overthrown so we were ordered to operate in the waters off Hispaniola to evacuate American personnel if needed.”
By the 23rd of January, 1962, the Valley Forge had scraped along the sides of the Panama Canal and anchored at her new homeport in Long Beach, CA. She set sail for duty with the Seventh Fleet three months later.
“In May we were ordered to land the Marine Team via helicopters in Thailand,” said Joe. “The Communist Pathet Lao forces in Laos had renewed the assaults against the Royal Laotian Government and the government of Thailand was concerned about an invasion of their own country. Our task force closed the coastline and sent the Marines in. Luckily, by July the crisis abated.”
“The training and retraining never let up, for good reason. By 1964, the Valley Forge was positioned off the Vietnamese coast after destroyers Turner Joy and Maddox were reportedly attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Joe recalls, “We were on station 57 days, prepared for whatever came our way. But as an assault ship, we were soon shuttling Marines to and from Okinawa, Japan, and Vietnam.”
Four years aboard the Valley Forge came to an end in 1964. “I received orders for shore duty,” Joe recalled. “Of all things, I was assigned to the base commissary. The war in Vietnam was heating up and there I was stocking shelves in the equivalent of a grocery store. That didn’t last long, though. I was put in charge of ordering all beef products to the commissary, the largest in Long Beach.”
In 1966, Joe had to make a decision: reenlist or return to civilian life. “I was offered a promotion if I stayed, ‘after’ I signed up, but I wanted the promotion ‘before’ I reenlisted. We couldn’t agree on when and where so it was time to leave.”
“When and where” for Joe turned out to be the new Mobile Chemical Plastics in Covington. “I worked there until being transferred across the street to the Foam Plant in 1970. The Foam Plant burned down in 1972 but I stayed on for the ‘clean up’ and rebuilding.”
At the county fair in 1975 Joe talked to recruiters for the Army National Guard. “I signed up,” he said. “For the next four years I was a weekend warrior. Then I applied and received a position with AGR (Active Guard Reserve). I stayed with the AGR for the next 21 years.”
Joe Neely’s lifelong service to his country included military exercises in Germany, assignment to the state headquarters in Atlanta, attending the Sergeant Major Academy at Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX, instructing at Fort Bliss, working for the Inspector General’s Office, until completing his military career with the human resources outfit. Joe retired in June of 2001.
“I tried to get back in after 9/11,” he said “But nothing was available at the time. Besides, my wife became ill and I lost her in 2003. I avoided invitations to dances, singles clubs, things like that. But in 2004 I was talked into a singles dance at the American Legion Post 77 in Conyers. Well, I met Pat. She was also there for the first time. We were married 77 days later. Five years later we realized we met at Post 77 and were married exactly 77 days later, so as they say, it was meant to be. She is the love of my life.”
Joe and Pat Neely stay busy supporting and participating in Legion and other veteran events. “We love to travel,” Joe said. “So far we’ve been on 16 cruises.”
Keep cruising, Joe… you’ve earned it.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com