The old recruiting slogan "Join the Navy and See the World" actually came true for Newton resident Shelton Keaton.
A native of the small farming-community Angie, La., Keaton was 15 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He said, "We knew where Pearl Harbor was because my oldest brother was stationed on the USS Honolulu." His brother Olan, was a radioman aboard the light cruiser and was topside when the attack began. He survived the attack and the USS Honolulu only suffered minor damage from a near miss.
Keaton wanted to join the Merchant Marines on his next birthday knowing they could accept 16 year olds. He received a resounding, "NO!" from his father, an Army veteran of World War I. His father eventually signed papers in November 1944 for his son to join the US Navy instead of being drafted.
After basic training in San Diego, Keaton was en route to the Philippines in May 1945. Landing on the Luzon Peninsula at midnight and assigned a tent, Keaton said, "There was constant gunfire in the jungle from the Army boys engaging remnants of the Japanese army. It made me glad I was in the Navy."
After a few days, Keaton boarded a coastal LCI (landing craft infantry) and sailed to Luzon Bay. He said, "I've never seen so many ships in my life. The ships and crews were preparing for the upcoming invasion of the Japanese mainland." His brother Olan, was also in Luzon Bay on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. "We were there together," Keaton said. "But we didn't know it."
Assigned to the logistics ship, San Clemente, Keaton and crew eventually sailed to Manila Bay where he performed duties most rookie seaman endure: deck force. He said, "Painting, cleaning, swabbing the deck, a seagoing Gopher." After pulling mess duty, Keaton applied for the galley to learn the cooking trade. "That was pretty neat," he said. Two atomic bombs canceled the invasion of Japan.
The San Clemente sailed to Shanghai, China at war's end for a logistical mission. He said of Shanghai, "A beautiful city, almost untouched by war. But Manila, well, it was devastated, totally destroyed."
His duty done, Keaton was homeward bound for separation in New Orleans. He helped his father farm the cotton crop, was a participant in the 52/20 club (vets received $20 a month for 52 weeks), applied for a job as a rural postman (his lifelong dream to be a postman) but wasn't chosen, and felt unsettled concerning his future. His brother Olan, still in the Navy and home on leave, convinced his younger brother to join the Active Navy Reserves. Keaton did.
Keaton soon found himself part of the "torpedo gang" on a destroyer sailing to GITMO, but two weeks on active duty as a reservist wasn't enough challenge for his restless spirit. Keaton said, "I joined the Maritime Service, went to school in St. Petersburg, but quit after six weeks when I found out there wasn't enough jobs to get a ship.
Applying to Loyola University to study as a pharmacist, his lack of chemistry and lab work kept him out. "The classes were filled with veterans already," he said. "It was tough everywhere." A liberal arts education at Tulane was another no-go; too many veterans. Keaton finally settled on the Spencer Business College in New Orleans. In October 1948, President Truman started the draft, again. Keaton said, "I had to sign up. My father told me I'd never be happy as a civilian and wanted me to go back into the Navy." After the cotton crop was harvested, he did just that, and would retire after a 22 year career as store keeper and supply.
He served two years aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge which he considered, "A great assignment, like being in a city." In October 1950, he was sent to the island of Guam, or "Gooney Bird Island" as it was called, for 19 months during the Korean War. He applied for ‘shore duty' in the U.S. but ended up in the Philippines aboard APA-201 the USS Menard, an attack transport. While on the transport, Keaton's orders for ‘shore duty' finally caught up with him after a three month paper chase.
Sent to the Opa-Locka, Fla., Marine Corps Air Station near Miami, Keaton said he ‘fell in love' with Miami, and also fell in love with his future wife Jetty.
His assignments could fill a book: Duty in Charleston, S.C. on the minesweepers, Aggressive and Avenge, and ocean-going Tug duty on the USS Shakori out of Norfolk, Va. Of the tug duty he said, "A good assignment. I was in charge of all stores and supply." Asked what a tug did, Keaton said, "Rescued and pulled damaged ships back to port, salvage work and we pulled targets for gunnery practice. The battleships fired on the target from 20 miles out."
Asked how far back the target was from the tug when the battleships threw 2,000 pound shells at it, Keaton said, "As far back as we could tow it." Keaton also trained as a deep sea diver.
His favorite assignment was recruiting: his station, Canal Street in New Orleans. "A great assignment," he said. "Monday through Friday work, no weekends, and my wife and I could visit the folks in Angie." Keaton made the rank of Chief while in New Orleans, served in Newfoundland providing fuel for Air Force planes on station protecting the northern approaches from the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and completed his 22 year career in Norfolk at the Operation Test and Evaluation facility. "It was a 10 minute walk from my house," he said. "That was another great assignment."
Keaton retired in December 1966 and did what he always wanted to do: became a mail carrier in Miami with the U.S. post office for 22 years. "I've had a total of 44 years of service," he said with pride.
Jetty passed at the age of 54 from a heart attack. Remarried in two years, Keaton's second wife passed with cancer after 10 years of marriage. His three children Mike, Brian, and Debbie moved their father to Georgia so he could enjoy his seven grandchildren.
Asked what he's been doing since his second retirement, Keaton chuckled and said, "Absolutely nothing. That's the greatest assignment of all."
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. Contact Pete at email@example.com. Visit his website aveteransstory.us.