Military News

In peace and war, Olympia vet spent his life on the water

World War II Navy veteran John Hurst, 94, has spent nearly his entire life on the water. Today, the Olympian doesn’t get out on the water much, instead he carves miniatures of the boats he’s sailed on.
World War II Navy veteran John Hurst, 94, has spent nearly his entire life on the water. Today, the Olympian doesn’t get out on the water much, instead he carves miniatures of the boats he’s sailed on. toverman@theolympian.com

John Hurst went to war June 1, 1942, “because that’s what people did then.”

At 94, he can recite every ship and posting that he had as part of the Coast Guard, but he skips over details of the fighting, except for a few comments about enemy submarines and plucking sailors from the water.

“He’s never really talked to me much about that,” his son, Rod Hurst, said. “The only story I can remember hearing him talk about never got into details. But (the war) was something that shaped his life.”

With 492 World War II veterans dying every day, memories are becoming fewer.

 

A conversation with Hurst is almost always about the ships. The fact that he spent his war years on board ships is no coincidence. Born in Shelton in 1921, he was brought home in a rowboat on Hammersley Inlet. His father had tugboats, and Hurst grew up on the water.

After the war, he returned to South Sound and more tugboats.

Hurst joined the Coast Guard, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt had placed under the direction of the U.S. Navy when the United States joined the war. After boot camp in California, Hurst was sent to the East Coast, where he found himself on the Navy frigate USS Uniontown.

The Uniontown was completed in April 1944 and in December was assigned duty as a convoy escort. She made three round-trip voyages across the Atlantic, escorting convoys to Oran, Algeria, and back.

“We escorted about 45 or more freighters,” Hurst recalls. “One westerly crossing was 22 days at sea, making a 3,000-mile trip.”

Hurst was a quartermaster, an assistant navigation officer. He was responsible for the chronometer and as many as 1,000 charts.

Charts were no mystery to Hurst, with his experience in Puget Sound waters. His son, Rod, who came into Hurst’s family at age 14, when John and Shirley Hurst married, says growing up with John Hurst gave him more experience and enjoyment on the water.

“It gave me a different perspective, mainly seeing it from my dad’s perspective. He knew every corner we went around; it had a name and he knew it. I found that fascinating,” Rod Hurst said.

John Hurst spent most of his WWII years at sea or in the Mediterranean. Nonbattle life on board was comfortable.

“Food and lodging were definitely better (than ground troops),” he said. “Chow was OK. We generally only had fresh milk for the first week of any voyage.”

Asked if Navy beans were named for a reason, he said, “Well, we had beans. And the much-reviled Spam.”

The journeys were not uneventful. The escort ships were armed. When submarines would attack the convoy, the Navy ships would drop depth charges and “hedgehogs,” which were mortars fired ahead of a ship when attacking a U-boat.

“The (USS Menges) had 30 feet blown off its stern,” Hurst recalls. His frigate would also recover bodies, he said but didn’t elaborate.

As the war wound down, the Uniontown came back to New York. “They were going to make a weather boat out of her,” Hurst said.

Hurst left the life of an enlisted man behind. And although he kept the memories, he didn’t acquire the notorious reputation for “salty language” that often comes with being a sailor.

“In 30 years, I’ve never once heard him use an (off-color) word,” longtime friend Sam Simpson of Olympia said.

After the war, Hurst came back to Puget Sound and went to work as a deckhand. One of the tugs he worked on was the Sandman, still a South Sound icon.

“She was on a gravel run to Steilacoom,” he said.

He tried other businesses, but always ended up on the water.

“I tried to get in business at the end of the wooden boat building,” he said, but he ended up going to work for Shelton Towing Co, moving logs and barges.

“I liked it. I never went to work a day in my life,” he said.

He also worked for Manke Lumber Co. on the tugboat Danielle (named for one of the owner’s granddaughters, Hurst recalls). He was a captain then, and moved huge rafts of logs through the sound. A raft could have 400 truckloads of logs in it. Under tow, Danielle moved at 1.5-2 knots.

If a raft broke up, the tug would have to gather the logs and secure them again.

“One time we lost a load and it took three days to pick it up,” he recalled.

Sometimes his wife of 30 years, Shirley, would work as a cook on the Danielle, which had a crew of four.

Puget Sound has changed, Hurst said. “The water is not as pristine. And waterfront property has become for the well-to-do. Poor people used to live on the water,” he said.

When he wasn’t working on the water, he was fishing at Neah Bay.

At 79, he won a medal for rowing a 12-foot dinghy at the Wooden Boat Fair.

The Hursts live in the house near Olympia High School that he designed and built at age 80. Always a craftsman, he also did the extensive finish work.

“I remember him moving dirt around, leveling the lot, pulling topsoil around in a wagon behind a riding lawnmower,” Rod Hurst said.

John Hurst credits his wife, his habits and his Norwegian heritage for his good health.

“Stay active and physical,” he said. Shirley says he eats healthfully, although he has quite a sweet tooth.

“If you keep your teeth, you can eat anything,” he said.

His family and friends remember other life lessons and inspiration.

“From the very beginning, he accepted me as a person and I appreciated him,” Rod Hurst said. “He helped give me confidence and a love for life, and also a love for other people. He helped me strengthen my faith in people and in the world.”

Rod Hurst is an Episcopalian priest in New Mexico. His children Skype with their grandparents every week.

“He always has a poem or nursery rhyme for them that he’s memorized since his childhood,” Rod Hurst said.

John Hurst doesn’t get out on the water these days, but he hasn’t stopped carving detailed models of boats he’s known, including the Sandman. Some are small, like the boats he’s carved for each grandchild. Some, like the Sandman, are several feet long.

Active all his life, Hurst now uses a walker to get around. Although he spent just three years, eight months and 10 days of his 94 years in the service. the memories are vivid.

“World War II was a total commitment by everybody,” he said.

Jerre Redecker: 360-754-5422, @jredecker

VETERANS DAY EVENTS

Laying of the wreath: A ceremony at 8 a.m. Wednesday on the Capitol Campus grounds near the Capitol Building will include the laying of a wreath at the Winged Victory Monument, which honors those who served in World War I, and brief remarks by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Reading of the names: Sponsored by the Sacajawea Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, this ceremony will take place from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is near the Insurance Building. This ceremony includes the reading of the names of the more than 1,200 state residents who were killed or went missing during the Vietnam War.

Ceremony in the Rotunda: The Thurston County Veterans Council's annual Veterans Day ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda runs from 11 a.m. to noon, and includes musical performances and cannon and rifle salutes near the north stairs of the Capitol Building.

Buffalo Soldiers in America: The Washington State Historical Society, in partnership with the Buffalo Soldiers Museum, hosts a presentation about the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. The program is the keynote presentation at the Veterans Day ceremony that runs from 1-3 p.m. Wednesday at the Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. Free for all military veterans, including ex-military, retired military, and those in active service. Admission is $11 for other adults, $8 for students and seniors, and children age 5 and younger get in free.

JBLM salutes Korean War vets: Joint Base Lewis-McChord will host a salute to Korean War vets at 10 a.m. Friday. The base’s DuPont Gate at Interstate 5’s Exit 119 will open at 9 a.m. Friday to veterans and their families.

HISTORY OF VETERANS DAY

World War I officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day.

The original concept for the celebration was for a day observed with parades and public meetings and a brief suspension of business beginning at 11 a.m.

In 1938, Nov. 11 was made a legal holiday — a day to be celebrated as "Armistice Day." Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but in 1954, after World War II had required the greatest mobilization of service members in the nation’s history and after American forces had fought aggression in Korea, Congress amended the act of 1938 by striking out the word "Armistice" and inserting in its place the word "Veterans." Nov. 11 became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

  Comments