Donald E. Churchfield
First Class Signalman — United States Navy
World War 2 (1942-1945)
Donald Churchfield served in World War 2 as a First Class Signalman on two essential ships, the USS Doyle and USS Kenton. His experiences are not only an inspiration, but a wonderful tale of travel, success, and family.
Donald Eugene Churchfield was born on September 29, 1922 in Denver, Colorado. Though his eventual path would lead him West to California, his family spent some time in Wyoming at a cattle-ranch when Churchfield was a child. His family was drawn away from Wyoming upon the discovery of Petaluma. “One day, my grandfather was asked to come see a friend in California. He and one of my uncles came out. He found Petaluma, and they said, ‘This is it.’ So the whole family, 12 of us, moved from Wyoming to Petaluma.”
Churchfield’s stepfather owned a drugstore in the middle of Kentucky Street in Petaluma. Ultimately, his business took them to Santa Rosa. Churchfield has fond memories of working for his stepfather before he finished high school and joined the Navy. “Got to know a lot of the businessmen in Petaluma that had their own businesses in Main Street and Kentucky Street, which were the two primary ones. I learned an awful lot working for my dad, meeting all of these other pharmacists. I learned a lot about the business, what went on to keep things flowing.” Churchfield attended Santa Rosa High School and met his wife of nearly 73 years, Pat, there while he was a senior and she was a freshman. Only three weeks after high school graduation, Churchfield went into the Navy.
Churchfield knew he wanted to enlist in the Navy from the beginning. He looked forward specifically to traveling around the world. “The Navy just had a lot more invitation to enjoyment. Difference. Different things, different places. You’re traveling from north of Scotland, and you’re stopping all the way down that side, all the way to Casablanca.” In Churchfield’s opinion, the Navy overshadowed the rest of the military at the time of his enlistment. Churchfield was sent to basic training at the US Naval Station in San Diego. He recalls endearing the various types of physical training.
After roughly three months, he went through a more specific training program. “You have to go through a period of training. Once you finish that, they have a school selection, what direction you would like to go. That’s how I became a signalman. I was sent to special school for three months and I came out as a third class signalman, and that’s when I came aboard ship.” Churchfield was sent to the Signal and Communication School in San Diego. There he learned how to operate as a signalman as well as endured more physical training. “There were the classes, the classroom education. And especially when it came to signalman, and the information that you would be getting, everything, ultimately, everything went on, where you served aboard ship, you were always served up on the bridge with all of the officers. You never worked below deck at all. And, ah, that was all – You know, the other groups, the other divisions, ah, machinist mates, and things, ah, like that, they – Everybody knew where they had to be all the time, because of what they were in, and what they were doing.” Throughout his time in training and at Sea, Churchfield still recalls the lasting friendships he cultivated while he was in the service.
After Signal and Communication training, Churchfield was sent without leave to the USS Doyle. The USS Doyle was Destroyer Number 494. The entirety of his travels on the Doyle were spent taking convoys out of Brooklyn primarily to the North Atlantic. Churchfield even got to celebrate his 21st birthday on the Rock of Gibraltar.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard became Churchfield’s home port for roughly a year. He boarded the ship in Seattle, where it was built. “On a shakedown cruise to break the ship down, one day, they wanted to go to Petaluma, and we said, ‘That’s great you know!’ And the took that as a hint maybe that will be our home port. Well it turned out that when the ship was all ready to go, they announced we were heading for Brooklyn! No Petaluma,” Churchfield recalled wondering if his home port would be located so close to his actual home at the beginning of his service, however he ended up across the country.
The mission of the USS Doyle was guarding convoys. “We’d take large convoys out of New York, and then form up around them. There were eight destroyers, and you kind of surrounded however many ships there were that we were taking over. One of the requests was, in every crossing, there was always one ship that was a laggard, one of the regular ships that we were guarding. And it could be a mile back behind everybody else. So one destroyer was always appointed to go with that ship, but you could never go faster than that ship could. We had a destroyer that could go 35 to 40 miles per hour, but the one we would be guarding was going three or four miles per hour!” Upon his initial arrival on the Doyle, Churchfield was excited. He was looking forward to being on a destroyer, a ship model he admired very much. The living conditions and food proved to be comfortable for the entirety of his stay. For entertainment, Churchfield and his peers would explore local towns when the ship was docked and find events within the towns like live music. He fondly remembers the enjoyment of simply having the freedom to travel within a town and go wherever he felt like going and exploring.
Working as a signalman was time consuming and difficult, but Churchfield proved up to the job. “Being a signalman, you were in on everything, because you were up on the bridge. You were up there where the ship was being guided, where all the officers were. You learned a lot of things up there.” Churchfield grew accustomed to being on the bridge and serving as an essential part of communication at sea. “You were there for any inter-ship, every con – ship confrontation, ship transmission from one – In your squadron, for instance, you have a destroyer. Well, there was always a lot of going-on message between ships like that. You were just involved in – in all of the conflicts, whatever was coming, you had good word on. When I say a ‘signalman,’ a signalman has to stand up, and a lot of times, you’re standing up, or you’re even being held up, because of the situation of the ship at that area, to send your message, and you might be sending a message to the ship. There might be eight ships, and you’re sending a message of the first ship in that why, in that bunch. A signalman knew all the time where the ship was going; whereas so much of the other crew had no idea where the ship was going. So you were up there where all of the information initially came from headquarters. And all the officers, the captains, and you-name-it, so that’s what it was. You were – you were at the source of everything that went on. And you transmitted a lot of the information that worked – to help work this force going.”
Churchfield had no regrets about becoming a signalman in the Navy. He recalled the extreme amount of learning and new knowledge he was constantly acquiring while he worked as a signalman. He especially enjoyed having a first eye on fresh information at sea, whereas many of the men working below deck constantly lacked information regarding where the ship was heading and how long it was going to take. In general though, Churchfield remembers the morale was very good aboard. With about 250 men aboard the Doyle, Churchfield doesn’t remember any skirmishes or many arguments between men. “Everybody had a real responsibility, and that’s what you had to be aware of. So there was no time for horseplay or anything like that.” Churchfield remembers that though the various captains he had were different, they all were competent and often surpassed that. One instance he recalls is one signalman spilled water all over the Officer of the deck at the time, and despite the pouring rain, the officer made the signalman get a broom and sweep the deck in the downpour.
Churchfield called not only his family, but his high school sweetheart and now wife, Pat, from every port he could. Despite distance and time, their relationship continued to flourish.
After serving on the USS Doyle from 1943 to 1944, Churchfield was selected for Officer’s Training School. “We came back from overseas, and we stopped in Maryland at a Naval Station, before proceeding on to Brooklyn. And when we were in Maryland, an officer came up to me, and said, ‘You have been picked, along with one other gent – another fellow, machinist’s mate, to go to college and go to Officer’s Training School.’ And I couldn’t believe it, and I said, ‘Officers Training School?’ I had no intentions, you know, of going that far with it,” Churchfield said. Though Churchfield did not have serious intentions of becoming an officer, the 30-day leave offered with Officer’s training was his first opportunity since enlisting to visit home and the offer enticed him. Though he was intent to put his full effort into Officer’s Training, he knew math was going to be a problem. “I had always hated math, and I had trouble with math all the way through school.” The program worked with dozens of cooperating colleges, including Churchfield’s choice: University of California Berkeley. After about four months, Churchfield along with a group of other candidates were dismissed from the program. He remembers doing well in all of his courses, except ones involving higher levels of math, which eventually were his downfall.
However, his brief stint at Officer’s Training school put no halt to Churchfield’s positive outlook or hunger for travel as he quickly was sent aboard a new ship, the USS Kenton in 1944 for nearly two and a half years. The Kenton carried ammunition and invasion troops and was a ship called an APA. At this time, Churchfield’s rank was second class signalman, though he had already passed the examination to be a first class signalman. While onboard, Churchfield traveled to Pearl Harbor from Washington carrying troops, and to the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. From the Leyte Gulf, the Kenton was called to participate in the invasion of Okinawa, carrying troops and other cargo.
Onboard the ship, Churchfield went through three months of training to prepare for the invasion of Okinawa. The ship traveled from Hawaii to Guam and practiced invasion scenarios. For the initial invasion of Okinawa, off the coast of Japan, Churchfield remembers the caution superiors and peers were warning him of. “They said, ‘Look out for floating bombs. Look out for floating bombs. and anything that looks like it’s floating, that’s circular, or even otherwise; but be very careful, and be sure you just check everything as well as you can. That’s all you can do.’” It was two days before Churchfield’s ship encountered any troops at Okinawa because they had gone up the mountains for more protection.
“Our ship was told to bypass the initial invasion area, and go another 15 or 20 miles, where we would be encompassed in a separate area. ‘And you’ll have constant airplane guards overhead all the time, and outs on – outside.’ Well, we had no idea what we might have had aboard that warranted this amount of surveillance and care. And we just – we said, ‘Well, what – what could we have?’ We never knew. But we had this coverage. We had planes flying overhead all the time, and then we had the planes down around the water area, circulating around where we were.” The Kenton was eventually sent back down through Okinawa in the midst of the fighting. The Kenton participated in air attacks on April 6, 1945 and took down two of seven enemy planes.
After the invasion of Okinawa, the Kenton sailed to Guam, the Philippines, and Yokohama, Japan while Churchfield was a signalman. The Kenton eventually arrived back in the United States on October 10, 1945 in San Francisco. On V-Day in 1945, Churchfield was traveling back to the states. For him, it was a great exhale of tension and worries that could be released.
In 1945, Churchfield finally married his long time sweetheart Pat. The Kenton had come to San Francisco to stop for repairs in the shipyard mid year. Having only one week, Pat and Donald decided after nearly three years of being apart they were ready to tie the knot. “It was great, because my family and her family got together and put on a beautiful wedding for us. We invited a lot of our old high school teachers, ones that were still there, and some that had left, but came back. It was super! The parents did a beautiful job. When I went back out, we were married!”
When Japan surrendered, Churchfield was still onboard the Kenton. “After the surrender, we were appointed to go into Tokyo’s landing craft area, they sent a Japanese guide to come aboard our ship to guide us into Tokyo Harbor. I can remember. I was on duty as signalman that day, and I was standing behind this Japanese instructor telling an American ship how to get into Tokyo. I kept thinking, what in the hell was the purpose? Why did it all have to happen?” Walking through Tokyo was what Churchfield described as similar to a “dream sequence.” After years of turmoil and chaos, the sight of the city seemed unreal. “I’ll just never forget the inner feeling that I had, number one to me was ‘Why?’ Why did it happen? Your mind kind of draws a blank in some regard, when this happens to you.” Churchfield was not only struck by amazement, but also many questions about the destructions of war. He recalls walking down the street in Tokyo and watching many of the Japanese ladies lay out their things, food, clothing, items, for sale. “You searched your mind for an answer. You were trying to find a real reason why this all had to come about.”
Growing up, Churchfield was no stranger to the Japanese population. In Petaluma, he had many dear friends who were from Japan. Experiencing the surrender of Japan reminded him of his childhood, the Japanese friends he had kept in touch with, and the general kindness of the people he knew. “You can’t get angry at these people. They didn’t do anything. These are your friends for God’s sake. They’re still your friends. Where there was a war or not, these people are your friends.” Churchfield grew up without any antagonism between himself and other races. “That why I found myself shaking my head, walking down that boulevard, when I thought back how well we got along, growing up. Why did something like this have to happen?”
Aboard the Kenton, Churchfield lived comfortably. The food and living conditions were comfortable and Churchfield didn’t experience any shortages. Similar to his time on the USS Doyle, for entertainment Churchfield would explore ports. When the ship was to be docked for a few days, there was often arranged entertainment. Churchfield never had any experiences with lack of morale, whether it be on the Doyle or Kenton.
Interacting with the officers became less of a daunting task for Churchfield, who became good friends with some of them. “You grew up with them. They’re just real nice, great, great guys. They had a position as an officer. But that didn’t take from them what they were as people.”
In October of 1945, the Kenton arrived back in San Francisco, the last stop for Churchfield. His discharge took place in Southern California in a high school assembly hall. Churchfield along with a group of men went through the discharging program gracefully and with ease. Churchfield never regretted his choices, but nethertheless, he was happy to be home again after nearly four years away. For his time in the service, Churchfield received various awards with different groups of men.
Upon his return home, Churchfield settled into daily life again. “I was happy. That’s the best thing I can say is, I was happy when I wasn’t in the service, and I did enjoy being where I was in the service. I have thanks. I had always hoped to travel someday, and I thought, ‘My God! I never thought I’d get this much traveling!’” Throughout his time at sea, Churchfield was motivated by victory from the beginning of his service to the end.
Churchfield decided to return to school. He originally signed up for Santa Rosa Junior College, but decided not to enroll after a few weeks of thinking it through. Churchfield was interested in journalism and art; two fields he didn’t feel were best suited at Santa Rosa Junior College. Before joining the Navy, his journalism teacher had encouraged Churchfield to go to University of Missouri. While this was his original plan once he returned home, when Churchfield learned about the Academy of Advertising Art in San Francisco, his life shifted to a new direction. Combining his passion for art and writing, Churchfield enrolled in the school. He and Pat lived just three blocks away. After attending the school for three and a half years, Churchfield started working with his first design group. An old friend had found Churchfield a job, and they worked together in the city with a design studio. Churchfield continued working with three primary graphic design studios designing logos for 35 years. In 1987, Churchfield decided to continue working from home using messenger services rather than commuting to and from the city daily.
Churchfield also explored a unique hobby of woodcarving. He managed to skillfully combine both woodcarving and designing logos throughout his graphic design career, successfully balancing both vocations.
Though there are not many friends left today, Churchfield still keeps in touch with those that are alive. He and Pat have attended some reunions, though it is becoming more difficult with less men.
Churchfield looks fondly upon his time as a signalman. Thought it was a difficult task, it was fun work and a learning experience. Now equipped with knowledge and understanding of deadlines, working together, and being quick on your feet, Churchfield came out of the military with tools for a successful life.
The scariest experience for him was a false alarm of a torpedo tail Churchfield questioned while he was on watch. Nothing ultimately came of it, but I was on signal duty at this particular time from midnight till 4 in the morning. We had 4-hour service duty. And I was on watch, and I can remember it was a moonlight night. And, all of a sudden, I see this trail heading towards the ship, and it almost looked like a torpedo trail. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God! Do I yell out? Do I yell out what I think I see? Or just do I cross my fingers, and cross my heart, and pray to God that it isn’t what I think it is?’ Because there wasn’t much time left when I saw it, and where it was headed, it was headed towards us. But it had all the earmarks initially of a torpedo trail, and I – ‘Oh, God,’ I said. But thank God nothing happened. But there were a lot of various other things that – that occurred, that were – that you might say “disruptive.” But they came as a group-type thing.”
As all veterans do, Churchfield sacrificed to serve and protect our country. He was away from home, his wife, and his family for nearly four years. However, the sacrifices he made are justified in his mind. He knew the work he was doing was helping, and essential to victory. All of the interesting people and places that Churchfield got to meet and see were perks of his time at sea. Kindness never failed to follow Churchfield, whether it was overseas or in the states. He recalled one Thanksgiving with one of his best friends, Colin Ron Sedez, were invited out of the blue by a couple of strangers to attend their Thanksgiving dinner in New Jersey rather than eat at a restaurant. “It was just great. She had a big family, a huge family, and they were all there. One of them was a drunk uncle! They tried to keep him quiet all night. I’ll never forget that!”
Being in the Navy taught Churchfield the value of responsibilities. He believes it is essential for people today to recognize that countries are bickering amongst each other more than ever before. Constant conflict has created an uneasy environment throughout the world that Churchfield believes should be noted so that improvements can be made.
For men and women interested in serving, Churchfield encourages them to explore all options relating to the military, because all the varied groups offer a lot for young people to experience and find a place for themselves. He also encourages people to think about joining the Navy if they are interested in the military because of his highly regarded experiences. “The Navy offers the greatest opportunity to get out and learn something. You’re sent someplace in the Navy, but you’re always going to be going somewhere. You’re always going to have the opportunity to strengthen your realization of what else is out there.”
Regarding to life, Churchfield said, “You just have to do the damndest you can to get alone wherever you are, and not cause friction between this person or that, or with yourself, or anybody else. Just avoid friction. Enjoy where you are. I would never on Earth have dreamt that I would set foot in some of the places I did.”
Donald Eugene Churchfield, a man with no regrets. He has continued to lead his life with a sense of gratitude, happiness, and discipline. Now a smiling face that interjected many laughs into the tale of his bravery through service, Churchfield still remains as an accomplished and admirable father, husband, and citizen of the United States of America.
Interview conducted by Emily Sweet on July 17, 2017.