John Leonard Craig
2nd Class Petty Officer – U.S. Navy,
USS Hunter Liggett, USS General J.H. McRae
World War II (1943-1946)
When asked to share some wisdom for future generations, John Craig responded, “When you work, do the best you can, no matter what it is. Whether you’re a garbage man or an executive. Be the best you can be at that.” This may seem like simple advice, but it is also what had guided Craig throughout his life. When assigned to the Navy Medical Corps with little medical training, Craig strove to do his best, resulting in a successful Military career. His work in the Navy not only helped masses of wounded soldiers, but also serves as an inspiration for future generations.
Craig was born on August 11, 1925 in San Francisco. He grew up in Mill Valley at a time when the US was being threatened by both the Great Depression and an impending second World War. Craig remembers, “The world was going to Hell in a bushel basket with everybody fighting. The Germans were overrunning Europe. The Japanese were overrunning China and Manchuria. And the atrocities that we had heard kind of made people mad. I know I wanted to get in and do something as soon as possible to stop it.”
Craig had been held back by pneumonia for two years, so he was only a Sophomore in high school when he turned eighteen. It was at that time that he decided to enlist in the Navy. He recalls joining in order to “try to straighten the world out.” This sentiment, that one should enlist in the military in order to bring order to a chaotic world, was very common at the time. Craig’s own brother was in the Navy Air Corps and his father would serve on the USS Brooklyn in the Pacific during WWII. It was because of this strong Navy background that Craig chose to enlist in the Navy. He commented, “My father was in the Navy, I always liked ships. I just loved, and still like, the Navy.”
In 1943 Craig was sent to Farragut, Idaho for his basic and medical training. During basic training Craig’s unit practiced marching, rowing, using firearms, and doing calisthenics. Craig’s superior was a First Class Petty Officer who took their training very seriously. Extensive training, as well as a competent and interested Officer, resulted in a positive basic training experience for Craig. Following a brief leave, Craig was next chosen to enter the Navy Medical Corps. This decision was made not because of any previous medical experience or aptitude test, but rather by pure luck. Craig remembers men being drafted randomly into various specialties. While his medical training was adequate, it was not as extensive as his basic training. Craig explained, “They gave you the basics. How to give shots, how to bandage, and first aid…. They just covered the high points. I guess they figured that we would absorb what we needed later on.” This idea, that one could learn better by doing rather than by sitting in a classroom, was common throughout Craig’s service. He would often be forced to learn medical procedures while on the job.
After another brief leave, Craig was next sent to Mare Island, where he was assigned to the TB Ward. At the time, Craig had the rank of Hospital Apprentice Second Class. His duties included taking the vitals of TB patients, preparing the doctors for any procedures, fixing up medical facilities, preparing equipment, and taking x-rays. Craig was expected to carry out these duties with no other additional training than a ten minute discussion with the doctor. He remarked, “I was there, I did it. It was my job.” Despite his sparse training, Craig feels he was effective in his service at the Mare Island TB Ward. He explained, “We had a lot of wounded people who had been severely damaged. There was one fellow that had been burned badly at Pearl Harbor and they were still doing skin grafts on him. There was another fellow that had lost his leg. So everybody was trying to get them rehabilitated. These were just a few of the sick that were there. So we were all working our cans off to get them taken care of.”
Craig was happy to be so close to home and remembers the morale being high. Coping was easy, as the men on Mare Island had no time to think about anything but their work. They lived in large barracks with about forty men in each. Although he has no recollection of the entertainment, Craig remembers the food being excellent. Apparently food was one of the many areas in which the Navy excelled.
In February 1944 Craig was assigned to the USS Hunter Liggett, a ship used to train Marines for landings. The Hunter Liggett had been involved in the invasions of Guadalcanal and Bougainville before becoming a training ship stationed in San Diego. The ship would travel from San Diego to San Clemente and back. While Craig was aboard the ship, the Marines underwent three training island invasions. He described them as, “Full Scale. We had a landing craft along our ship and they actually made landings. They had to go down the cargo nets, get in the landing craft, and go to the beach.” The Marines training aboard the Hunter Liggett would go on to partake in the battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Leyte. During this time Craig was working in the medical facilities as a “general clean up man.” Despite the fact that he was “low on the totem pole”, Craig remembers the morale being very high. In general, he was in awe of the ship and the equipment used by the Marines.
During this time Craig lived aboard ship in a bunk. He described it as “clean, warm”. As was the norm in the Navy, the food was excellent. For entertainment, Craig and his friends could go fishing, read, look at the water, or look at the sky. He does not recall there being much to do for entertainment.
In August 1944 Craig was assigned to the USS General J.H. McRae, a transportation ship. The McRae was 550 feet long and could carry four thousand troops. For armament it had four five-inch 38 caliber guns, ten 20mm anti-aircraft guns, and two 1.1-inch 75 caliber quad guns. The purpose of the ship was to transport troops and wounded overseas and back home. While on the ship Craig remembers traveling throughout the South Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.
While on the McRae, Craig was assigned to the surgical unit, where he was to be in charge. Although he received no additional training, he was given an instructional book. He commented, “You implemented what you had to. You did with what you had to work with.” Craig’s duties included sterilizing the operating rooms, making operational packs for different operations, and maintaining the critical ward. He described the medical facility as “a real hospital” complete with six beds, ten padded cells, a resident surgeon, dentist, and senior medical officer. Craig worked with about twenty men, whom he described as “a bunch of good guys.” When the ship had wounded aboard they would work 14-16 hour shifts. Sometimes Craig and his unit would sleep on the hospital floor. Although this was grueling work, Craig recalls having a spectacular post-operative record. This can perhaps be partly attributed to the fact that Craig’s unit used penicillin on all patients. Craig commented, “It was my job to give all the penicillin shots to all the wounded, day and night. So I would fill a big syringe with it and take a bunch of needles and I’d go around and I was stabbing people.” Although the medical supplies were generally sufficient, Craig does remember occasional shortages. When those shortages did occur, Craig and his unit would make homemade supplies. For example, the medical unit would make bandages out of templates and gauze. While these homemade supplies were not ideal, they would have to work.
When he wasn’t sleeping on the hospital floor, Craig slept in a bunk. He described the living conditions as “great, nice and dry, clean.” The food was generally good, except for Sunday nights, when the cook would serve them bologna and cheese. For entertainment, Craig and his unit could play poker or look at the water. Occasionally there was a movie. Craig remembers the morale being excellent and thinks that his unit was effective in their service.
Since the McRae was a transportation ship, it was generally safe. Craig only remembers one instance in which the ship was in danger. While in Biak the ship was fired at by Japanese soldiers. Out of anger, the McRae’s gun crew fired back. When asked if there were any wounded, Craig joked, “No. But the Japanese may have killed some fish.”
The McRae was in the Philippines when Craig found out that the war in Europe had ended. The entire ship was elated, especially since this meant that the Military could focus its efforts on the war in the Pacific. By the time the war had ended in the Pacific, the McRae was about to pick up troops to bring them to an invasion of Japan. The ship was going through the Strait of Gibraltar on its way to Marseilles when the news was broadcasted over the PA system. Craig remembers everyone erupting in cheers. He remarked, “Everybody was real happy. All they could think was, when am I going home.”
In March 1946 Craig was discharged from the Navy at Camp Shoemaker, CA. Although he was happy to be home, Craig remembers feeling a sense of apprehension about the future. He recalls thinking, “What am I gonna do now? What are my old buddies gonna do? We were all happy to get out, but all of sudden, oh, what am I gonna do… There were six million people under arms, so they’re all coming back, what kind of job are you gonna get? It’s awfully hard to adjust yourself to civilian life again.” Before entering the workforce, Craig went to College of Marin. There, he accumulated enough credits to get his high school diploma from Tamalpais High School in 1947. Craig then worked as an auto mechanic for a Ford Agency and a Nash Agency. In 1955 he began working at the Pacific Telephone Company, where he became the assistant manager of the motor vehicle department. He retired in 1985 and has been “enjoying every minute of [his] retirement. Craig has been a member of the American Legion, the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), and Lion’s Club. Although he is not particularly active in the American Legion or the VFW, he has been very involved in the Lion’s Club’s campaign to bring glasses to third world countries. Craig currently resides in Novato with his wife.
Overall, Craig’s experience in the Navy was a positive one. He remarked, “It made me a little more compassionate to people.” He also attributes his time in the service to his becoming more mature. He commented, “It sure helped a lot of people become grownups. You grew up and realized what life is.” Still, there were some downsides to being a member of the Medical Corps. When asked about the toughest part of his service, Craig responded, “I think it was taking care of the wounded. They can find more ways to mutilate a body than they can repairing them.” Despite the devastating effects of war, Craig does not regret America’s involvement in WWII. He stated, “It’s too bad we couldn’t have averted it, but when you have to do something, then you have to do it.”
Interview by Valerie Cherbero on June 26, 2012.