John Paul Hourigan
Seaman 1st Class—U.S. Navy—USS Grundy
World War II (1944-1946)
John Paul Hourigan was born in Albany, New York in 1926. His father, Paul Hourigan, served on the USS Arizona during WWI. While in high school Hourigan’s mother died, and he started doing poorly academically. Prior to enlisting in the military he worked in a hamburger joint (before there were McDonalds) including working night shifts. One summer he helped pour concrete for a construction company. Enlisting in the Navy offered a good excuse to get out of high school where he wasn’t doing well. He wanted to do something important and necessary. Although he isn’t quite sure how his family felt about his enlisting at the time, he thinks they were proud that he carried on the family tradition of Naval service, yet they were a bit frightened and worried about his safety. Having had other family members serve in the Navy probably attracted him to that branch of service. There was a saying at the time too, that if you wanted a clean bed to sleep in, join the Navy. People told John, “join the Navy so you don’t sleep in the mud like the Army guys.”
After spending his first night of service in a YMCA, which was shocking, he started boot camp in Sampson, NY in June 1944. It was shocking for everyone his age to have everyday things regimented and structured, including taking a shower. One person sat out from their marching and was discharged. Out of 200 some guys out there drilling and marching up and down the field, this one guy sat out, watched and laughed at them. Hourigan wondered how one had the nerve to do that. The person was kicked out shortly thereafter. At boot camp they had to get use to daily chores like making your bed every day, doing your laundry and folding t-shirts so edges were absolutely smooth.
Hourigan says the effectiveness of training was perhaps 5 on scale of 10. Instead of drilling there could have been more practical information like identifying Japanese planes and using weapons. There wasn’t much shooting practice. For example, in Okinawa he was put on guard duty to protect the ship. Japanese were known to swim out to ships with a knife in their mouth, climb up the anchor line and stab everyone they could. So, John was stationed on deck with a rifle he had never shot before and not even sure how to load it, although it was loaded. He felt very insecure with the lack of training. When reflecting over what was the scariest time in his service, he cites this experience of keeping watch alone on the bow of the ship in Okinawa Harbor with a gun he really wasn’t sure how to use that stuck out the most.
His service was his first experience when felt a sense of powerlessness. He couldn’t do anything, he couldn’t get out, couldn’t tell someone he “didn’t want to play this game anymore.” It changed his life.
His first assignment was on the USS Grundy in Pascagoula, MS. Hundreds of people took the train from Newport, RI down to Mississippi, but his friends and he were some of the first to board. Learning how to best cope with the situation, they jumped into the baggage rack. While others packed into the train, they were able to sleep lying down for the two or so day trip south.
As a seaman, he was first assigned to 5” cannons. These cannons, instead of going boom, cracked at a high pitch. Hourigan has since experienced trouble hearing. His job was to catch the hot shells that discharged after firing so they didn’t roll around on deck. He didn’t like the job one bit. He knew he wasn’t getting out of it, but felt resigned and committed.
The living conditions were crowded. They slept 5 high, with each bunk a mere 32” apart. Lying on his bunk he could barely fit his hand over his face. When called to battle stations or general quarters, the gong sounded, all of the men would pour out of their bunks and pile out on top of each other.
The ships he was on had 20 mm and 40 mm cannons and could carry 2,000 troops. Every two weeks or so they might practice shooting. One time the ship just missed hitting a mine by some 5 feet. As a 17 year old, of course he didn’t duck but looked at the mine as it went by. They practiced shooting mines like this one – and they blew that one up. He received one promotion to rank of Seaman 1st Class.
Hourigan said, “coping on the ship was a lot like high school; there were some guys you like and some you didn’t.” Some guys would stay onboard the ship and play cards, while others would go off swimming or get off whenever possible.
When asked what motivated him to keep going in the service, he laughed and joked saying, “the money, some $20 a month at the time.” Really, his motivation was the lack of alternatives, so he had to make best of it. The morale of the unit was generally good. He liked some of his fellow personnel and ignored the rest. He views his commanding officers as “exceptional people” in retrospect.
John was able to communicate with family but was later told by family members that most of the letters received from him had been cut to pieces by censors: he had been told not to tell anything about where they were or what they were doing. He recalls that, “censors were free with the scissors.”
Hourigan remembered a funny story aboard ship, which involved a 6’2” gangly guy from Arizona. One night this sailor returned somewhat drunk to the ship carrying a bottle of whiskey and a gun – not a good combination on a ship. Upset when his friend dropped and broke his whiskey bottle, shots rang out. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but MPs arrived the next morning and hauled off the sailor in handcuffs, not to be seen again.
While on the USS Grundy, the men were able to see some of the destruction in Yokohama. What John saw there was great damage. He realized that, “nothing higher than 2 feet tall was left standing—there was just rubble for a mile or two where he was.”
A humorous moment that Hourigan recalls is when they were docked in Japan. There were big nets off the side of their ship, and along with some of his friends, John would sneak off the ship at night. They explored a Japanese warehouse that was by the dock. They crawled into the second floor and found crates full of toys in this otherwise gutted warehouse. They had a “hell of a time trying to get back on the ship hauling all this trumpery back on ship.”
The Grundy came back from the Pacific theatre in September of 1945. Hourigan ended up in New York in the fall of 1945 and was sent with other troops on a passenger ship from New York to Bremerhaven, Germany. In fact, it was the week from Christmas to New Year’s and there were many onboard who were determined to celebrate. That New Year’s Eve anything on board that contained alcohol including hair tonic was consumed. Many were pretty sick the next day, if not from the drinking, they were seasick. While at Bremerhaven they went into town to dance and meet some girls but they did not have their dress uniforms, only their work dungarees. He was arrested for wearing the wrong uniform out, “like that’s important.” He was charged with all sorts of crimes and worse, his night of dancing was cut short.
Hourigan was assigned to the Prinz Eugen, which was a German cruiser. With the German crew they were to take the ship to East Coast, through the Panama Canal and on to Long Beach, CA with approximately 2,500 Germans and about 100 Americans onboard. The ship went on to Hawaii and lastly to Bikini. He made friends with all the Germans onboard even though he was supposed to be the figure of authority – an 18 year old who didn’t even want to carry bullets in his 45.
He told a funny story about himself that could have ended up putting him behind bars if he had been caught. Even though the Germans were considered prisoners of war still, Hourigan let one of the German soldiers dress up in his Navy uniform so he could sneak off the ship and see New York City. Laughingly, John recounted advising the German how to salute authoritatively to get by the guards. It all went off fine and the German enjoyed being shown NYC.
While onboard the Prinz, he and a few friends discovered a radio room that no one used. It has a very small entrance hatch. He and his buddies grabbed mattresses and made this their little liar. They soon figured that every day when roll was called they could just have someone respond “here” when their name, was called. No one really checked if it really was him. So, they slept until ten or eleven and listened to all sorts of great music in this room that had top of the line communication devices. Then they would go up on deck and lay in the sun for a little bit, while the Germans operated the ship.
After the War was over, there were a number of ships around that the Navy wanted to dispose of. Hourigan tried to talk his commanding officer into letting him have a little ship in Hawaii that was just going to be blown up. In the end he didn’t get it and wonders what he would have done with it or how he would have paid to dock it.
Around the spring of 1946 the Navy promised those sailors who re-enlisted for six months that would be home for Christmas. Hourigan didn’t believe everything the Navy promised and didn’t take the offer. He was discharged in June 1946 in New York. The Prinz went on to Bikini Atoll where the US tested (nuclear) bombs. It turned out to be a tough ship to sink. John was glad he didn’t stay on for this duty since there was a very high rate of cancer for the crew who were close by, watching this bombing. He thinks many were ignorant then what the fallout of the bomb would be, but he was glad to have missed it.
After being released from service he remembered sitting on the train heading from Long Island to Albany with the sun on his face thinking, “I am free. I can do what I want.” His main goal was to get into summer school. He had grown up a lot in the service. While he had failed math courses before, after his service, he received 95 and 100 marks. He went on and got a good education at Siena College. He had a career as an industrial engineer. He worked for the Rand Corporation in Boston. He met his wife back East before being transferred to Santa Monica. He went on to get two master’s degrees, one in organizational development and the other in counseling psychology. He worked on a PhD and traveled to places including Saudi Arabia for business.
After his discharge, he pretty much walked away from the service and “never looked back.” He likened it to going to the dentist. Hourigan said, “You don’t really want to go but in the end it is good for you.” He has not joined any veteran’s organizations and hasn’t participated in any reunions. For a few years after service he maintained contact with two or three friends, but that was about it.
It moves him to this day to remember seeing the aircraft carrier Ben Franklin when their ships passed through the Panama Canal. The Ben Franklin was returning to New York after being in one of the biggest battles in the Pacific. They probably were not even going to repair it because it had holes you could drive through and the whole thing was black from fire. The entire structure was torn apart.
He felt his sacrifice was justified because “it was a real war and necessary.” He felt powerless and had to learn to accept certain things that you may not like but cannot change.
Some general advice he offered was for people to try other things to find something they are good at. John said, “You won’t be good at everything but find something you are good at doing. ”
Thinking about the War, he questioned the costly strategy of moving troops through the Pacific, island to island, rather than directly attacking Tokyo. What he observed about that period was how total the war effort was. He said, “From Victory Gardens to rationed gas, the War touched everyone.”
He cautioned those considering going into the service. “Many end up damaged, so be careful.”
Interviewed by James Stanton Leavitt on July 6, 2012.