Robert Addison Ely
U.S. Navy Supply Corps, Lieutenant
(1955 – 1958)
Robert Addison Ely has always had a positive outlook on life. His positive attitude, keen business sense and practical experiences learned in the U. S. Navy, enabled Ely to become a successful business manager and real estate executive.
Robert Ely was born on July 31, 1932 in Orange, New Jersey. Ely grew up in Rutherford, New Jersey. His father was a successful patent attorney in New York and his mother was a homemaker. Several family members served in the military, including his father, who served in the Army during World War II. After high school, Ely enrolled at the University of Michigan where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. He would later receive his Masters in Business Administration. While at Michigan, upon the advice of a cousin, Ely joined the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC). He chose to join the Navy since he always enjoyed the sea and wanted to be a sailor. Ely had the total encouragement of his family to join the NROTC and serve in the military. At the time of joining NROTC, Ely had no opinions regarding the activities of the U.S. during the Korean War or the upcoming conflict in Vietnam.
Ely was in the NROTC at Michigan for four years as a midshipman. During NROTC training, he took weekly classes regarding naval history, supply corps duties, and participated in afternoon naval drills. In addition, every summer he went on Navy cruises. Ely had the opportunity to sail to Amsterdam, Paris, and Portugal as part of his NROTC training. Ely felt his training was taken seriously, was very thorough, and effective. He enjoyed the NROTC training and claimed, “it was a lot of fun”. Ely felt he didn’t have a difficult time coping with his training.
After graduating from Michigan and NROTC, Ely was sent to the Navy Supply Corps School in Athens, Georgia. He spent three months of intensive training and study of the rules and regulations to become a pay master/dispersing officer. The Navy Supply Corps School has been in existence in Georgia since the 1860s. The Supply Corps is one of the oldest staff corps in the U.S. Navy. Supply Corps officers are generally involved with supply, logistics, combat support, contracting and fiscal issues. While in training, Ely learned supply management, expeditionary logistics, inventory control, disbursement, financial management, food service and physical distribution. Ely also received special training in underway replenishment using both connected and vertical replenishments.
In June 1955, Ely received his first assignment as a Supply Corps officer on the U.S.S. Vesuvius AE 15, an ammunition ship. According to Ely, naval ammunition ships are frequently named after volcanoes, or the explosives the ship is carrying. The U.S.S. Vesuvius was commissioned in 1945 and was 459 feet long, had a displacement of 5,504 tons, a speed of 16 knots, and was designed for 6,000 tons of cargo. The U.S.S. Vesuvius was used to replenish ammunition to the Naval Fleet in Japan and the Philippines during World War II. The ship was placed out of commission in 1946. U.S.S. Vesuvius was recommissioned in 1951 during the Korean conflict and for the next decade, continued to make deployments in the Western Pacific to service all ships within the 7th Fleet.
While assigned to the U.S.S. Vesuvius, Ely sailed back and forth for eight months from San Francisco, California to Yokusta, Japan to provide provisioning at sea to all the ships in the naval fleet. His first position was as the Division Officer. Ely was in charge of thirty sailors, responsible for the commissary and feeding everyone on the ship. His mission was to supply the Pacific Fleet for everything from dry goods to food, from bombs to bullets. Ely also indicated, he was primarily involved with provisioning at sea which usually included transferring goods from their ship to two ships or carriers tied along the Vesuvius’ side. Provisioning at sea required three or four men working together to transfer all supplies and coordinate all activities.
On arriving on the U.S.S. Vesuvius, Ely was absolutely excited. Living conditions consisted of a ship board cabin. The food was good and entertainment consisted mostly of movies. The favorite movie at that time was “Victory At Sea”. According to Ely, the food was his responsibility and it was “fabulous”. “There were always sufficient supplies on board ship, particularly lots of toilet paper, because it was my responsibility”, claimed Ely. “Toilet paper was important on board ship because if someone messed up in the kitchen, and people got sick, we needed lots of toilet paper”, joked Ely. Toilet paper was used for cleaning up in the kitchen, if someone screwed up, or if someone got sick. Toilet paper was the product of choice for general clean up.
Ely fondly recalls the Captain’s pet monkey kept on board the U.S.S. Vesuvius. This monkey was very mischievous, but much beloved by the Captain since it was given to him as a gift by another Captain. The 1st Class steward was responsible for the care and feeding of the monkey. This monkey was generally the bane of the ship’s crew. According to Ely, this monkey was very smart. One day, the monkey found an open bucket of yellow chromate used as the undercoating of metal after rust is chipped off. The Chief Bosun’s Mate, who was responsible for the ship’s cleanliness, saw the monkey playing in the yellow chromate and came after it with a two by four. Apparently, he didn’t care that it was the Captain’s monkey. Every time the bosun’s mate approached the monkey, the monkey flung the yellow chromate at him and all over the deck. The monkey was messing up the ship and the bosun’s mate turned crazy. Sadly, there was no way the bosun’s mate could get the monkey or stop the mess. The monkey was clearly smarter than the Chief Bosun’s mate, claimed Ely. Finally, the monkey got bored and walked off. According to Ely, the majority of pranks on board the U.S.S. Vesuvius were played by the monkey, not the men.
Overall, Ely thoroughly enjoyed his time on board the U.S.S. Vesuvius and thought it was wonderful. The general morale was always excellent and his fellow personnel were great. Most of the men on board ship were fresh out of college and Ely felt it was like being in a fraternity. Ely also felt his superiors were interesting. The scariest moment of Ely’s military career occurred on board the U.S.S. Vesuvius while serving in the Pacific. Ely recalls one occasion standing on the bridge of the ship in a fierce storm or hurricane, he was at least thirty or forty feet in the air, and the waves were taller than the ship. Lucky for Ely he liked the sea and the U.S.S. Vesuvius survived the storm.
After serving eight months at sea provisioning the Pacific Fleet, Ely was sent to Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Northern California to put the U.S.S. Vance Der387, a naval destroyer escort ship, into commission. In November 1955, the ship was converted to a radar picket destroyer escort. Improved air search radar, extensive communications equipment, and facilities for fighter direction operations were added. Upon completion of recommissioning in October 1956, the Vance Der387 was home ported at Seattle, Washington, as a unit of CORTDIV5 and completed eight patrols of the Radar Early Warning System in the Northern Pacific.
According to Ely, the ship’s mission was to sail up and down the West Coast searching for Russian planes and submarines in the course of the Cold War. Each tour lasted seventeen days, and the ship maintained around the clock vigil with air search radars, tracking and reporting all aircraft entering the airspace of the Northwestern United States. Ely spent the remainder of his naval career on board the Vance Der387 traveling along the coast for seventeen days on and seventeen days off, until he was discharged. Ely claims never to have seen a Russian plane or submarine while assigned to the U.S.S. Vance Der387, but he heard claims at the base that some had been discovered. According to Ely, the toughest part of his naval service was on board the Vance Der387 when they hit rough water which caused him to be seasick. Despite this discomfort, Ely loved his time in the service. According to Ely, “it was wonderful…. If you have a job that you love, time just swishes by”.
One of Ely’s duties on board the Vance Der387 was to be the laundry officer. Ely really respected the captain and thought he was phenomenal. On one occasion, the laundry detail decided to play a prank on Ely. When the captain called him to inspect the freshly cleaned laundry, Ely noticed a sleeve that was not attached to a shirt sitting on top of the pile of beautifully laundered clothing. Ely assumed his crew had made a mistake and assured the captain he would get him another shirt immediately. Later, Ely realized his laundry detail was just playing a prank on him. In fact, throughout most of his military career, pranks were a common event, especially by the monkey on board the U.S.S. Vesuvius.
Ely was discharged from the military in June 1958 from Treasure Island Shipyard in San Francisco, California. Ely’s highest rank was Lieutenant. He was excited to start his new life with his new bride. Upon returning home, Ely felt he was treated fine and there were no problems. He experienced none of the negativity experienced by veterans that served in later years. After a trip with his new bride through the National Parks from California to Detroit, Ely took a position with a large freight company as a process engineer and quality control manager. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to Frankfurt, Germany to set up a manufacturing facility to make valves for the refrigeration industry. From Frankfurt, Ely was sent to Dayton, Ohio where he was a manufacturing representative for a large electronics company, and then on to Toronto, Canada. In Toronto, Ely established a manufacturing company for electronic television cable components. Later, Ely went to work in New Jersey and then to Southern California where he set up a company that manufactured capacitors for the television industry. After years of establishing manufacturing businesses across the United States and abroad, Ely used his business acumen and lessons learned in the Navy to establish a prosperous real estate business in California. Ely spent the remainder of his career in real estate and his company grew to four divisions and was very successful.
Ely relocated to Marin County to be near his children and grandchildren and today lives in Greenbrae, California. He is a day trader and continues to take courses in stock and options trading. Ely does not see any of the men he served with in the Navy and the Supply Corps does not have Reunions. However, Ely does have fond memories of his time in the service. He does not consider his service to have been a sacrifice, but rather it was an opportunity to serve his country. Ely claims that “his six years of military experience certainly gave him lots of emotional and physical tools that he was able to use and apply in his subsequent management career”. Ely felt “he certainly had great pride in saying that I served my country”. He was proud to be among the other members of his family that served.
The most memorable experience of Ely’s service occurred when he was a twenty year old Division Officer in charge of thirty men. One of his men asked for advice regarding his marital troubles and wanted help in dealing with the wife. “As a twenty year old man, I had not yet kissed a girl and one of my men thought enough of me to ask me advice”, exclaimed Ely. Ely knew nothing about this stuff. However, he was smart enough to listen and give the impression that he knew what was being discussed. Ely said he learned from this experience, a talent that has served him so well in life: “to learn to listen”.
Ely also feels that there are great lessons to be learned in the military and the service is “one of the best growing experiences that you can have”. He also advised it is an opportunity to serve your country. “Just do it”. Ely also strongly believes that it is one of the best experiences in comradery and you get a wonderful feeling that you have served your country. He further advised that young people today get as much education as possible, graduate from college, get an advanced degree, and keep learning and taking classes throughout your entire life. Ely also recommended that young people keep an absolutely positive attitude on life, on yourself, and in what you are doing. According to Ely, everyone should enjoy what they are doing and make lots of money. Serving in active duty was three of the best years of Robert Ely’s life.
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 21, 2011