Robert Wayne Penn
Radioman First Class – U.S. Navy
Patrol Craft 597, USS Kitty Hawk, USS Kleinsmith, and USS Starlight
World War II (1942-1946) and Korean War (1950-1952)
Robert Wayne Penn was born in Long Beach on August 7th, 1925. He grew up in the small town of Sierra Madre, right outside of Pasadena. His father managed a Safeway store, while his mother was a house keeper. She kept busy raising seven children, including a set of twins! He worked at an early age in his fathers grocery store, newspaper routes and pretty much any job he could find. Times were tough due to the depression, and families were struggling. All of the children worked as well as went to school in Pasadena. Mr. Penn recalls the reason he enlisted in the Navy was because as a child he saw the beautiful Navy ships as they approached their base in Long Beach. He remembers telling his parents in a letter from boot camp that he chose the Navy because they always looked so clean, and now he knew why!
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Mr. Penn was only 16 years old. Immediately most of the young men and eligible boys starting signing up to join the Navy. Mr. Penn was no exception. One night Mr. Penn went to Los Angeles with a few of his friends, and got a Navy tattoo. He went home to show his mother and sister, who were shocked. His mother asked what he was going to do if he didn’t get into the Navy. With the wisdom of a 16 year old, he had not even considered the fact that he might not get in the Navy, but perhaps would be sent to the Army! When it came time for his friends enlist, they all went down to the recruiting station in Pasadena together. He went through the physical exam and oral questions.
The Navy allowed you to serve as young as 17, with your parents’ permission. Reluctantly his parents signed the paperwork, with his mother asking, “What is your hurry?” He answered, “I’m afraid it will be over”. When it came time for his closest friends to depart for boot camp, Mr. Penn went along with them. He was still 16, and not yet eligible for service. However, the Navy didn’t catch him, and before he knew it he was on a bus heading for boot camp in San Diego. Eventually the Navy did find out, when Mr. Penn announced to his chief petty officer it was his birthday. He was turning 17! The Chief Petty Officer marched him down to headquarters, but he was able to talk his way into staying. For the rest of his career, his dates of service were incorrect. Officially the Navy discharged him honorably from WWII with the date of August 7th, 1942 to August 7th, 1946.
Boot camp started out difficult for Mr. Penn. He had heard that the Navy wouldn’t take you if you had flat feet due to the amount of marching you would need to do. Mr. Penn remembers that he was standing in formation for his physical when the doctor began to walk by. He curled his toes to make and arch, and did not attract the attention of the doctor. He relaxed, happy to have passed. However, he didn’t realize that they also inspect the sailors from behind, so he stood there, according to Mr. Penn, looking like a duck with his flat feet. He was tapped on the shoulder by the doctor and told he had failed the physical for the Navy, but would accepted into the reserves. Even as a young 16 year old, Mr. Penn was not afraid to speak up. He said, “You have your regulations, and I have mine. Either I am going into the regular Navy, or I am not going at all!” The doctor left the room, and came back, allowing Mr. Penn to join the regular Navy. Years later he wondered about the intelligence of that decision, as the reserves were getting out, while he was still in.
Mr. Penn did quite well in boot camp, and was made a radio man. He was immediately sent to the University of Colorado for radio school. A typing course he had taken in Jr. High School came in handy, and made learning Morse code easier than the other soldiers found it to be. As a result he graduated at the top of his class, and was allowed to select where he wanted to be assigned. He chose to go aboard a small ship, PC597, which was a sub chaser. The ship was commissioned in Portland Oregon on the Columbia River. After a “shakedown cruise” to Alaska, PC597 departed for San Francisco and then on to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The PC597 patrolled the Hawaiian islands for 18 months before being sent to the South Pacific. It was here that Mr. Penn recalls his first experience in WWII, at the invasion of Tarawa. The invasion of Tarawa was the first invasion of any island. The intelligence was very poor, and the Navy was not aware of the underwater fortifications the Japanese had planted. The Marines took the brunt of the invasion, as they had difficulty making it to shore. Very few landing craft made it to shore, most were capsized. According to Mr. Penn, the invasion of Tarawa was the costliest invasion of WWII. At 17 1/2, Mr. Penn recalls feeling,” Wow, I am really in WWII now!”
Following Tarawa, the PC597 made its way south to Talagi, across from Guadalcanal, which was the headquarters for Admiral Bull Halsey. At the harbor, Mr. Penn recalls seeing a large sign that read, “Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill more God damn Japs!” It was signed by Admiral Halsey. For the next year, Mr. Penn, aboard PC597, escorted convoys up the narrow passage between islands. Their job was to escort the convoy up to Talagi, refuel and resupply, and head back down. As a radioman, Mr. Penn was privileged to know what the convoy would consist of. The slowest ship in WWII was the LST. He was disappointed when an LST was in the convoy because it slowed down the convoy and made it much more dangerous. Japanese submarines were totally camouflaged and could sit on the bottom on the sand without being seen, making it easy for them to destroy a few ships of the convoy. Interestingly, many Japanese people still lived on the many islands that were in the passage. The Navy had learned from Tarawa that it was not necessary to take back all islands, so it was common to see Japanese convoys transiting the same narrow channel. On the radar screen they would often see the blips of the Japanese passing them in the other direction, but not a shot was fired.
Although life for the PC597 crew was dangerous, at times they had fun. He recalls a time that they pulled into Talagi, where large battleships and cruisers were docked. Aboard the PC597, a small sub chaser of 50 enlisted men and 5 officers, the “uniform” was often cut off dungarees, and tee shirt, and sandals. Not Navy regulation attire. Mr. Penn remembers sailing past the large ships with the sailors in their sparkly clean white uniforms, eating ice cream. The sailors aboard PC597 would often yell insults such as, “Why don’t you get into the war?!”, and other derogatory remarks. Mr. Penn’s captain was called to Halsey’s headquarters and reprimanded for not showing respect to the larger ships. The next time the PC597 sailed by, they did salute, but not with the hand gesture they should have.
Food aboard the PC597 was not great, in fact, Mr. Penn remembers it as being awful. The cook on board was a young kid from Alabama, who had been sent to cook school. He did the best he could, but it was often not great. Given that most of their supplies came from New Zealand and Australia meat was often mutton, which is an old sheep. Mr. Penn remembers it was a strong and acquired taste. One night the cook was preparing mutton and the smell was so horrible, Mr. Penn and a few other sailors decided to throw the rest of the mutton overboard, empting the meat locker. Unfortunately , they did not realize that mutton floated, so the next day the ship was surrounded by mutton floating in the water. The Captain was once again reprimanded for the actions of the crew. At the next resupplying opportunity their meat locker was once again filled, with mutton.
An unfortunate incident happened to Mr. Penn while on board the ship. He ended up falling to the water where a depth charge had already been set. The crew had been taught that in that situation you need to lay flat on your back, getting most of your body out of the water, to have the least amount of impact if a depth charge went off. Mr. Penn did follow that procedure, but was blown out of the water, resulting in a severely injured back. He was sent to a Navy hospital to recover. In another incident several years later in Norfolk, Virginia, Mr. Penn came down with scarlet fever. He was hospitalize for several weeks. The skin on his head, hands, and feet peeled off from the high fever. Mr. Penn recalled that the pain was so intense, even worse than the back injury he had received in the Pacific. While recuperating from the severely blistered hands and feet, he ran into an old friend from Sierra Madre, Bill Ferry, who knew how to help Mr. Penn recover. He literally carried Mr. Penn to a nearby bar called the Hitching Post. After several drinks Mr. Penn began to dance, causing his blisters to pop on his feet. They two of them continued this routine for the next three weeks, all the while Mr. Penn was carried to and from the Hitching Post by Mr. Ferry. New calluses began to grow on his feet and he recovered thanks to the help of his good friend Bill.
On the PC597, Mr. Penn was awarded four medals for the invasions of Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, and Titium. In addition, the ship received a presidential citation for their assignment in the Pacific. One of their jobs was to draw fire from the Japanese so that the big cruisers and battle ships could shell the islands. It amazed Mr. Penn that they survived that duty, when their ship was not built for that. He remembers bullets going through the hull, and the fenders of the ship being made of rope.
Mr. Penn spent a short time aboard a ship called the Kitty Hawk. It was not the aircraft carrier by the same name, but instead was a small flattop, a converted banana boat that had a deck added. Their job was to pick up damaged planes from the islands and bring them back to the United States for repair. He transited back to the states to Miami, Florida, and was ordered to attend sub-chaser school, which he found funny in that he had just spent 1 1/2 years deployed on one in the South Pacific. After completing training, Mr. Penn was assigned to the Kleinsmith. Although slightly smaller than a full destroyer, they had four landing crafts on the ship. Each landing craft was capable of putting 50 marines on each one. They once again headed to the Pacific on board the Kleinsmith. They were anchored in Buckner Bay, Okinawa when they got the word that President Harry Truman had authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs. Mr. Penn felt strongly that the dropping of the bombs saved millions of lives for both the Japanese and the Americans. He knew, as a radioman, that an invasion was already planned out for the next two years to occupy Japan. Fleets were transiting to the South Pacific for this reason. The Kleinsmith duty was to deploy the four landing crafts they had on board with Marines, as well as put frogmen over the side to find out where the booby traps and mines were located. The projected fatality was 85%.
The Kleinsmith was leaving Buckner Bay on December 18th, 1944 when they got word of an approaching typhoon. At 12:00 in the afternoon, the sky was pitch black. They headed north, trying to keep ahead of the storm, all the while trying to contact Guam to give their coordinates in case they were to go down. As the radioman, Mr. Penn tried and tried to get Guam. Eventually he reached Guam, but their signal strength was very low. The ship was rolling from side to side. As the radioman, he was locked into his seat with metal hooks. He could see the pendulum that marked the degree of roll, and it was registering way beyond what which the ship had been built to withstand. The Kleinsmith would roll so that the screw (propeller) would come out of the water, and the ship would shudder. Each time this happened, Mr. Penn remembers saying, “This is it! I have survived the war, and now a typhoon is going to get me!” The captain made a decision to pull into a small harbor in the middle of the night. They could tell from the radar that there was another ship anchored in the harbor, but they had no choice. The next morning, the typhoon had gone through, and in the grey of the morning they could see it was a Japanese destroyer. He remembers that the Japanese destroyer took its gun and brought it around to point at the Kleinsmith, and the Kleinsmith pointed their guns at the Japanese destroyer. Although the war had just been officially declared over, they weren’t sure how this Japanese destroyer was going to handle the situation. They slowly lowered their gun and raised a while flag. The Kleinsmith made its way back to Okinawa, and was amazed at the destruction. Ships were disabled, upside down, and washed ashore. It was a huge mess. They continued doing mine sweeping duty for a few months before heading back for San Francisco. The war was over, but Mr. Penn still had 6 months to serve. He talked to his commanding officer and was allowed to stay on Treasure Island instead of heading back to the east coast with the Kleinsmith. Mr. Penn was sure his sea duty was behind him. However, his name came up again when he was assigned to the Starlight. The job of the Starlight was to bring troops back to the United States from the Pacific. He made 3 more trips to the Pacific, finally ending his sea career when the ship pulled into Norfolk, Virginia (via the Panama Canal).
It took about 5 days to get back across the country on a train to San Pedro, where Mr. Penn was officially mustered out of the Navy. He then made his way to home to Sierra Madre. He had been corresponding with a young lady who babysat for his family for the past year and half. Although they had never met, he enjoyed the letters and pictures he received from her. He recalls being more nervous than anything in his life the first time they met in person. They went to Los Angeles and went to the Palladium, which was a famous dance hall. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and many other bands had played there. Although he was sent off again for a short time, he returned and they got married on September 1, 1946.
Mr. Penn was working in the civilian world for four years when the Korean War began. Because he had served his time in WWII he didn’t think too much of the Korean War, and certainly didn’t think the Navy would be contacting him. But he was wrong. He received a letter asking him to come to San Diego to attend an instructor training course. He responded with a polite, “No thank you”. Two weeks later he received a telegram ordering him to report to a destroyer base in San Diego. After being there for several weeks he asked to speak to the Executive officer, who was a 4-stripe Captain. The Captain asked, “What can I do for you sailor?” Mr. Penn replied, “I think the Navy made a damn mistake!” Mr. Penn remembers the Captain nearly fell out of his chair laughing, and advised Mr. Penn that the Navy can bring anyone back they want to. Mr. Penn made a trip to Korea while waiting for his name to come up on the instructor training school list. He finally came up on a list and was sent to training class. He learned how to become a teacher in the Navy. His job was to teach radiomen who were coming back from the reserves. Every two weeks he got a new group of 25-30 radiomen which he trained. One of the things he had each class do when they arrived was to show them their ID cards. All ID cards have a “getting out” date. Mr. Penn’s said, “indefinite”. He saw hundreds of cards over the next 1 1/2 years, and none of them said “indefinite”. He approached his commanding officer who looked at his card, and he said, he too, had never seen such a thing! He told Mr. Penn to back his sea bag, and get ready to go home. He arrived home to his wife and baby who were in San Diego, and told her they were finally done with the Navy.
The JROTC program in Marin County is one that Mr. Penn is proud to see. He appreciates the hard work and dedication the fine young men and women have in the program, and can see the pride of the outfit. He asks that future generations be alert, and seek out knowledge. He wants the young people of this generation to ask questions, and find out for themselves what is best for them and their county. He challenges young people to find their own way in life. It’s not necessary to do what your parents did, just find a job that you really love and do it! He cautions that if you find yourself in a job you don’t like, change it. Young people need to find their niche and go for it!
Mr. Penn concluded by saying he wouldn’t have passed up the opportunity, to serve his county, for the world. He couldn’t wait to get in, and he couldn’t wait to get out. He is proud of being in the Navy, and of the service he gave. He would do it again in a minute, without question. He felt he got his education in the Navy. As Mr. Penn puts it, “You spend four years in the Navy, during the war, trying to act like a man, but you are just a kid. The last thing in the world you want to do is not hold up your end of the bargain. “ He didn’t want to disappoint anybody, not his family, himself, his shipmates, or his country. His parents had always taught him to be responsible for his own actions. As he said, “If you do something wrong, own up to it, don’t make excuses, don’t do it again!”. The service taught him to be responsible to the highest degree and he grew up in a hurry.
Interview by Nick Langevin on July 12, 2012.