Aboard the big ships during the Korean War

Normand Cote has lived in Lewiston his entire life. A few months before his 18th birthday, Cote joined the Navy. It was 1949 and, at least for the time being, it was peacetime.

“Everybody was joining,” said Cote. “My bother tried, but they wouldn’t take him because he had a tooth missing. The next day he joined the army, because they take anybody,” he said with a laugh. His mother, however, was heartbroken on hearing that both of her boys had enlisted.

“After signing up, the Navy sent me to Great Lakes Training Center for a three month boot camp, and then on to the Damage Control School at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard,” said Cote. “I did pretty good on the tests and so when it came to assignments, I had my choice.” He chose to work in the wood shops aboard the big ships.

“After school they sent me to San Diego to go aboard the USS Ajax,” said Cote. On arrival, they asked for volunteers to go to Point Barrow on a resupply expedition called Barex 50. “All the guys from my ship volunteered.”

However, in June of 1950, the Korean War began and they were ordered to hurry up, unload, and come back to Seattle. When Cote arrived in Seattle he boarded a bus to San Diego to rejoin his original assignment. “Then,” he said, “we left for Japan.”

Cote was stationed at American Naval bases in Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan, and in South Korea, where he worked in the carpenter shop, and helped to repair United Nations ships, including ships from Australia, England and South Korea.

While stationed in South Korea, Cote worked and lived on the USS Ajax, a 575-foot-long, 72-foot-wide naval repair ship, also referred to as an AR.

“We had everything imaginable [in our shops] and we kept it spotless,” said Cote proudly.

“We serviced battleships including the Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey and the Wisconsin, as well as some aircraft carriers,” he said, “plus destroyers, destroyer escorts, minesweepers and other assorted ships.”

The battleships, which were bigger than the AR, would anchor out in the harbors and work crews would travel out on smaller wooden motor launches to work on them. Back at the AR, said Cote, “Sometimes we would have six destroyers tied up on one side, and six on the other.”

Cote’s crew also maintained all of the wooden launches, many of which were 40 feet long. In addition to transporting work crews, these boat were used by servicemen when they went ashore for “liberty” (a night on the town, he explained), or by the captains who would travel between ships to inspect damage, repairs and other work.

Obtaining parts for these ships wasn’t always easy, explained Cote, and “If we didn’t have a part, we made it!” All of the patterns that they used in the foundry were made of wood, in Cote’s shop.

During his time in the Navy, Cote did shallow water dives, up to 30 feet, to inspect damage to ships below the waterline. During those dives, he was connected to an air supply above the surface by a long hose, rather than modern scuba equipment.

What impressed Cote the most about the military was the discipline. “You go in as a youngster and come out more prepared for what’s ahead of you. After serving in the military, you don’t let the little things bother you … life is like a piece of cake after.”

What scared him the most, was losing friends. “They were there one day, and the next day they were gone.”

Cote recalled repairs that were done to the USS Walke. “It was hit by a ‘new type mine’, [which] blew up the entire midwatch – 26 men, while they were sleeping.”

Another incident had a profound effect on Cote. “We were servicing a tanker. They had flushed out all the tanks and welders went aboard to work. As soon as they started welding it blew up. The whole deck opened up and it folded onto the guns. We lost six men on that,” said Cote. It was a warm day and the pores of the steel had enough combustible material in them, was the official report. “They found one of the guys in the middle of Tokyo bay, wrapped in metal wires.”

Cote won many ribbons during his time in the navy, and is most proud of his Combat Action Ribbon and the Korean Presidential Unit Citation that was presented to members of his unit by the Korean President.

What was it like going home? “Oh man, it was nice,” said Cote. During the course of his two deployments, Cote crossed the Pacific four times, with three visits to Honolulu, Hawaii.

During one deployment, he said, “We didn’t have real milk, just powdered milk, for 13 months. When we got to Hawaii, there were pallets full of milk for us.” On another visit there were hula dancers on the pier to greet them.

When the ship was coming into port, they flew the homeward bound pennant using balloons to hold it aloft above the ship. “When we got there, they would cut up the pennant and give each man a one-foot section in recognition of their time on the ship.”

Cote, who served in the Navy for three years, eight months and 18 days as a Damage Controlman 2nd Class Petty Officer, was discharged on May 11, 1953.

“I was supposed to go to Hong Kong, on R&R, but got the option to leave and I chose to go home.” After all, he had a girl back home whose perfumed letters arrived every week, he said, closing his eyes and inhaling deeply, in remembrance.

On September 7, 1953, at St. Mary’s Church in Lewiston, Cote married Rita Dionne, his sweetheart since high school at St. Dom’s, and settled back into the responsibilities and routines of civilian life in Lewiston.

Cote’s son and daughter have continued the tradition of service. Like his dad, Cote’s son joined the Navy and served 19 years and nine months, with all of that time stationed aboard a nuclear submarine. Cote’s daughter became a medic in the Army.

His advice to those considering joining: “Take advantage of what they have … programs and courses … and learn as much as you can.”

Then, come home.


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