Interview with Paul D. Bratcher
Interviewed by J.P. Bratcher
Marion High School
Interviewed on May 3, 2003
At J.P. Bratcher's House
JP: Today is Saturday May 3, 2003. This is the beginning of an interview with Paul Bratcher at this home at 1603 North Miller Avenue in Marion, Indiana. Paul Bratcher is 74 years old having been born on May 12, 1928. My name is John Paul Bratcher and I will be the interviewer. Paul Bratcher is my grandfather. He is my father's father. Grandpa Bratcher, could you state for the recording, what wars and branch of service you served in?
PB: I served in World War II, Korean War and the Vietnam War and I joined the United States Navy because I wanted to see the world. I realized that no one in my family was in the service. It was during wartime and I had eleven brothers and sisters. Nobody was serving in the uniform. So I decided I would quit high school and join the Navy and do my share; besides my father had died and my mother needed a source of income so I made her out as my dependent and was able to giver her an allotment check every month. The reason I joined the Navy was to see the world and I felt like I could contribute to the service of my country.
JP: What was your rank when you joined and what was your rank when you retired?
PB: When I went to bootcamp, I was a Seaman Recruit and you stay that way until you graduate from boot training, which is three months. Upon satisfaction of completion, they give you Seaman Second Class and when I retired from the Navy twenty years later, I was a Senior Chief Petty Officer.
JP: Where in the world and where in the United States did you serve during your twenty years?
PB: Well various places. I was all over the state of California. Being a country boy from Missouri I hadn’t been much and we went to California, all over California, Frisco and Oakland, Treasure Island and Mare Island and from there I went to Washington DC. I was then transferred to Navy Proving Ground and Testing Center for Ammo in Maryland. Stayed there for about six months. Met a girl that I was wanting to think about getting married. No promotions in sight so my commanding officer told me I should look into Aviation School in Memphis, TN. So I put in for Aviation School in Memphis, TN, I was transferred there, and learned how to be a metalsmith, which included welding, painting, hydraulics and metal work. Being fifth in my class of sixty-five, I got a choice of several duty stations and I picked Trinidad British West Indies, where we had seaplanes and I learned how to put my talents to work as far as aircraft maintenance and then there I went to Jacksonville, FL and got into Attack Squadron VA-15 and we served aboard ship for two years back and forth between six month cruises and then back to Jacksonville and then back to cruising in the Mediterranean. There I left and went to Annapolis, Maryland. I was at Annapolis, Maryland for three years. Each Cadet had received nine hours of flight time so we had four thousand Cadets and we had to have the planes ready for them to fly at least nine hours a piece so they would be introduced to aviation and if they liked it and they enjoyed it then they would go to Pensacola and then they learned how to fly jets and become Navy pilots. From three years of that I went to Oceana, VA and got into a squadron called VA-83. We had attack planes, jets, attack plane A4D and we flew the atomic bomb if we needed to. We made idiot loops with the airplane to toss the bomb twenty miles away from the plane if it went off and we did the training the Mediterranean, firing our funs into sleds towed behind the aircraft carrier. Upon completion of that tour of duty I went to Patuxent River, Maryland and we had new airplanes and we'd test them to do certain altitudes, certain type of equipment, certain type of landing gears, tailhook. We simulated landing on aircraft carriers and we had to have good maintenance for the aircraft so the pilots could feel safe and do a good job. And from Patuxent River, Maryland we went to Oceana and got into the same squadron I was in before, VA-83, attack squadron 83 but we had different aircraft. We had the F7U3, and later we went back to the A4D, but I was specialized then in Maintenance Chief, in charge of all the maintenance of the aircraft and there our squadron completed many hours of landings, sorties, many hours of flying time, which our squadron won efficiency for excellence in all categories. We son the safety the most flight hours the most landings and no accidents for two years. Upon completion of that, my commanding officer recommended me for a special medal, the Navy Secretary Achievement award, the Navy Merit Badge. With that, I was able to make Senior Chief Petty Officer and still in maintenance control, I was then transferred to VA-42, which is attack squadron 42. We trained pilots with the AD, the A6A, A6E, which is electronic equipment to go to Vietnam and drop many bombs and they were able to go in all kinds of weather cause of all the special equipment we had on the aircraft. Several planes were shot down and several pilots were taken as prisoners, but considering the tens of thousands of sorties and bombs dropped our squadron from the training we received back at Oceana and the training squadron VA-42 they were able to achieve a good record and do a good job. Then I was retired into inactive fleet reserve as I left the navy to go into other endeavors. I decided to be with my three boys. Decided I wanted to be there with them when they went to college and be able to supervise them. I went into the post office, so I made another career in the post office because I needed a second career. I loved the Navy and it was good for me.
JP: Okay so when you first enlisted did you go straight to boot camp or was there a waiting period after you singed up?
PB: Well I was anxious to go to serve my country and anxious to get going so I talked my recruiter in to getting my physical and my tests all done. And the day I was 17, old enough to go in, I was sworn in and sent directly to bootcamp we went by troop train and a couple hundred of us went to San Diego. The first three weeks we had to take shots in fact one day we took five or six shots and then we had to do calisthenics, march the next day and then the next day after that we were in medical getting our teeth checked and I had 4 teeth pulled and four or five filled and right back to calisthenics again with the rifle and marching, but it was very competitive. We tried to out do each other in squads and company. We had 150 people in our company, there was a company coming every week, and we were trying to be the best without any accidents without any people getting hurt or going to sick bay or taking time off. We had a good enthusiasm. Like said I and several others came into competition trying to do the best we could.
JP: So how long did boot camp last? Did you say three weeks?
PB: The first three weeks was called a trial time. You went through shots and stress. We didn’t even go to sleep the first couple weeks or in our beds. They were trying to see if we were made for the Navy and they didn’t want any people that couldn’t take the stress. After three weeks of that then we started going into marching, drilling, learning battle techniques, fire fighting, we took a twenty five mile hike, ate lunch and then walked back the twenty five miles and the ambulance followed us behind and not one of us dropped out. We had the spirit and we enjoyed boot training. I know I did and we had to wash our own clothes by hand. We hung them up on a line with pieces of twine or thread. We tied each one with a square knot, then we would get inspected by our company commander, and we could get merits or demerits for anything that they found wrong or good. Our bunks would be made every morning, maybe by 5 o’clock or 5:30 and you could drop a quarter on it and it would bounce. If you didn’t bounce the quarter then you would get a couple demerits. If you got so many demerits then you had to do your two or three weeks over and start all over again. It was competition and hard work. I enjoyed it all the way.
JP: Did you ever have any demerits or special merit stories?
PB: I got several merits for having my bunk made extra good or cleaning up my part of the barracks or the restroom, what we call the head, our restroom or bathroom we call it the head and I had picked up more merits than I did demerits. If you, like I said, got a hundred demerits then you had to go back into the next company or the company two weeks later or whatever. Like I said though, most of our men, our buddies, we had pride and we did our job good and we mostly got merits just like they do in the Navy Academy. The Navy Academy, you go four years there with a certain amount of merits or demerits. It’s good for competition and its good for enthusiasm and zeal in your efforts.
JP: What was your favorite exercise during boot camp, that you just loved to do or what was your least favorite?
PB: Well we used to take a rifle and do calisthenics. We’d go up over our head, down to the ground, sideways, backwards. I think it was a 48 point [exercise] we did and we do that for a couple hours and then jumping jacks. We did pushups. We climbed walls, climbed rope, which the Navy called line. You don’t call it rope. Everything you did in the Navy had a [different name]. The rope was line. The floor was deck. The wall was a bulkhead. The ceiling was an overhead. The doors were called hatches. The ladder was for the stairs and we had to learn to use those names or we could get demerits for that. If we slipped and said, “You dropped something on the floor.” we’d get a demerit. We should say “deck” so therefore after forty years after I retired from the Navy, I still go for “bulkhead” and “ladder” and “deck” and the “head”. Its really quite interesting to compete with each other in the knowledge- we’d even have a whistle aboard ship to tell us when we wanted to sweep our compartment down revelle or for chow or for bedtime. We always had, when they lowered the flag or raised the flag, they blew a trumpet so we always had a code in everything that we did.
JP: So after graduation from boot camp, where were you first stationed?
PB: I went to Mare Island from boot training and I was hoping to get a ship but they sent me into the Ammo Depot and we loaded ammo onto the ships and as the ships came back for a new load, they’d have a lot of duds or bombs and different type of ammo that they needed so we took that off and put whatever the commanding officer wanted, that’s what we’d load back on. We used big trucks, cranes, dollies and I volunteered to take the driver [duty]. He asked if anybody had drove a truck and I said “Yeah. I drove one, in a farm.” So they gave me the job of driving the truck and hauling ammo back and forth and that was my tour of duty there. It was strictly unloading and loading ships, then the war was over and then we were transferred then to Treasure Island, unloading ships, personnel, equipment and I drove a bus. They asked if anybody drove a bus before and I said “Yeah. I drove a bus.” and I drove a bus all the time I was at Treasure Island, which I enjoyed that duty because we were across the water from Alcatraz and we could see the prisoners and any problems that was over there. They had a lot of fights and fires and we enjoyed being a part of San Francisco Valley and Oakland. It was quite an experience.
JP: So how long were you in Mare Island and Treasure Island?
PB: Well its over a year, I don't exactly remember the dates but then waiting to be either discharged or reassigned. The war was over and they go by points. If you had certain age, if you’re married and had so many kids. I was single and I was young and I hadn’t been in the service long. I was then transferred to Washington DC in December of ‘46. There I was reassigned for further duty.
JP: So what was your duty in Washington DC?
PB: The duty there was just called temporary duty. There I had met my girlfriend and I wanted to get liberty every night so I volunteered to be a mess cook, serve food and work in the kitchen and I had every night liberty. After six weeks of that, I went to Navy Proving Ground, Dalgren, Virginia and there we were put on small Coast Guard ships and patrolled the Chesapeake Bay, while the Navy was testing different rockets and guns and bombs and at that point, they even tested the 16 inch guns for the aircraft carrier. We kept the fishing boats and the civilians out and I was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter as a deckhand and a cook. I was asked if I knew how cook and I said, “Yes. I cooked hot-dogs.” I got the job as cook and deckhand and I enjoyed that very much but there were no promotions ahead. My boss told me if I wanted a promotion that I better get out of there and go to aviation school which would be the quickest and I volunteered then to go to Memphis, TN after about six months. I went into Aviation School to be in maintenance and aircraft maintenance, welding, painting, metalwork and seat injections, all sorts of cables and repair of aircraft. There I went to school for four months and came out number three in my class and they had different places that you could go to and I was able to pick. Two went to my first choice and I got the second choice, which was Trinidad, British West Indies.
JP: So what were the type of skills that you learned in Memphis that you liked the best and that came easiest to you?
PB: Well, I think some of the most enjoyable experiences that I had that helped me was repair of the fuselage and skin; we put new skin on and drove rivets, painting, and plating the airplane parts before you painted. You learned how to put a corrosive preventative solution on the metal and then you would paint it. Sometimes you had to put curves in the metal, and that was soft, and then you had to run that through an oven to heat treat it to a certain temperature to make it as strong as the rest of the airplane was and that was part of my job which was very interesting to do. I learned that in school.
JP: Do you have any stories of when a plane would come in and you would have to have it ready and fixed up by the next day and you were up all night or anything?
PB: When I was in VA 15, I was a troubleshooter on the flight deck and before the plane got airborne, the pilot would start the engine and I was the last man that looked at the airplane to make sure there was no fluid, no fuel, the tires were okay, that everything was ready to go and then I’d put my thumbs up to the signaling officer and he’d tell the pilot "Okay" and then he’d launch the airplane. Then when they returned, I was the first man that got to look at the airplane and see if there was any damage, any leaks, or anything wrong with it that would cause the airplane to go down. If it was ready to go to the next flight then we’d turn it around and kept it on the flight deck, but if I found something wrong with it then we’d send it down into the hanger deck below and they kept it down there for a day or two days or whatever it took to fix it. I found it to be very satisfying because I respected the pilots and the pilots respected me for my judgment and you had to make a quick decision to go or down the airplane and I found that to be very challenging. As a Second Class Petty Officer, I did that and then I was promoted to First Class and then I took over as a Check Crew Leader. I lost that job, but it was probably my best experience I had and exciting time on the aircraft carrier. I’d be there when they launched an airplane and I’d be there when they were recovering and I was around the steam catapults. I was there with all the action.
JP: So what aircraft carrier were you serving on at that time with VA15?
PB: We went on the USS Intrepid and then USS Coral Sea. And then about three years later, this same squadron again, went on the USS Forrestal and we did two tours of duty on the Forrestal, about eight months each time to all over Europe, Mediterranean, Turkey, Yugoslavia. We wend to Cuba, Puerto Rico, around Africa. Aircraft carriers really do cover a lot of area.
JP: So, about what year is this that you’re serving on the Forrestal, the Intrepid, and the Coral Sea? Was this before the Korean War or during the Korean War?
PB: Well this was actually during the Korean War and Vietnam War. We had to have half of our navy over in the Vietnam War and Korean War and then we’d have half in the Mediterranean to be over there protecting, keeping countries in order, so unfortunately, I got to spend my whole time in the Mediterranean or in that area instead of getting into Vietnam and Korea, though we had to be ready to go in case they needed us. Some of the ships were called, because they were shorthanded or because of damage to the other aircraft or something. The planes or the ships, they would be called; unfortunately, I complained about having to stay over there but the powers to be said that we were doing the job that Washington DC, or Navy Dept. wanted us to do, so we made the best of it.
JP: What exactly was your job over there in the Mediterranean, like what do you mean by “protecting” the other parts of the world?
PB: Well, we’d keep the other countries in line by showing them our power, that we were organized, that we had the equipment, and we had what was needed to keep countries that maybe wanted to take over another country [from doing so.] Like Iraq, they took over Kuwait - we were there to be able to stop that. We were in Cuba when they had the Cuban Crisis, or we were in Granada to put that uprising down and that’s the purpose of being over there was to make known to the world that were a powerful navy, a powerful country, and we were there to help them or to keep them in line.
JP: This is a continuation of the last question. Grandpa, while you were in the Mediterranean, what placed did you get to see while you were stationed there and what kinds of things would you do?
PB: We’d go out to sea in the Mediterranean for a week and we’d have heavy training, three or four days without even stopping, and then after we’d pull our planes and our carrier back into port - France, Germany, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Spain - we’d go in there for a week for repair and rest and recreation. We would get our planes back in good shape so that we could go out for another week or two weeks, depending on the schedule. We’d go into places like Barcelona, Spain, [or] Portugal, and we’d be there a week so one third of the crew could go on liberty. We’d go to bull fights, tours, hikes, the beaches, shopping, and we’d go to Genoa, Italy, Sicily, we’d go to Nice and Cannes, France and go on the French Riviera. We’ve been to Yugoslavia and go up into the mountains there where families would invite us over for community parties. WE went to Istanbul, Turkey, and were able to communicate with the Turks and their way of life and we went on tours. And we also went to Athens, Greece, Philipi, and saw all the ruins of Greece that the Romans tore up; we also went to the Leaning Tower of Piza and then we’d seen the ruins of Pompeii, the city was covered by ash from the volcano. They cleaned it all out and is now open for tours. We’ve been to Rome, seen the coliseums; you take as much liberty or leave as you could afford or depending on your job. I was very conscious of my job so I didn’t take as much time off as I would have liked. I stayed on the ship and made sure the airplanes were in good shape and ready to go when we went back out to sea, but when we’d go back out to sea we’d be in competition with our sister squadron and so our planes should be in good shape, 100% ready to go, rested so we could do another two weeks. Sometimes wed fly around [a lot], four days in a row so we did a lot of heavy training, bombing. A sled that’s tied a thousand yards behind our carrier, we’d bomb it, shoot it and shoot down drones, fire our ships guns and our aircraft guns. We did a lot of heavy training over there and it was exciting, interesting and also very satisfying and also very tiring too.
JP: So once the Vietnam War was finished and you were done in the Mediterranean and over in Europe, where did you go or where were you stationed?
PB: Well I went back to VA -42 in Oceana, attack squadron forty two, the Vietnam War was in its prime and we had new airplanes called the A6A which is the Intruder. It was a combination bomber and had guns on it. It could do a lot of scrafing but it mainly did a lot of bombing. We trained pilots for six, nine months on that airplane and then they went aboard different carriers to go to Vietnam and were capable of doing the job that was needed out there and then after two years of that I had my twenty years in the Navy. I decided to get out and become a civilian. [I] was young enough to get another career so I could be with my growing family, send them to college and be able to be around them and supervise them and enjoy them. So after twenty years they gave me a big going away party and inspection because I was able to inspect the troops and then. . . they gave a going away speech and I got to give my thoughts about my time in the past twenty years. I told them it had been a very satisfying twenty years of hard work and I had a lot of good duties. I [think] the Navy Academy and Patuxent River, the test pilot school there where we test new airplanes. . . would probably be my two [most] satisfying career duties. I was also a leader and I was also able to put my talents to work. I received several promotions and several medals and as I went out of the Navy, my friends, my pastor of my church and my family were there for the commencement of my retirement.
JP: So through your twenty years what medals did you receive and could you give the importance or the description of these medals?
PB: The medal that I received that I am extra proud of was the Secretary of Navy Achievement Award, called the Navy Merit Badge. [It] comes from outstanding performance of duty for a period of two years when I was in the Attack Squadron 83 as a Maintenance Control Chief. [Shows medal] That medal there I earned from my performance but the other medals I received was good conduct. Every four years you get a good conduct medal and I received five of them during my twenty years, which I was proud of that. Being in the Navy, in the service, during WWII, they give you WWII medal because we were in the service during that time. Then while we were on active duty, they gave us American Campaign and American Defense medal[s]. As we performed our duties, they gave us these medals to remind everybody that we were in the service during WWII. Then I went to Europe and I received a European Occupation Medal. Then I received the Vietnam Medal because I was in the service during Vietnam. Now I mentioned that not everyone can be in Vietnam. We were over there in the Mediterranean. We were doing our job in case they needed us, we could rush over there and we’d be ready to go. We were able to train pilots to fly over in Vietnam so they gave me a Vietnam Medal. I have a total of six medals, which the Good Conduct Medal is very important to get your promotions. If you didn’t have good conduct, you wouldn’t be able to get your promotions when they would come around, but the Navy Merit Badge, they don’t come around very often. I was very fortunate to receive this medal and this award.
JP: So did they give ribbons that you would wear with your normal dress or did you wear those medals all the time?
PB: We would receive medals for each award. We wore them on our dress uniform or change of command but for our regular liberty uniform, we used ribbons and they were the same color, only they were bars that you put on your chest. The medals were strictly for special occasions.
JP: So through your twenty years, do you have a most memorable experience or one that sticks out in your mind as your favorite or anything?
PB: Well I've had a lot of good time and good memories of the service and the places that I've been and I think being in Trinidad, British West Indies. I had my wife down there with me. We lived on the edge of a jungle where the baboons were fighting in the trees. They’d wake us up in the morning. A swimming pool right there. A weapons carrier to take us to the movies, to the commisery. We worked tropical working hours and i was able to express my talents or to show my talents more there than any place because there was only two of us in that job grade and I was the senior man of the two. We’d tear an airplane down, the landing gear, and take it off, put it back on, after we tested it out or we put a new one on and the pilot would say “Crew leader has to fly with me on the test flight.” So we got to fly when we did our job there and was able to draw flight pay, over seas pay and it was probably my best tour of duty as far as satisfaction.
JP: What was it like on your day of retirement, marching down the aisle, with the Chiefs on the side, saluting you? What was it like?
PB: Well its hard to express how you feel when you arein military life. You sign over your life to the military for a period of 4 years, 6 years, and when that time expires, you sign over again, but when you get your final retirement papers and the commanding officer says “A job well done.” You feel a great pressure off your shoulders or you know then “ Hey! I’m free. I dont have to get up at six o’clock in the morning or i dont have to go to bed to be ready for the next day. My decisions are going to be for me and my family instead of for the country.” and it was a tremendous responsibility when you have as many as 400, 600 men that you were responsible for in their work. The type of work we did was the pilots wereflying the airplanes so we had to be careful, we had to be good and that was my responsibility, to make sure the job was done and doneright. That load was off of my shoulders and hearing the commanding officer say “A job well done” was very [satisfying] and my family and friends got to see a little bit of what military life was about.
JP: ONe last question. What was it like waking up within the next week and thinking, being so used to being in the Navy and having to get up and command those 400 or 600 seamen and officers and then realizing that you’ve just been in the Navy for twenty years and now retired and you get to start what could be called a new life?
PB: Well, at first, I got a rocking chair and put it out underneath the shade tree [and for] two days I set in my rocking chair thinking about what I had done in the past, what needs to be done in the future, did I make the right decision. I had a chance to go back in the service the next day if I wanted to. You had thirty days without losing any privileges, you could go back in and serve for another six years if you wanted to, or whatever. I was excited that I was able to be loose from all the stress and from the service. I was thinking about taking thirty days and just loaf, but about the third day I decided I’m not even going to go fishing; I’m going to look for a job. And I started working then for the post office which I did a career of twenty-five years later in that.
JP: Thank you for doing this interview for me. I really appreciate it and enjoyed it. Thank you.
PB: You’re welcome.
JP: And [I] Hope everything goes well. Thank you.