NAVAL/MARITIME OFFICER REMEMBERS THE HELL OF WAR

THE RING OF LIFE

 

COMBAT STORIES RECALLED BY U.S. NAVAL/MARITIME COMMANDER

     In 1989, then Mayor Katy Geissert told me about a 78-year-old Naval veteran whose American flag autographed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was stolen from a convalescent home. At the time, I was working as a free-lancer writing everything from human interest stories and essays to light poetry.

     Katy was serving as the first female mayor for the city of Torrance, Calif. What began as a brief interview with retired Naval/Maritime Commander Lloyd Jasper Ellis, stretched into days. I saw his credentials, believed his words, and wrote this story. It was carried on the front pages of a few newspapers, including The Daily Breeze, a Copley paper. Although I didn’t work

at The Breeze, I was there when his wife, Maureen, brought him into the newsroom on a wheelchair. In full uniform, he struggled to his feet and stood proudly for a photo that made the front page of The Breeze.

     Although I edited the feature slightly, meet the crusty old U.S. war veteran whose wife said she “rescued” him from the convalescent facility where she had cared for him, married him, and finally brought him home where he recalled his wartime adventures.

     Believe it or not, here’s the story he told me during a surprisingly long interview which I wrote about the ancient warrior:

 

     Birth is a gift. Life is an adventure. Death is a tragedy that even the courageous might welcome with open arms.

     “Many times,” retired Naval/Maritime Commander Lloyd Jasper Ellis admitted wishing “the sun would never come up, at least for me.” Not while serving his country during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, but over the decade he was being shuffled from one hospital to another, winding up at society’s last stop: a convalescent home in Torrance, California.

     When a bomb explosion blew him off the bridge of a cargo ship as it headed down the Saigon River in 1971 during the Vietnam War, Cmdr. Ellis suffered a serious head injury.

     “I was in a coma for months,” he told me. “When I finally came to, I couldn’t talk, think, and my legs were paralyzed. The surgeons must have left a couple of loose wires in my head.

     “When I was younger, I felt that a man who’d commit suicide has gotta be a coward. I was wrong,” said he sat in a wheelchair with his caretaker-wife, Maureen, 48, at his side.

     What I had anticipated to be a brief interview stretched into hours. Although dates escaped him, the stories he’d recall was far more than a old seaman’s yarn. For Ellis, with memory fading and a body that was anything but shipshape, hell appeared hard for him to forget.

     I first learned about the commander from Torrance mayor Kathy Geissert who told me about an elderly man in a convalescent home where his American flag which was personally autographed for him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was stolen.  

     The second eldest in a family of 5 sisters and 4 brothers, Ellis grew up on a fruit farm in Garfield, Arkansas. In 1928, right out of high school, he enlisted in the Navy. Following his discharge, he remained in the Naval Reserve and went on to college studying mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland.

     The day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was called back into active duty. Eight months later, serving aboard the USS Edgar Allen Poe during the invasion of Guadalcanal, a bomb struck the ship, rupturing steam pipes in the engine room severely scalding the young engineer.

     Months later, he was aboard another ship that was sunk by German torpedoes in the North Atlantic. “This was early in the war before they started using convoys,” he said. “We floated around for four days before a Dutch trawler picked us up.”

     He described the feeling of watching your ship sink as “helpless, sad and depressing. Your ship is your home. Down with it goes all your personal belongings, your letters, uniforms, pictures of loved ones, and some of your shipmates.”

     Ellis vividly remembered the nine invasions he participated in during The Big War: Guadalcanal, North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, Naples, Normandy, Toulon (a seaport in southeast France), Marseilles and Okinawa.

     After the death of his younger brother, Harold, a B-17 pilot who was shot down over Germany, Ellis described himself as “bitter.”

     That, combined with experiencing the loss of shipmates with the sinking of the USS Poe, caused Ellis to volunteer “to make the first wave of any invasion the military cared to send me to.”

     In 1943, off the western coast of Italy, Lt. Com. Ellis was aboard another troop carrier, the USS Georgian. “They had bombed us pretty heavy and we lay dead in the water,” he recalled. The Germans boarded the ship, captured five officers, including Ellis, and transported them to a prisoner-of-war camp in Czechoslovakia.

     “Every morning the Germans would come by and say, ‘You goddamned Yanks, this is the day you’re going to get it!’ One day they loaded us into wooden boxcars. We were jammed together. There was no velvet seats in those cars. We knew we were headed for the gas chambers.”

     As the train sped along the tracks, Ellis and a chief petty officer, Felix Bond, broke a hole in the side of the boxcar and jumped off “in the middle of nowhere. My arms, knees and face were badly scraped up and Bond broke his leg.”

     The two men hid in the brush during the day and, using the stars to navigate, traveled at night. “We didn’t want to go west. That led to Germany. If we were captured we knew we’d be murdered.”

     A distant light led them to a small farmhouse where a Czech

couple and their teen-age daughter lived. “The girl spoke almost fluent English. They had no love for Hitler so they hid us in the stable, fed and doctored us as best they could. They were scared but very brave. They knew they’d be killed if they were caught harboring allies.”

     Although Bond was too injured to travel, Ellis somehow had to get to Prague, which was about 10 miles from the farm. He claimed he had to locate the underground by reciting the code word, “Mickey Mouse.” The problem was how could a 200-pound Yank, who didn’t know a word of Czech, find that needle in the haystack?

     “The woman shaved my head. She cut off her long hair and glued it to my head. They gave me an old dress, a hat and a walking stick. Oh, and two shoes that didn’t match. I was some sight.

     “They put me on the road and pointed me to Prague. I hitched a ride part way on a horse-drawn wagon. But most of the way I walked. I spent hours on the streets. My feet were killing me. I find somebody and whisper ‘Mickey Mouse.’ Most of them thought I was a crazy old lady.”

     Finally, he said, a man responded with another code name which Ellis no longer remembers. “He took me into a cellar, dressed me in a French uniform and got me to the French border.”

     When he made it back to England, he volunteered to participate in “commando-type missions to help evacuate Jewish and Slav refugees across the English Channel.” Months later, Ellis found himself on another mission aboard the SS Benjamin Contie, a troop carrier which was wired with high explosives.

     On June 6, 1944, the Contie was part of the first wave to hit Ohama Beach during the massive allied invasion of Normandy. He claimed it was the sixth invasion he participated in.

     “We pulled up so close to shore we scraped bottom; unloaded our troops, blew out our hull, turning the ship into a permanent bunker,” he recalled. “There were four other ships in that invasion just like us.”

     Two battleships, the USS Texas and USS Arkansas, were firing their big guns from a distance so close to the Contie “the concussion would knock some of us down. I lost my helmet and my right eardrum because of those damned 16-inchers.”

     He recalled a grisly memory aboard the Contie during the invasion: As an Army sergeant was supervising the debarkation of troops, a cable snapped, decapitating him. “He body took a few steps then fell forward into the arms of two soldiers.

     “A soldier picked up the head. I’ll never forget. The G said, ‘Look, he’s trying to say something.’ I looked. The eyes were open. The mouth was moving. I said, ‘Let him talk. Maybe he’s talking to God.'”

     Listening to the old commander, I was convinced that he was telling what he remembered was the truth. Hard to believe, it was not a yarn designed for Hollywood and John Wayne.

     But his adventures continued.

     Expecting to be transported to a hospital ship on the second day of the invasion, Ellis climbed onto a British minesweeper. In less than ten minutes, the sweeper was struck by a bomb, split in two and sunk. He was knocked overboard. Soon an amphibious landing craft plucked him out of the ocean and carried him into the thick of the invasion.

     That same day, he said, a jeep driving past him hit a landmine and Ellis suffered serious injuries, losing part of his stomach and chalking up a second Purple Heart for his war chest. After spending time in an English hospital, he traveled aboard the Queen Mary, which had been converted into a hospital shop, to New York where he was discharged from the Navy and re-enlisted in the Merchant Marines.

     As a Maritime commander, he returned to the wars. Following the invasion of Sicily, he transported Gen. George S. Patton and his Third Army troops on a few occasions. During that period, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited him to meet her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a hospital in Warm Springs, Georgia.

     “He was very sick,” recalled Ellis. “But he was sitting up in bed puffing on that long-cigarette holder. That’s when he shook my hand. The president, said Ellis, tried to write a brief tribute

on presidential stationary. His handwriting was illegible, prompting his wife to write the note. In part, it read, “…

knowing your military history, I consider you a brave man and a great credit to the United States.” Right then I told him that the real heroes are the men who never make it back. I still believe that.”

     The president managed to autograph an American flag, which he presented to Ellis. After it was displayed in Torrance, Calif. on Memorial Day 1988, the flag was stolen from the convalescent home where he was being cared for.

     On May 13, 1989, dressed in his Maritime uniform, Ellis married Maureen Buckley Kerger, who had “rescued” him from the same convalescent home where his American flag was stolen. Thus began another chapter in the life of an Arkansas farm boy who went to war so many years ago and had seen his share of hell on Earth.  

               END

    NOTE: Tomorrow, July 4, 2015, (Independence Day), I’ll tell Ellis’ story about the day the commander refused to allow Gen. George S. Patton to bring his pit bull terrier aboard the USS Thomas W. Hyde, a troop carrier. It was in the midst of World War II.

 

 

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