Interview with Gilbert Thurman
Part One Thursday November 27th, 2003
Question: What was your purpose overseas? How did your situation come about?
Answer: I was in the Navy twice. The first time I went in was in 1948. The second time was in 1951 when I was called back in for the Korean War. My time was spent mostly in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean. I was on a destroyer and our purpose was to protect the bigger ships, airplanes, and submarine attacks.
Question: Did you ever experience any combat?
Answer: Being on a naval ship, most of the time we don’t see what we are attacking. In my case I was in the engineering division as an electrician. I was in the engine room taking care of the generators. We didn’t know about anything that was going on up above until something happened to our ship.
Question: Taking your experience, is it plausible to generate a “true” definition of war in your eyes.
Answer: When you are in the service particularly in the Navy you are one unit! You are a ship which is part of a larger fleet. Your thoughts are concerned with that ship and the survival of that ship. Most of us don’t think of war in a bigger context because we are there. We are already there. The only thing that you are thinking about is surviving. War in itself is something that we are concerned with mostly from the stand point of serving your country. Most of us fleet that way. We were in there for a purpose, to defend the United States.
Question: What would be one thing that you wanted this generation to know about war from your experience?
Answer: That is a difficult question. I think we would have a number of different answers with some people thinking that their survival is the most important thing and others would think differently that their mission was the most important thing. Other would think in other directions, maybe their own advancement would be the most important thing. In those days, serving your country was the most important thing. War today is very devastating. We need to avoid it in any possible way that we can because it is just a needless loss of life with each additional war that we have.
Question: Did you ever struggle with any ethical questions during war?
Answer: No! I think the question of ethics has become more pronounced as the years have gone on. The days that we are talking about, service to your country was the most important thing. We were not really concerned about ethics. That purpose is not as clear these days. Politics of world situations change things. Ethics now is a more important subject than it was years ago.
Question: Did you ever question your mission or orders while serving?
Answer: No. Most of the time we didn’t know what they were. It was hard to question them. In the navy, we went with a fleet of ships. We didn’t know what the purpose was until something happened. The officers in charge didn’t announce over the P.A. system what was going on. When general quarters sounded, you immediately reported to your post and preformed the duty that you were responsible for.
Question: Were you ever wounded physically, emotionally or spiritually while serving overseas?
Answer: I was never wounded physically. The most emotional experience I had was when I was assigned to escort a person who had died to his hometown. Taking a coffin to someone’s small hometown for me was very emotional because you must stay there through the funeral and perform the duties that you must do. I think that was probably my most emotional time during the period that I was in the service.
Question: What was it like returning to normal life after your experience? You constantly read about the Vietnam veteran who has a difficult time adjusting to post war life, was your assimilation back into society as difficult?
Answer: No! Both times when I got out the adjustment was very easy. I think anyone who is in and is looking forward to getting out of the service has no problem . I remember being with the soldiers who were returning from WWII and they were all just happy as the dickens to be back home. Some of them on the other hand may have experienced some emotional disturbances. I think by far the majority of them were just happy to be home. I had no problem with the adjustment.
Question: This is a difficult question to ask. Having been home now, how does the media’s portrayal of war compare to your experiences?
Answer: The John Wayne movies are nothing like the real service. I have never seen a real movie that comes close to portraying exactly what it is like in the military. Saving Private Ryan was probably the closest. However, since I wasn’t in the army I can’t really speak towards that. The movies I have seen about naval service are no where close to it. You can’t describe it in a movie. It’s just impossible.
Question: Since your experience overseas, how often do you think about your time in the service?
Answer: It has been 51 years since my service and I still think about it from time to time. I don’t know how often it is. I think it is getting less and less, but it creeps up on you particularly when you are watching movies. If it is something that brings back a memory, you start making comparisons. You start saying to yourself, “That couldn’t happen like that.” I don’t think anyone ever truly forgets military service. You think about it once a week, once a month, two or three times a year, but I sometimes think back to my boot camp days. I think about things that happened aboard the ship such as a bad storm. Those things live in your mind and they come back rather frequently.
Question: Since your experience, have you gone back to visit the areas that you served in?
Answer: No! And I don’t think I ever will. I have never had a desire to do that.
Question: Did you form any lasting friendships with any individuals during your time of service?
Answer: Yes! In fact, the last ship that I was on has an association with a reunion every year in different locations. It also has a newsletter and a website so we do keep in touch with the people that we served with. I have never been to a reunion, for some reason I just don’t have a desire to do that, but I do keep in touch with the people that I served with. I also have formed lasting friendships with relationships that I developed in those days.
Question: Over the past semester, I have formed the opinion that today’s society has grown immune to war. We have not experienced war to the level that past generations have. Do you agree with my statement?
Answer: I think there is some merit in that thought. In my day you had to have service, there was a draft. That is the reason that I went into the navy. I didn’t want to go into the army, so I had no choice but to go into the navy. Most of the people who were in service those days were people who had to serve. There was no other choice! Now we have a volunteer service and people don’t have to serve if they don’t want to. Not having had that indoctrination and experience I think the later generation has developed immunity towards military service.
Part two Friday November 28th
This second interview is going to focus on the experience of war.
Question: What were the names of the ships that you served on and the specific years that you served on them?
Answer: The first ship was the destroyer USS Winslow and I was on that ship in 1948 and 1949. The second ship was the USS Moale in 1951 and 1952 during the Korean War.
Question: What was the process of entering the war and serving on a ship? How were you notified to report to duty?
Answer: Well I had already been in the service with the first ship that I served on. With the first ship I had been serving at various stations. Also during that time, I was on a tugboat which we assisted other ships in and out of harbor. We hauled barges and freight for about two years. After that I went on the destroyer due to orders that you get. You don’t get a phone call. Orders come through, transferring you from this place to this place. You have nothing to do with it. The second time I got a letter from the Navy. I reported to great lakes to get my uniform and equipment. Then I was sent to Norfolk, Virginia to catch my ship. The next morning we were under our way for the Mediterranean.
Question: What were your feelings and emotions during your time of reporting?
Answer: Well, I wasn’t real happy the second time when I got called back into the reserves. I had just got married and I was on the police department here at the time so I had to leave my new wife and my job to go who knows where. I was pretty sure I was going to wind up on a destroyer because I had been on one before.
Question: How did the adjustment process go? Did you find yourself adjusting better than others?
Answer: Having already served four years in the navy, I was pretty accustomed to what was going on. Most of the crew was also going through the same thing that I was going through. They had all left there jobs and families just as I so we adjusted very quickly. You really don’t have time to think about it. Once you board the ship you are working. You are standing watches and performing duties.
Question: How were the living conditions on the ship?
Answer: Well if you like sleeping on bunks that are stacked three or four high with little space in between, that is it. You had a bunk and a small locker for clothing and personal articles and that is it. There is no privacy, nothing to call your own except your bunk.
Question: What did you do on your free time?
Answer: Well, we played cards. Peenuckle was popular and so was cribbage. We talked and we did have movies on board weather permitting. When we showed movies we showed them on the fan tail. We turned the five inch gun mount around and projected the movie on it. But if you are in heavy weather you are unable to hold it still. That is one of the things I did aboard the ship, I was a movie projectionist. A lot of times I had to hold the projector with the ship tipping from side to side and up and down. That pretty much took up our spare time. But you have to understand everyone is standing watch when a ship is under way. I would take the midnight to four watch. I went to sleep, they woke me up, and I did my watch then went back to bed. After that started my workday again at 6 o’clock, so there really isn’t’ a lot of spare time.
Question: Did you ever have any close calls at sea?
Answer: Yes! Probably the closest was when we were rammed in our bow by another ship and put a big hole in our bow at three in the morning. Everybody was scrambling to their positions and we had to temporarily patch the hole while we were underway until we could make it to a port for repair. When we got hit, it knocked us off our course and into the path of the USS Swoss which was a huge carrier. If we had hit that we would have lost our ship. Another close call that scared us was coming back to the U.S. and encountering a hurricane in the Atlantic which battered us around. We were taking on water and struggling to survive but we made it. Everyone had specific duties to perform, a normal occupation so to speak. Radar men, sonar men, electricians etc.. Everyone has a job to do and a specific battle station to report too. Everyone has a specific place to go and a specific job to do when they sound general quarters. It is important that each one get there and do their job.
Question: What was the hurricane like at sea?
Answer: At sea it is pretty frightening. You have two ways to go, ahead or down. You prefer to go ahead. You pitch and roll in a hurricane. You must understand the destroyer is a small ship so when you turn way over the sea is up above you and all you can see is water. You wonder if you are going to come back and you are always happy when you go back to normal position. That is pretty much how you ride out a hurricane at sea. If you have ever seen the movie The Kane Mutiny that is about a destroyer that was in a hurricane at sea. That movie would pretty well describe what we were going through. The swells were about 40 to 50 feet.
Question: What life lessons did you learn while serving in the military, and what lessons have you applied to your post war life?
Answer: I think there are several life lessons. When I first entered the Navy, I was very young, right out of high school. The first thing you encounter is discipline. Everything has to be done at a certain time in a certain way. You must conform to that discipline and if you don’t it throws everything off. I think the second thing you learn is how to be self- reliant. You must depend on yourself because nobody is going to do it for you. No one will pick up your clothes after you and no one will clean up the area. You have to do it yourself. I think dependability to perform in such a way that people can depend on you is a third key idea. You have to get there on time, and do things the right way. While serving in the military you develop into a dependable person. I would say those three things, discipline, self reliance and dependability are three things that you learn and can apply to your life.
“War is very devastating. We need to avoid it in any possible way because it is just a needless loss of life with each additional war that we have.” These gripping words were made by Mr. Gilbert Thurman in regards to his experience of war. Mr. Thurman served in the Navy on two occasions dating back fifty-one years ago. Gilbert began his service aboard the USS Winslow during the end of WWII, he served from the years of 1948 to 1949. He was then called back into service during the Korean War aboard the USS Moale, serving from 1951 to 1952. “I wasn’t really happy the second time when I got called back into the reserves. I had just gotten married and I was on the police department here at the time. I had to leave my new wife and my job to go who knows where.” Mr. Thurman’s story of war echoes themes that we have studied in class regarding the ideas of soldier loyalty, combat confusion, and the detailed memories of war experience. On the other hand, Thurman’s story of war contrasts with the literature studied in class, literature themes such as the lack of patriotism within soldiers, the difficult postwar adjustment for soldiers, and a soldier’s yearning to return to the battle site after the war. Despite the similarities and differences, there were several stories told by Mr. Thurman that grabbed my attention; stories such as, returning the body of a soldier to his small home town after war and life lessons from serving in the military.
There is an immediate similarity generated between Mr. Thurman and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. O’Brien’s example of how Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his fellow soldiers reacted with such concern and disarray following the death of any one of their comrades is used to represent the strong unity that was active within any group of men during war. Gilbert Thurman reflected a similar idea in relation to O’Brien, stating, “When you are in the service, particularly the Navy, you are one unit. You are a ship which is part of a larger fleet. Your thoughts are concerned with that ship and the survival of that ship.” On the other hand, the mindset of Gilbert Thurman directly contrasts with that of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Jimmy Cross’s thoughts are not on the well-being of his men and the situation of Vietnam during the first part of O’Brien’s book. Due to the lack of concern on Cross’s behalf, he cannot properly carry out his duties as a Lieutenant. This was why his fellow soldier Ted Lavender is shot in the beginning of the book. It is quite evident that Gilbert Thurman’s idea of camaraderie between soldiers in the service relate to O’Brien idea in many ways.
Another similarity between Gilbert Thurman and issues that were discussed in class can be found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut and many other war story authors often discuss the sense of confusion and disarray that accompanied war and times of conflict. Vonnegut uses the lackadaisical character of Billy Pilgrim to represent his “drunken waltz” through war. Mr. Thurman was met with similar instances of confusion during his time of service. In his response to the question, “Did you ever question your mission or orders while serving?” Mr. Thurman responded, “No. Most of the time we didn’t know what they were. It was hard to question them when we didn’t know what they were. In the Navy we went with a fleet of ships and we didn’t know what the purpose was until something happened.” Being an electrician aboard his naval ship, Mr. Thurman had direct orders he needed to follow. At the same time, there were a large number of indirect orders that affected the entire ship of which Thurman was not always aware.
A third similarity between Gilbert Thurman’s experience and war literature can be found in the memories of war that both he and characters in the literature possess. Writing has served as a form of therapy for nearly all of the war veterans that have been studied in class. In his preface, Kurt Vonnegut makes the statement, “I think about how useless the Dresden part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting it is to write about” (Vonnegut 2). Tim O’Brien also uses the example of soldiers like Norman Bowker who struggled with the painful memories of war. Mr. Thurman similarly stated, “I don’t think anyone ever truly forgets military service. It has been fifty-one years since my service and I still think about it from time to time. I think it is getting less and less, but it still creeps up on you.” It has become quite clear that nearly all war veterans struggle with painful memories of the past.
Despite the many similarities between Gilbert Thurman and the literature that was studied in class, there were a large number of differences as well. In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five there is not a strong sense of enthusiasm and patriotism displayed by the soldiers. In Vietnam primarily, the majority of the soldiers could not find a reason why they were in a hostile country risking their lives. However, Gilbert Thurman felt a clear purpose in his mission, he stated, “We were in there for a purpose, to defend the United States. In those days, serving your country was the most important thing.” Tim O’Brien and most of the writers that we have studied are lacking that sense of pride and certainty. I feel that most of the pieces that have been studied in the past semester are slightly anti-war selections. Writers such as Howard Zinn, Miriam Cooke, and many other war story authors typically highlight the negative aspects of war. They do not approach the situation from a patriotic standpoint. On the other hand, Mr. Thurman stated his purpose quite clearly, and he was very proud of his actions and experience.
A second difference between Gilbert Thurman and the war story authors can be found in the postwar adjustment for the soldiers. Tim O’Brien, Kurt Vonnegut, Dr. Metres Sr., and the film Born on the Fourth of July all discuss the difficult adjustment that the soldiers were met with during the postwar. Mr. Thurman took an opposite approach, stating, “Both times when I got out the adjustment was very easy. I think anyone who is in and is looking forward to getting out of the service has no problem.” I realize Gilbert Thurman’s war situation was different from many other people’s experience, but it was interesting to hear how his adjustment into mainstream society differed from all of the other people that we have studied. Tim O’Brien returned to Vietnam several years after coming home to the United States. O’Brien chose to take his daughter with him as part of her teenage birthday present. Tim believed his return would help him emotionally cope with the situation and possibly bring some closure to his war experience. O’Brien was very interested and eager in many ways to return to Vietnam. Gilbert Thurman however, illustrated a different point of view when he responded to my question, “Since your experience, have you gone back to visit the areas that you served in?” Thurman responded very sternly, “No, and I don’t think I ever will. I have never had a desire to do that.” Gilbert Thurman seemed very certain about not returning to the area in which he fought in. On the other hand, Tim O’Brien seemed eager to return.
One example of a war story told by Gilbert Thurman that seemed important to me was when he began discussing a particular story in which he was assigned to take the dead body of a fellow soldier to his small hometown for a funeral service. Gilbert used this story in response to my question, “Were you ever wounded physically, emotionally, or spiritually during your time of service?” Thurman responded by telling his story. He stated, “Taking a coffin to someone’s small hometown for me was very emotional because as a soldier you must stay there to perform the duties that you must do.” Seeing Mr. Thurman’s facial expression and hearing his tone of voice when he made the statement, “I think that was probably my most emotional time in the period that I was in service,” really hit me hard.
A second instance of importance during the interview occurred when Mr. Thurman answered my final question, “What life lessons did you learn while serving in the military, and what lessons have you applied to your postwar life?” His response was simple and to the point. He added, “I would say the three life lessons of discipline, self-reliance, and dependability are three things you can carry with you for the rest of your life.” These three keys to life according to Mr. Thurman are things that I strive for each day. I can say with 100% certainty that if an individual applies these three keys to his or her life he or she is destined for success.
When analyzing the interview with Mr. Thurman, one predominant quote regarding the idea of faith delivered by Victor Frankl, an Austrian Psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search For Meaning, comes to mind. Frankl spent much of his life in a concentration camp during WWII and his definition of faith is, “Faith is meaning and the capacity to make meaning, especially when meaning has been lost.” Gilbert Thurman was torn away from his job and loving wife on two occasions in order to risk his life and serve his country. Thurman served with honor and pride during some of the most dangerous times in American History. Fifty-one years later, Mr. Thurman states with great certainty that he learned countless life lessons from his experience. In the words of Nietzsche, a famous German philosopher, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Gilbert Thurman found a why to live and was able to bear almost any how during his time of service.