BLUEJACKET ODYSSEY, 1942-1946
Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacific
by William L. McGee
Foreword by C. A. Lloyd, Chairman, USN Armed Guard Veterans of WWII
BMC Publications, 2000
“Little has been written about service in the Naval Armed Guard in which nearly 145,000 men served. . . . McGee remedies this with a book that offers a clear picture of the duties and dangers of service in the Armed Guard. The book has value for historians.”
—Naval History Magazine
“I would like to thank Bill McGee and his wife, Sandra, for their work over the years to preserve U.S. Naval Armed Guard and Merchant Marine history so people of future generations may read and see what both crews did in World War II. Without Bill and Sandra working together, and their interest, the Naval Armed Guard story would never have been told properly.”
–Charles A. Lloyd, Chairman, USN Armed Guard WWII Veterans
From the Author: “All these years after the war, I was curious about what happened to the other ships in my Task Unit 32.4.4 and to the men who served on them. During the war this information was classified, but when I began my research in the 1990s, a lot of information had become declassified and provided answers to many of my questions.”—William L. McGee
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In 1942 at age seventeen, and like a lot of other youth anxious to do their part in the war effort, Montana cowboy Bill McGee joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the U.S. Naval Armed Guard, the branch of the Navy that protected merchant ships and their valuable cargo and crew from enemy attacks.
During his first voyage in the South Pacific, between New Caledonia and Guadalcanal, his Task Unit 32.4.4 suffered two major enemy attacks: the first by air and the largest Japanese air attack since Pearl Harbor; the second by torpedoes. Of the four Liberty ships in Task Unit 32.4.4, only one survived: the SS Nathaniel Currier — the ship McGee was serving on.
His “kid’s cruise” (as these minority enlistments were called) ended in 1946 with duty on the heavy cruiser USS Fall River (CA-131), the Flagship for the Target Fleet at Operation CROSSROADS– the post-war atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Drawing on his shipboard journal, three years of interviews with former shipmates and other survivors, and exhaustive research with declassified documents in the National Archives, McGee has produced an engrossing book that has the inimitable mark of one that has “been there, done that.”
McGee’s enlisted man’s perspective on the Bikini atomic bomb tests—by itself—makes this book worth owning. The author had a front row seat at the beginning of the atomic age as Operation Crossroads grew from a few thousand people into a mammoth operation of 150 ships, 75 aircraft and more than 42,000 men, including political observers, the media and scientists of every calling. McGee covers the event in complete and exciting detail.
In his signature straightforward writing style, McGee tells an honest, factual story that takes the reader for a ride through the war zones on Liberty ships, Victory ships, and the heavy cruiser, USS Fall River. From Japanese “Zeros” to nuclear tests, South Sea native customs and marathon poker games, Bluejacket Odyssey is a personal account of a defining period in our nation’s history.
546 pp, 250 b&w photos, plus appendices, bibliography, index, 6” x 9”, Softcover, ISBN 13: 978-0-9701678-0-4, $35.00 (BMC Publications, 2000)
NAVAL HISTORY Magazine, January/February 1999
Memoirs of World War II duty on board naval combatant vessels of every type crowd the bookshelves, but little has been written about service in the Armed Guard, in which nearly 145,000 men served. William L. McGee, in “Bluejacket Odyssey,” remedies this deficiency to the extent that one volume can….Drawing upon a meticulously maintained diary, McGee’s report is written from the viewpoint of the enlisted man….The greatest merit of “Bluejacket Odyssey” is that it offers a clear picture of the duties and dangers of service in the Armed Guard. As a source of first-hand information on this type of naval experience, the book has value for historians.
—Colonel Lane C. Kendall, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Ret)
MILITARY Magazine, August 1998
Those who entered service as young enlistees, eager to know what men know, and do those things that men do—or at least what they think men do—will see their reflections in this book. Combat veterans may find themselves drawn into the action by McGee’s honest prose. Accounts by other participants in the action broaden the scene and color it deadly. You might catch yourself resisting the urge to look behind you for a Japanese plane, its determined pilot boring in at your back.
War called McGee toward the sea to make ships. At 17, he enlisted. The Marine physical ruled him out, so he joined the Navy. The fastest way to the open sea, and the war waged for its control, was through gunnery school and a berth aboard a merchant vessel as a member of the Navy’s Armed Guard….McGee and his shipmates lived through a series of surprises, their world expanded as for puppies escaped from their world in a cardboard box. Innocence gave way to experience to the survivors. After war’s end, McGee was reassigned to a modern warship. He sailed aboard it to a long, memorable post-war Navy experience: the beautiful, but sobering, Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests….In four years, McGee grew away from the innocent, young cowboy—who didn’t get away with using ‘heck’ or ‘darn’—into the salty life of a young sailor in a world at war.
He tells his story with a candid eye, and without embellishment. It’s McGee’s honesty, clarity, and respect for his subject, that impresses.
—David A. Strongin, USA (Ret)
SEA CLASSICS Magazine, December 1997
The story of a generation of Armed Guards….Well written, the book is an honest, factual story—laced with humor.
SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS, December 7, 1997
The real color is revealed through McGee’s detailed daily journal, interviews with former shipmates, and declassified documents. All is further brought to life via photos and illustrations in an in-depth look at one aspect of wartime adventure.
PRAISE FROM READERS
“A must read for all Armed Guard and Merchant Seamen and their families.”
—C.A. Lloyd, Chairman, USN Armed Guard Veterans of WWII
“One of the best books I’ve read. Very, very good, sir.”
—Henry Carringi, New York State Director, USN Armed Guard Veterans of WWII
“You are writing facts. How do I know? I was in Task Unit 32.4.4 and lost my ship on 23 June 1943, just as you write.”
—L. Ray Weathers, Boatswain Mate 2/c, USN, USS Deimos (AK-78)
“The tragic voyage of Task Unit 32.4.4 still haunts me after all these years. Your eyewitness accounts of the June 1943 action is spellbinding. I couldn’t put the book down.”
—Roy Lucy, Radioman 3/c, USNR, USS Aludra (AK-72)
“As a Skylark veteran, your military histories mean a lot to us, more than you’ll ever know.”
—Len Honeycutt, Radarman 1/c, USN, USS Skylark (AM-63)
“Bluejacket Odyssey includes McGee’s time aboard the USS Fall River during Operation Crossroads. We give it our highest recommendation.”
—Dr. Oscar Rosen, Editor, Atomic Veterans Radiation News
“Not since reading all of James Michener’s books have I been so enthralled. I am reading and re-reading. Your research is unbelievable—dates, places, bona fide archival photos. Just up my alley.”
—Mary K. Pierson, Cryptographer, WWII U.S. Military Attaché
“Very well-written, and I say that as a former college professor of English. Brought tears to my eyes. A ‘must read’ for all sea services veterans and their descendants, too.”
—Charles C. Espy, Lt (jg), USNR, SS Thomas Nelson Armed Guard C.O.
“Well-written and interesting with an abundance of factual information.”
—Arnold Latare, Skipper, Iowa crew, USN Armed Guard
“Really jogged my memory. One hell of a book, difficult to put down. Here’s my check for another copy.”
—Lou Fantacone, USN Armed Guard
“Your career paralleled mine in many ways and I’m sure our paths crossed during the war.”
—William Tubbs, USN Armed Guard, Illinois-Wisconsin Crew
“I have read most of the books about the Armed Guard and think yours is the best. I like the combination of personal and WWII histories.”
—Robert L. Coffman, USN Armed Guard
“Excellent research …I give your book a 4.0.”
—Duane Curtis, SS Nathaniel Currier, USN Armed Guard
“Factual, no embellishment. It brought back many memories I had forgotten.”
—Ray Simpson, U.S. Merchant Marine
“Your excellent Bluejacket Odyssey recalls many good Fall River memories as well as provides Armed Guard insights.”
—Bob Snow, Ensign, USNR, USS Fall River (CA-131)
“A great gift for my dad who also served in the Navy (Seabees) in WWII. Enclosed is my check for his copy.”
—Gilbert Mackey, Engineer, Los Alamos, NM
“I served in both the Atlantic and Pacific, including thirty-four days in a lifeboat. If you want to re-live your life again, read this outstanding book.”
—Alvin Kemble, USNR
“A very fine tribute to a branch of the Navy which deserves and has heretofore not had the respect and appreciation it should have had.”
—W.T. (Bim) Miller, Esq., Miller and Robinson
“Bluejacket Odyssey arrived in the mail the other day and I could hardly put it down. It’s amazing how you compiled all that information after fifty years. You can be proud of this accomplishment.”
—John Stambaugh, QM1/c, USN, USS Fall River (CA-131)
“A most complete and well‑researched document covering a major dramatic event in our young lives.”
—Tony Gray, Quartermaster 3/c, USNR, USS Celeno (AK-76)
“Thanks to you I’ve learned things I never knew before and some I’d completely forgotten.”
—Pat Paones, Shipfitter 1/c, USNR, USS Deimos (AK-78)
“I found your writing most realistic. Enjoyed every page immensely.”
—Charles Maiers, USS Deimos (AK-78)
“Your book is great. I will definitely include excerpts in our next issue of GUNS.”
—Jack Photenhauer, Editor, Guns Magazine, Association of Gunner’s Mates
“So many mixed memories. Looking forward to your next book.”
—Gerhard R. Hess, USNR, LST-342
“A magnificent job of research and presentation. Brought back many memories. Some good, some bad.”
—Alfred Warm, USNR, LCI-222
“Have greatly enjoyed reading Odyssey. My family enjoyed reading it as well.”
—Ross Osborn, USNR, USS Aludra
“A magnificent job of research and presentation. I will be passing it around to our shipmates here in the Wilmington area.”
—George W. Cameron, Crew Chief, Armed Guard Mid-Atlantic Chapter
“I was born in 1926, so it was a real revelation to me to read of your childhood and compare it with mine. I could have read on and on about your early years, your family and the ranch work. I found it so interesting.”
—E. V. Clothier, Dagenham, Essex, U.K.
“Thanks for bringing back many good memories of my days in the Navy. Bluejacket Odyssey is one of the best books ever published on WWII. Will treasure it, as will all of my family.”
—Carlo Mangiaracina, USNR