1953 - 1956


Then came all the packing and paper work to go to Cuba.  I had bought the 1950 Ford about a year before and the finance company said I couldn’t take it out of the country.  So I spoke to my father about it, as we would need a car there.  My uncle Al at that time had something to do with St. Anne’s Credit Union and after talking to him, my father said we could finance the car with that credit union because I was baptized in St. Anne’s.  So that part was taking care of.  My mother helped with the packing.  Three separate packing orders, one to be in Cuba within 6 weeks, one load to arrive by slow boat later and one load to go in storage.  Oh! And all the luggage that had to go with us on board ship.  This was in January and the clothing situation made a problem.  We needed winter clothes for Fall River and on the ship, then we would need only summer clothes for the next two years.

The apartment was inspected before we left and I apologized for it not being as clean as I would have like to leave it.  The managers said not too worry, we would be welcomed back at any time, and he just wished others would leave it half as clean.  He wished me good luck and off to Grandma’s for the night and the trip to New York the next day.

Grandpa drove us the next day to New York.  It’s about two hundred miles from Fall River.  The Navy provided a Hotel for us to stay.   I contacted Van’s mother and she and my folks saw that we got to the ship all right.  We sailed on the USNS Johnson.  We had a cabin with two doubled bunks and a sink.  It was a rough trip for me.  Carl was potty trained but forgot it all on the ship.. . They said no washing in the cabin but after I settled the kids for the night, I would wash out the diapers and hang them to dry, and get up early to take the diapers and the clothesline down, in case they came to inspect the cabin.  Bob couldn’t open the men’s room door, so I had to do that and wait.  Carl had to be watched every minute because he didn’t like staying in the cabin.  I would put his ski suit on and take him with a harness for a walk on deck.  He was so quick and eager to run, I had to be so careful.  After a couple of days, we pulled into Norfolk, VA and they had snow, which was very rare.  We left soon after they picked up supplies etc. and we were on our way again.  In the middle of the night, I heard the engine stop running and I figured something was wrong.  Sure enough, the engine had problems and we were going to be towed back to Norfolk.  We stayed there four days while they cut a huge hole in the side of the ship and took the old engine out and put in a replacement.  I was beginning to think we’d never get to Cuba.

They did try to entertain us, but how can 4 different ages like the same thing.  I let Bob have some freedom, but the Captain kept saying that you must know where your children are at all times.  Mealtime was something else. By the time, I cut the children their portion of meat; it was almost time to go back to the cabin.  I think we had a half-hour for dinner.  A young bride sat at my table and saw what I was going through and didn’t offer any help until we were about 3 days out of Cuba.

The weather started to feel warmer as we got closer to Cuba and Van came out on the pilot boat to meet us.  Now I had help and I felt so relieved to get there soon and be a family again.

The USNS Johnson finally arrived at the Base, and after the whole family checked in, we went to see our new home.  It was a cute little white cottage with a screened-in porch.  The other entrance was through the kitchen, which was a good size with stove, sink and refrigerator with plenty of cabinets and a counter to work on. Then next to it was a good size living room with furniture from the supply department.  The windows were large but no glass.  They were screened in and had wooden jalousies to keep out the rain.  It had a good size bathroom with tub and shower etc. Also had little hall with a linen closet between the two bedrooms.  They were medium size, but held 3 single beds for the kids and a dresser and ours held a full size bed and a dresser.  It was called sub-standard housing so we weren’t charged our full housing allowance.

our home in "Gitmo"

The housing office had a trunk with all the necessities to use until our first shipment would get to Gitmo.  The neighbors were friendly and told us about having a maid. Everyone had a maid especially with children and the functions one must attend.  Our maid was Mavis and we got along very well.  She did everything but cook and even did that for the children when we had to attend a function.  She didn’t want to sleep in the dormitory and asked our permission to sleep on the porch.  One half was large enough for a bed, so we agreed.

She was very discreet and never a bother and she loved to sew. She asked me to get some material and she would sew some dresses for me.  Never used a pattern and they fitted great. The children enjoyed her too.  She took good care of them.  Carl was only 2, Dorrie 4, and Bob 8.  Bob was in third grade and Dorrie was in Kindergarten.  A school bus with a driver and a guard picked up all the kids at the front door every morning and brought them home every afternoon.  The base was like the USA transferred to the island. We had everything we would need at home and more.

Christmas with Mavis

Ellen and Van at the beach

After we got acquainted with neighbors and other Chiefs and their family, the fellows found out that the old Chiefs Club was closed.  So a group of them decided that they would get permission to repair the old club.  So they went to work and in no time at all it was finished and they had a big opening celebration.  The club had something going on every week, be it a dance night or a Halloween Party. One Halloween, the club had a  custom party.  I made a Dutch Boy outfit for Van and a Dutch Girl outfit for me and we won first prize. I couldn’t believe it. It was very enjoyable and exciting. Everyone participated in whatever was happening.  The Chief’s Club was still going strong when we left the island.

Before our first shipment came from the states, we purchased an electric frying pan.  It was Dorrie’s 5th birthday and I made her a cake and we put it in the frying pan because it had a cover and we were going to the beach.  We went to the beach quite often, sometimes just for swimming and other times with the Brandenbergs and their 2 boys.  When we got back home, we decided it was time for the birthday cake. When I took the cover off the fry pan, I remarked that I thought I made a white cake, but this cake was brown.  When we looked at it closer, we saw that the cake was completely covered with ants.  No birthday cake!!!  That was the first big encounter with ants, but we fought them all the time we were there.  

Van bought himself a scooter to go back and forth to work.  He was in charge of the dry dock and it kept him pretty busy, but he enjoyed the work because it was interesting and very different from what he usually did.

One day, Van decided to put up a fence around the property so Carl would stay in the yard.  Our neighbor said he had some old fence laying in the back yard and we could have it.  Well, it was just what he wanted and as Van was trying to separate the sections of the fence, he was bitten by a dozen or so wasps and his face ballooned.  We rush him to the Navy Clinic and they gave him a shot.  He said he could feel the shot move from his feet to this face.  But the shot did the trick and he felt okay.  When he went back to the fence pile, he really checked it out before he moved anything again.  He put the fence up and it gave the property a homey look.

It was too far to travel in the states to join the Navy Wives Club and since there was an active group here, it was a good chance to join.  School usually closed in May, and the families were transferred at that time.  When May came, almost the whole membership was leaving, and since I was the longest member, I was elected President.  I knew nothing about being a President, but I soon learned what had to be done and did it.  New members joined when the new group from the states arrived so I had lots of help.  The Base also had lots of things for the children like Santa arriving at Christmas time by helicopter and driving around the open theatre on the fire ladder truck.  The kids just loved that.  They had several swimming pools but we would go to the beaches instead, and leave the pool to the sailors.

The Navy had what they call R&R trip for the families.  So I went on one to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  It was different from the Johnson; I didn’t any children to watch.  There were about 20 or more wives that went.  San Juan was a pretty city and lots of beautiful sandy beaches.  Several of us took a taxi to sightsee and those drivers scare you to death.  They drive so fast on the crowded narrow street.  I closed my eyes one time when he passed a gasoline truck.  I was sure he wouldn’t make it.  We were there just that one afternoon, then back to the ship and home.  It gave the wives a change of scenery.  When we arrived back to Gitmo, we were greeted on the pier by the band welcoming us home.

Later on when it was our Anniversary and also Labor Day weekend, the base had a trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  Van and I decided that would be a good way to celebrate, so he signed up.  We went again on a Navy Ship. On the ship, all the women slept together in one area.  And the men slept in a different area. Three couples decided to stay together at this fancy hotel called Hotel Chouchuon and share our driver and guide for the weekend.   We had beautiful weather and were greeted at the hotel, even before signing in, with a delicious rum punch.  After we went to our room, Van went for a swim in the huge pool.  We all had dinner every night at the hotel. And every evening between 6 and 8 o’clock it would pour down rain.  That’s what kept everything green.  Someone of the group told the head hostess that it was our anniversary and my birthday.  So the last night we went to dinner, they treated us royally.  We had special plates and fancy glasses and flowers on the table.  The Calypso Band played music for us.  It was really very special.

While we were there, our driver took us to a Voodoo show that is put on for the tourists. It gets pretty hectic, people fainting everywhere. Not the audience, just the performers.  He also took us for a sightseeing ride one afternoon.  He drove up this high mountain and when it was time to return, he switched off the key and we drifted down the hill with no engine running.  Gas was so expensive and this was one way to save money.

The morning that the ship was getting ready to return to Gitmo.  I was up and dressed and decided to go on deck.  I know sooner got out there when the ship “blew tubes” (Done to clear the smoke stacks.) and I was covered with soot from head to toe.  I guess I must have yelled loud enough that some of the other passengers came out to see what was wrong.  I remember that I had on a white blouse and black skirt.  I just don’t remember how I got cleaned up.

When we returned to Gitmo, the kids were waiting on the pier with Mavis, and the Navy Band was there to welcome us home.

The children were happy in Cuba.  Carl was going the pre-school and happy to be going to school like his siblings.  Dorrie was in First Grade and taking ballet lessons with Cherie our neighbors little girl.  Bob was in the Christmas Special and going to solo the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are”.  But he almost didn’t make it.  Two Sundays before the play, he fainted and passed out at Mass.  We brought him to the clinic and discovered that he had pneumonia.  He stayed in the hospital about ten days.  Bob recovered soon enough to come home and be able to do his part in the play.

Carl had his 3rd birthday with a party with about a dozen kids.  Now that he was in pre-school, he had lots of friends.

In August 1956, my cousin Irene phoned to tell us that her husband George was being transferred to Gitmo, but there was a waiting list of six months for housing.  Van said that we would check to see if the Navy would let them come earlier and stay with us until they got housing.  The Navy said that was okay with them.  So Irene and George came and we had to rearrange a few things at home.  George was going to work with Security and he would work nights.  So we gave them our bedroom and Van and I slept on the porch and Mavis had to sleep in the maid’s dormitory while they were with us.

Irene and George arrived by ship and their stay with us wasn’t any problem.  We were always on the go and George was a sound sleeper so the kids didn’t pose a problem.  Irene got involved in all the projects that interested me.  Which was good. That way she met a lot of people.  If she had come without us being there, she would probably be shy about what was going on at the base etc. since George would be sleeping all day and then gone all night.  After we left, she had lots of friends.  The cottage never seemed crowded either.  I was surprised that it worked out so well.  After they were with us a couple of months, they were assigned to their own housing in the new section. 

It was getting close to the time for Van’s orders to come.  When he did receive them, we were thrilled that he was being transferred to San Diego. I wrote my mother right away. Told her where we were going and that we would fly to Florida, then drive to California. Maybe after we were settled in San Diego, she and Pop could come out and visit us.  She agreed that would be fine.  But Irene was getting letters from her mother saying that my folks would be in Florida to meet the plane etc.  Well, it really caused me to be upset and before I realize it, I was having asthma attacks.  They got so bad that they put me in the hospital and a couple of days in the oxygen tent.  I had been in a tent once before and was okay about being in it, until the air condition stopped.  I panicked because I though it was the oxygen.  I was embarrassed when I found out, but the whole hospital made it worse.  Even the Officer in Charge had to meet the gal who was having problems.  I was in for about 10 days. Then it was time to get things ready to pack and ship.  The navy personnel do the packing and know just how to do it right.  They have all kinds of barrels and boxes.  You just tell them what is yours and what belongs to the navy.  After that was done, we borrowed one on the trunks from the supple department until we left.

Dorrie and best friend Sherree





updated: 20.11.2011