By Willie Lagarde
I can’t pinpoint the exact date of this brief battle on the streets of downtown Oakland CA.
It was in early Oct 1944 and I had no business being there, and no business being ashore anywhere. "Restriction to the ship until it leaves the USA" was punishment received for three days AOL in Seattle. I was a PAL (prisoner at large). No one aboard knew the ship would stop in the Bay area before heading back to the western Pacific.
I wasn't wearing my prized tailor made uniform which was then almost brand new. I had it made in Seattle just a couple of weeks before and probably hadn't worn it more than five or six times.
No, I wasn’t going to risk it, I wore my old regulation blues which didn't look too bad anyway.
The jumper had been cut off or unbloused and the pants were spiked. They were acceptable but now also expendable. I wore dungarees over them to get off the ship.
This was risky for many reasons, but fellow PAL and good friend Jimmy P and I reasoned this may be our last opportunity to walk on USA soil for many months to come and, had to face it, maybe forever.
We rigged a line from Mount nine 40MM gun sponson and slid down to a spacing punt then up a ladder to the dock. Looking as casual as possible we walked pass the gangway. The Marine guard there possibly recognized us but paid us no heed. These two dungaree clad Yorktown sailors then ducked behind a trash bin, shed the dungarees and emerged in dress blues. The dungarees went in the bin and we had decided there would be no chance getting them back. Getting off the ship was easy, getting back on would be another matter.
But we weren't worried about that now, that's a problem for later. Just don't MISS THE SHIP.
They were loading Army vehicles aboard and we knew this would be an all night job at least, plus the men who were ashore legally had all night liberty.
We didn't have a lot of money and what turned out to be one of my best liberty’s of all time started out dismally.
We made contact early on with two girls who were window shopping and seemed to be making headway with them. After pairing off the two couples became separated with Jimmy about a half block ahead of me. The girls were still shopping and we're pitching. Ain't got too much time.
Facing a store display window talking to the girl, some sailor comes up behind me and says, "that’s no way to talk to a woman". I'm trying to figure what he's talking about and sizing up him and his friend. Right away I have him pegged as a stupid boot looking for a fight and must think I'm easy pickings. Maybe I looked like a fellow boot to him. He was my size, his friend somewhat smaller. Jimmy's no where in sight.
He didn't give me a chance to decide what I should do, he passed the post on me with a right to the jaw.
I would have done almost anything to avoid a fight. I wasn't a fighter, I'm already AWOL and God knows I'm not looking for trouble.
But he didn't hurt me and I said to myself, punk if that's the hardest you can hit I got your ass.
I hit him one time and he went sprawling off the sidewalk into the street. His hat and change in his top pocket went flying. He started picking up the change so I figured this fight is over and when I reached down to help him up, his friend starts hollering, "don't hit him when he's down". I'm not going to hit him I was going to help him up. The friend starts acting belligerent and while I'm wondering what I should do about him I heard Jimmy yelling at me. He's running full tilt toward the scene yelling, "don't hit him Willie, don't hit him". Then "let me hit him", BAM!, one punch and the friend is finished.
Three punches, two punks dispatched but the girls are gone. Just as well, an incredible series of events are about to unfold that will turn this night into a sailor's dream night ashore. Don't suppose I should call it a liberty.
We had a great time in Oakland after meeting up with a couple of, would you believe Navy women. It was a most memorable time ashore and what I can say about here; the total cost of the evening for us was about five bucks and two pairs of raggedy ass dungarees. Could it get any better?
Coming back to the ship the next morning we decided we would just face the music. We'll go up the gangway in our dress blues and let the hair go with the hide.
Walking down the dock I saw three war correspondents getting out of a limousine with all their gear and luggage. We grabbed some of their gear and went aboard with them.
While the OD was processing them we put their stuff down and went about our business. One of the correspondents was looking at us wondering where we were going. He must have thought we had been detailed to help them. Nobody missed us, we made the muster and skated free on that little escapade.
We sailed a few hours later and when the last line was cast off, we were no longer PAL’s. We would be gone for a year, and what a year it was.