Born in 1928 in the town of Portsmouth, Virginia, Fenton Martin was a high school student throughout most of the war. He discusses his experiences with rationing, gardening, and troop entertainment. At the end of the war, Fenton was employed as an electrical draftsman in the Norfolk Navy Yard, where he celebrated VJ Day and transformed the U.S.S. Williamsburg from a U.S. Navy gunboat into the presidential yacht-to-be.
Interviewee: Fenton Martin
Interviewers: Teddy Connell, Andrew Darlington, Michelle Ramstack, Rachel Treglia
Date of Interview: June 21, 2016
VJ Day Announcement at Naval Yard
I was in the Navy yard working on a dock beside a naval vessel, I think a destroyer, as I recall. And the Navy yard was full at that time of destroyers and even some aircraft carriers that had come in for repairs after concentrated kamikaze attacks where you know the Japanese pilots would commit suicide by just dive bombing into the ships. The guts of those ships were just blown right out. And I remember walking by one of them when over the ship’s loud speaker system came, “We have an important announcement to make: the war is over. Japan has surrendered.” Of course they had mechanical drafting boards and big tables so we had a huge room there with maybe a hundred draftsmen. And the head of the office was there as I came back in, and he was in the process of saying, “Well, it looks like we all better be looking for another job.” And he took his mechanical drafting board and turned it upside down, and everybody started laughing. But, of course, there was a riot of celebration, as much as you can do in an electrical drafting room. But, yeah, there was a great sense of pleasure and relief because no doubt, the casualties were going to continue if we didn’t [end the war].
The ship I spent a lot of time on was really a small boat. It had been in the coastal service around Iceland making short hops because it was a small vessel. It was named the Williamsburg. It came into the Navy yard to be repaired to act as the flagship for the commander of the Atlantic fleet. But it’s really just a glorified yacht, a small boat. They were well along with the repairs when V-J Day came. And they immediately – and I’m sure they’d been thinking about doing it anyway because they could sense the war was reaching a climax, and going to end one way or another – they immediately began converting it into a presidential yacht for Harry Truman. That was when everybody began stealing it blind, taking little, relatively worthless mementos: note papers or something that had been part of the ship when it had been on the coastal trade in the actual naval routine. Somebody might slip a little notepad in his pocket and get it through base security. They never looked at anything. I took something, but I can’t remember what it was. It wasn’t worth ten cents but it was just irresistible. The war was over, you were feeling good, you were working now on the presidential yacht-to-be. So I think anyone who went near it took some little memento.
Victory Garden Tomatoes
There were changes. Our car ran out, I think, and we didn’t have a car the last couple years of the war because we couldn’t get a replacement. We had Victory Gardens which everyone had in their own little backyards. I can still remember one little vignette from that time period. We had a garage in the backyard, and this was a city house – not a big lot, like around here. But there had been a garage for one car in the backyard, and an alley came up to it. It had fallen down before we had bought the house, and they had stored coal in it, I think, instead of an automobile. The ground was black with coal dust. But it was the only place that we could build a Victory Garden. My father put in tomato plants, and I still to this day can’t believe it but we had the biggest, juiciest tomatoes of anybody within miles around. I don’t know why; I’ve never had anybody able to explain it.
Recycling Coat Hangers
We lived a mile and a half away, I guess, from a number of business establishments, and I remember walking to them and back. I was used to it because the high school was down there, too. But the nearest laundry was down there, and I was in charge of the recycling of metals and things of that nature. I would carry coat hangers down, metal coat hangers, because they wanted them back to recycle and reuse them. But I carried many an arm load of those things a mile and a half down to get — I think it was a penny for 5 of them they gave you. But the point was to get them back in their hands to reuse because it was a precious metal and they couldn’t get replacements very well.
I was on the stage crew at school. This was before electric stages at least down in little Portsmouth, Virginia. We had scenery that you had to take out of the storage room and hand carry it down a staircase and over to the stage. We had about a 500 person auditorium; it was the only one in town. [It was] one of the things that I did occasionally. Recording artists and other notables from as far away as New York would come down to Portsmouth and do their thing as a form of war time entertainment for service men and natives, whoever came to fill the auditorium. It’s ridiculous, but the only name I can remember is Richard Tucker who was an opera star in the Met at the time. But you got to know whoever they were because they would hire you to come in the night and do the necessary preparation and curtain work while they were going from the wings out and back, so on and so forth. So the point of that is the high school did offer its facilities to public events that would not have been there if it had not had been for the war.