SAVOY, Ill. — Carl Lee Davis grew up in a very small rural community in Kentucky, later finding himself on a ship chasing submarines in the Pacific during World War II.
The house that Davis, 92, grew up in was made from logs cut from trees on the family farm. There was nothing in Kentucky to prepare him for "a huge wall of water" from a typhoon nearly swamping his ship.
He also survived a kamikaze attack as the Japanese became more desperate to protect their homeland.
Though the Navy was not his first choice, he enlisted and reported for service on March 10, 1943, and was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago.
That same day, his first big assignment: guard the laundry room from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m.
Real danger came in July 1944.
Davis served on the escort carrier USS Nehenta Bay in the Pacific campaign.
The ship joined the USS Midway in anti-submarine patrols. Next, it escorted tankers carrying fuel for the larger carriers.
On Oct. 24, the USS Nehenta Bay crossed the Equator and, after an unpleasant ceremony, Davis went from being a "polliwog" to being a "shellback."
He'd "never experienced anything so horrible in my life." It started with a bad haircut, and the series of unfortunate events continued with a crawl through a 40-foot tube jammed with 3-day-old garbage, the kissing of a fat belly, a nasty drink, a spinning around and a splash into the water — a big tub, not the sea.
The drama moved into real life shortly later with an early morning call to man battle stations. A torpedo had just missed the ship's bow, near where he slept.
A few hours later, planes left the carrier to spot the sub, and destroyers laid down a barrage of depth charges.
"We knew we'd caught him in a cove when we saw the slick of engine oil floating to the surface," Davis recalled.
Ending 1944 was the Halsey Typhoon, a tropical cyclone that hit the Pacific fleet in December.
In the Philippine Sea, the fleet was performing refueling operations when, based on faulty weather information, it sailed into the typhoon — killing 790 and capsizing three destroyers.
Davis had picked a good spot as the USS Nehenta Bay rolled through a valley in the storm.
"I found a corner just below the flight deck," he said. He lashed himself to a wall, cushioned by life jackets.
Two planes on the flight deck were lost.
Next was a kamikaze attack that the ship escaped only by shooting down a Japanese plane.
A second typhoon was smaller but did more damage, he said, and the ship had to return to San Diego for repairs in February 1945.
The USS Nehenta Bay was back in action in May off Okinawa, launching planes that dropped bombs on Japanese caves on the island.
With a mission to the Aleutian Islands, the ship was heading toward Alaska when news came on Aug. 15: the Japanese surrendered.
En route to Pearl Harbor, Davis celebrated his 21st birthday.
After the war, Davis returned to work on the family farm. Within a year of his service ending, he was married to Beulah Witt. They had five children.
Davis didn't stay on the farm. He used the G.I. Bill to go to college, and started graduate school at the University of Illinois in 1955, later becoming an internationally known UI professor of dairy science.
Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette,