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"It's that simple." A Navy Veteran Tells It Like It Is

This is a revised essay, the original of which I wrote nearly two decades ago as a High School student. It was part of an English compositional course where I had to interview a subject and write about them. I have made some changes, but the integrity of the essay remains the same.


James McDonald is a tall, lanky man with thin spectacles and a cowboy-like walk. He is a humble, hard worker who loves his wife dearly and truly enjoys his simple life living in the same home they’ve had for more than fifty years. He is also my grandfather and is a Navy Veteran.

He served for about 7 ½ years in a unit called the Seabees. This nickname was acquired from the initialism “CB,” Seabee's or Construction Battalion. The Seabees motto is, “Can do”, and James seems to carry that motto with him to whatever task he may encounter. James was living in Providence doing steelworking before he joined the military. When I asked him why he wanted to join the military, he simply replied, “At the time, there were things going on, so I was interested in being a part of it.”

Ben Fortier and his grandfather, James McDonald
The author with the subject - James McDonald and Ben Fortier

He finally did become a part of the “things going on” and enlisted in 1947. He wanted to join the Seabees because they were a construction-oriented unit. “It was more construction and less formal than the ‘regular’ Navy, and that’s what I was interested in,” James said, exposing his unsophisticated logic. He was shipped off to basic training in Bambridge, Maryland, which was also known as “Pneumonia Hall”, due to the unusually high cases of sickness that the recruits endured. Everyone in his basic training company wound up in the hospital, and he never graduated with the same recruits he originally went to basic training with.

Although the training was tough, some lighter moments occurred in Pneumonia Hall. There was one recruit named George who could not swim. “We finally got to the point where we bet the Chief who was trying to teach us, we said, ‘Chief, if he can walk across the bottom without bobbing up, will you take him?’ He said, ‘If that’s the case, we’ll do it.’” George, being a man of a solid build, hopped into the pool, sank to the bottom, and proceeded to walk across the bottom of the pool while holding his breath. Finally, when he reached the other side, he breached the surface of the water and became a qualified swimmer. Another small practical joke was sticking one of the sleeping recruit’s hands in a warm bucket of water. “Yeah, he peed the bed,” Was James’ comment on that with a soft chuckle.

After basic training, James moved on to construction training in California. There, James was taught more advanced skills concerning his field of steel working. Due to their forward nature, Seabees are trained as combatants and with a light rifle. After that training, he and his unit were ready to be sent overseas. The Seabees would deploy for about four to six months, depending on how the shift transitions between units went. After two months of being home, the unit would re-deploy. He worked in places such as Guantanamo Bay (Cuba), Port Liotti (Africa), and Argentia (Newfoundland) during his time in the Navy.

In Guantanamo Bay, he helped create the Marine housing that is still being used today. In Cuba, the Cuban police often broke up fights by running into the action-swinging giant machetes. “Everybody used to run, including me!” James recalled with wild laughter.

In Argentina, James saved a man stuck on a 150-foot tower. After climbing up about one hundred feet, the man looked down, became terrified, and froze in place. “So I went up, and I got him. I just got around him and talked him down.” When I asked how he felt about doing that, he replied, “It was something that had to be done.”

Navy Seabee James McDonald in uniform
James in uniform, circa 1952 - 54

During one of his deployments in Argentina, his unit had to sleep on a ship. For James, this was a very uncomfortable experience. Being 6’2” and having the top bunk was not a good mix for James. A steam pipe at his crotch and a cross-section above him prevented him from turning over and relaxing in his sleep. He had to sleep in one position the entire night. Another more startling event was when James was having a swim while on deployment and was in for a sudden surprise. “The guy was saying, ‘The sharks are coming!’ and I saw the fin, and he said, ‘Swim!’ and I swam like hell!”

He stayed in touch with family by writing letters. He enjoyed the food put out by one particular Chief, saying he put out a “beautiful spread” until the Chiefs from other units came along and replaced them with lousy food. He felt no pressure or stress during his job and never relied on good luck to assist him. “No, I never believed in ‘good luck pieces’; I only believed in my own abilities.”

While many men would drink, play cards, or play pool, James would be catching up on his next rank advancement test. “I probably read more than anything else because I always wanted to get ahead.” James did get ahead, retiring as a Petty Officer 2nd Class (pay grade E-5). “I was always kind of a loner. I’ve been a loner all my life.” He explained why he was never really close with any particular person in his unit. “Just because of the way I am and what I do.” With this, I began to better understand James, and I also began to understand myself as his grandson better.

Although James never saw actual combat, he did volunteer to go overseas to Korea. However, he was turned down because all the available positions were filled. I asked him why he would want to go to such a hostile war zone, and he merely replied, “I was single, didn’t have any dependents, so I figured that’s the place to be. If I could go for somebody that had a wife and kids or something like that, well, maybe they didn’t have to go. It’s that simple.” It may not be so simple for some people to understand why someone would want to go over to a combat zone, but for James, it's just that simple. I asked if he was disappointed that he was denied to go to Korea, and he said he was. While it filled me with pride to know of my grandfather’s courage, it also left me wondering if he had gone to Korea, there was the distinct possibility that he may have never returned.

Man and woman smiling and waving
James and his sister, circa 2023

James finally retired in 1954 after 7 ½ years of service in the Navy. He was in the Brooklyn Naval Yard during his last moments of service and managed to hitchhike his way home from New York to Worcester and finally to Providence. “The trust was perfect, [but] not today! That’s another story!” he talked about the lack of trust in today’s society. James worked for several different companies, including having a hand in building the Alaskan pipeline. He also worked on submarines and with heavy machinery (pile drivers) until he retired. To this day, James still works with steel and keeps himself busy. He is often seen watching detective movies or reading thick mystery novels behind his thin spectacles. His military career left him with many skills and left me a man to look up to in my life.

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