Eighteen and activated for duty
WESTBROOK -- John Bass served 33 months in the U.S. Navy during World War II, but he doesn't have a single medal, pin or service bar to show for it.
Instead, he has his memories of war, a sea bag stamped with "J.W. Bass" and a Navy uniform hanging from a rod in his upstairs closet.
Bass, now of Westbrook, was born in Worthington in November 1923. He started school in Ewington Township, Jackson County, and graduated from the eighth grade in Des Moines Township, Murray County.
Three months after his 18th birthday, he was voluntarily inducted into the Navy at Fort Snelling, bound for duty in World War II.
"I had a choice between the Navy, Army or Marines," Bass said, who enlisted shortly after he registered for the draft.
On Feb. 29, 1944, Bass entered the U.S. Navy and was sent to Farragut, Idaho, for a six-week training camp where he would learn the basics all soldiers and sailors were taught upon entry into the military.
When the training was complete, he had a 10-day leave before collecting his next orders -- to travel via train to California's Treasure Island, a man-made island that was home to the World's Fair in 1939 and transformed into a Naval base during World War II.
While on Treasure Island, Bass was assigned to the Blue Fontaine, a Dutch troop transporter and freighter.
"We left San Francisco under the Golden Gate (Bridge) and went to the Admiralty Islands -- they're pretty close to New Guinea," Bass said.
Shortly after arrival, Bass moved to a transport vessel -- a Liberty ship -- enroute to Sydney, Australia.
"On the way, we ran into the worst storm in history that went through there -- it was bad," he recalled.
After making it safely to Sydney, Bass and his fellow sailors traveled via train to Australia's twin cities of Perth and Melbourne. There, they boarded the Isabelle, an old wooden, steam-powered vessel that was used in World War I.
"In World War II ... it ran the Japanese blockade from the Philippines to Australia, and that's where I got on it," Bass said.
It would be the first time he'd put his sailor training to use.
"My first duty at sea, believe it or not, I was at the wheel. Eighteen years old and I didn't know nothin'," he said with a grin. "But, of course, I had people there to tell me what to do. I more or less steered it the right way."
While aboard the Isabelle, Bass and his fellow sailors did practice maneuvers with U.S. submarines. After several weeks at sea, the Isabelle returned to port and Bass transferred to the USS Orion with two other sailors.
"We went back out to sea, and again my duty was at the wheel," he recalled.
The ship followed the south side of Australia and then along the east coast toward Brisbane and its destination at Port Moresby, New Guinea.
"That was one place the Japanese didn't capture -- they tried, but they didn't succeed," Bass said.
Eventually, the USS Orion dropped anchor near a group of islands, including Windy and Biak. From there, Bass said the sailors' job was to service submarines.
"I also got assigned for a few weeks on a barge with a pontoon on it, serving beer and hard liquor. We served for officers and enlisted men," Bass said. "The enlisted men could come aboard every four days and the commissioned officers could go whenever it worked for them."
As the bartender, Bass had just a .45-caliber gun strapped to his waist, though he never had to use it.
Eventually, the USS Orion traveled to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for a short period in dry dock. When it left, it headed for the Mariana Islands via stops off the coast of Guam and Saipan.
"A young guy like me did things that I maybe shouldn't have," Bass admitted. "I went aboard a Japanese ship that was burned and up on a coral reef. There was three or four of us that rode a rubber raft over there."
In that search for treasure, Bass found the ship's log book, which dated back to the early 1930s and was written mostly in Japanese, with some English references as well.
"I smuggled them all the way back to New York, and then somebody broke into my locker and stole it," he said.
Bass and the USS Orion were ordered to New York after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.
"Boy, that's a long ways from (where we were)," he said. "We had an escort of six submarines -- three on each side of us -- all the way to Pearl Harbor."
After a brief stop at Hawaii, the ship went through the Panama Canal and headed toward Lady Liberty and the New York Harbor.
"We dropped anchor in the Hudson River and we got inspected ... by President Truman," Bass said. "Our ship wasn't the only one -- there were three different ships. President Truman went by in his yacht and inspected the fleet."
When they docked in the harbor, Bass was given 30 days leave before having to report back to his ship. He rode the train to Minneapolis, traveled by bus to Slayton and got a ride to the family farm from a friend.
"My folks didn't know where I was -- if I was half-way around the world or where," Bass said. "They didn't have electricity yet then. It was the middle of the night -- dark.
"I walked in the house, in the middle of the kitchen and hollered out if anyone was home," he continued. "My mother told me Dad almost knocked her out of bed."
They spent the rest of the night seated around the table, sharing stories about the war.
When his leave was up, Bass returned to New York, then boarded the USS Orion for Panama. There, the Seaman Second Class became a Carpenter's Mate Third Class.
"I wound up being in a carpenter shop down in Panama," he said. "We made lamps, cedar chests -- a lot of things for commissioned officers."
Bass began working on a lamp when he had the chance to be discharged. He left the lamp behind and soon returned to his southwest Minnesota roots.
His younger brother, Lewis, would return home from the war months later, having served in the Army during the Occupation of Japan. Bass had other brothers who also served in the military, including Ralph, who was in the Army in the Korean War, and Lee, who served in Germany during peace time.
After the war, Bass was asked if he wanted to farm with his dad, but he said, "No thank you," and ultimately took a job with Wieler Plumbing and Heating in Westbrook. Nine years later, Bass purchased the business and continued to operate it until his retirement at age 62.
Bass was married to Valeta Koch on July 29, 1949. Their family of five children has now grown to include 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Valeta died in May 2003.