Pettit was lab tech aboard ship in World War IILAKEFIELD — When most people think of war, they think of the major battles. In World War II, there was the Battle of Midway, the Battle of the Bulge, Omaha Beach and Normandy — just to name a few.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
LAKEFIELD — When most people think of war, they think of the major battles. In World War II, there was the Battle of Midway, the Battle of the Bulge, Omaha Beach and Normandy — just to name a few. Then, thoughts turn to the soldiers and sailors involved in combat, firing on the enemy and being fired upon in return.
Yet, there is so much more to war. There are the troops behind the scenes, performing tasks they’ve been called to do. Some might say they didn’t do much during the war effort, but never-the-less, their roles were important.
Such is the case with Bernard “Bernie” Pettit of rural Lakefield.
“I was drafted. I waited for them to put their hooks to me,” Pettit said earlier this week.
Pettit was 20 years old when he left his family’s farm near Winnebago behind and reported for duty at Fort Snelling on Nov. 3, 1942. He chose the Army, saying “It was good enough for me,” and was sent to Camp Phillips in Salina, Kan., for training with the military police. He later transferred to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence, Ind., to be trained as a medic.
“I suppose that was where they needed the most people,” Pettit said.
While at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Pettit had the opportunity to watch an autopsy being performed on a human.
“It’s something that a lot of people don’t have a chance to see, but I thought it was an opportunity and I was interested in seeing it,” he said. “Not everybody gets a chance to see something like that.”
After his training was complete, Pettit boarded the Queen Elizabeth, a luxury liner converted into a troop ship to aid in the war effort. Pettit served aboard the ship for quite awhile, treating soldiers inflicted with everything from the common cold to venereal disease.
According to his official Army papers, Pettit was a medical laboratory technician. That job included everything from conducting microscopic and chemical tests to “determine presence of germs in body fluids” to preparing vaccines and serum, taking blood counts of patients and preparing smears for medical records, among other duties.
“We had a bad time at sea when the ocean got pretty rough,” said Pettit, adding that liquids like cough syrup — stored in large glass bottles — once tipped over and broke during a bad storm.
“It was syrupy enough you could almost stick to the floor,” Pettit recalled. “I had quite a time cleaning it all up — glass was broken and everything else.”
While serving aboard the Queen Elizabeth, Pettit had the opportunity to see Scotland, Italy, France and Germany. The ship docked in harbors in each of those countries, and Pettit would visit the mainland during his off-duty hours.
“It was awful foggy (in Scotland),” he said. “You couldn’t even recognize somebody as much as a block away. I’ve never seen such a foggy place in my life.”
While stationed at Italy, Pettit walked up Mount Vesuvius and looked right into the crater. He also witnessed quite a bit of damage resulting from the war, from German ships destroyed off the coast of Italy to homes and cities with large-scale destruction.
During his time in Europe, Pettit made three trips on the Queen Elizabeth back to New York Harbor’s Pier 90 — the one pier large enough to house the massive ship. Pettit said the Queen Elizabeth was the largest ship in its day, followed by the Queen Mary.
Those three voyages transported injured soldiers and sailors to U.S. hospitals for further treatment, and offered Pettit a chance to get home to Minnesota for a quick visit.
“If you worked it right, you could get home and get back — if you’d get two, three-day passes in a row,” he said. “You had to make sure you got back by a certain time or you were in trouble.”
Eventually, Pettit was transferred to the SS Samuel Johnston, a Liberty ship, and spent time in both Greece and Africa.
“I visited a missionary colony in Angola. It was quite interesting,” he said. “I gave a little talk at their chapel there … about the Bible and being born again.”
It was while Pettit was in Africa that America had declared victory in World War II. In early June, 1946, he received his discharge and returned to the Winnebago area. Pettit’s older brother, Butch, had returned home a short time earlier, having served in the Army’s Signal Corp during the war.
The two brothers then worked together in construction for a while before Pettit moved on to other endeavors.
Pettit married his bride, Goldie, in 1957, and in 1965 they settled on a farm east of Lakefield. They have four children, John, Linda, Donna and Marlene, along with two granddaughters and one great-grandson.
Pettit has a scrapbook filled with some of his mementos of war. There are pictures of some of the places he’s seen, money from the countries he’s visited and important papers related to his tour of duty.
Among the pages is a letter signed by then-President Harry S. Truman. It reads: “To you who answered the call of your country and served in its armed forces to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation.
“As one of the nation’s finest, you undertook the most severe tasks one can be called upon to perform.
“Because you demonstrated the fortitude, resourcefulness and calm judgment necessary to carry out that task, we now look to you for leadership and example in further exalting our country in peace.”
Pettit will celebrate his 89th birthday on Saturday. Then, on Sept. 30, he will take his first “big plane” ride when he embarks on the fourth and final Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota journey with more than 100 other World War II veterans from the region.