Santa Catalina

Santa Catalina Island sits on the continental shelf just twenty-two miles from the California coast, near Los Angeles. The island has been occasionally used by the U.S. Government during wartime, as was the case during WWII. After quitting my job at the shipyard and a brief holiday respite with my family, I arrived at the Maritime School at Avalon on December 28, 1943 to begin my Merchant Marine training.

During peacetime, Santa Catalina was a destination for the rich and famous. Celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, John Wayne and Bing Crosby were known to frequent its shores, as well as heads of state such as Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. In 1937, a young radio sports announcer on the Island for the Chicago Cubs spring training took a break from his duties for a screen test in Hollywood. The radio man landed the lead role as Andy McCaine in the movie, Love is on the Air, and a new career was launched for Ronald Reagan, future fortieth President of the United States of America.

Our Maritime training took place weekdays while most weekends we were free to do as we pleased. Since Avalon was so close to the mainland, I was able to catch the supply boat on most weekends and go home. Weekends home were spent double dating with my sister Peg or playing checkers with my Dad. Weekends on the island, I passed my time enjoying the local sights, visiting the Catalina Casino or just fellowshipping with my classmates. The casino was not a gambling establishment, but was a theater and ballroom. The island was closed to civilians during the war but we did enjoy watching movies at the theater, which has been restored in recent years and looks today much as it did when I was there.

In the Army, I felt like a duck out of water, but in the Merchant Marine, I thrived. Due to my prior military service, I was appointed acting section leader over a group of recruits. As section leader, I was treated with respect and even had some authority. There was camaraderie among the recruits and lifelong friendships were formed. I stay in contact to this day with some of the fellows from Avalon. Prior to being entrusted with assignment aboard ship, we were to undergo a three-month training course. The training regimen was rigorous and the water was freezing at that time of year. Even so, compared to army boot camp with my bellicose former Sergeant, maritime training seemed like paradise.

In 1942, transportation functions of all services were consolidated into the newly formed Army Transportation Corps. The Army Transportation Corps Marine Officers Cadet School was then established to fill the need for qualified Deck and Engine officers to man the abundance of new ships coming out of U.S. shipyards. The government turned to the U.S. Maritime Service for the needed personnel and to be eligible for enrolment in the school, a candidate had to be a graduate of a U.S. Maritime Service Training Station such as Avalon where I was now a section leader.

Near graduation time, each section leader was instructed to select the two most outstanding students from his section as candidates for the Officer training program. Inspired by my success at Avalon, I decided to test my mettle and entered my own name as one of the two candidates. To my surprise and delight, I was accepted into the program. All too soon, the period of instruction at Avalon ended and our class graduated Maritime Training School April 1, 1944.

While at Avalon, I met one of my lifetime friends, Orval Baker, from Pocatello, Idaho. Orval enrolled a month earlier than I, and we were in different sections during our three months training, so our paths had not crossed until late in the game. We actually met after we were both accepted as candidates for Marine Officers Cadet School. While awaiting travel orders to St. Petersburg, Florida, I invited Orval to meet my family. Since it would be late in the evening when we arrived at my folk's home in Palos Verdes Estates, the rear door had been left unlocked. To my surprise, my sister Peg had invited all of her Job's Daughters friends for a slumber party. There were girls in sleeping bags scattered all over the house.

Orval and I quietly retreated to the tennis court where we spent the balance of the night. The next morning we determined my old 1929 Reo Wolverine was still in running condition so we packed-in as many girls as we could fit and along with several other cars, we headed out to the beach. The day turned out to be memorable, particularly in view of a certain embarrassing development for me. I'll leave that story for another day (or you can find it in my biography) but in any event, when speaking for the first time after having lost touch with Orval for over fifty years, it was the first thing that came to his mind.

After a wonderful but brief time at home, our travel orders arrived with vouchers for passage to St. Petersburg by train. Before our departure, my Mother went shopping and bought a bounty of my favorite foods and snacks and packed a box for Baker & me to enjoy while on the train. April 29, 1944, my family delivered us to the train station. We said our goodbyes and were off to Florida.

Stories of Philip A. Mehan - Written by Scott Dawes © 2005-2009