St. Petersburg

Orval and I boarded the train along with a few other hopeful future Marine Officers from the Avalon Training Station. With the exception of a stretch between New Orleans and Jacksonville, we traveled in Pullman cars. During the stretch without sleeping berths, we figured out we could remove a few screws and disassemble the backs of our coach seats. By piling the seat backs between facing seats, we were able fashion benches long enough to stretch out and sleep.

We arrived in St. Petersburg filthy and worn-out from lack of bath or proper beds. When we checked in at the Cadet School, the first thing learned was, we would be cramming two and a half years of study into twelve weeks time. Every four weeks, a new training section was formed of recruits arriving from the four Maritime Training Stations located throughout the country. Anyone who flunked any subject would be put back with the next section, a four-week loss of progress.

Our official training started on Monday, May 8, 1944. Our daily classroom studies consisted of three hours of navigation, one hour each of math, seamanship, rules of the road, and signaling with testing each Saturday. I was at a disadvantage compared to my classmates who were mostly college men. The instructors simply took for granted we were adept in algebra, trigonometry and geometry so I had to acquire that knowledge on my own while struggling to keep up with the class curriculum.

Until my experience at Avalon, academic achievement eluded me, with mathematics seeming particularly hard. We were told a third of the candidates eventually would fall by the wayside but I was determined not to be among those left behind. Study was difficult due to the hot and muggy Florida weather but to my surprise, now that I could see practical application, I was much more able to grasp my studies, including math.

We were housed in the Concord Hotel in the center of St. Petersburg where we had plenty of time to study since there were few distractions. Occasionally we would attend an evening dance at the USO or drop by for some solitude to write letters home. Orval and I occasionally went to the beaches. We swam in the tepid Gulf waters but I sure did miss the nice waves of the Pacific.

The Marine Officer's Cadet School for deck and engine cadets was the most recently added training activity at the Maritime Service Training Station. There were two courses of instruction at the school, Deck Cadet and Engine Cadet. The former intended to result in a commission as a Junior Deck Officer, and the latter an Engineer Officer. However, changes were occurring so fast in the new program we were always in the dark as to what exact commission would ultimately result from our training.

Saturday, July 1, 1944, after eight-weeks of intensive study, the final phase of our training at St. Petersburg began. After passing our final exams, we boarded training vessels called FP (Freight Passenger) boats. Over the next four weeks, we applied our learned skills converting theory into practical knowledge.

Upon graduation, Deck Cadets, were conferred the rank of Ensign or Junior Merchant Marine Officer (Deck). We were ninety-day-wonders, now deemed qualified for service aboard small inter-island army vessels. We were now considered to be part of the "Army's Navy", which still left us somewhat confused as to whether our commission would be from the Army, the Navy, or both.

Cadet at Marine Officers Cadet School we were treated with utmost respect and were expected to conduct ourselves as gentlemen as well. Profanity was not allowed, and we were not to be seen anywhere near a bar. The majority of men seemed to comply with the protocol but there were exceptions.

There was for example, a comical little Italian by the name of Paul Lello, from the Bronx. Due either to his Italian heritage, from growing up in the Bronx, or a combination of the two, Lello seemed incapable of acceptable use of the English language. Lello's gregarious nature along with his verbal handicap gave rise to a number of funny and embarrassing situations.

After a brief break, we received orders on July 29, 1944 to report to Officers Upgrading School in New Orleans. Just before departing St. Petersburg by train, I received a package from my Mom. Once again, she had anticipated my travels and with impeccable timing, had baked up a batch of delicious homemade cookies to tide me over on my northwest journey.

As the train pulled away from the station, I opened the box and the air around me filled with the aroma of home. As the last glimpses of St. Petersburg slipped past the coach windows, my thoughts were in my mother's kitchen in Palos Verdes.

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