Vestal Yeats was often at war with the Navy
By RAY WESTBROOK | Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas | Published: October 7, 2013
LUBBOCK, Texas — Vestal “Pappy” Yeats negotiated the Great Depression, then ricocheted off military illogic in World War II, and later retired after teaching at Texas Tech.
He recalls the past with a covert sense of humor that seems always just waiting to break into laughter.
And sometimes he talks about an unprepared United States that won the war with citizen soldiers of every stripe.
“Everybody was in a furor over being attacked at Pearl Harbor, and we were thinking about shipping horses to form a cavalry to fight the Japanese — that’s how far behind we were.”
As a World War II veteran, he has written a self-published book called “My Four-Year War with the U.S. Navy.”
Yeats was 23 and living in Artesia, N.M., when the war started, and in 1942 found himself in the Draft Board’s 1-A classification that meant imminent induction.
He actually didn’t mind if they drafted him, because he was going to volunteer anyway. But first he needed to clear up some things and sell his car.
“You couldn’t even give a car away then — everybody was getting rid of their cars and joining the Army.”
He just parked it in a brother-in-law’s garage and told him to use the tires. He would replace them when he came back.
“My cousin had said he just volunteered for the Navy and they gave him a cook third class rating. I had experience working for the county, so I went with him to San Antonio, and hey, they offered me store keeper third class.”
He went to San Diego for Navy training, and from there to regular boot camp.
“They decided they had too many store keepers and yeomen and other people doing clerical work. What they needed was fighting men.
“They said, ‘You’re nice and short and stout — we’ll put you in a submarine.’”
He remembers, “They were going to give me a third class rating of some kind, but what the hey, I was there, so do what you want with me.
“Before they could do that, they decided again that they had a shortage of store keepers and yeomen. I had already gone to store-keeper school for six weeks, and they put me in an outfit to take care of landing craft.”
He remembers, “We were learning by experience, and everybody else was also. We really didn’t have any landing craft at that time. The first thing we used was Higgins boats. Somebody just rented boats, and we got what few they had to carry personnel — fighting men — when the time came.”
Yeats is serious for a moment when he looks at the phenomenal unity of World War II:
“World War II was a miracle — everybody was behind it. It was, let’s get this job done. Women went to work for the first time. Marvelous things happened. We learned by mistakes, but we learned in hurry.”
Yeats was sent to Guadalcanal to help form a supply depot.
“The Marine force had gotten together, and it took them a while, but they finally kicked the Japanese troops out of Guadalcanal. It was an advanced base, and that’s what we needed. It was a jump forward. The rest of the war was typified by jumps just like that, island by island, island by island.
“I never fired a shot,” he said.
“Guadalcanal is a unique place. It’s a coconut farm, and the coconut rows were lined up in rows just like a citrus farm.
“Of course, when a coconut got ripe, it dropped. It would be kashoom! You could hear it go through the leaves. And everybody would shout ‘Fire on the deck!’ And if the coconut banged your head ... it was this big, and green and hard with that husk on them.”
Yeats helped repair impellers on the landing craft. “I was in charge of seeing that when the ships came in, they would check the landing craft in with us. We would refit what they needed and put them back in shape.”
He remembers, “Whenever we needed something, we would send somebody over to the supply depot. We could always get supplies.
“One of the big generals of the time said that the base at Guadalcanal had the biggest bunch of thieves in the South Pacific. If you couldn’t find what you needed, you stole it and brought it back. And it wasn’t a matter of stealing — you were going to get it anyway. It’s just that everybody was in a hurry, and that’s the way it worked.”
He recalls being sent back to the states. “Lt. Cmdr. George Bean — he was a used car dealer from the West Coast somewhere — got us all set up with orders to go to San Francisco for 30 days leave, then be reassigned to Mechanicsburg, Penn., which was headquarters for the landing craft depot in the United States.”
The plan was for the experienced sailors to teach those just entering about the repair of landing boats.
“The first thing they did when we got there, some yeoman picked up the orders and said, ‘Your choices are aircraft carriers or submarines,’ and threw the orders in the waste basket.”
He was actually sent to New Orleans to a Naval base across the Mississippi River from a shipyard.
“The first morning I was there, I was sitting in an old wooden office. And there was a light that I could see, and somebody shuffled some papers under there,” he said of an office where a receptionist worked next door.
“I pulled it out and started reading the paper and pretty soon there was another piece of paper. I thought that was the rest of the paper, so I got it too. And in a minute a redhead stormed in and said who in the heck is pulling that paper out? The sun’s reflecting in my eyes, and I can’t see.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, Ma’am.’”
She later became his wife.
Yeats remembers celebrating the end of World War II with resourcefulness. Beer couldn’t be purchased aboard ship, and he went ashore because the occasion seemed to call for some celebration.
When he returned, he was carrying a nondescript cardboard box on his left shoulder. “I saluted the captain and the flag, and came aboard.”
Inside the box was a case of celebratory drinks.
“My life was an adventure, I’ll say that.”