In his first job in California, Bud Decker managed a theater.

He tended to the marquee and made sure the money was in every night and kept tabs on the guy who ran the projector.

Decker’s boss offered him a chance to stick in the theater business, but Decker didn’t much care for it.

“I wasn’t interested in no damn theater,” he said.

He went to weld in San Diego, something he had done back home in La Barge. He grew up there before it was called that, when it was named Tulsa and boomed in the 1920s and early ‘30s, hotels and bars lining the streets. In California, he went to work for Consolidated Aircraft, welding motor mounts for B-24s.

Returning to the States from a day in Tijuana, Mexico, in early December 1941, he saw border patrol crying. Pearl Harbor had been bombed, patrol said, better get to base.

Decker wasn’t in the military yet and had no base to call home.

“I wanted to go into the service earlier,” he said, “but my job, they thought, was more important.”

Decker transferred to an engineering company in Los Angeles to continue welding B-24s, the war effort in full swing. Decker still wanted to be a Marine.

“Finally I just up and quit,” he said.

In Denver, Decker took his physical exam. Decker’s friend said the Marines were too much for him, so the two decided to try another branch of service. The friend couldn’t pass his physical, but Decker volunteered for the Navy.

As he remembers it, the train on the way to camp in Farragut, Idaho, pulled so many cars that when it reached a tall hill, the train couldn’t make it up. The new Navy men had to wait for another engine to get there before they could reach boot camp. They arrived late at night and fell asleep on cots propped up in the gymnasium.

The next morning, Decker and the others were each given a box so they could ship their clothes home. Standing there naked, they were given a pair of socks and a ditty bag for their toiletries. After another physical exam, they were issued sea bags, clothes and a proper Navy haircut, despite protests from several men who were particular about their hair, Decker said.

Boot camp was followed by a month of diesel engineering training in Chicago and another month of advanced diesel engineering in Richmond, Va. He learned how to take care of the ship’s engines.

Chicago, Decker said, was the best of his Navy career, a wonderful town for servicemen. He danced in the Aragon ballroom, and “the minute you’d walk into a bar, somebody would buy you a drink.”

But Decker never stayed in one place very long. And everywhere the Navy went, “it was ‘fall’ wherever you go.”

Traveling by boxcar back to California, Decker and the others awoke early one morning to orders: Fall out.

In the Kansas wheat fields, they did calisthenics.

“It was colder than hell,” Decker said.

The train wasn’t a passenger train either, mind you. Makeshift seats were erected in the boxcars, and cinders flew in whenever the men opened the window. They lay down at night only to wake up to cinders collecting in the recess between their chest and neck.

Decker’s first assignment was aboard the USS Elkhart, an amphibious personnel attack transport ship. He served as the engineer on a landing craft, although his position on the Elkhart was not permanent.

One day on maneuvers, Decker had to climb the cargo nets between the ship and landing craft.

“If you’ve ever tried to go up and down a ladder made of rope, you know what it’s like,” Decker said.

The trick was to catch the landing craft at the bottom or top of the swell to avoid injury.

“Well, I didn’t catch it just right and got caught between the ship and landing craft,” he said.

Decker smashed his knee and spent almost five months in a Long Beach hospital. There, a woman drew a portrait of him in pastels. He still has it today.

His final, permanent assignment came on the USS Hendry, an attack transport ship that carried more than 460 men. Decker served in the engine room, watching the throttles and boiler and controlling the fire pumps if needed. Once, the boiler’s steam control went out and the sailors had to control the steam by hand, with a valve. It was so hot the men took turns, working the boiler for no more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

In the Navy, Decker learned not to talk back. One day, he and another sailor were assigned to clean the compartment, but only Decker showed up. He cleaned it by himself. Decker didn’t want to mess with the GI can, so he left it.

Pretty soon, he heard this: “Guy Decker, fall up on the bridge.”

The officer wanted to know why he didn’t finish cleaning the can, and Decker explained that the other sailor didn’t show up. The officer wanted to know why Decker didn’t go look for him. Because, Decker said, the guy had been on ship longer than he had. Who was Decker to tell him what to do?

Fair enough, the officer said. He assigned Decker to paint the shaft alley, a couple hundred feet long.

They assigned another sailor to help him, but he never did show up either.

Decker didn’t say anything more. He painted the whole thing, by himself.

While Decker was aboard, the Hendry sailed from Hawaii to Eniwetok, Guam, Manila and Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines. At Manila, sunken ships left from the Battle of Manila littered the sea, superstructures protruding from the water. Decker’s ship had to zigzag through to reach the dock.

The USS Hendry reached Wakayama and Nagoya, Japan, after the war had ended.

At Wakayama, the sailors traded for local goods with cigarettes they sneaked off ship by taping the packages to the insides of their legs.

At Nagoya, Decker could see steel buildings that were no more than twisted metal after all the air raids and firebombings.

Near Japan, a typhoon hammered the USS Hendry. The ship went out to sea to avoid dragging anchor and ramming into the other ships. The sailors had to lie in bed with their legs spread to avoid falling off.

“That old ship would rock,” Decker said. “We had a list-meter in the engine room, and it would sway plum off the scale.”

Decker returned to the U.S. and went ashore in San Diego. Before they could be discharged, the sailors had one more trip to make. They sat in the hot sun for two hours, until a vessel arrived to take them to San Francisco.

They had to ride in a wooden cattle ship, used before the war to transport livestock up and down the coast.

The whole thing stank, but at least they were going home.

They served with honor

Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.

“They Served With Honor” is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week through Veterans Day 2011.

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