Veteran recounts World War II service

Courtesy photo Joe Blair, far right, of Portales has dinner and switches hats with friends at a hotel during his Navy days.

A teenager from Portales followed his patriotism, and a desire to see water, on a path that led halfway around the world and through many World War II battles of the South Pacific.

Joe Blair, 84, entered the U.S. Navy the day after his 17th birthday in 1942. He thought joining the service was the patriotic thing to do as the nation pulled together to fight World War II.

“Nearly all of us flatlanders, as we were called from this area, joined the Navy to see a lot of water,” Blair said of his choice of military branches.

After boot camp, Blair went aboard his first ship, the USS Farragut DD 348, in February 1943. In April, the destroyer’s crew sailed to the Aleutian Islands near Siberia, beginning a trek that took them through 26 invasions.

“You might say we went all the way through the Pacific from the Battle of Iwo Jima to Okinawa,” Blair said.

That May, the ship sank a Japanese submarine in the Attu harbor. The Farragut’s crew used 48 of her 50 depth charges before the submarine surfaced and the Americans sank it with other ammunition.

In September 1943, the Farragut headed for the South Pacific, where they attacked a number of places, including Japan and the Chinese coast. During battles, the destroyer would sail in close to shore and bombard the land with 5.38-inch deck guns, 20 millimeter machine guns and 40 millimeter anti-aircraft guns.

Kamikaze pilots came by the dozens, Blair said, but they attacked ships bigger than a destroyer.

“We were real lucky,” he said.

Blair said life on board a destroyer was good, and the food — mainly canned and dehydrated — was fair.

“Everybody knew everybody,” he added.

The 341-foot-long ship carried 270 men.

Blair was in charge of maintenance on various guns and fired a 20-millimeter machine gun during battle. After invasions, he also helped remove mines by blowing them up with his machine gun.

Blair took part in the 24-hour watch, too, working four hours on and eight off. He remembers that in the dark nights “the stars would just be so close that it looked like you could just reach up there and get a hold of them.”

One night on middle watch, midnight to 4 a.m., Blair saw two torpedoes pass right underneath the ship. They missed because the Farragut was low on fuel and riding high in the water.

Because they were on convoy duty, the crew kept going rather than trying to return fire.

In the battle for Guam, the Farragut helped defend Navy Frogmen, now called Seals, as they removed mines from the horseshoe-shaped bay. Blair lost one of his best friends, an 18-year-old Marine, in the battle.

“And I keep a flag on his grave out here at the cemetery 24/7,” Blair said.

Blair also recalls being caught in a typhoon off the Philippines in June 1945. The sailors continued with their regular routine, including watch “topside.”

However, the Farragut lost a man overboard and its sister ship sank. In the rescue operation the next day, only a small portion of the sister ship’s men were saved.

When the ship took on supplies, someone always stole something, Blair said. Once, a sailor on his watch filched a pack of canned meat.

Then every third night, when they were on middle watch, Blair and the other members of his watch would talk the cooks out of one of the loaves of bread they were making and eat it with one can of meat. They kept up the habit until the meat ran out, and Blair said it was the best meat he’d ever eaten.

Now, he laughs when he remembers when he looked at the label and realized what the contents were: Australian canned horse meat.

When the war ended, Blair and the Farragut had finished the invasion of Okinawa, and he figures they were somewhere near the island, probably on patrol.

“Everybody was happy when it ended,” he said.

The crew received orders to Brooklyn Navy Ship Yard and went back to the United States via the Panama Canal. The Farragut was decommissioned in October 1945 and later sold for scrap metal.

Blair then served on the USS LSN 443 until his discharge until February 1946.