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Alan Caldwell Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Alan Caldwell

Seaman First Class, U.S.S. Missouri, during President Truman's trip to Rio de Janeiro, 1947

Independence, Missouri
October 9, 1992
by Niel M. Johnson

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened March, 2012
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript]


Oral History Interview with
Alan Caldwell


Independence, Missouri
October 9, 1992
by Niel M. Johnson


JOHNSON: Would you tell me your birth date and birthplace, and your parents’ names?

CALDWELL: My birthday is November 5, 1928. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland. My father’s name was Herbert C. Caldwell, and my mother, who died three weeks after I was born, was Grace Ayers Caldwell.

JOHNSON: Ayers was her maiden name?

CALDWELL: Yes. We had an Ayers that married into a Ayres, and I hesitate to think which is which.

JOHNSON: There is an Eben Ayers who was an assistant to Charlie Ross, President Truman’s Press Secretary. Have you heard of any relationship in your family with Eben Ayers?

CALDWELL: No. As I say, because my mother died when I was


only three weeks old, I haven’t really learned a whole lot about the Ayers side of the family.

JOHNSON: So you grew up in Baltimore?

CALDWELL: Well, my father moved to Philadelphia at the beginning of my high school years, and I enlisted in the Navy in Philadelphia.

JOHNSON: What year was that?

CALDWELL: November, ‘45.

JOHNSON: And by that time what education had you had?

CALDWELL: Finished high school. I actually went down and made the application five days after I was seventeen. I had already graduated, and I was called up the first of December 1945.

JOHNSON: You had the option then of going into the Navy or being drafted?

CALDWELL: Oh, I was too young to be drafted. The reason I joined the Navy was that at that time and at my age, I couldn’t get any job except for something such as packer in a grocery store. I couldn’t get insurance. I had wanted to be a veterinarian, and there was an ad for a veterinary assistant for the Philadelphia SPCA. I had gone through two interviews and went into the


final interview, and the guy says, “And you will be 18 in November?” I said, “No, I’ll be 17.” He said, “Land, man, I can wait a month or two, but I can’t wait a year.” So, on my way back from the Philadelphia SPCA, I went into the Navy Department and asked them what they had. I took the papers home and put them on the table that day, and told my father if he didn’t sign them I’d sign them for him. He said, “I said all you had to do was graduate,” so that was where it went. I enlisted for three years, which would put me out the day before I was 21.

JOHNSON: Where did you get your boot training?

CALDWELL: I took boot training in Great Lakes, Illinois. Do you have time for a very interesting story about that?


CALDWELL: They were trying out for a platoon leader, and most of the people who were trying out were former military people who had reenlisted, or military school graduates, and none of them knew anything about drilling. The company commander says, “Is there anybody else?” I said, “Yes, I’ll volunteer,” and he said, “What experience do you have?” I said, “Two years in the Pennsylvania National Guard.” I was


barely old enough to have been in the Pennsylvania National Guard, but then I ended up being the platoon leader for 63 men throughout all the boot camp. One of the most interesting things about it was that when we had our final parade, there were eight companies and 16 platoons, and the base commander, who was a full captain, complimented me on my drill squad.

During the day, and that evening, I was in what was called Junior Officer Day Watch. He came in after supper to get something; he came into the office and then went on back to his. Then he came back and took a second look at me, and said, “Aren’t you the one I complimented on your drill squad today?” I said, “I was one of them.” He said, “No, you were the only one. Where did you learn to drill?” I said to him, “Do you want the truth, or what I told the company commander?” He chuckled and said, “You’re going to be gone from here in two days; it really doesn’t make any difference.” I said, “I learned it in Boy Scouts.” He said, “You didn’t tell him that did you?” I said, “No, I told him I’d been two years in the Pennsylvania National Guard, and I was barely even old enough to have even gotten into the Pennsylvania National Guard.” But he complimented me for taking that quick stand.

So, it really started off a fantastic career in the Navy.


JOHNSON: So after boot camp you went into what?

CALDWELL: Well, I wanted to go into UDT, because I’m a relatively good swimmer, and.


CALDWELL: Underwater Demolition Team.


CALDWELL: And that was all closed. Then I finally decided that, well, I’ll go to sea as a quartermaster. You know, it’s right at the end of the war, this is November of ‘45. So I was in an outgoing unit waiting to be shipped out, and they read my name off, after I had been on liberty in Chicago. If you were going out, you weren’t supposed to be on liberty that weekend, so I was sleeping in; they called my name the second time, and I had to hustle up and pack. They sent me down to Jacksonville, Florida, to aviation fundamental school, which was basically an introduction into the ten aviation rates at that time. I spent, I think it was, twelve weeks down there, and was introduced to aviation metalsmith, gunners mate, torpedoman, boatsman mate, aerographers mate, radioman, and since I loved the out – of - doors, I chose to go on to meteorology school at Lakehurst, New Jersey. We had our choice as long as we could pass the grade, but Jacksonville, Florida was


fantastic duty because of my swimming background. I never stood guard duty. I only stood lifeguard duty at the officer’s pool, which was pretty nice. Then I got sent up to Lakehurst, New Jersey to meteorology school.

JOHNSON: After you got out of that, where did they station you?

CALDWELL: Well, our graduating class had the opportunity to volunteer for the Byrd expedition to the South Pole in 1946 and ‘47. There were 52 that volunteered, 16--I think it was 16 who were selected. I came in second physically and 8th scholastically, so I was assured of a berth on the expedition, the first postwar expedition to Antarctica.

JOHNSON: What ship was that?

CALDWELL: The DD-868 U.S.S. Bronson.

JOHNSON: Yes, I have your chronological record of service here and it says you started with the Bronson on November 2, 1946.

CALDWELL: Believe it or not, that’s the day that they actually wrote the orders I should go on it. I actually arrived on board on my 18th birthday.

JOHNSON: Then I guess you completed that duty on April 11th of ‘47?



JOHNSON: You were in the Antarctica over the winter?

CALDWELL: Oh, yes. That’s summertime down there.

JOHNSON: Oh, that’s right.

CALDWELL: Hemisphere shift.

JOHNSON: What was the purpose of that expedition?

CALDWELL: Can I be brutally honest?


CALDWELL: It was to do the research that Byrd himself never did. There was a Commodore Defeuk, a one-star admiral who was called a commodore. He was sent down to really gather the scientific data that Richard Byrd never really gathered. He ultimately made four-star admiral. He was a fantastically good man. The ship that I was on plotted what is still known on oceanographic charts as the 1947 iceline. I’ve seen over two-thirds of the continent of Antarctica on the DD-868.

JOHNSON: Any anecdotes that kind of stand out in your mind about that expedition?

CALDWELL: Oh, I could tell you lots of sea stories if you want sea stories.


JOHNSON: Did you feel you accomplished what you set out to do?

CALDWELL: Yes. I thought it was well worthwhile. However, our captain, who, by the way, was named HMS Ginder, was a full commander and fantastic guy. He wasn’t so sure that it was really a worthwhile expedition, and one day as we were going around the Palmer Peninsula, I was looking at the mountains, and was watching the snow blow off of them. We were a considerable distance away, but I didn’t have any binoculars. The only thing that was available was the long glass, which of course, is a telescope. Captain Ginder came over to me and he asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’m looking at the rock formations over on those mountains,” and I said, “I think I’d like to go back home, go to college, get a degree in geology and come back down here.” He walked away and shook his head, and I continued to look. The next thing I knew, he came over to me, took his binoculars off, hung them around my neck, took the long glass out of my hand, and said, “Here, you can see twice as much with two eyes, and you won’t have to come back again.” So if you want an anecdote that was probably the gem of the anecdotes.

JOHNSON: Ginder.

CALDWELL: H.M.S. Ginder. That was the Captain. H.M.S.


Ginder, His Majesty’s Ship Ginder. A good name for an American naval captain.

JOHNSON: Did this expedition have anything at all to do with the “Cold War” [no pun intended]? Was there any feeling at this time that there was any rivalry in the offing with the Soviet Union for control in the Antarctic?

CALDWELL: Oh, I’m sure there was. I’m not sure that it had been nurtured to the extent that it ultimately got nurtured to. But see, the first Antarctic treaty, which was a 30-year treaty, I think, just in the last year or so was renewed. It was renewed so that in ‘45, that would have been a fair amount of time before the rivalry really got underway.

JOHNSON: Did you encounter any Soviet expedition?

CALDWELL: No. I can say this, which is sad to say, that when we were down there, there probably wasn’t a day that we didn’t see sixteen to eighteen whales. And when I went back down there on an oceanographic research ship for the National Science Foundation in 1982—83, we were lucky to see one whale every sixteen days. It’s really sad what the whaling industry has perpetrated on the whale population.

JOHNSON: But there is a treaty on the whaling isn’t there



CALDWELL: Well, yes, but in Japan, when I was there in 1982-83, I think they took 82,000 whales. I think that’s the number, and they said that was for research. That’s a lot of research. The big whales are virtually all gone.

Speaking of Antarctica, I might add when I was there in ‘82-83, at the Palmer Station Library, I saw an article that said that Hitler was the whale’s best friend. It followed up by saying, in essence, I’m paraphrasing of course, that while Hitler kept the world at war for five to seven years, the whale population had an opportunity to redevelop.

JOHNSON: That’s about the only population that did.


JOHNSON: Okay, then you came back to Norfolk, apparently, from there, and you’re Weather Central Atlantic Fleet . .

CALDWELL: Yes, Atlantic Fleet Weather Central, yes.

JOHNSON: That’s in May of ‘47. What kind of duty was that?

CALDWELL: Well, when ships are in port, there’s no need to keep weather personnel aboard, so they’re taken off and transferred into the fleet weather central for future


assignments. So what we did was all of the same duty, except that we also carried all of our weather maps and reports out to the ships that were moored, and some of them even that were out at anchor. The weather maps and everything were sent to them, so that they didn’t have to keep weather people aboard.

JOHNSON: Now, you must have coordinated closely with the United States Weather Bureau.

CALDWELL: Oh, yes. Very definitely, we were on their teletype schedule and everything.

JOHNSON: Then on July 18, 1947 you were assigned to the U.S.S. Missouri, according to this chronology.

CALDWELL: Yes, that would be next.

JOHNSON: So that was the trip to Rio?


JOHNSON: So you took the Missouri down to Rio, and President Truman flew down that month to get in on the conclusion of the Rio Conference. That provided a hemispheric defense treaty. What were you told when you were assigned to the U.S.S. Missouri? What did they tell you when you were assigned there?

CALDWELL: Oh, I would probably need to back up to give you


some background on this. When I came back off of the Byrd expedition, I had been out for six and a half months, and as soon as I reported in to the fleet weather central, I asked them what they had going out. The commander said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, I joined the Navy to go to sea.” He said, “You’ve been out for six and a half months what do you want