Memories of Defending New Hampshire's Seacoast
By Paul Snyder
Atlantic News, December 5 & 12, 1996
[Fifty-five years after the start of the Second World War,
Les Stevens recounts his experiences
manning New Hampshire's coastal defences.]
World War I started in June of 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian gunman in Sarajevo in what is now called Bosnia, once part of Yugoslavia. No one realized then that that gun shot would reverberate throughout the world and would continue to do so for the rest of this century. Little did people know or even care that Hitler and his Nazi gang were persecuting the Jews. That a civil war raging in Spain was, in part, a tactical testing ground for Germany's newest weaponry. That Italy, a former ally, was crunching Ethiopia under its fascist heel. That the Russian bear was about to use Finland as a feed lot. And that the rays from Japan's rising sun were reaching not only across China, the western Pacific and into the Indian Ocean but eastward toward Hawaii as well.
But why worry.? After all, Americans were living on this side of the world. Through the haze of isolationism, it was, "What is Europe's problem is Europe's problem. Not ours. What is Asia's problem is Asia's problem. Not ours." Even though the country was going through a great depression, America was strong and mighty. It was above all the worldly squabbles. Then suddenly and violently, the bubble burst. The alarm sounded and Pearl Harbor happened! Around this time, a young lad by the name of Lester Stevens, now living in Rye, was trying to get into the Navy.
Les Stevens was born on December 25, 1920, in Baltimore, Maryland. Unfortunately, his mother died at child birth and in the trauma and confusion of the tragedy, Les's birth was not recorded. In 1934, his Dad moved the family to Spencer, Mass, a shoe manufacturing town where employment opportunities were better.
Les's Dad, a World War I veteran and a Legionnaire, felt uneasy and concerned about the way things were going in the world. He felt it was important for his son to get his birth certificate so over Labor Day in 1939, Les and his Dad went back to Baltimore and to the hospital were he was born. Although the hospital had no record of his birth, Les's Dad persevered and finally managed to locate the doctor who delivered Les about 20 years earlier. With the help of the doctor who remembered that Christmas day, and through hospital cooperation, Les got his birth certificate. "After 19 years I finally became a statistic," he said.
With document in hand, Les headed for Navy Recruiting to enlist. But unfortunately, the Navy wouldn't take him because he physically wasn't 'up to snuff'. Les said that there were so many men trying to get into the Navy that the Navy could pick and choose who they wanted. The Army wasn't so choosy. On February 18, 1941, he went to Army Recruiting, volunteered for 3 years duty and was eventually accepted. When asked by the recruiting officer what he wanted to do, Les said he wanted to do something electrical because an uncle he respected and liked was a lineman who made good money. The officer said, "Why not go into the Coast Artillery?" Les said, "What's available?" And the officer replied, "Well, there's the 1st Coast Artillery District." "Where's that?" asked Les. "From Maine to Long, Island," replied the officer. And Les replied, "That sounds good."
Les didn't know that when France fell to the Germans in 1940, the War Department, not knowing what was coming, went into high gear to organize and upgrade both the east and west coast defenses of the US. Then the Atlantic Ocean was a marauder's paradise for German 'U' boats, pocket battleships, deadly cruisers and armed raiders made to look like harmless merchant vessels. Also, the Germans were known to be eyeing Greenland as a possible base from which to launch long range aircraft designed to hit North American targets. There was much to be done and little time to do it. Above all, men, especially trained men, were urgently needed.
So Les, now a $21-A-Month Buck Private, after a short stay at Fort Devens in Massachusetts, was assigned to duty at Fort Constitution an old, historic fort which dates back to the French and Indian Wars, then called Fort William and Mary. Les said he had no idea exactly where Fort Constitution was but that's where he was headed.
In July of 1940, Fort Constitution on New Castle Island was to be one of a triumvirate of major forts. The others would be Fort Foster across the harbor on Gerrish Island in Maine and, when finished in early 1942, Fort Dearborn at Frost Point. Fort Stark, also on New Castle Island, was included as well but its purpose was different from those forts being outfitted with heavy, long range ordnance. Tying it all together along with the Fort Dearborn Command was Camp Langdon located on what is now The Common on New Castle Island, or as Les says, "New Castle's Playground." Ocean Boulevard was closed to all but authorized military traffic and posting of sentries assured this security. Other outposts were set-up along the entire New Hampshire seacoast and well into Maine. This was the formidable defense established to protect and defend the extremely important work going on at the Navy Yard, specifically, and Portsmouth Harbor in general. On the way out from Portsmouth, Les was looking at all the water surrounding New Castle Island and the Fort and began wondering just what Godforsaken place he was being sent to. In March of 1941, Les and about 45 other recruits, all enlistees from New England, were the first to commence their 3 weeks of Basic Training. Then they were returned to duty and received more detailed training in the handling and firing of a variety of artillery pieces as well as mine planting procedures.
By June, selective service draftees began to arrive from as far away as the Midwest. Soon the complement of men grew to around 160. Men now were being assigned to the three Forts where they received intensive training on the weapons they were to man.
Colonel Walter K Dunn became the Commanding Officer in January of 1941. Les recalls that the Colonel and his wife lived in quarters located on the top of the hill overlooking the Fort's barracks. Dunn's wife was always complaining about the noise the men made coming up from the barracks below so the Colonel would go down the hill and 'chew the men out.' "The next night," said Les, "they always made more noise than before."
Before Pearl Harbor, the men could always get a Class A pass when off duty and go where they wanted. After Pearl Harbor, everything changed. Everything now was in a war mode. Headquarters in Boston decreed that all installations under its command were put on 95% watch status. This meant that only 5% of the personnel could be off post at any given time. After about a week, it was reduced to 90% watch status but was still very restrictive and hard on the men. Les said it was almost like being in prison.
Les was assigned to the 'Absolom Baird' a Mine Planter (Layer) of about 162 feet in length as a Portside Anchor Davit Man. The Baird carried about 19 floating mines with anchors or about 13 ground or bottom mines, both used in defense of the harbor. The first mines were planted around Fort Stark and out beyond Whaleback Light about a week after Pearl Harbor.
Les vividly recalls Christmas Day in 41. After having an excellent dinner he was informed by Captain Odenweller, a West Point graduate that Les says was an excellent officer and who unfortunately was killed later in Europe, that the Baird was loaded and ready to go for the next day's operation. But, because of the favorable weather conditions, the order was rescinded. When skipper of the vessel arrived, he appeared to have a little too much 'Christmas Cheer,' according to Les and therefore his skill in handling helm was, at best, erratic which resulted in the planter hitting another boat while they had a mine slung over the side. A crewman hollered, "Hit the deck".
When this happened and Les heard the yell, it scared the living daylights out of him. He didn't know that the mines had to be electrically fired to explode. The next day on his day off, he hitch-hiked back to Spencer to visit his family. When he got home he had a couple of shots of whiskey and a hot cup of coffee to settle a bad case of the jitters.
A few weeks later, fate dealt Les another good hand. He now was assigned to another vessel, a 'junior' mine planter of about 110 feet long named the 'Arnold.' But Les, being a Private, had the dubious pleasure of being assigned KP duty for 3 days when his boat was assigned a mission and left without him. The crew consisted mostly of civilians which was common during the early stages of the war when there was a shortage of trained military personnel.
While Les was up to his elbows in pots and pans, his Sergeant came in to inform him how lucky he was to be on KP. When asked why, the Sergeant told Les that the boat he was assigned to was blown 20 miles out to sea by a tremendous wind storm and took on seas that were 18 to 20 feet dousing its coal burning boilers. Two boats had come to her assistance and had managed to get her under tow. But the cables broke and the boat foundered with all hands except for one - about 9 men were lost. A record of this incident can be found today among the archives of the Portsmouth Herald and the Manchester Union Leader.
In April of 42, Les managed to go from Buck Private to Corporal. He was assigned to the small boat flotilla consisting of a number of 'M' boats - a 26 foot mine yawl - as a deck hand. The skipper named Pierce, also a Corporal, got a transfer out of the unit leaving the slot open for Les who got the promotion. As Les will readily agree, for a guy who wanted to be in the Navy dealing with boats and the seas, he was doing all right by the Army. During WW II, the Army with its Transportation Corps had more boats and ships world-wide than the Navy. Many vessels were operated and manned by Navy as well as Merchant Marine personnel.
Much of Les's assigned duties was to tow targets for 3 inch and 40 millimeter anti-aircraft batteries shooting practice. Les said they would be towing those targets with 3 to 5 hundred foot cables paid out behind their boats. He said he never gave a thought to getting hit with an errant shell or round. After all, weren't the guys manning the guns aiming and shooting at the targets they were towing, not at the towers? When he thinks back on it, he said, 'My God! We were taking a chance!'
Another incident Les thinks about and wants to set the record straight, occurred in the summer of 1944. During the night, a Civil Air Patrol pilot out of Maine was towing a target about 3 hundred feet behind his tiny aircraft for 90 millimeter, Triple 'A' gunnery practice for Fort Foster units. Evidently, the pilot, upon making a turn, was temporarily blinded by the battery's search lights, crossed his tow line and crashed into the sea. Les, along with another 'M' Boat skipper named Verne McMasters, went out to Gunboat Shoal off of Wallis Sands State Beach and for 2 days from 7:30 in the morning to about 5:00 in the evening, cruised back and forth trying to locate and grapple the downed aircraft, but to no avail. About two days later, the Coast Guard found the aircraft and the dead pilot a mile and a half distant and nearer to Hampton than the coordinates given them.
After spending all that time and effort, Les and others in his outfit who were involved in the search were 'ticked off' when the Coast Guard beat them to it. They felt they had lost 'face' in not making the find.
Here again Les wants to bring out the importance of the civilian effort in helping the Army do its job. Throughout their whole operation, Les's outfit lost none, while the civilians lost several men in their supporting efforts, even though well trained and skilled.
Also, Les wants it known that writers over the years have written that when the war was over and the mines to the harbor were removed it was the Navy that did the job. Les said this is totally false. What happened to bring about this misconception was that the 40 or so men out of about 150 involved in the water defense of the harbor were issued Navy clothing which had the words "US Navy" on the back. This clothing was issued because Navy garb was better suited for the job of mine retrieval than what the Army had. So when someone would drive by and see men in US Navy garb, naturally they thought it was Navy personnel doing the job for the Army. It was in fact the Army doing the job they were supposed to do.
Ah, then there was the romantic side to garrison life at the Fort. Les recalls 2 incidents rather vividly. It involved a fellow from New Jersey by the name of Bob Swank who was the adopted son of a Portuguese couple who owned many vineyards in Portugal. As Les says, "He was somewhat of a high flyer." So one night Bob asked Les to join him at the USO dance. Les was reluctant to go because he couldn't dance. Bob told him to go anyway because there would be many nice, young girls to meet. Les again declined because he already had a girl back home in Spencer. But Bob persisted and finally Les gave in, went to the dance and met a very nice young lady. However as Les says, "This relationship became a very nice brother and sister act because she had a boy friend in the Army Air Corps." Well, as life often does, it throws you a curve and things change. As Les says, "The relationship got better and better." The boy friend and the girl friend went by the boards and Les and Fran ended up getting married. And they have remained married now for over 53 years.
As for Bob, the man responsible for getting Les to the dance that night, things turned out very differently. Les says that Bob became very infatuated with a nice, attractive young girl so he went to New Jersey and bought a $300 dollar engagement ring. As Les says, "$300 in those days was a lot of money." When Bob presented the ring to his girl, she refused it, so Bob walked to the water's edge, took the ring and threw it into the drink - right there at Fort Constitution.
The Harbor Defense System grew from a 5 man caretaker garrison shortly before the war, to a force of over 2 thousand men by the end of the war. During those years, units comprising the defense operations were: the 22d Coast Artillery Regiment, elements of the 1105 ASU (Auxiliary Service Unit), miscellaneous companies and detachments, and the US Army mine planters, Greely and the Baird, with about 21 assorted smaller vessels. From July 27,1942, Colonel Raymond Watt was the Commanding Officer.
In addition to its protective activities, the Harbor Defense System had extensive training activities as well, preparing men to become replacements for overseas units. Vigorous training required the men to fire all kinds of ordnance around the clock, hardly thrilling the locals. Many people learned to keep their windows open regardless of the weather.
Les said the greatest enemy they had was boredom which took its toll. Men who had wives, girl friends or family living in the area survived the best. But those whose loved ones lived faraway across the country became the greatest victims of the seamier side of the local life which fed off the tedium and boredom confronting the garrison.
Also, Les continued to say that all his friends were shipped out for overseas assignments. In 1942 alone, Les said he requested transfer at least 6 times. Each time he was told "You're needed here. You're needed here. You're needed here." After he got married, Les said then it became a whole different ball game. The desire for a transfer lessened greatly.
In November of 1945, now a Tech 4 (what we used to call a 'Model T Sargent') and after serving 4 years, 9 months and 3 days of a 3 year enlistment - for which he received no reenlistment pay - Les was honorably discharged from the Army. He sums up his military experience by saying, "I told the Army what I wanted in February of '41. They told me what they would give me. I got what I wanted and they got what they wanted."
The Army wanted him to stay in the service by offering him a Staff Sargents rating, But in looking ahead, Les says he saw a life he did not want. In fact he told the Captain who was trying to persuade him to reenlist, that when he wanted to go somewhere he didn't want to have to ask for a white piece of paper (a pass) to leave the post. The Captain replied that with an attitude like that he certainly wouldn't hold a civilian job very long. Les said, "It didn't turn out that way." Because of his mine planting and cable splicing experience along with other skills learned in the service, he landed a job with Simplex Wire & Cable, and remained with them until retirement 31 years and 7 months. "So," he says, he guesses he wound up with the right job at the right time."
About 50 years later from the time he enlisted and was ultimately stationed at Fort Constitution, Les returned to the Portsmouth Harbor Defense System as the sole occupant - or you might say, the last commander of what was once the Harbor Entrance Command Post at Fort Stark on New Castle Island. The 'White House' as it's now called, was once the communication center controlling Portsmouth Harbor defense from Biddleford, ME, to Hampton, NH. It was a Defense Command once consisting of over 2000 men manning a formidable operation consisting of the latest and best weaponry, technology and communications system. Les now has the dubious title of being the last of the garrison and the man who holds the key to the 'White House.' He is the living, walking, talking oracle of the once great Coastal Defense operation because he lived it, worked it and survived it to tell others, especially youngsters, about why it existed and what serving there was like.
In 1991, Les got involved with Dick McIntyre, Howard Crosby and others about doing volunteer work at Fort Stark, which along with Fort Constitution and Fort Dearborn, now Odiorne Point, were turned over to New Hampshire's Division of Parks and Recreation. Rich McLoud, who then was in charge of historical parks and sites for the State, approached Les about working for him as a walking historian at Fort Stark simply because Les knew so much about the military operation.
In the summer of '91 Les started working for them 5 days a week as a paid employee. Over the years and riding above bureaucratic obstacles along with donations dropped into a glass jar by visitors, Les, through his genius of grabbing bits and pieces from discards found laying about in the dark corners of old bunkers, abandoned command posts and other forgotten remnants, put together a living museum of this once very important and unique military installation. To take a walking tour with Les is to be there back in those uncertain days of World War II.
Today however, without the right support from the State and local citizens, Les feels Fort Stark could slip away from memory, becoming a loss to the generations to come. Fort Stark, located on New Castle Island at the end of Wild Rose Lane, is designated as a State Historic Site. It is managed by the N.H. Division of Parks and Recreation, Department of Resources and Economic Development. A visitor center, which Les now mans voluntarily just 2 days a week throughout the summer, is located in the old mines building and is open on weekends and holidays only from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., from late June to Labor Day. A walking trail traverses the 10 acre Fort site. There are no camping or picnic facilities. But there are many camera locations from which a professional photographer, even a point-and-shooter can take excellent shots.
Les says he agrees with Richard McLeod on funding that the State has a responsibility for education, and Historic Parks have their place in educating the public. Les feels that for an additional $16,000 per year, the 5 Visitor Centers found in various Historic Sites listed throughout the State, could be manned by paying attendants $8 per hour for 8 hours, 5 days per week (from Wednesday through Sunday), for 10 weeks of the year. And he feels the cost for these attendants or guides should be borne by DRED or the University System. College students could be used as the attendants or guides.
With the donation of a few picnic tables, the adding of few trash cans, maybe a water fountain or two and a sign on State Rte. 1B, or New Castle Road, at the Wild Rose Lane intersection pointing to Fort Stark - just maybe the bleak, fog bound future of the old Fort can be revitalized for the enjoyment of many generations to come.
(For further information regarding Fort Stark and its future, you can contact the Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) at the Seacoast Region Office, P.O. Box 606, Rye Beach, NH 03871-9998 or telephone (603) 436-1552.)