Stetson Eugene Oster was born in Shelby, Ohio, in 1922. His parents named him after Florida’s Stetson University, which neither they, nor their son ever attended. His parents worked as orange pickers at a grove in Florida. Shortly after their honeymoon they moved back to Ohio to have their first son. Eighteen years later, Imperial Japan launched an attack on Pearl Harbor, triggering the United States’ involvement in World War II. Stetson had barely graduated from high school when he volunteered to serve.
His story is not uncommon, which is part of what makes it so compelling. Last year, after a couple discussions about his experiences during wartime, Stetson agreed to sit down and tell me the whole story. While Americans have seen countless stories from WWII told through film, books, television, or even music, there is nothing more authentic, and nothing more striking than hearing it from the mouth of a real, live Veteran. Maryjo, his granddaughter and my partner, sat us both down last year to talk.
Stetson tried unsuccessfully to volunteer for the United States Army Air Corps when he was 19. The staff administering the tests weren’t pleased with his blood pressure, and denied his request. He then applied for the Navy, and was almost immediately confirmed. Boot camp was at the Naval Station Great Lakes, just outside of Chicago. There, he was one of thousands of men, pouring into the base every day. He underscores that at no point in this process did he feel small; he knew what he was able to do, and was willing to do it.
There are several categories and classifications for ships used by the US Navy, and each has their specific function. An oiler provides fuel. A carrier transports planes. A destroyer-class, despite its diminutive size, is there to provide the heavy lifting. Its primary function as a long-endurance warship was to provide supporting fire for larger ships, like the carriers. They also served as escorts to some of the larger ships, and were also tasked with reconnaissance work. After working on a tanker for about a year, Stetson was re-assigned to the newly-built USS Marshall, a Fletcher-class destroyer, built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1943. He was part of the shakedown crew, which is responsible for testing every last component of the boat before going into active combat.
USS Marshall’s first mission, shortly after the shakedown, was to escort President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then aboard the USS Iowa, back to the United States. The Marshall sailed from Bermuda to the Mediterranean, shortly after the Big Three Conference in Tehran, in December of 1943. This was the very first wartime meeting between Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and FDR. Stetson, who rose to the rank of Yeoman, was 21-years-old. He had no training prior to the shakedown. He learned everything on the fly.
His responsibilities aboard the ship were to relay orders, word for word, from the officers on the bridge down to the lower decks. While repeating orders might now seem like a banal task, it was one of the most critical duties on a warship at the time. In the days before emails, texts, or any kind of electronic correspondence, a ship’s operations depended on someone meticulously repeating orders from the bridge. Everything from navigation coordinates to feet measurements on depth charges depended on a Yeoman. The orders he relayed down from the bridge were often the difference between smooth sailing and a sinking ship. And the ship came very close to sinking several times.
In the Pacific theater of World War II, the most decisive victory for the American forces came during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. It permanently eliminated the mobilization of the Japanese Imperial Navy. The United States sent 129 warships into the fight. The Marshall was one of 58 destroyers. By the end of the campaign, over 3,000 men lost their lives. Stetson recalls combat vividly. “Every fourth round in the clip for the anti-aircraft guns was an incendiary round, and it lit the sky up like daylight. You could spot torpedoes coming for you, too.” The ship escaped unscathed, and helped to shoot at least two attacking Japanese aircraft out of the sky.
A few months after that battle, the Marshall was responsible for assisting in the return of the USS Franklin. She was an American aircraft carrier that was hit mid-ship by two Japanese bombs, just 50 miles from Japanese mainland. When a fire breaks out on a ship that size, the first thing a crew tries to do is flood the magazines, where the ships munitions are kept. The fires aboard the USS Franklin hit the magazines before the crew could flood them, and the resulting explosions killed even more sailors and pilots. Over 800 men aboard were killed. She was eventually retrieved by the Pittsburgh, a heavy cruiser, with the Marshall as an escort. It took them two weeks to tow the Franklin back to Pearl Harbor. “It was slow going,” Stetson told me, “but we got there.”
Shortly before the end of the war, Stetson took shore leave, and worked from the civic building in San Francisco, 40 miles from the base. He would take the bus every morning to work, continuing his duties as Yeoman. In the two times we’ve spoken about the War, he has never led me to believe he wished he would have stayed on board the Marshall. When the War was over, Stetson’s father took a short leave of absence from his work in Ohio, picked his son up from San Francisco, and spent a few weeks driving across the country, “hob-nobbing at every park we came to.”
Not wasting any time at all, Stetson enrolled in summer classes Wittenberg University, in Springfield, Ohio. His plan was to take the GI Bill for all its worth, finish college, find a job, and start a life on his own. He was sidetracked, of course; in 1948, at a dance on the roof of the local YMCA, he fell in love with Mary. “Once we met, we just never got apart,” he tells me. He bought the ring for $60 ($10 a week on credit) from a local jeweler down the street from the university. They’ve been together for 68 years and three months.
After graduating, he began work as a teacher, and taught for thirty years. If you’ve done the math, Stetson Eugene Oster, the son of orange pickers, left his home, volunteered to fight in a war, was on more than one occasion nearly shot or bombed to death, helped tow an aircraft carrier clear across the Pacific, left the war, drove across the country, enrolled into a university, met the love of his life, married her, graduated, and found a career. All before he turned 30.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Stetson is how bemused he gets when I start asking about his past. He smiles and shrugs a lot. He believes his experience, while maybe a little exciting, isn’t anything out of the ordinary for his generation. This is something I’ve noticed from other WWII vets I’ve spoken with; they’re modest, and they’re quiet about their experiences. It could be that they see their actions as part of a collective effort, or something they all needed to do for the good of their country. It could also be that it’s been so long since WWII, and so much has happened since, they might not remember. Either way, there are not a lot of members of the Greatest Generation left to ask. In his own way, Stetson Eugene Oster is a living historical record and a living American treasure.
He currently resides in Tamarac, Florida, with his son, daughter-in-law, and wife. Faith is central to his life, and always has been, making the time each day for prayer. He marvels at how far the world has come in his lifetime, and finds peace in his faith. He also enjoys watching re-runs of Hogan’s Heroes, I Love Lucy and MASH.
He writes quarterly letters to his friends and loved ones, listing off things that have happened over the past few months, not unlike a Yeoman relays messages. Maryjo, reads them aloud to me whenever they come in. The last line of this quarter’s letter reads, “I don’t have anything to complain about, so I won’t.”