“I would imagine it would be like going to college. You’re away from home and everybody’s in the same boat, and you make friends,” said Ed Coyne, of Plainview, New York.
Coyne, 92, was one of the thousands of young men who served on the USS Intrepid during World War II.
“Pretty much like myself, we [were] a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds, so we were kids, I guess you’d have to say, and easily impressed,” he told InsideEdition.com. “But this was huge. We were going to get the chance to pay back the Japanese for what they did to us in Pearl Harbor.”
Last week, he and two other former crew members Daniel Watkins, 94, and Ralph Forquer, 95, returned to the ship for the 75th anniversary of when it was first commissioned.
The former aircraft carrier, built for battle at sea after the Pearl Harbor attack, is now docked in the Hudson River, just west of midtown Manhattan.
The USS Intrepid, also known as the Fighting “I,” is now one of several military vessels that make up the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum that is open to the public.
Watkins, who served from 1943 to 1947, traveled alone from his home in Alabama by rail to make it to the special day.
“I was proud that I was in the Navy. I was proud that I got an aircraft carrier to serve on,” said Watkins. “And I met a lot of boys that was just like myself. They didn’t know anything about the ship to begin with.”
He remembers vividly his first day aboard – a Sunday in August 1943.
“We put all of our gear away on Sunday,” he recalled. “Then Monday is when we started to work after the Intrepid was commissioned. Then the following day, [we had] all kinds of bugs we had to fix before we left [for sea]. But we had drills and tools and everything, trying to teach all the dumb boys like myself their jobs before we went to the West Coast.”
Forquer of Colorado said he was frightened the first time he laid eyes on the Intrepid at just 18.
“I’d never been too far away from the ranch, never been too far away from home,” he explained. “And all of these people, and then this big old boat … it’s scary. It scared me.”
He remembers being one of the smaller guys on board, so he was crammed into the top of three bunks.
Forquer quickly rose in the ranks, advancing to a seaman first class by the time he left the Intrepid after the war.
“Working duties was regular,” he said. “Get the supplies up for the cooks and bakers, transfer personnel from ship to ship. It just varied.”
Coyne, who worked in the gasoline division, said his duties included taking care of the planes on the hanger deck.
“We would gas planes, we would [sweep] the decks to keep everything straight and clean,” Coyne explained. “They would keep us busy and out of trouble.”
Watkins recalled the stuffy environment, working as a second class boiler attendant: “It was always hard work down there, but like I said, we was country boys – been in the fields in the summertime. We was used to that heat, so it didn’t bother us much. We done a lot of sweating, but we still done our work.”
When there was a fire, usually a result of a kamikaze attack, the men recalled abandoning their posts to put out the flames.
“You hear an explosion and that would be it,” Coyne said. “You saw planes, you saw things burning, and you knew you had certain duties to do and you performed them without fear. You didn’t have time to fear. When you were under attack, there were no atheists – everybody’s saying, ‘God, take care of me.’”
From the boiler room, Watkins said they were never entirely sure when they were hit.
“When we get a kamikaze hit, we didn’t know what all was taking place, but when we did know, they was in close,” Watkins recalled. “First of all, we’d hear the fireman’s guns going off and we knew we had some enemies coming. Then, we heard 40 mm guns, we knew it was getting closer. When the 20 mm guns [sounded], we knew it was here with us. So it was all pretty exciting.”
In their rare downtime, the men would often play card games, like Pinochle.
“That was a big game back in those years,” Coyne said. “[Or we’d] just sit on a ramp that we had in our compartment and talk, talk about the new ones who were farmers. I’m a big city boy, born and raised in New York City. It’s like being in a small town, I guess, but discussing growing up, the people in the different sections of the country, it was an education.”
Watkins, from outside of Birmingham, Alabama, said he enjoyed taking in the sights during his time off.
“When we wasn’t working, I’d go back to the stern of the ship and there was an area back there at the end, before they remodeled it, that we could go back there and get some fresh air,” Watkins said. “I spent some time back there. I’d watch the airplanes if they was still having exercises – watch them land and take off.”
Mealtime was always a gamble, Watkins said, recalling men getting sick partway through or losing their trays during turbulent waters.
“[The food] was a bit hard every once in a while, but it wasn’t all that bad,” he said. “We had plenty to eat. It’s a far cry from what I knew the boys in the Army was doing – and the Marine Corps. I knew they weren’t getting a good meal like we was, so that was another blessing.”
Forquer added, “We had the best cooks and bakers that the Navy could get – and there was a few Fish Fridays.”
As with the nature of war, many of them recalled more painful memories aboard the Intrepid.
Coyne thought of one of his shipmates, who died on board.
“He was a regular Navy, meaning he was in before the war. Young fellow […] we used to go on the deck together,” Coyne said. “He got killed after one of the kamikazes hit. I had lunch with him. I had breakfast with him that morning.”
Suicides also happened on board the ship, Forquer said.
“We were in one typhoon where four destroyers overturned, but you never heard anything about it during the war, because who wants to say, ‘Four ships completely gone with personnel?’ I’ve been fortunate because I never dwelled on it after the war. I haven’t been scarred here,” Coyne said, pointing to his head.
He added, “At night, you’d sit down and you’d be talking about [the people we lost]. I can’t remember exactly what we’d talk about, but there was sorrow, and in your own mind, I’m sure you were thinking, ‘I’m glad it wasn’t me.’ Not that you wanted anybody to go, but you were glad it wasn’t you.”
Coyne did remember fondly, however, “the friendships that I made,” he said.
“For quite a few years, we stayed in touch, but as years go by, it disappeared and many of them died, even after the war,” he said. “I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Proud to show off the Intrepid as somewhere he once called home, Coyne said he has high hopes the younger generation of Armed Forces will represent their branches now and in the years to come with the same amount of pride.
“They’ll do their job,” he said. “They’re not different than we were – they wanted to do something for the country. This is a great country.”