Victor R. Pittman, YNC, USN, Served: 1943-1963
–Contributed by: J. (Pittman) Younkin
Victor R Pittman, was born on July 26, 1924 to Frank and Ella Pittman. He was the youngest of 10 children (5 boys, 5 girls). He was raised on his family farm in Reeve, WI. He attended a two room school in Reeve, WI through his 8th grade graduation. In the summer of 1938, with only Victor and his youngest sister left living at home, his parents sold the family farm and moved into Clear Lake, WI. While Victor was attending high school, the United States entered into W.W.II (in 1941). Victor graduated from Clear Lake High School in 1942. From there he went to Machinist school in St. Croix.
At that time, American patriotism was high in the country. President Roosevelt started the War Bond campaign in 1941 which were sold to help financially support the war effort. The United States government put a great effort into promoting the bonds. Men and women were willing to give what ever it took to win the war for the sake of freedom in the United States. On May 12, 1943, at the age of 18, Victor joined the U.S. Navy. His brother, George Pittman, later joined the U.S. Army on May 8, 1945.
Victor trained in Farragut, ID. His first overseas duty station was aboard the USS Richard M. Rowell-DE 403 (DE designates Destroyer Escort Ship) on March 9, 1944. The Rowell participated in the Pacific Campaign of W.W.II, providing support for the U.S. war effort. The Rowell was a hunter-killer, both anti-aircraft and anti-submarine. Victor served as a Gunner and a Yeoman while aboard the Rowell.
On October 3, 1944 the USS Rowell rescued survivors from the USS Shelton after it was hit by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine. Knowing the enemy submarine was still in the vicinity of the attack, the Rowell manned battle stations, came aside the sinking Shelton and took on the Shelton’s 210 survivors (22 wounded, 3 severely), plus the ship’s cat. During this time, Victor manned his gun waiting for a submarine to surface or planes to come in.
Later that day, an Avenger from the USS Midway spotted a submarine in the vicinity of the Shelton’s attack and attacked it with two bombs. At that time they had no knowledge of any friendly submarines in the area. The report from Rowell indicated that a lethal attack was conducted in conjunction with the Avenger sighting which marked the spot with dye. Rowell established sound contact on the submarine, which then sent a signal which Rowell stated bore no resemblance to the existing recognition signals. After one of several hedgehog attacks a small amount of debris and a large air bubble were seen. The Rowell believed they had successfully sunk the sub that torpedoed the Shelton.
When friendly submarines were directed to give their positions, the USS Seawolf did not respond, nor did she arrive at her destination. In light of the above facts and that there was no attack listed in the Japanese report of antisubmarine attacks which could account for the loss of Seawolf, it was concluded that the Seawolf was sunk by friendly forces in the antisubmarine attack by the Rowell. Additional facts later revealed that the Seawolf was behind schedule on it’s way to Morotai, and was in the area of the Rowell’s fatal attack. Someone had failed to pass the word of it’s location. After the war it was confirmed that the submarine that attacked the Shelton had returned to Japan safely. This tragedy would leave a burdenous scar in Victor’s heart for the 102 men aboard the USS Seawolf that were lost at sea that day.
On October 12, 1944 the Rowell joined carrier Task Group 77.4 under Rear Admiral T. L. Sprague which provided air cover for the landings on Leyte. Bad weather forced the Rowell to jettison their mast on October 17, 1944. This resulted in the loss of all radio, radar & flag lines. They were able to reestablish short distance communication with fellow ships. The Rowell continued on and participated in the Leyte Operation and the Battle for Leyte Gulf. The picture above was taken from the flight deck of one the carriers in the operation showing the USS Rowell had no mast.
Kamikaze Aircraft Attacks
On October 25, 1944 the Rowell (part of Taffy 1 carrier group) was called to assist during a Japanese attack on Taffy 3 carrier group. This was possibly the first deliberate use of a kamikaze aircraft attack used. Several ships were dived onto by Japanese planes. Victor said there were Japanese planes flying all over, “They’d come in at night just barely over the water—-trying to run into a ship.” Victor often stayed next to his gun at night. The Rowell was strafed (attacked with machine gun fire) by a Japanese aircraft during this attack. A projectile from the aircraft hit a gun mount without exploding, resulting in the death of three men. During this attack on Taffy 3, the carrier USS Suwanee suffered heavy causalities due to the crash-dive by a Japanese “Zeke” that caused an explosion and fire on it’s flight deck. The Rowell went alongside the Suwanee to provide medical support and supplies.
Repairs and replacement of the Rowell’s storm-jettisoned mast were done in Pearl Harbor in November, 1944.
Iwo Jima and the Sinking of the USS Bismarck Sea
The Rowell joined the carrier group which guarded transports to Iwo Jima for the invasion of the island (on February 23, 1945). Victor witnessed first hand the fatal attack by a Japanese plane that ran into the back of the USS Bismarck Sea on February 21, 1945 just after sunset. According to Victor’s account, the ship was loaded with ammunition for the next morning’s launch. Victor said a second Japanese plane came in and hit right on top of the flight deck of the USS Lunga Point. He said, It “just bounced right up and blew up. Caused very little damage to the Lunga Point. But the Bismarck Sea proceeded to explode, just one explosion right after the other.” Victor reported that ships in the area started firing in the air, at nothing. “They fired and they fired and they fired. I don’t have any idea how much. There wasn’t a—-Japanese plane in the area…. And they just kept firing. And the people were jumping off the ship and some of the destroyer escorts were trying to pick up the survivors and they couldn’t find them in the water and they were running over them and people were screaming and I was up there with that—-20 millimeter hanging out of that thing and looking and I never pulled that trigger once. But when it was all over I just was so sick I threw right up.” (The Bismarck sank in 90 minutes; 318 men were lost.)
On July 4, 1945 Victor sent a V-MAIL letter to each his siblings back home. V-mail was a postage free letter that was censored and photographed; the film was sent overseas, then reproduced in a reduced 4″x5″ size and delivered. In the v-mail he mentioned having had all of the sailing he wanted. “I don’t know how far I have sailed but I am sure it is well over one hundred thousand miles. That is a lot of trips between Reeve and Clear Lake” he wrote. He expressed concern for his Pop’s health back home and hoped he’d last until he could get back home. He also hoped he could be home for the next fourth of July.
The Rowell was docked at the Philippine Islands in the late summer of 1945. It was common for native dugouts to come along side the ships trying to sell souvenirs to the men aboard. The picture above was taken at San Pedro Bay, Leyte, Philippine Islands.
The Japanese Have Surrendered!
On the night of August 14, 1945, several of the men were below deck watching a movie. Victor said “I was writing a letter to my ma and pretty soon someone came running down and said, ‘The Japanese have surrendered!‘ and boy, I just couldn’t write no more letter. I started crying and I was thinking, ‘Now I can go home!'” Victor returned state side on November 7, 1945.
Victor participated in the following engagements in Pacific Theatre of Operations during WWII: Morotai, East Indies, Submarine Action, Leyte, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He received the following decorations during that time: American Area Ribbon, Asiatic-Pacific Theatre Ribbon with 1 Silver and 1 Bronze Star, Good Conduct Medal, Philippine Liberation Ribbon with 2 Stars and Victory Medal.
While in the Navy, Victor started smoking cigarettes. This was quite common in the military and considered fashionable at that time. Cigarettes and cigars were often included on ship board menus. Victor continued to serve on the USS Rowell until June, 1946. The USS Rowell was decommissioned on July 2, 1946.
Victor transferred from the Rowell to Great Lakes, IL for separation from the Navy. Instead of separating, he reenlisted with orders for Glenview Naval Reserve Aviation Base, just south of Chicago, IL. For a Wisconsin native, this location was close to home!
It was very common for men to rush into marriage shortly after returning home from the war. This 1946 post-war rush to marry and have children marked the start of the Baby Boomer generation. Perhaps some of these men returning home from war wanted children to pass on the legacy they had fought so bravely for. Possibly starting a family somehow made the fighting seem worth it. Having seen death close hand, maybe some of these men were driven to live for the sake of their friends that didn’t make it home. What ever the reason, Victor followed the crowd, and at the age of 22, met and married his first wife in 1946 shortly after he arrived at Glenview. He was ready to carry on with his life and put the war behind him.
Korean Conflict 1950-1955
Victor received orders for San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1950. He and his wife lived there together during his 2 year assignment. Victor wanted to have children; his wife did not. She had him convinced he could not father a child. By the time they returned to Great Lakes in 1952, their childless marriage was in turmoil. She had turned to alcohol; he turned to his Navy career. Victor worked in Great Lakes until 1955 when he received orders for Japan. He informed his wife she would not be going with him. She stayed behind and filed for divorce. After 10 years of marriage, their divorce was final in 1956. She got everything they owned in the divorce, except for his personal items. Victor stayed friends with his ex-wife’s family dispute the divorce. Later, her family returned his personal items to him. His ex-wife married several times, but never had children. She eventually died an early death in the 1960’s.
Victor was attached to Joint Staff duty while stationed in Tokyo, Japan. He started running into medical problems and was diagnosed with diabetes while hospitalized in Japan. His diabetes was hard to get under control, so in 1958 the Navy transferred him back to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. That year, Victor’s father passed away back home in Clear Lake. It was also the year he met Darlene Froehlig, from Cornell, WI. She was stationed at the Naval Hospital in Great Lakes. She joined the Navy in July, 1958 and graduated from the Great Lakes Corpsman School in January, 1959. Darlene developed gallbladder problems and was put on a special diet. Victor was on a special diet due to his diabetes. They meet in the diet section of the mess hall. Darlene said when she met Victor, her first thought was that he would make someone a nice husband. Little did she know that “someone” would be her.
Vietnam Era 1961-1975
When Vic and Darlene met, they immediately had something in common, they were both from Wisconsin. Doctors warned Darlene that Victor may not live a long life due to his diabetes. Ignoring the warning, they had a short courtship which included trips to meet each other’s families in Wisconsin. Darlene was honorably discharged from the Navy on September 15, 1959. Having received both family’s blessings, they were married in Cornell, WI on September 19, 1959. Nothing but the best went into planning for their traditional wedding. Darlene’s gown was made of chantilly lace and bouquet taffeta. She carried a bouquet of white gladiolas and carnations. Music included “The Wedding Prayer” and “Oh Perfect Love.” Her mother, Marion, catered the entire wedding reception for their 60 guests at their Cornell home. Vic and Darlene honeymooned in upper Michigan and Canada.
They resided in LaCrosse, Wisconsin while Victor continued his Navy career at the Naval Reserve Training Center located there. They had two children together, a girl and a boy, followed by a miscarriage.
On July 31, 1963 Vic was transferred to the Temporary Disability Retired list with a 60% disability rating after serving in the Navy for 20 years. In 1966 he was permanently retired as a Chief Yeoman. Vic was granted veterans disability benefits by the Veterans Administration (currently the Department of Veterans Affairs). Vic was eligible for military retired pay and service connected disability compensation; however, the law at that time did not allow him to receive both benefits at the same time. This law was not changed during his lifetime. Victor was also covered under the G.I. Bill of Rights of 1944.
Civilian Life 1963-1998
Victor moved his family to Cornell, WI, where they stayed with Darlene’s parents until Vic secured employment with the State of Wisconsin at the Northern Colony (a state home for the mentally retarded) located in Chippewa Falls, WI. In 1964 they moved to Chippewa Falls where they bought a house on Lake Wissota. Vic’s mother continued to live in Clear Lake till her death in 1967. Vic quit smoking in the late 1960’s after his brother was diagnosed with emphysema. In the early 70’s Vic and Darlene opened their home to several mentally retarded children under the state foster parent program.
Vic retired from state civil service in April, 1975 after he was diagnosed legally blind and permanently disabled by the Veterans Administration and the Social Security Administration. In 1976, Vic & Darlene purchased land on Lower Turtle Lake, Almena, WI.
Victor was committed to remembering and serving veterans! His forced disability retirement did not stop him from keeping busy. He was very active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). He held different state and national positions in the organization. Darlene was active in the VFW Ladies Auxiliary. Vic was also a member of The Military Order of the Cooties (Honor Degree of the VFW), the American Legion, the Blind Veterans Association, and the Disable American Veterans. Vic and Darlene also helped organize several ship reunions for the USS Rowell.
Vic & Darlene sold their home on Lake Wissota in 1986 and began living on their lake property (known as “the lake” by all who visited them) in Almena in their RV (recreational vehicle). The lake served as their home base when traveling to warmer climates during the winter in their RV. Darlene drove everywhere they traveled. Their travels always included visits with Victor’s Navy buddies, veteran memorials, VA Medical Centers and veteran events. Victor helped the planning committee for the Clear Lake All Veterans’ Memorial and talked about it often. He hoped to see it before he died.
In February, 1998 Vic and Darlene arrived to visit their daughter, JoElla, and her family in Kalama, WA. Her family informed them they decided to move to Wisconsin so they could live closer to them. They all talked about how nice it would be to spend time together in the summer. JoElla hugged her dad and told him she would see him when he got home. Having said their good-byes, JoElla’s family headed out for Wisconsin in March, 1998; leaving her parents in the Portland area until the mountain passes were safe for their trip home in their RV.
Over the years, Victor suffered severe nerve damage which prevented him from feeling physical pain. He did not feel the final heart attacks that were weakening his heart beyond recovery. When he finally started to feel the heart attacks, Darlene rushed him to the Portland VA Medical Center (VAMC), but the doctors could only give him medication to numb the pain. His heart had suffered damage beyond repair. While in the hospital, Victor told the doctors he needed to get better so he could go home, but he never made it back home to Wisconsin that spring. On Easter Sunday, April 12, 1998, Victor went to his heavenly home. He was 73 years old.
Victor had outlived many doctors’ predictions. It was said that the reason he kept living was due to his stubbornness. Victor would not give up! He set goals and never let his disabilities stop him. However, truth be told, the real reason he kept going was directly related to the care, support and commitment of his wife, Darlene. She is a living example of what it means to marry “For better, for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” She was there at his side till the end, “Til death do us part.”
Dellie Kruger (June 6, 1931 – April 28, 2007), Victor’s niece, played the organ for his memorial service held in Clear Lake, WI. At the end of the service Dellie spontaneously played the song Anchors Away. Dellie said she felt an impulse to do so and afterwards wondered if it was alright. Somehow it just seemed appropriate for Victor; after all, he was a sailor to the end.
The war had a profound effect on Victor, yet he never spoke of it for years; not to his wife, nor his children. He buried the memories within himself and portrayed a proud, dedicated, nearly invincible man that was short on sensitivity. Darlene said that when he got involved with ship reunions in 1982, it was like a dam broke and he started talking about the events he witnessed during WWII. The first glimpse his daughter saw of his burden for the men lost in WWII was that February, in 1998, when she told him how easy it was to research information on the internet. Victor asked, “Can you find information about the Seawolf on that thing?” When JoElla found the information and read the details to him, tears were in his eyes as he told her the story in his own words.
Victor did not live to see the Clear Lake All Veterans Memorial completed as he had hoped, nor did he attend it’s dedication ceremony held on May 31, 1999. However, his grave site is appropriately located near the Clear Lake All Veterans’ Memorial, at the Clear Lake Cemetery.
Victor’s family donated his commemorative service plaque and burial flag to VFW Post 6769 for display.
Victor R. Pittman’s history of physical calamities included the following. Please understand that diabetics heal VERY slowly. May he be an inspiration, for others dealing with life threatening disabilities, to not give up.
- Cataracts (removed in the early 70’s) and multiple laser eye treatments at VAMC in Milwaukee, WI.
- Broken ribs.
- Legally blind (diabetic retinopathy).
- Broken back (they said he wouldn’t walk–he did).
- Right eye removed and replaced with a glass eye at VAMC in Minnesota.
- Left leg, below the knee amputated due to diabetes related circulation problems in 1987, had surgery at VAMC in Minnesota.
- Prosthesis fitting and re-learned to walk at VAMC in Arizona. (His “leg” was proudly donned with veteran related stickers.)
- Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1989.
- Kidney failure in October 1990 treated at VAMC Minnesota. Victor surrendered to death, convinced he was going to die after doctors told him he would not recover from his kidney failure. That night Victor asked Darlene what to expect and she told him that God would send an angle to come get him and that he would experience a great peace and see a bright light. Around midnight a nurse came in his room and flipped on the light over his bed. Legally blind, he opened his eyes to “a bright light” with a blurred image in front of it and what appeared to be a halo above it. “Who’s there?” he said. “Barb” the nurse replied. “Who?” Vic asked. “Barb, your night nurse.” she said. Vic let out a long sigh and said, “I’m not dead.” Vic was on a turning point to recovery.
- Developed complications in the fall of 1991 related to the incorrect diagnosis and treatment of Parkinson’s Disease. This treatment conflicted with his post kidney treatment. Doctors determined he suffered from Hereditary Tremors, not Parkinson’s Disease.
- Right thigh bi-pass vein surgery at Portland VAMC restored circulation in his right leg and foot which allowed a sore toe to heal in the fall of 1994. This surgery saved his right leg from amputation. He went through extensive physical therapy at the VA Clinic in Vancouver, WA.
- In spring 1996 he developed a gangrene gallbladder which was removed at Portland VAMC.
- He suffered multiple strokes over the years.
- Like many diabetics, he had Peripheral Neuropathy (severe nerve damage).
Navy Department, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Division of Naval History, Ship’s History Section, History of the USS Richard M. Rowell (DD 403)
Interview excerpts from Saturday, December 3, 1983 interview with the Chippewa Herald Telegram for a WWII story in conjunction with the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941).
http://www.airfields-freeman.com Glenview Naval Reserve Aviation Base, closed in September, 1995.
Various notes, family photos, pictures, news clippings, and papers belonging to the family of Victor R. Pittman.
Copyright 1999 – 2018 JoElla Younkin