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Sailor recalls World War II service on the high seas

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Ollie Lee, left, enjoys hearingstories aboutthe war experiences of her big brother, Dave Fairchild. Both are from New Castle. They are the last remaining siblings from among the 11 who grew upin their family’s household.
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At 92, Dave Fairchild of New Castle shows a photo of himself as a young man who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II from age 17 - 191/2.

By DONNA CRONK - dcronk@thecouriertimes.com

As did countless World War II veterans, Dave Fairchild of New Castle served his country, joining the U.S. Navy on March 16, 1944.

Born on a farm in Cooper, Kentucky, Dave had moved with his family to New Castle three years earlier. He didn’t wait to graduate to sign up, but instead, left high school at age 17.

“I quit and joined the Navy,” he says.

Fairchild, now 92, recalls his service so vividly that this reporter can’t take notes as fast as Fairchild can talk. While his clear mind and still-able body shares memories now, it wasn’t always the case.

The former seaman says that in his younger years, almost every man around had served in the war and had stories. But in recent years, he talks much more about his own.

For his service, he chose the Navy along with a couple buddies from New Castle. “I wanted to go see stuff,” he says. When he was asked what kind of work he hoped to do, he said he wanted to be at sea. 

Secret mission

On Seaman First Class Fairchild’s first mission on his ship, the USS Abnaki, they pulled off a secret not revealed until the war ended. This happened on the way to Oran, Algeria around Azores when the ship was diverted to pick up the German submarine, U-505, and tow it to Bermuda.

Details of this mission, Fairchild says, were not told until after the war because the Americans had broken the German code to capture the sub, and had removed 16 torpedoes from it. Today, that sub is inside the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

His second trip on the Abnaki took the sailor and his 79 enlisted crew mates and five officers to Oran, Algeria to escort to the French-leased destroyer, Senegalais, back to Charleston, South Carolina.

On the third trip across the Atlantic, the crew left New York Harbor for Plymouth, England, where they encountered a terrible storm at sea with 90 mph winds and 60-feet swells. The storm is known as “the ordeal of New York Convoy 119”  where 19 servicemen in the convoy lost their lives in that storm. 

From there, the ship continued to Reykjavik, Iceland, where the ship escorted the USS Yukon back to Norfolk, Virginia. Fairchild spent his 18th birthday at Argential, Newfoundland.

His fourth journey across the Atlantic was back to Oran to escort a convoy, serving to escort the destroyer, USS Fogg, to Boston.

‘Good news’

It was on a trip from Norfolk,Virginia to Jacksonville, Florida and on to the Panama Canal on May 8, 1945 when Fairchild and his crew got word that Germany had surrendered. When asked how he felt to hear that, Fairchild says, “Great. That’s good news, you know.”

But still, the war went on, and his service in the Pacific continued. This time it was from Panama to San Diego, then to Pearl Harbor, and the Marshall Islands. On Aug. 14 Japan agreed to surrender and did just that on Sept. 2. Fairchild was on ship at Tokyo Bay at the time. “That was great news again,” he recalls. 

After the war, he spent eight months on the ship in Japan, and experienced a typhoon while out searching for survivors from a destroyer. They didn’t find any.

When asked if his service was scary, Fairchild answers in a calm manner, “You get nervous at times.” 

Back home again

By the time his service ended and he was headed home to New Castle on May 24, 1946, Fairchild had indeed seen the world, as the old Navy slogan goes.

He said it was great to be home. “I thought I’d take off for California but I worked 35 years at Chrysler,” he says of his years as a machine operator and union steward. “It was a good living.”

And a good marriage. He married his sweetheart June and they had almost 67 years of marriage together before she passed six years ago.

“You relive a lot of stuff when you get old,” he says. He still drives, mows his own lawn and much to his sister’s chagrin, rides a motorcycle.

Of the 11 children who grew up in Fairchild’s childhood household, only Dave and his sister, Ollie Lee, both of New Castle, are left. Lee says of her big brother’s service, “I’m proud of him. I didn’t know all of this until just recently.”

Through the years, Fairchild attended various reunions with his Navy buddies, and took an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. in 2010.

His ship was eventually sold to Mexico and he went to see it and even got to get on and explore it in detail in 1997. It felt familiar to him and he says his late wife  got a kick out of the experience. Of the 85 crew on his ship, he only knows of one other seaman who is left besides himself.

When asked what it means to him today to be a World War II veteran, Fairchild says, “I got to see an awful lot of the world I wouldn’t have gotten to see.” He confirms that he is proud to have served.

It’s hard for him to believe it’s been 75 years since his time in the service. “You look back and you think about things,” he says. “This happened and that happened. I enjoyed seeing all these places.”

Fairchild summarizes his time as a sailor. “I sure saw a lot and I was back home at 19 and a half years old.”