Even at the age of 92, Tom Lewis is not an idle man. When you walk into his home across from the South Boat Harbor, you’ll notice a box on the couch filled with tiny wood shavings. Lewis is a whittler and makes what he calls “tramp art”. He’s worked with wood most of his life. He never went to high school.
“I started but they wouldn’t give me any grades so I quit and then went to work,” Lewis said.
He was 13 years old at the time. So, he went to work with his father who was a logger.
Some years later, he hadn’t really planned on enlisting in the military…it kind of just happened one day in September of 1942.
“Monday morning I was a little hung over and somebody said maybe we ought a go joining the Navy and I told them if they’re serious, why get back in the truck and everybody got in and we went over to Corvallis and it was 15 of us that went into the Navy there at one time,” Lewis said.
Lewis joined the Navy Reserves.
“During the war, why you couldn’t tell a reservist from a regular Navy anyway,” Lewis said. “We all done the same work.”
He worked as a machinist on torpedo boats. The 80-foot long boats had three 1500 horse power engines.
“We’d go on patrol at night, then we’d have to work on the engines during the day, get ready to go for the next night,” Lewis said.
Lewis had already had experience with diesel engines so, upon enlisting, the Navy sent him to Iowa State where he trained for four months. He was supposed to be learning everything that would be on board the boats he would be working on. But that wasn’t the case.
“I was a second class motor machinist mate so I knew all about engines. . . diesel. . . .and then I got ready to get under way with a boat and engineers, go to the engine room of course, it had GAS engines,” Lewis said.
But during WWII, the crewman made due and helped each other out. Lewis got a gunner’s mate to show him how to start up the engines and he showed the gunner—who had only learned about big guns-how to tear down the ones on the torpedo boat.
“Everybody had to know everybody else’s job because we carried a small crew and if somebody got disabled why we had to be able to take his job,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ crew consisted of eight men most of the time. They patrolled around the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.
“The Navy, Army, and Marines, why, we just we had to take over some of these islands that the Japanese were on,” Lewis said. “If we had to intercept some enemy ship or something why, then we’d fire a couple of torpedoes and run.”
Lewis spent three full years in the Navy and says that was enough for him.
Lewis: “I wouldn’t want to do it again but I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience.”
Denning: “So, you say you wouldn’t want to do that experience again, um, can you tell me why?”
Lewis: “Well, it’s just, it probably was a little dangerous, I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to go back there.”
Denning: “Do you feel lucky that you made it through?”
Lewis: “Yeah, yeah….uh, we didn’t lose many people.. .some. . .Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go back.”
When the war ended, Lewis worked as a military instructor in Rhode Island. Then he was a fire fighter for a short time until he got back into logging which he continued until he retired.
Lewis was in Washington D.C. this week visiting the World War II memorial. He’s also traveling with Veterans Gerald Lind and Art Hammer.