World War II

Frank Greco

World War II Oral History Interview
US Navy, Navy Armed Guard
Date: August 11, 2003
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Taylor Cavanaugh
Editor: Professor Melissa Ziobro, Monmouth University


Frank Greco quit high school prior to the advent of World War II. He was working in a machine shop when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. One of his brothers enlisted in the Navy in 1942, and another brother was drafted into the Army in 1943. The youngest in his family, Greco was only seventeen years old when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1944, because he thought “it was the right thing to do.” He chose the Navy because he was interested in being on the water, as he had grown up on Staten Island.

Navy Armed Guard Insignia

Greco completed his thirteen-week basic training at the US Naval Training Station in Sampson, New York. He then moved on to the Naval Antiaircraft Training Center gunnery school at Shell Beach, Louisiana, after volunteering for service in the Navy “Armed Guard.” After returning from post-training leave, Greco was assigned to the USS Harold D. Whitehead, a “Liberty Ship” used to transport troops and supplies. He had volunteered for service with the Navy Armed Guard because he had wanted to travel around the world.

The United States Neutrality Act of 1936 prohibited arming merchant ships. But with war raging in Europe, German submarines and aircraft roaming the Atlantic, as well as the importance of sea lanes to logistical support, Section 6 of the Neutrality Act, the specific legislation barring the practice, was repealed on November 17, 1941. The Navy began to arm these vessels with four and five inch deck guns and machine guns, many of which were installed in Hoboken, New Jersey. Crews known as Armed Guards were assigned and trained to man the weapons.

Greco recalled that there were about twenty-eight other men in his Armed Guard detachment, which included gunners, two radio men, two signal men, a coxswain and a boatswain. He was assigned to the five inch thirty-eight caliber gun. (In Navy parlance, the term “caliber” refers to the length of the barrel defined by multiplication of the bore diameter, unlike the army definition, which is bore diameter.) The unit was commanded by a Lieutenant Sands, who Greco remembered as a good officer who took care of his men and allowed them to enjoy their service.

Armed Guard gun being mounted to a ship in Hoboken.

Greco remembered living conditions on the ship as being cramped and hot, with uncomfortable bunks and bad food, but he cherished those memories as being part of an overall valuable experience. His around the world and back tour on the Harold D. Whitehead was the only time Greco served at sea. The ship initially left Gulfport, Mississippi, for Texas, and then sailed from Texas with a cargo of food and motor vehicles in a massive convoy of over one hundred vessels escorted by Navy destroyers. The convoy sailed across the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean and into the Mediterranean Sea, where it split, with some ships traveling north and others, including Greco’s, voyaging on to the Suez Canal. After passing through the canal, the Whitehead sailed to Calcutta, India, where the crew was given shore leave.

After leaving Calcutta, the Harold D. Whitehead journeyed on to Australia and New Guinea, where it was used to transport soldiers locally, and then sailed back to the United States. Greco recalled that Lieutenant Sands encouraged him and his shipmates to study for promotional tests, even though they were not required for advancing to the next rank within the Armed Guard branch of the Navy, because he wanted them to understand more about what rank meant in the service.

Greco noted that he was fortunate enough to complete his tour of duty at sea without having to face combat, although the possibility was always present. He believed the weapons the Armed Guard were issued were adequate for the assigned task, which was primarily antiaircraft defense, although the deck gun could also be used against surfaced submarines and other boats. He told the interviewer that his typical day at sea consisted of going on watch, eating, and recreation and exercise time. The latter included working out on a punching bag and taking walks around the deck. Watch duty consisted of four hours on and eight hours off, during which his “uniform” often consisted of high-top shoes, Army socks, and underwear.

Greco kept in touch with his family on a necessarily sporadic basis, as letters would have to catch up with his ship when it reached various ports. He would get letters from home as well as from his brothers, one serving on the Galapagos Islands and the other with the 9th Air Force based in England.

Greco said he was glad when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, as he felt that they were the easiest way to end the war with the least cost in material and suffering. He had not been comfortable floating around as a sitting duck on a ship while there were kamikaze attacks going on. Greco remarked that he was given no training on what to do if he was captured.

In the years after the war, Greco returned to the Mediterranean as a tourist, and visited Europe and all fifty states. At the time of his interview he was a member of the Navy League, the American Legion, and the Oak Tree Pond group. Greco concluded by saying that he believed the oral history program was valuable, as by hearing veterans’ stories, people will learn that “it’s not a free lunch. If you want freedom, you have to pay for it.”

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