CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Kenneth G. Connors
Cold War Oral History Interview
US Navy, USS Arcturus AF-52
Date: April 8, 2011
Interviewer: Carol Fowler and Rutgers intern Matthew McNeal
Summarizer: Nicole Benis
Editor: Professor Melissa Ziobro, Monmouth University
Kenneth Connors was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1947, to a family with a long history of military service. His father, who died when Connors was very young, had served in the navy. One uncle had served in the army during both World War II and Vietnam. Another had been awarded a Purple Heart during World War II. Connors wanted to carry on the family tradition of entering the armed forces so much so that he went to visit a navy recruiter, Chief Romano, when he was only sixteen years old. Romano told him to return when he was seventeen with enlistment permission paperwork signed by his mother. He did so; and, as a seventeen-year-old high school student, joined the naval reserves. While in the reserves, Connors trained one evening a week and for a two-week period every summer. He remembered his Reserve experience fondly, stating that it kept him out of trouble, helped him mature much faster than his peers, and allowed him to travel to places he’d never have seen otherwise.
Upon graduation from high school, Connors went on active duty in the navy for two years. He was ordered to Norfolk, Virginia, where he joined the crew of the USS Arcturus AF-52, a navy “attack class cargo ship,” in September, 1966. Connors recalled that 95% of the crewmen aboard his ship were reservists on active duty like himself. Over the next two years, he learned to be a heavy equipment operator, and he recalled that much of his training in this area mirrored what Office of Emergency Management (OEM) personnel do today. The primary mission of the Arcturus was “replenishment at sea,” of other vessels in the Sixth Fleet, and Connors remarked that the ship carried enough equipment and provisions onboard to supply 30,000 men for a month. Generally speaking, sea tours on the USS Arcturus lasted about four months. Norfolk, Virginia was the ship’s home port, and sailors would spend two to three weeks there ashore between deployments.
Connors remembered that his ship traveled to both the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas, noting that these areas were very active due to the ongoing Cold War. He explained how eerie it was to have Soviet vessels shadowing his ship in the Mediterranean Sea. Daytime missions were occasionally changed to nighttime operations, so that the Russians could not film the Americans to figure out how we transferred supplies from one ship to another while still at sea — the Russians had to pull into ports to restock.
Connors explained his ship’s layout, including living quarters and the “mess deck,” which he described as an “upscale McDonalds.” He said that while living quarters were somewhat cramped on the World War II era vessel, they were better than on other ships, since there were only 200 enlisted personnel and fourteen officers on board, a relatively small crew. During Connors’ time on the Arcturus, the ship’s old canvas bunks were upgraded to bunks with mattresses that also had a locker, containing a light and a fan, under the bed. The older canvas bunks had been stacked four high, while the upgraded living quarters had bunks that were only two high. He also noted that most sailors did not get seasick unless they had too much to eat or drink, and that there were “no sick days in the military; you went to the sick bay for treatment, or to be quarantined for a bit, and then you were expected to go to work.”
As a heavy equipment operator, Connors was charged with moving cargo around. He was very emphatic in his recollection that accidents aboard ship were to be avoided at all costs, since they were in the middle of the ocean, and essentially had to be self-sustaining. Everyone on board needed to have knowledge of firefighting and know the basics of first aid procedures, among other vital skills, since there was no way for help to arrive soon enough to make a difference in times of emergency.
Connors commented that the main difference between the possibility of war now and of war then was that war then included the overarching sense of doom from a possible nuclear attack. He recalled that fear of nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s was comparable to current concerns regarding terrorist attacks. There were other differences between the eras as well. At several points during his interview, Connors mentioned just how tumultuous a time the Vietnam years were, stating that he was spit on while in uniform.
Connors also discussed his belief that people used college attendance to “hide out” and to get draft deferments during the Vietnam War. He noted that people whose parents could afford to send them to college had a completely different life experience in those days than those whose parents could not pay for college. Connors said that even though he did not serve in Vietnam, he fulfilled his duty and his military obligation to his country, and did whatever he was told to do, although he does sometimes wonder what it would have been like to actually serve in Vietnam.
Connors said that even though he is a Democrat, he believed that President Nixon was one of the best American presidents, because of his treatment of soldiers returning home from the war, as well as his “genuine” nature. Interestingly, President Nixon, after leaving the White House, owned a home in the neighborhood where Connors’ family resided in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, and the former president would personally hand out candy to trick-or-treaters on Halloween.
After his discharge from active duty in September, 1968, Connors did not use his GI benefits to attend school, because he was offered a job with the Bergen County, New Jersey town of Fairview as a special police officer. After a few years, he began to work for the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), since the job there paid $6,800 a year, whereas his previous position only paid $4,300 a year. He joked that people could buy a new car for $6,800 at the time, which was a big deal to him.
Connors retired from the New Jersey DMV after thirty-two years of service, then sat around for a few months “doing nothing” before deciding to get more involved with the activities of his American Legion post, which he had joined in 1982. He has served as an Assistant County Service Officer and as a County Service Officer. Connors said that he feels really good that he is able to help veterans, their widows, and their families receive benefits they are entitled to. He stated that most people, especially widows, are unaware of the assistance they can receive, and so he always tries to help them receive those benefits. Connors pointed out that veterans from the Vietnam War are now applying for veterans’ benefits in increasing numbers, and that he has fewer and fewer interactions with World War II veterans due to their passing with time.
Connors said that while he loves helping all veterans through the American Legion, there are a few cases he has been involved in that are more notable than most. One concerned a man who served as a combat engineer in the Vietnam War, responsible for detecting booby traps and land mines in the jungle, and who was exposed to high levels of Agent Orange. He was diagnosed with PTSD and prostate cancer many years after his service in Vietnam, and Connors assisted the man in filing an Agent Orange claim, since his prostate cancer likely resulted from his exposure to that poisonous chemical. The cancer spread throughout the veteran’s whole body six months later, and, although he passed away, Connors was able to secure benefits for his widow.
Another case Connors recalled involved a World War II pilot whose plane was shot down several times. On leaving the service at the end of the war, the man suffered from severe PTSD, which was never treated properly. Connors was able to secure benefits for the man’s widow because his death directly correlated with his service connected PTSD. Connors noted that his own service as well as his American Legion service often comes up in casual conversation, and that if possible, he always tries to lend a helping hand and assist veterans in any way he can, because it makes him feel good.
Connors concluded his interview by saying that his ship was eventually decommissioned from service and ended up being used for target practice. The Arcturus was sunk in 1997.