MEET OUR VETERANS: Tommy Elms (Canton, Tx)
Canton resident Tommy Elms was born in Waco, Texas in 1932. He had one brother and three sisters. His brother was in the Army Reserves for several years.
“My dad was a hotel manager for many years and later he went into the tire business in Irving, Texas,” said Tommy when I visited his home near Canton. “My main goal in life was hunting and fishing as a young boy. I drove a truck and I did some construction work. When my dad opened a garage, I worked for him some. We lived in Georgia during the 2ndWorld War and moved to Irving, Texas from there. I was also an instructor for the Dallas Community College District for about three years where I taught Diesel Technology.”
IN THE MILITARY
“I was 1A in the draft like so many at that age and did not want to go into the Army. I went down and took the Army physical and met the most obnoxious Sergeant I have ever encountered in my life, so I joined the Navy. The year was 1952 and I was 20 years old,” recalled Tommy.
“I had an uncle that was drafted in the military,” said his wife Shirley Elms. “My grandparents cried and cried when he went in. They were going to ship him home because he had flat feet. They didn’t and that is all I can remember about the military. That was the Army.
When Thomas joined the Navy, I wasn’t afraid of anything. I kind of looked forward to it to get out of Irving,” said Shirley.
According to Tommy he joined the military in Dallas and went to Boot Camp in San Diego, California. “I did not know what the Navy offered at the time I entered, but you go and take an aptitude test and I made about a minus-zero in clerical. The officer who evaluated me decided I needed to be a mechanic and he was right on the money. I had a good background already. I went to engineman school but first I came home and got married.”
MARRIED FOR 66 YEARS
“I never realized the sacrifices a wife has to endure being married to a person in the military. I didn’t want to get married right away,” recalled Shirley. “When he came home from boot camp we went to Rockwall and ended up eloping. Pouring down rain when we got married at the Justice of the Peace’s house. We were wet and had to take our shoes and socks off. We got married in her living room in bare feet. Our marriage was pre-destined. His mother didn’t approve at the time. She made me promise her that after he came back from boot camp that we wouldn’t get married. That is exactly what we did. After 66 years of marriage she finally got to where she liked me,” laughed Shirley.
“Yep, we have been together for 66 years,” bragged Tommy with a grin. “I think we dated for a year and a half before we got married,” said Shirley looking over at her husband. “Then maybe that was 67 years,” laughed Tommy.
“San Diego was a whole new experience for me, recalled his wife. I had only been to Oklahoma and Irving, Texas. We had poor times where we picked up coke bottles and bought bologna. I didn’t think we were poor at the time, it was fun,” said Shirley shaking her head. “It was tight back then and Thomas didn’t make much money in the military.”
Tommy said, “I spent about 14 weeks at the mechanic school in San Diego. I went to New London, Connecticut to the submarine base after graduation. I was then assigned to the Howard W. Gilmore, the AS-16, a submarine tender.
After a short stay in New London, Connecticut, the Howard W. Gilmore steamed to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to load torpedoes and then sailed to her new home port, Key West, where she arrived 25 January 1946. Serving Submarine Squadron 4, the ship was to stay in Florida for the greater part of the next 13 years, serving submarines on their training and readiness duties. The ship occasionally tended submarines at Norfolk, Virginia and deployed to the Caribbean twice during this period, notably for Operation Springboard, a fleet exercise in the Caribbean in 1958. (Source: Wikipedia.org)
“I recalled a time where I got a busted jaw in Boston Massachusetts. It happened violently,” laughed Tommy. “It was out in the Boston Common, I guess you could say it was a bar fight. No brig time but spent a little time in the hospital to get the jaw fixed. There was more than one, so I don’t remember if they were bigger than me.”
“Thomas got out of being a wild fella when he got in the Navy,” said Shirley looking over at her husband. “Honkey Tonk man,” said Tommy laughing. “I wasn’t going to say that, but he loved to fight,” answered his wife.
“All I can say about the broken jaw is, he never fought after that. He wasn’t in pain, he just had a hard time eating. I am thankful for the man who broke his jaw because he never fought again,” she said laughing.
SUBMARINE TENDER (AS)
“A submarine tender (AS) is a very large ship with all the supplies and equipment that a submarine could possible need for arming or repairs. The tender is normally in dock with the submarine tied up to their side, usually for repairs. The submarine tender has fuel, food, ammunition, repair facilities including a carpentry shop, pattern making shop, sheet metal shop, torpedo shop, instrument shop, and a machine shop. Just about everything you could think of you would need to repair a submarine. My main job in the Navy was to repair diesel engines. The AS-16 had Cleveland Diesel engines, I believe they were 248’s. They had 16 cylinders and 1600 horsepower engines, four in each engine room and there were two engine rooms. We did PM’s (Preventive Maintenance) on all the engines with huge oil capacities. There was no engine oil changing done. They run all the oil thru a centrifuge and reuse it.
Most of the Subs we worked on came from Florida area or from the Atlantic on the eastern side of the country. I had been transferred to Key West, Florida and spent most of my Naval career there,” recalled Tommy.
“I worked on the BATFISH, the SS-310 while I was in the Navy,” said Tommy about the famous sub.
USS Batfish (SS/AGSS-310), is a Balao-class submarine, known primarily for the remarkable feat of sinking three Imperial Japanese Navy submarines in a 76-hour period, in February 1945. USS Batfish is the first vessel of the United States Navy to be named for the batfish, a fish found off the coast of Peru, at depths ranging from 3 to 76 meters. (Source: Wikipedia)
“The number one thing I liked about Florida was the fishing. We did a lot of spearfishing and caught some big fish and a lot of them. We got to the point where we were saying, I hope this is not a real big one because our arms were getting tired. We caught a lot of barracuda back then, some shark and a lot of big grouper. We also caught red snapper off the coast,” bragged Tommy about his fishing exploits in Key West.
“That was a little irritating sometimes,” said Shirley. “He was off fishing with his buddies when we lived in Key West. He took me fishing one time. We had an old wooden boat. Our young infant daughter was in the boat with us. Here were these big ships and we were in the shipping lane in this small wooden boat. We had this tin can we were bailing the water and my only thought was get me back to land,” laughed Shirley.
“That man took me to Lake Texoma fishing one time. It was dark. I had a flashlight. He said, I hope we don’t go over the dam. I spent the whole night looking for that darn dam. He was in the back laughing. Now that irritated me. I never went camping or fishing again unless it was in a pond,” we all laughed at that story.
A NORMAL WORKDAY ON A TENDER
“A normal day for us on the AS-16 Tender was to get up, make your bunk, go to chow, go to quarters. We would then go down to the shop and get our work assignment. We would chow around noon and get back to work and secure around 1700 (5:00 p.m.) I liked working on engines, always have. I like solving problems figuring out what was wrong with the engines. To me I was working on a big bunch of pieces of iron and when you get done the engines come to life,” recalled Tommy.
“After four years in the Navy the best thing I took away from my experiences was a wife and two children. I was an EN5 (Engineman) when I got out. I spent most of my career in the Navy in Key West, Florida. The only combat I saw was that incident in Boston,” we both laughed. “That didn’t count,” I said.
“There was a certain amount of comradery with the crew in the Navy and working on the subs. I was fascinated with all that equipment and machinery and the tooling I did working on the engines. Of course, there was a downside when you didn’t have rank and you had to do mess cooking. Overall, I really enjoyed being in the Navy. In 1954 Hurricane Carroll hit Key West and I went thru that. Of course, everybody goes to sea when a Hurricane comes,” said Tommy.
Hurricane Carol was among the worst tropical cyclones on record to affect the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island in the United States. It developed from a tropical wave near the Bahamas on August 25, 1954, and slowly strengthened as it moved northwestward. On August 27, Carol intensified to reach winds of 105 mph, but weakened as its motion turned to a northwest drift. (Source: Wikipedia)
“I was on the Tender standing lookout watch and the waves were coming about sixty feet above me. That was scary, you had to hang on for dear life. I guess some of the values I learned in the Navy was that you show up on time, do your job and get along with people. Once a week the Navy served liver and onions and once a week I tried it and once a week I never learned to like it,” laughed Tommy at the thought.
AFTER THE MILITARY
“I was married and had two kids. Most all my family lived in Irving, Texas when I got out of the Navy. I started hunting for a job and looking for something to do,” Tommy recalled.
“Thomas always was a hard worker,” Shirley said. “He worked overtime and we lived on overtime. He had the tools and he worked on people’s diesel machines. I got a hundred-dollar scholarship and went to Rutherford Business College for two and half months. I took shorthand and typing and I could run a 10 key machine blindfolded. I was working for an accountant in Grapevine, Texas for eight years,” said Shirley.
Tommy eventually went to work for DARR Equipment, a local Caterpillar dealer. “I worked there briefly and then went to work for Cummins Sales and Service. At the time it was located on Harry Hines Boulevard in Dallas. I also worked for Dallas Community College as an instructor, and from there back to a trucking company and then retirement.”
“I still love to hunt; fish and I also like to refurbish old tractors. The older tractors like Farmall, Ford, John Deere, International, Allis-Chalmers, the older the better. I have restored several of them but don’t have one at this time. I refurbish them, and then sell them so I can buy another one,” he said laughing.
“My favorite tractor is the old two-cylinder John Deere’s. It is very difficult to say but the Case International and the Kubota’s are the best tractors today. The only problem with them is they are so highly technical that a farmer can’t work on them anymore. They are all computerized and almost impossible to work on without the diagnostic equipment.
The fifty and sixty-year-old tractors and the gears are amazingly still in good condition today. There are companies that specialize in selling new parts for old tractors. The older equipment was surely built better. The diesels in the tractors are generally heavier engines and longer lasting than the gas models and require less maintenance,” Tommy said.
“I am way behind on my hunting and fishing. I do have a small pond on the property and I like to catch bream and catfish. I am still around, I guess, because of the Grace of God. The great commandment says, Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself. You do that and you will make it ok”.
“The only thing in my life that I never did but would like to have done is be a Navy diver, but beyond that my life is full. I did a lot of skin diving and sportfishing and I just thought I would have liked to have been a diver.
Interesting enough, aboard the Howard W. Gilmore, every night we would have a movie and when the movie was over the duty section was supposed to pick up all the chairs and stow them in a locker. If they couldn’t quite get them all in there they would throw them over the side. One of the jobs of the Navy divers were to retrieve those chairs. Not that I would have wanted to do that but that would have been the downside of being a Navy diver,” we both laughed at that one.
“The secret to our 66 years of marriage is we went thru some financial hard times but we managed,” said Shirley. “Our children are one thing that has brought us together. We are blessed with our five children. Good Christian people. I had five babies in eleven years and it kept us busy raising our kids,” said Shirley with a big smile on her face.
“I would recommend that if a young man was lost as to what to do, then he should go into the service. Don’t know if one is particularly better than the other one but it is a good fundamental training ground for a young person. It will give someone self-discipline, a strong work ethic, loyalty and direction in their lives,” coming from a man with a lot of knowledge and wisdom.
Thank you, Tommy Elms, for your military service in the U.S. Navy. Thank you, Shirley, for the sacrifices you endured and congratulations on a wonderful 66 years of marriage.
GOD BLESS OUR VETERANS AND GOD BLESS AMERICA
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