SIERRA VISTA — World War II veteran Gilbert Perry is full of stories about his time with the United States Coast Guard, from his enlistment in 1942 at age 17 until he was medically discharged in 1944.
After leaving the Coast Guard, Perry’s WWII experiences resumed when he joined the Merchant Marine.
With vivid recollection, Perry, who is 95, talks about his war experiences in the Atlantic while serving on a Coast Guard convoy escort, along with stories he shares about his two brothers and their military service. His older brother, Ralph, served in the Navy in WWII, and a younger brother, Armand, was with the 1st Marine Division in the Korean War. Both brothers, Gilbert said, “saw a lot of action.”
Gilbert Perry joins U.S. Coast GuardIf the Marine Corps office had been open that August day in 1942 when Gilbert Perry joined the Coast Guard, his military service could have taken a very different course.
“I wanted to join the Marines, but the office was closed when I went there to sign up,” he said. “That’s how I ended up in the Coast Guard. Chances are, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today if I had enlisted in the Marine Corps,” added Perry, while pausing to stroke one of his three cats before launching into a plethora of war stories.
“I was doing convoy duty in 1943 not long after joining the Coast Guard. We escorted one of the largest convoys that had taken place during WWII at that time. We had 148 ships and were headed for the Strait of Gibraltar where some went into the channel, some went into Gibraltar Harbor, and some into the Mediterranean.”
The Germans were very active in the Gibraltar area at the time, said Perry, who described daily barrages of U-boat attacks.
“We were dropping depth charges the whole time I was there, from May to December. The Germans were all over the place, but we sank a lot of their ships.”
After Perry was discharged from the Coast Guard in January 1944, he joined the Merchant Marine in June of that year.
“I was on a tanker that went to Venezuela for a load of gasoline, and we made that trip with no escort,” he recalled with a chuckle. “When I think about that today, I think wow! There were German submarines out there — not a lot of them, but the Germans still had some submarines operating. They especially loved tankers because they carried fuel, and if they knocked out a tanker, it blew up and you didn’t survive.”
Perry recalls making two unescorted trips to Valenzuela during his time in the Merchant Marine. They transported one load of gasoline to Rhode Island and the other to Maine.
In November 1944 he was part of a large convoy to Italy.
“I served both on the outside of the convoy and the inside. It was much easier on the outside because I liked all the action,” he said with a wry smile.
“When we arrived, the Italians were singing and dancing on the streets because we were carrying vital stuff they needed. They were very happy to see us.”
After WWIIRaised in Bedford, Massachusetts, Perry had two brothers and two sisters.
“My father, Manuel, came to this country in 1906 from the Azores in Portugal when he was 8 years old,” Perry said. “He was very patriotic. All three of his sons served in the military and all three of us saw a lot of action. My father was very proud of our military service.”
Perry’s older brother, Ralph, was in the Navy and landed at Iwo Jima under heavy fire.
His younger brother, Armand, was a member of the 1st Marine Division that was trapped by the Chinese army in the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.
Both brothers, Perry said, saw serious action. Like Gilbert, Ralph and Armand survived and returned home. Ralph is deceased, while Armand, who is 90, lives in California.
After World War II, Perry returned to his family’s home in Massachusetts for a few years while he attended school on the GI Bill.
But a radio newscast on June 25, 1950, caused him to return to the Merchant Marine, this time enroute to Korea.
“I was living at home on my parents’ farm in Massachusetts at that time, when I heard a special news bulletin that the North Koreans had crossed the 38th Parallel and were heading south. I was driving my ‘49 Hudson home from school when I heard about the invasion. I parked the Hudson on one side of the barn and told my mother I was leaving for San Francisco.”
With his Merchant Marine papers in hand, Perry said that Union Hall in San Francisco was “ablaze with activity” when he arrived.
“We were at the Oakland Army base loading gasoline, K-rations, ammunition and medical supplies, everything they needed for the frontline,” he said.
Those supplies, Perry added, were a priority.
“We had to get to the frontline as fast as possible. Since I already had my Merchant Marine papers, I boarded a ship right to Korea.”
While in Korea, he was able to find his younger brother, something his mother had requested that he try to do.
“I was able to find Armand and spent two nights with him at his camp in the 1st Marine Division,” he said. “That made my mother very happy.”
Back in the U.S.After the military, Perry worked for Aluminum Company of America, or ALCOA.
“ALCOA provided a lot of transport to islands in the Carribeans. I did a stint with them, and we went from one island to another and dropped things off. It was a great experience because I got to see that part of the world when it was still nice,” he said with a laugh. “I traveled the Carribean when there were no crew ships in the harbors, just beautiful islands.”
In 1955, while living in Massachusetts, Perry married his wife, Yvette. After 48 years of marriage, Yvette died in 2013.
The couple headed to Tombstone in 1965 when a doctor advised Perry to move to a dry climate because of asthma. He started a glass blowing business in November 1969 in a building located along Tombstone’s historic Allen Street. The business is now closed, but Perry still owns the building.
He and Yvette purchased their Sierra Vista home in 1970, where he lives today, 50 years later.
SIERRA VISTA— As COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on mostly everything, some of the local and national groups that provide resources to military veterans have had to change the way they deliver assistance.
For the most part, that face-to-face contact between veterans and the organizations that back them has eroded because of the pandemic.
Glenn Hohman, Department of Arizona Commander for Disabled American Veterans and a trustee and judge advocate at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Sierra Vista, said, “We’re seeing many organizations go virtual.”
But Hohman said the local DAV office is trying to do things a little differently by trying “not to go completely virtual.”
Hohman, a retired Army First Sergeant who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, also said the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in Sierra Vista is keeping its doors open — albeit in a more restricted manner — to provide the “comradery” that veterans need.
Right now, because virus numbers have risen in Cochise County, the DAV office at Cochise College’s downtown campus is closed, Hohman said. But employees are working and helping veterans both by phone and virtually with referrals and other information.
“We did open our offices (for a short time), but the (COVID-19) numbers are going up and down,” Hohman said.
The onset of the virus also has changed the DAV’s walk-in policy for veterans. Before the pandemic struck, veterans could just walk in without an appointment, Hohman said. But that sometimes created a line of people waiting to be helped.
“Even when we’re open, we’re now asking people to make an appointment so we can avoid those lines,” Hohman said.
An appointment can be made via phone or email, Hohman said. The number is (520) 458-0307; the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the VFW, 549 Veterans Drive, no appointment is necessary. The facility, a community center of sorts, is allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity and so far no one has been turned away.
“Their main thing is comradery,” Hohman said.
At the moment, 35 people are allowed in the canteen area and about 100 in the facility’s main hall. If more than 35 show up at the canteen, the main hall is used for overflow, Hohman said. The VFW also is providing take-out dinners, but anyone seeking that human contact can eat there too.
“If someone wants to eat in the canteen (for companionship) they can, as long as they practice social distancing,” Hohman said.
Booking the main hall for private events is allowed, but the gatherings are limited to less than 50 people. Hohman said the center is cleaned daily in accordance with health guidelines. The number for the VFW is (520) 458-2803.
On the national front, the pandemic has sparked a jump in “remote mental health care use among veterans,” an article in MilitaryTimes shows.
According to the MilitaryTimes story, because medical appointments were cancelled at VA healthcare facilities and veterans were forced into “self-isolation” courtesy of COVID-19, remote mental health care “check-ins and consultations” went from 40,000 in February to 154,000 in March, the article states.
Veterans Affairs officials quoted in the article said mental health appointments were conducted through online video chats with physicians and those increased from about 20,000 in February to 34,000 in March. The article said 2,700 online video group therapy appointments were conducted in March, a nearly 200 percent increase from the previous month.
The article also says VA officials have reported significant increases in veterans’ use of the Veterans Crisis Line, but not necessarily because of suicidal thoughts. Instead, numerous veterans and family members have called for information on existing resources or for help obtaining alternative mental health care programs.
The Centers for Disease Control also addresses the care of veterans during COVID-19.
On its website, the CDC says: “Veterans may experience worry or anxiety about their risk for contracting COVID-19 or about their ability to get recommended care. Fear or concern about the impact of COVID-19 on physical health and daily life may contribute to the onset of or worsen existing mental health problems. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic may increase stress for many service members and veterans making an already-challenging transition from military to civilian life because access to resources may be limited.”
Hohman agreed: “Right now, people are dying for human connection.”