(WTRF) – Joe Gompers fondly remembers growing up in Wheeling.
He can vividly describe what he calls “his playground” in his old neighborhood, seeing baseball games and watching Babe Ruth when he came to Wheeling.
It’s where he lived all through grade school and high school at (Wheeling) Central.
When he graduated high school, he left the area to attend Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland.
When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, Gompers was only months into his first year of college.
Like many others on campus, he signed up for the Navy.
“Three years, eight months, 20 days and 10 hours in the service.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
When his enlistment started, Gompers traveled all across the world. He can tell you every place his ship stopped, and a story from each location, but that journey all started at Mount St. Mary’s.
“All guys, of course, wanted to join. All guys wanted to get into the service at that time because we were attacked. I joined the Navy.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
At the time, Gompers explained that the government took over the college. The Navy installed V-12 and V-5 college training units. That meant the college’s president continued running the academics, but the Navy ran everything else.
“It was actually a boot camp for prospective officers. We were given Navy uniforms. Everything we did was Navy except that we could take academic courses through the college. We were on an accelerated program.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
Gompers finished in two years and got sent back to Mount St. Mary’s.
He graduated and went to Midshipmen School in Plattsburg, New York and Communication School in Miami, Florida.
Finally, Gompers was ordered to Charleston, South Carolina for ship assignments.
He remembers that he wanted a large ship, but laughs as he recalls he was instead assigned to one of the smallest on the USS Bannock.
“We were salvage and firefighting ship and mostly towing. We would tow ammunition barges, food barges.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
By the time Gompers got on the ship, it had been through D-Day and now had a new crew because of a mutiny. There was now a new captain and 43 new men aboard.
Gompers was a Communications Officer as the ship set sail. While by many accounts he seemed to enjoy his time at sea, Gompers recalls hating the first time the ship maneuvered through the open seas.
“We had dinner in the ward room and they had corned beef and cabbage. I loved corned beef and cabbage and I made a pig of myself. Then we took off and I had never been on board a ship before I got so sick. If I ever wanted to die, it was then. I went right up to him (the skipper) and I said ‘you can take this Navy and shove it!”.Joe Gompers, Veteran
The USS Bannock’s main job was to tow dry docks after invasions.
“We would get a call and drop one off right after the invasion. Then, just as soon as the port was secure, we would bring in the drydock to try to salvage any shipping that was damaged there.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
Aboard the ship, Gompers sailed many places, including Trinidad, Aruba, the Panama Canal, Saipan, Guam and Iwo Jima.
“When we got to Saipan it was completely devastated. I never saw such devastation and wreckage in my life.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
Towards the end of the war, he was sent to Okinawa, as the U.S. prepared to invade Japan. The ship was docked at Buckner Bay, with others awaiting their next orders.
“I looked out over there and I’m telling you, I never saw such an armada of shipping as I saw them. All the small shipping filled actually filled that thing. Beyond that were the cruisers. Then you saw the carriers and they were lined up. Beyond the carriers were the subs. Then there were the destroyers who were sort of going outside to monitor any subs that might come in. It was out of this world. They had every battle wagon in the fleet lined up as far as you could see.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
After the invasion, Gompers did go to shore on Okinawa.
“It was so sad. I remember going ashore and it was one thing alive on a whole island, not even a leaf. It was just jagged bushes and stuff. The stench of human remains, the parts that were blown up and weren’t recovered, it was awful. I never experienced anything like that.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
While seeking Okinawa did cause him sadness, there’s a memory Gompers can look back on with a smile. While his ship was docked there, Gompers got to see his best friend who was in the Army. The journey to get there took him through the jungle and was dangerous.
“So, I went to the skipper and asked if I could go ashore. The skipper said yes. He said ‘by the way, you better take your sidearms’. I said ‘I don’t have one’. He said ‘well, you can take mine’.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
Gompers made it to his friend and back to the USS Bannock safely, but they did have a run-in with the enemy, making what his captain told him when he returned a little more frightening.
“We got back to the ship and the skipper said ‘dido you have any problems?’. I said ‘no, everything went fine’. He says ‘well, I’m sure glad because that sidearm I gave you, you forgot to take the clips’. I didn’t have the bullets.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
Once World War II was over, Gompers was part of the ship’s crew assigned to destroy U.S. equipment left behind overseas.
“They would bring it in by truckloads and put them on barges and we’d take the barge out to sea and sink it all. All kinds of electronic equipment. I went to shore one time and I saw tanks running over electronic equipment and it just smashed everything.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
After more stops across the Pacific, including back to Guam, Manus Island and New Guinea, they returned to the United States.
That journey to Pearl Harbor took 34-days.
The captain Gompers sailed under at the time was discharged from the Navy, so he was offered the job.
“I said I don’t want it. First, I didn’t want the responsibility. Second, I knew if it got to the states, they were going to mothball it and I would be another six or seven months in the service.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
Instead, Gompers finished out his time in the Navy as the Executive Officer on the ship.
When he finally returned to the states, Gompers was released.
“Every time someone says ‘oh, you’re a hero’ I cringe because I think all you have to do is get old to be a hero. I never wore boots on the ground. I never carried a rifle and never killed a man. I was never around a blast that may have come down on a ship.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
While he was still enlisted, Gompers decided he wanted to go to law school and asked his father to get him enrolled somewhere. After school, he returned home and worked for his father’s law practice. Gompers said his father was strict and pushed him to further his law career.
“I said Pap, I made $1,800 bucks. He put his finger in my face and said ‘I’m telling you something boy. If you can make that kind of money in the first year practicing law the least you can do is pay your mother $50 in rent!’.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
Gompers wanted to get his name out in the community, so he ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates and served for two years.
“I don’t care if I win, lose or draw. Everybody’s going to know there’s a Joe Gompers here.”Joe Gompers, Veteran
He was also Prosecuting Attorney in Ohio County for a time.
In his personal life, Gompers and his wife married in 1951 and has 12 children. They were together until she passed away.