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Tucker, Horton joined the U.S. Navy together

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In 1941, shortly before the war started

By Jenny Arnold

Not getting a 3-cent raise sent childhood friends Ward Tucker and G.W. Horton into the U.S. Navy during World War II.

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The two worked at the Springs Mill plant in Kershaw in 1941. Horton said he’d quit if he didn’t get that raise. Tucker told Horton he’d follow if Horton quit first.

The two wanted a different life than the mill could offer, with its 12-hour days for six or seven days a week, for just $6 a week in wages.

After they quit their mill jobs, they hitchhiked to Columbia with $3.86 to enlist in the Marines.

But the Marines wouldn’t take either of them. Tucker was missing a tooth and Horton barely weighed 120 pounds.

The next day, they signed up with the U.S. Navy, and by nightfall, they were on a bus headed to Norfolk, Va., to boot camp.

“We didn’t know nothing about war,” Horton said.

Horton assigned to USS Yorktown

After their arrival in Norfolk, the pair was separated, because they were alphabetized by platoon. Tucker joined the hospital corps and served as a medic and a pharmacist’s mate. He was stationed several places and was in the Philippines by the time World War II ended.

“We and Gen. MacArthur ran that place,” Tucker joked.

Horton qualified as an aviation radioman, but the day before he was scheduled to start radio school, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Horton was assigned to the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier in Norfolk.

As the sailors were being assigned tasks on the ship, Horton decided to be a “fireman.” He joked and said he thought he’d only have to work when there was a fire. Instead, he was sent deep into the belly of the ship to work in the fire room.

“We weren’t the firemen we thought we were,” Horton said.

The Yorktown was needed in the Pacific as soon as possible. Instead of sailing around South America, the decision was made to go through the Panama Canal, making the Yorktown the largest ship to go through. Teams of mules pulled it through, and the tops of palm trees had to be cut to make way for the flight deck, Horton remembers.

The Yorktown arrived in Pearl Harbor on Jan. 7, 1942, Horton said.

“It was pretty chaotic,” he said. “The people were nervous. The ships were upside down and it was a mess.”

The Yorktown took on planes and headed for the Coral Sea. Japanese torpedoes sank the USS Lexington, and the Yorktown picked up survivors.

The Yorktown was hit by a 500-pound bomb, which killed 56 sailors. The ship sprang a leak and undersea welders from Honolulu repaired it and covered the gaping hole in the flight deck with a steel plate. Damage to the next deck down wasn’t repaired, Horton said.

Horton and Tucker were both at the battle in Leyte Gulf, but didn’t know it.

The battle of Midway

After the repairs, the Yorktown went to Midway.

“Unfortunately, the Japanese found us first,” Horton said. “They hit us with several bombs.”

One of the bombs hit a smoke stack, sending soot raining down on the sailors in the No. 6 fireroom where Horton was.

“You don’t realize what dark is until that happens to you,” Horton said. “You can’t get your bearings. We were rescued within half an hour. It seemed like four days.”

Horton and his fellow sailors were taken to a higher deck, where they could get some air. Then the Japanese torpedo planes came, with three torpedoes hitting the aircraft carrier on the portside. The ship began to sink, and the men were told to abandon ship.

Horton said 800 men died that day, while 1,800 were saved. He said the sailors were told to take off their pants when abandoning ship, letting them fill with air before they hit the water. The pants would then act as a life preserver.

With a smile, Horton said it doesn’t quite work that way when you hit the water from 90 feet up.

“My pants were lying on top of the ocean,” Horton said. “They were wet and full of oil, and you’re on your own. The only thing that saves you is that you’re 17 and invincible. We were in the water four hours. It was pretty difficult.”

Friends through the years

After the war, Tucker, now 85, came home and worked in Kershaw for a while, then began a career in insurance. He retired as president of Kanawha Insurance, now Humana, in 1985.

Horton, now 86, settled in the Seattle area.

But the men wrote letters and called each other over the years. They’ve seen each other three times since their days in World War II, and spent time together last week at Tucker’s house.

Horton came from Seattle for the visit with his son, Scott.

The last time the war buddies saw each other was about 15 years ago. They played a round of golf at the Lancaster Golf Club.

But the friendship that started so many years ago in Kershaw is obviously still there.

“We ran the Navy for a while,” Tucker jokes with Horton.

“From the time I was a kid, he’s told me about Ward Tucker,” said Scott Horton.

“I cleaned it up a lot,” G.W. Horton adds, as the three men laugh.

Contact senior reporter Jenny Arnold at jarnold@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1151