My father was in the U.S. Navy. Not for long, but he did enlist out of high school in 1944. He did his naval training at Sampson Naval Training Base in Romulus. Shortly after Dad’s basic training, he was honorably discharged because of a health issue. So, although his service was brief, I needed to find out as much about it as I possibly could.
Off to Sampson I went.
The U.S. Navy purchased nearly 3,000 acres of lush farmland and vineyards on the shores of Seneca Lake in 1942. The training base it built was one of the largest in the Northeast. By the time my dad would have arrived, the base would have been humming. Ultimately, more than 400,000 recruits did their basic naval training at Sampson. And that includes hundreds, if not thousands, from The Daily Star’s readership area.
And Sampson is still there.
On the day I arrived for a visit, it was a sunny afternoon with not a cloud in the sky. As I drove in the front gate, many cars and vans were lined up before and after me to enjoy the natural beauty of the Finger Lakes rolling landscape at the park. But I veered off just as I entered the gate and parked in front of the Sampson Military Museum. It is housed in the last remaining building from the base’s 500 World War II era structures.
And what a building it is.
It’s the brig.
“Look how small these cells are,” Dolores Dinsmore said to me. She is the director of the museum. “This is where the baddest of the bad ones came. You’d have to do something serious to land here, like go AWOL or commit a crime. They got two straight days of bread and water and then on the third day they got a meal.”
I prayed that dear old Dad never saw the inside of this place!
The tour was fascinating. Dolores took me from room to room of the brig-cum-museum, and each one had a different theme. One room was filled with photographs of entertainers who visited Sampson during the war. “Marian Anderson sang here, Bob Hope brought his troupe here and boxer Joe Louis held exhibition fights here,” I was told.
I asked her where the recruits came from to be “booted” here during the war.
“Well, they came from all over mostly, but surely almost every central New Yorker who enlisted in the Navy came through here.”
The museum has an amazing variety of memorabilia.
“Everything we have here has been donated by a veteran, or their family. We have dozens of uniforms, hundreds of weapons and thousands of photographs,” Dinsmore said.
It was the photographs that intrigued me the most. Those big black-and-white photos of rows and rows of uniformed men posing with the other members of their units. I kept an eagle eye out for my dad.
“Unfortunately, it will be almost impossible to find him,” she told me. “These photos were taken when the men graduated, and each one was given a copy to take home. The men in turn usually gave the pictures to their mothers or sweethearts and from there, who knows?” she said. “Sadly, none of them are labeled on the back.”
I pored over dozens of photos from Dad’s era that have returned to Sampson, squinting through a magnifying glass trying to find him. It should be easy, I thought. A young, rail-thin 20-year-old guy with big glasses, a shock of thick black hair and a devilish smile. I saw 500 men who all looked like they could have been Don D’Imperio.
Before I left, I asked Ms. Dinsomre to show me the most unusual thing ever brought in to the museum.
“That’s easy,” she said with a laugh. “This item right here,” she said as she patted the brass tubing of a tall object. “One day, a group of old sailors stumbled through the front door of the museum with this original periscope from the nuclear submarine the USS Benjamin Franklin.”
“Who were they, and where did they come from?” I whispered.
“Chuck, I don’t ask questions. I just took it, gave them a hug and sent them on their way!” she roared.
I can only imagine it might have been brought in by a couple of old swabbies from Norwich or Milford or Bainbridge or Schenevus or even the Lower Deck.
It sure would have made for a good story, wouldn’t it?
I’ll catch you in two ...
“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at email@example.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.