Kittery’s Magnificent Seven

By D. Allan Kerr

Malcolm Foss helped defeat the Japanese from within the side of a Hawaiian volcano. Allen Brackett carried an automatic rifle in France and Germany. Teenaged sailor Bill Seaward helped sink enemy ships in the Pacific aboard a Navy submarine.

Robert Craig provided much-needed supplies to McArthur and Halsey in the Pacific, while fellow Seabee Dusty Rhodes patched up damaged ships so they could return to the fight. Walter Wheeler protected merchant ships as a Navy gunner in the Pacific and Atlantic. Navy officer Graham Alvord helped deliver troops storming the beaches of Normandy during D-Day.

The one common thread among these surviving veterans of World War II is that they all hail from Kittery, Maine. You might call them Kittery’s own Magnificent Seven – a little older than the Hollywood incarnations, as they range in age from 90 to 100 years old, but their heroism is genuine and well-deserved.

They are among the last of the Greatest Generation.

Kittery Town Council Chairman Gary Beers, himself a veteran of 30 years in the Air Force and Navy, points out that we are losing members of that generation at a rate of nearly 500 a day.

“Our town’s rich history of answering the call in defense of liberty goes to the nation’s very beginning, making us free,” he says. “We owe these gentlemen the sincerest gratitude for being a huge part of keeping us so.”

Malcolm Foss

Foss, 99, served in the 101st Signal Radio Intelligence Company on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, near Fort Shafter. There he helped build the mountaintop antennae systems and towers used to capture Japanese intelligence for decoding.

Using the most sophisticated radio equipment of their time, operators were able to pick up Japanese communications from thousands of miles away, in places like China and Burma. They operated the equipment from inside a space they had carved out from the side of a volcano.

Army Sgt. Malcolm Foss, during his World War II posting with MS-5, a secret radio intelligence unit located in the side of a volcano

The operation was such a secret priority Foss and his fellow soldiers were issued highly valued Thompson submachine guns to defend the site against possible enemy attack.

This monitoring station, known as MS-5, was one of America’s most efficient intelligence-gathering units of the Second World War.

Foss was already in uniform when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, having been drafted in March of that year. The Traip Academy graduate was at Camp Blanding in Florida when he heard the shocking news.

“Then I knew my chances of getting out were gone,” he says, still standing tall in the kitchen of his Kittery home. “I was going to get out in another month or two.”

Foss was one of four Kittery Point brothers who took part in the war effort. Brother Maurice, a machinist, was so valued at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – located in Kittery on the banks of the Piscataqua River across from Portsmouth, New Hampshire – that he was discouraged from entering the military. But the other three all enlisted in the Army.

Brother Roland saw action in Europe and the South Pacific, including Guadalcanal, and was a jungle warfare instructor. He wound up staying in for a 20-year Army career.

The youngest brother, Harold, earned two Bronze Stars for helping to wipe out German artillery during D-Day – the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944 – and subsequent acts in Western Europe, and was wounded at St. Lo. He was killed in Germany during a February 1945 artillery attack, at age 20.

Malcolm earned an Expert Rifleman’s Badge among other decorations, and reported for duty at Oahu just a couple of months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was eventually discharged as a technical sergeant after “three years, eight months and 20 days,” he recites, following treatment for asthma at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

The oldest of the Foss brothers, Malcolm is now the last one left. He and Roland, who died five years ago at age 92, joined Maurice as employees at the local Navy yard after the war. Malcolm started as an electrician’s helper and retired as an electrical inspector 28 years later. He then worked for several more years as a master electrician.

He married Marjorie Lewis in January 1945, after sending her engagement ring in the mail from Hawaii. Like many other women of her generation, Marjorie also pitched in during the war, working in the local shipyard’s supply department.

She died in 2009, but Foss still lives in the home where she grew up. Their three daughters – Nancy, Susan and Judy – all live in Kittery, and have provided him with seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. One son, Ronald, died shortly after birth.

“I think all the people in the United States should thank all veterans for their service, in all wars,” Foss says. “If it wasn’t for these veterans we might not be so free.”

Allen Brackett

Brackett was 18 when he was drafted into the Army in March 1943. After basic training in Missouri, he was sent to the University of North Dakota under the Army’s specialized training program, to take classes in basic engineering. In February 1944, the program was discontinued, Brackett was sent to Alabama for infantry training and shipped overseas to carry a rifle.

PFC Allen Brackett

He was assigned to the 66th Infantry – the “Black Panther” Division – which on Christmas Eve 1944 crossed the channel from England to France.

Brackett believes they were headed for the Battle of the Bulge – the last major German offensive of the war from December 1944 through January 1945 – but one of the two troopships carrying the division was torpedoed by a Nazi sub and sank.

More than 700 soldiers were lost aboard the SS Leopoldville.

“We felt and heard the explosion,” he recalls. “You kind of feel that you were lucky it wasn’t your ship, but then you wonder why.”

The remaining members of the 66th wound up in northern France, engaging in skirmishes along a 112-mile front containing as many as 100,000 German soldiers holed up around the ports of Saint-Nazaire and Lorient.

Brackett was part of an automatic rifle team belonging to the division’s 266th Regiment. One member of the team, Nick Hill of Oklahoma, was called “Pop” because he was 25 years old at the time, Brackett says. The three men shared a dugout they called home throughout that winter.

Brackett was sent to Germany as part of the occupation force after the Nazis surrendered, and later assigned near Marseilles, France, where departing American troops were being processed for their return home or to the Pacific. During this time, Brackett – a 21-year-old private first class – was placed in charge of a work gang of about half-a-dozen older German POWs.

Brackett shrugs off this personal interaction with his former foes as “just another Army duty.”

“They didn’t give me any trouble. They didn’t want to,” he says. “They were living better than they were during the war.”

He recalls attending one of entertainer Bob Hope’s legendary USO shows there. In October 1945, the Mainer was sent to Vienna, Austria, and the following April he was discharged from the Army.

He later went to the University of Maine on the GI Bill and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering – in the process transferring some of the credits he picked up from his wartime classwork in North Dakota. That’s also where he met his wife Margie, a music major.

Brackett continued to serve his country in the local Navy yard’s design division, where he worked on such famous submarines as USS Albacore and USS Thresher. He retired from the shipyard in 1979 after 29 years.

Brackett (in glasses) with fellow soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 6th Infantry Division during their posting in France during World War II

He and Margie have lived in the same house in Kittery for 60 years. They have two children – one a daughter married to a retired Army colonel – along with two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Brackett, now 92 with a remarkable head of hair, stills carries the humility that so marks the Greatest Generation.

“I’m rather an ordinary person,” he says. “I’ve never been comfortable talking about wartime. We did it because we had to, and then when it was over we were glad to have it done with.”

Bill Seaward

Seaward, at age 90, is the baby of this bunch. And he wasn’t really much more than a baby during the war, leaving Kittery’s Traip Academy during his junior year to enlist in the Navy in 1943 at age 17.

Born and raised in Kittery Point, Seaward grew up seeing Navy submarines coming and going out of the shipyard. He caught lobsters in the harbor as a boy and would sometimes hand a couple over to crewmen if he had extras.

When it came time to join in the fight, it seemed only natural he should be a submariner. His father had served on a wooden Navy sub chaser during the First World War, Seaward says. “My mother didn’t want me to go, but he understood.”

After boot camp, additional training as a quartermaster in Rhode Island and then submarine training in New London, Connecticut, Seaward returned to Kittery to join the original commissioning crew of the USS Tench (SS 417.)

Tench eventually made its way to the Pacific, where it engaged in three war patrols and is credited with sinking 22,000 tons of enemy shipping, while also rescuing two downed American aviators. During its second patrol, the sub tangled with a Japanese destroyer until it ran out of torpedoes. Tench then employed gunfire to sink a motor trawler, and captured six Japanese prisoners who were then brought to Midway.

During the same patrol, Seaward managed to pick up four enemy ships, which the Tench proceeded to sink, while manning the submarine’s radar.

The vessel was the first of its class, able to carry four more torpedoes and 10,000 more gallons of fuel than its predecessors, Seaward says. He recalls the torpedoes didn’t always work, including one instance where a fired torpedo circled back and passed directly underneath their vessel.

“You’ve got to have faith in the ship,” he says of the dangers of submarine warfare. “And in the crew.”

After the war, Seaward also served on the commissioning crew of the submarine USS Dogfish (SS 350) along with his cousin and fellow Traip alum Hobart Seaward. Bill was discharged in 1947, but his cousin made the Navy a career and retired as a lieutenant commander, he says.

Seaward and USS Tench were reunited at the Kittery shipyard in 1950. Seaward was recalled to duty in 1950 for the Korean War and his old sub, which had been placed in reserve in 1947, was brought out of mothballs.

Seaward, now a petty officer second class, was given the honor of raising the colors during its January 1951 recommissioning ceremony, and got his picture in the local papers.

He was on a troop transport ship in the Mediterranean before his discharge from active service, following the death of his father. He returned home to take over the family business, Seaward Construction Co., with his brother Daniel, a former Traip football and basketball captain who also served in the Navy.

My mother didn’t want me to go, but he understood

Seaward, who wound up earning his diploma from Traip in 1946, co-owned the business for about a quarter of a century, then served as a consultant for the same amount of time. Today, he lives in Eliot with his wife, Jillane Bitomski.

Jillane’s father, Albert, also a Kittery native, served in Navy intelligence during the war.

Seaward has four children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. When a visitor comments on Seaward’s movie-star looks in old photos, he responds with a twinkling eye, “Absolutely.”

He believes all U.S. citizens should perform some form of service after high school, whether it’s in the military, Habitat for Humanity or whatever. He says his generation succeeded because they all worked together.

“We knew we had to win,” he says. “When this country gets mobilized, it can do anything.”

Robert Craig

Craig was helping the war effort even before he joined the Navy, serving with the Coast Guard auxiliary and the civilian Power Squadron which patrolled Portsmouth Harbor.

Craig was living in Portsmouth with his wife and baby son Don when he was drafted in 1943. A boatswain’s mate because of his Coast Guard background, he served with the 32nd Special Naval Construction Battalion, one of the units whose initials – CB – provided the Fighting Seabees with their famous nickname.

His job was that of stevedore but Craig carried the title of dockmaster, as he supervised the unloading of vessels carrying supplies throughout the waterways of the Philippine Islands. Marines stood guard during these actions.

“We let the Marines be the military,” he says.

Craig’s unit carried needed materials to both legendary Army General Douglas McArthur and Navy Admiral Bull Halsey, two of the iconic military figures of the war in the Pacific. He worked aboard various ships in this capacity, delivering items such as landing wharves and on one occasion a complete lumber mill.

He remembers a hurricane hitting Hawaii during a stopover there. The captain of his boat had the foresight to pull them out of the water but four other vessels capsized during the storm, he says.

From the Philippines, Craig wound up in China, assigned to areas that had been occupied by Japanese forces. He was transferred to California and then discharged in January 1946 as a petty officer second class after Japan surrendered.

He recalls heading home to his young family on a train overcrowded with returning troops, but he didn’t care. “It was heading in the right direction,” he says.

Craig grew up on Washington Street in Portsmouth and played on a championship Portsmouth High basketball team as a kid. His father was an Army truck driver during the First World War and later worked at the local Navy yard. His mother was a Chapman, directly descended from the siblings of John Chapman – better known as Johnny Appleseed.

The captain of his boat had the foresight to pull them out of the water but four other vessels capsized during the storm

After the war, Craig went to work at the Portsmouth post office and remained there for 35 years. He was foreman of delivery and collection by the time he retired, supervising 30 employees, and then went into the moving and storage business.

In 1939, he married Marian Gerrish, a member of one of Kittery’s most historic families, but they didn’t move across the river into Maine until the 1970s. They had three sons together.

Marian was a music instructor and organist for many years. She died in December 2015, more than a year after their 75th wedding anniversary, which was featured in the Portsmouth Herald and included a helicopter ride over Craig’s old postal routes. Once asked for the secret to their long marriage, Craig responded: “Love, respect, listen.”

Craig, who still lives on Follett Lane, will turn 99 in February.

Cecil Rhodes

Rhodes, better known as Dusty, also served in Pacific with the Seabees. He was with the 30th and the 5th Construction Battalions, but while the initials of these units gave their members the Seabee nickname, Rhodes jokes they also stood for “Confused Bastards.”

Also a Traip Academy graduate, Rhodes was 24 when he entered the Navy in June 1943. He had already worked as a pipefitter at the local shipyard and had his plumbing license in both New Hampshire and Maine. Because of his know-how, he says he was given two stripes as a petty officer second class shortly after basic training in Virginia.

“At one time I could weld, I could do anything,” says Rhodes, now 97. “I was already trained when I went in.”

His expertise made him a natural for the Seabees, which prized skilled tradesmen, so he was assigned to a ship repair unit. Naval vessels damaged during the war would be brought into port and usually rolled over onto their side so they could be patched up and sent back into the fight.

Rhodes recalls some Seabees were already in their 30s when they were recruited. They often had to pass on their knowledge to younger members in on-the-job training situations.

The shipfitter was discharged as a petty officer first class in December 1945.

Rhodes got back into plumbing after the war and started his own business in Kittery. Rhodes Plumbing and Heating on Government Street still bears his name today, although he no longer owns it. But he does have a plaque presented to him in appreciation for his 14 years as a trustee with the Kittery Water District.

His wife Barbara has died, along with daughter Catherine, son Peter, and his brothers, including Wilbur who also served in the Philippines at the same time he did.

Rhodes moved into the Mark H. Wentworth Home in Portsmouth this past summer, having lived in Kittery nearly his entire life.

As he recounts his wartime experiences, he occasionally pauses and says thoughtfully, “That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?”

Walter Wheeler

Wheeler quit high school to join the Navy before his 18th birthday, requiring permission from his mother and father to enlist. A lot of his friends in their hometown of Lewiston were doing the same.

“I had to talk them into signing,” he says of his parents. “I quit high school because I figured the country needed us. We should fight for our county.”

His three brothers all served as well. Like Walter, his brothers Joe and William joined the Navy, while oldest brother Leo went into the Army and took part in the Battle of the Bulge with the 10th Armored Division. All four survived.

Wheeler recalls that at boot camp in Newport, Rhode Island, the recruits slept in hammocks rather than bunks. “I almost hung myself one night, falling out,” he quips.

Once he finished gunnery school, Wheeler was assigned as an armed guard to the merchant tanker SS Charles Kurz. The ship passed through the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific, where it carried cargo to Hawaii as part of a convoy of 40 or more vessels.

The ship was an “old rustpot” built around 1918, and started leaking, Wheeler says. The crew had to return to the mainland to go into drydock and Wheeler was shipped to the European theater, where he served aboard the Liberty ship SS Hadley F. Brown.

Wheeler manned a 3-inch, 50-caliber gun on the bow of the cargo vessel. He was the sight setter for the gun crew, coordinating with lookouts carrying binoculars up in the ship’s tower to make sure they hit their targets.

I quit high school because I figured the country needed us

During the Normandy invasion, the Brown, which was built in South Portland, Maine, according to Wheeler, brought ammo to U.S. soldiers fighting on the beach. They had to anchor in the breakwater to unload, as there was no docking available.

The ship also shuttled cargo between England and Wales and France and Belgium. During one such run, the Brown struck a mine on its starboard side in the North Sea, flooding the engine room.

“We didn’t know if it was a U-boat or what it was,” he recalls. “We had no power at all.”

A destroyer escort had to stay and circle the vessel in case there was a U-boat in the area, dropping depth charges as a precaution. The Brown was finally towed to Antwerp, Belgium, for repairs.

He also recalls buzz bombs flying overhead from Germany into England, wondering if some might drop onto their heads. “You could hear them at night,” he says.

Wheeler was discharged from active service in April 1946, but remained in the Navy Reserve for five more years.

He moved to Kittery in 1960, when he landed a job as a machinist at the shipyard. That’s also the year he married his wife Gerry.

The Wheelers live in the same Rogers Road home they purchased the following year, just down the street from the yard’s main gate. He worked at the shipyard for 24 years, sandwiched around a short stint early on when he was laid off as part of a reduction in force.

In retirement, Wheeler worked some odd jobs before running for the Maine Legislature as a state representative in 2002, at age 76. He remained until 2010, when he had to step aside due to term limits. He was the last World War II veteran to serve in that body.

He’s still working to install a southern Maine veterans memorial in Springvale, featuring a POW/MIA monument. He passed the bill authorizing the project while in the Legislature; now they’re raising funds to complete it.

Wheeler turns 91 Sunday, Nov. 13. He’s battling lung cancer and has a 100-percent service-connected disability due to asbestos, he says. He and Gerry had eight children, plus a ninth they took in after his parents died. They have 22 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren, with another on the way.

Looking back over his wartime services, he muses: “It was quite an experience for a teenager to quit high school and see all that.”

Graham Alvord

The story of Graham Alvord, who turned 100 in September, is well known to area residents.

During a ceremony in France two years ago recognizing the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Alvord was selected as the lone representative for U.S. veterans at a reception at which he shook hands with President Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.

“I remember when she was a very cute young woman,” he says of the queen. He also shared a stage with Obama and the president of France during the event.

A year before that, he was presented the prestigious Legion of Honor medal by the French government during a ceremony at the Boston consul’s office, in honor of his D-Day service. And his centennial birthday celebration attracted a packed house at Kittery’s Congregational parish house.

The milestone birthday also generated a special card from Obama and first lady Michelle, who wrote, “Throughout your life, you have taken part in the great American story.”

Graham Alvord of Kittery, Maine, who recently turned 100, with President Barack Obama in 2014 during a ceremony in France commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day

Alvord was already in uniform before America joined the fight in World War II. Having traveled Europe before the war in 1939, where he saw Jews mistreated and Nazi troops marching in the streets, he recognized first-hand the danger Adolf Hitler represented.

“Everybody was bowing down to him,” Alvord says of the German leader.

The Harvard graduate enlisted in the Navy in 1941 – about six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor – after hearing a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the importance of supporting England. Alvord points out that only about half of America’s citizens believed at the time that we should get involved in the war overseas.

Due to previous experience as a stenographer, Alvord served as a yeoman first class in Puerto Rico. A restless sort, Alvord jumped at the chance when he learned the Navy was looking for sailors to man its LST fleet.

“I got bored with desk work and decided to do something more exciting,” he recalls.

LSTs were amphibious vessels, with the initials standing for Landing Ship, Tanks. Alvord jokes they really stood for Large Slow Targets. They weighed about 4,000 tons and were more than 320 feet long.

Due to his college degree, Alvord was made an officer. He eventually served as executive officer, or second-in-command, of LST 133.

The ship carried to England materials that were used for the landing of D-Day. Then it carried troops during the invasion.

Alvord recalls that Omaha Beach wasn’t yet secured when the crew was initially slated to land, so they headed out the next day. His boat was the first LST to land at Omaha Beach, he recalls, carrying troops and heavy anti-aircraft gear.

During its second trip, the vessel right in front of LST 133 sank. On its third trip to Normandy, Alvord’s vessel struck a mine that blew a hole into its stern and killed several crewmen and troops.

“We were, needless to say, a little nervous,” he recalls dryly. The ship had to be towed the rest of the way to Omaha Beach for unloading and then back to England.

Later, after the war, LST 133 was used as a target for testing the atom bomb at the Bikini Islands, Alvord adds.

He lost his brother John, a Marine aviator who entered the service a couple of years before Pearl Harbor, during the Battle of Midway. John had just gotten married the previous month, he says.

Alvord wound up stationed in New York for several months, where he married his wife Jean, and then was sent to New Orleans. By the time of his discharge as a lieutenant commander in 1945, Jean was four months pregnant.

They settled in Kittery after the war, and Alvord taught English and served as a guidance counselor at Portsmouth High School for 35 years. He’s also been a Congregational lay minister for decades now, estimating he’s conducted about 400 weddings and 400 funerals throughout New England and elsewhere.

He and Jean, who retired from the Portland Symphony Orchestra a few years ago after four-and-a-half decades, still live near the First Congregational Church at Kittery Point. His grandfather was the minister there when Alvord was a youngster.

Alford has been an avid hiker and biker for most of his life. His mind is still razor sharp, as he works the New York Times crossword puzzle every week. His longtime friend and fellow Kittery resident, Tom Hibschman, is putting together a documentary about Alvord’s wartime experiences.

Alvord notes there will likely be additional ceremonies in France in June 2019, to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“If I keep my strength for two more years I might make it,” he says.

(November 7, 2016)

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