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Sunday, Jul 23, 2017

Buddy, Big Mo and the tattoos

I well remember this date 70 years ago! I graduated from high school that June 4, and Mama and I departed the next morning for New York City to see my brother, Otis “Buddy” Davis Jr., and the commissioning of his ship, the USS Missouri, which at the time was the largest battleship in the world, with almost 5,000 crewmen.

It took almost two days to get there. But early on the morning of our arrival, they came through yelling it was D-Day, June 6, 1944! We’d invaded Europe! There was excitement everywhere as World War II took a positive turn at last.

Thousands of British and Americans died that day on those beaches. I knew some who were only 16 who made it through the landing and managed to get back home in one piece. But I knew some who didn’t. My class was small because so many boys went to the war. They were so young.

We stayed at the Lincoln Hotel, which backed up to the Astor Hotel, so we were right in the thick of the most famous part of NYC. Mama would not let me go down to the lobby, lest I be kidnapped. After all, it was a far cry from Tampa and its population of 25,000.

Buddy came with his forearms all bandaged up, telling a tale that he’d been burned by steam in the steamroom of the ship. Well! If Mama had known the truth she’d have been aghast. He and some others had tied one on and gotten themselves tattooed on both arms. Poor Mama was distraught and never knew until after the war, when she kept questioning him about why he wore long sleeves in the summer. Finally, she went in to wake him one morning and his sleeves had slipped up — there they were in living color!

Thousands of people were roaming the streets of NYC that day, rejoicing but fearful for their loved ones. We didn’t have instantaneous news or TV like today — only radio. The theaters showed shots of the war — it was called Pathé News.

During the day, Mama and I toured the city, took a day trip on a boat to Bear Island, went to Radio City Music Hall one night, and saw the Statue of Liberty. One night, Buddy got off the ship and we went to Coney Island. I’d heard of it and seen it in movies. I just wanted to ride the highest roller coaster in the world, and a wooden one at that. Buddy and I rode it three times in a row until Mama said she couldn’t afford any more. It was $2 each, I remember.

On June 8, we met Buddy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard with our invitations in hand for the commissioning of the Big Mo. It loomed so large I was overwhelmed, but we went aboard and toured.

I wore a black taffeta dress and heels, mind you. When I walked into what I thought was a restroom, I was looking at a sea of seats a city-block long above a running trough of water and no privacy.

Yikes Ikes! I was 16 and had never really been anywhere but Eastman, Georgia, so this was a real shocker.

Buddy later introduced me to all his friends, all of whom I wrote to every week for the duration of the war.

When we left Buddy we weren’t sure we’d ever see him again. It was a difficult farewell, believe me.

When the Japanese surrender was signed aboard the Missouri the following year, all I could think of was that I had stood right there where it took place. So many times, I’ve wished to go to Hawaii, where it is berthed now next to the Arizona, and stand there one more time.

I wrote to the museum that I’d like to donate my invitation if they were interested, and they were. I copied it for my kids. I did it in honor of Buddy — and in gratitude to the ship that took him to the Pacific Theater and to a lot of battles, but thankfully brought him back home to us.

He wasn’t decorated with medals, but with a belly dancer with a snake on one arm and a heart enclosing “Booger Loves Leona” on the other. (None of his wives were named Leona!)

So here’s to all those brave souls who fought or died trying to preserve our way of life. I will never forget them or this day. It is one of my most memorable.

Wynelle Gilbert lives in Tampa.

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