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Stanley Libera


Stanley Libera

Stanley Libera was born January 18, 1923, and grew up in Fulton, a manufacturing town on the Oswego River about fifteen miles from Lake Ontario in upstate New York. His parents were both from Poland, members of a sizable immigrant population, mainly Polish and Italian, attracted to the town by its mills and factories. Notable among those plants was American Woolen Mills, where his father worked, a large textile plant and major supplier of uniforms to the US Army in both world wars.

The Oswego River almost claimed his life twice. He fell through the ice on it one winter as a child and was trying to claw his way back through when a neighbor fished him out with a pole. Another winter, when he was fifteen, three of his friends invited him to go sledding on the riverbank. His father, Libera said about 75 years later, told him he had to chop wood and would get his ass kicked if he didn’t. Libera chopped the wood. His friends sledded onto the river, broke through the ice and all three drowned. Had Libera joined them, he said, he would have been at the front of the sled.

Unfazed by water’s perils, he enlisted in the navy on January 16, 1941. Pearl Harbor was still almost a year away. The United States was still at least nominally at peace. Libera spent much of that year training to be a radioman in San Diego, and he enjoyed it greatly. A parade of entertainers came to the base to perform for the sailors.


Glenn Miller at the San Diego Naval Training Station, June 1941. Photo by Stanley Libera.


Paula Kelly and Hal Dickinson of the Modernaires, San Diego Naval Training Station, June 1941. Photo by Stanley Libera.


Rita Hayworth

Libera saw big-band leaders Jack Teagarden, Kay Kiser and Glenn Miller, singer Paula Kelly and singer and saxophonist Sully Mason, and once held Rita Hayworth’s hand while the two of them participated in a snake dance.

After radio school, Libera was assigned to the battleship USS Tennessee, based at Pearl Harbor.

There was an ongoing rivalry at Pearl Harbor among the crews of the battleships that docked just off Ford Island on Battleship Row. The Tennessee docked on the inside of the row, abreast of the West Virginia and between the Maryland and the ill-fated Arizona. The Arizona’s bow overlooked the Tennessee’s stern directly and the West Virginia’s at an angle; the three formed a tight triangular cluster. The three ships’ bands used to have battles of the bands, in which the sailors of each vessel would vigorously applaud their own band and disparage the musicianship of the other two.

Every evening they would show a movie on the afterdeck of the Tennessee. Sailors from the Arizona would watch the show. They had a better angle, looking down at the screen, than the Tennessee sailors, who sat on chairs and looked up at it. Libera doesn’t recall what movie they showed the evening of Saturday, December 6, 1941. He does recall “shooting the shit” with some guys from the Arizona that evening. They would engage in good-natured hollering matches, the content of which boiled down to “You guys are fulla crap.” But once the officers appeared, “you don’t hear a peep.”


USS Tennessee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1921

Libera was on his way into town the next morning when general quarters sounded. It came as a surprise. “We all looked at each other.” His task during battle was to load bags of black powder onto a conveyor belt below decks for the 16-inch guns of the No. 2 turret two decks above. A bomb from one of the planes in the first wave hit that turret and took out its guns, despite its steel shield 1-1/2 to 2 inches thick. The captain of the West Virginia was on his navigation bridge at the time. A piece of shrapnel from that bomb blast hit him in the belly and “ripped his guts out.” [This was Capt. Mervyn Sharp Bennion, a native of Utah and graduate of the US Naval Academy, class of 1910. After he was hit, Bennion refused medical treatment, holding his guts in place with one hand as he continued giving commands, and bled to death. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.]


Mervyn Sharp Bennion


USS Tennessee, on left, next to the sunken USS West Virginia, Pearl Harbor, 7 Dec 1941. Photo taken from the capsized hull of the USS Oklahoma, in foreground.

The Arizona sank with the loss of 1,177 lives. Bodies kept popping up in the water surrounding it for days. Libera was on his way to dinner one evening when he saw the body of a sailor, cooked white and partly eaten by fish, bobbing on the surface. Libera lost his appetite. Pearl Harbor, he said, was a hellhole.

He did not have to stay there long. Two weeks after the attack, the Tennessee departed for the Puget Sound Navy Yard, where she spent about two months undergoing repairs. During this downtime, some of the crew were reassigned, Libera among them. Given a choice between destroyers and submarines, he chose submarines, attended sub school in New London, Connecticut, and did one war patrol aboard the USS Sargo (SS-188), after which he and about four of his shipmates were confined to the hospital back at Pearl Harbor with posterior problems and required to sit in tubs of a medicinal blue fluid. He was still undergoing this therapy when, to Libera’s regret and that of his captain, who valued his service as a radioman, the Sargo left port and left him behind.

It was then, circa November 1943, that Libera, stranded at Pearl Harbor and in need of a new ship, saw the Macaw, which had recently arrived there from Funa Futi. It was love at first sight. He thought the Macaw was beautiful. She was a new ship (the Tennessee’s keel was laid in 1917), and as a modest-sized vessel within the submarine service, she offered the sort of relaxed, informal atmosphere that prevailed aboard submarines, with the added benefit of sunshine. Libera went aboard and found the crew and the ship in general to his liking. What’s more, they needed a radioman. He met with the Paul Burton by way of applying for the job. The meeting went well. “He looked at me and said, ‘You look okay.’” When the Macaw sailed for Midway a few days into the new year, Libera was aboard.

USS Macaw, in foreground, and USS Flier aground at Midway, 16 Jan 1944. Vessel in background at right is unidentified.

USS Macaw, in foreground, and USS Flier aground at Midway, 16 Jan 1944. Vessel in background at right is unidentified.

Five and a half weeks later, he was among the 22 men on board when his new ship sank, and he had a third close brush with drowning. Struggling alone amid huge waves off Midway the morning of February 13, 1944, Libera, a Catholic, consigned himself to God. He figured this time his number was up. Seeing no one else in the water, he figured he was perhaps the only one who hadn’t drowned and that he was about to follow suit. The last thing he recalls before he blacked out was seeing a hand reaching toward him.

He woke up with pneumonia in one lung in the infirmary at Midway. Bud Loughman, the former executive officer who had assumed command of the sunken vessel in the wake of Paul Burton’s death, brought him a couple of bottles of beer there in violation of medical regulations and to the displeasure of the corpsman. Libera doesn’t recall what brand the beer was or whether he drank it. Nor does he recall how he got to shore. He disputes the statement in Loughman’s February 1944 narrative on the sinking that he swam ashore. He was merely floating, he says, completely at the mercy of the elements. He figures the wind blew him toward shore. He doesn’t know whether the hand that reached out for him belonged to someone in a boat or perhaps to one of the marines who formed a human chain from the shore in hopes of retrieving wayward Macaw survivors. He was told that the three men from the sub base who drowned during the rescue effort were on their way to pick him up in a motor launch they had taken out against orders when they capsized. (The three men, LeRoy Benny Lehmbecker, Howard Eugene Daugherty and Ernest David Samed, and presumably a fourth man went out in two rearming boats, two men per boat. Both boats capsized. The fourth man, assuming there was one, survived.)


Survivors of the sinking of the USS Macaw. Radioman 1/c Stanley Libera is sitting in the front row of bleachers, third in from the left. To his immediate left is Bud Loughman, the executive officer who had assumed command of the sunken ship. Gesturing cheerfully in front of Loughman is Seaman 1/c Edward James Wade. Photo taken at Midway c. late February 1944 and supplied by the family of Seaman 1/c Curtis Wainscott, far left with crutches.

Back home on survivor’s leave, Libera got married. He had met Anna during sub school at New London. Someone, he said, had told him there were “Pollack dances in Hartford,” so he took the bus there, but it was delayed in Colchester and got to Hartford about midnight. Libera was wondering what to do at that late hour when three young women passed him on the street and one of them, on a dare from her friends, accosted him with the traditional “Hiya, sailor.” Within about two years they were man and wife.

Libera returned to submarine service after the Macaw. He had figured on making a career of the navy, but marriage changed his plans. He mustered out in 1946, raised a daughter with Anna and became director of quality control at a zipper factory in Kensington, Connecticut. He retired in 1981. Anna died circa 1995. As of November 2013, at age ninety, he is still living — independently, with a little help from a nearby niece — in the home he and Anna shared in New Britain, Connecticut.



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