Walter Reagan celebrated his 90th birthday on March 10, but if the U-boat commander who sank the ship he was on in World War II hadn't pointed the way to shore, he might not have made it past his early 20s.
Before Reagan and his friend Sandra Schulkins took a cruise a few years back, he hadn't been on a ship in 60 years. But during World War II, he spent four years serving in a branch of the U.S. Navy that few people have heard of today.
Reagan, who is a third cousin to the late President Ronald Reagan, served with the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, which operated aboard merchant and troop transport ships working to handle gunnery and communications. Its mission was to protect the cargo needed to keep the allied troops supplied. For the most part, that's what Reagan did, working as a gunner to keep enemy aircraft, ships and U-boats at bay.
"On ships that we served on," Reagan said, "they put 30-caliber machine guns, 20-millimeter cannons and 3-, 4- and 5-inch cannons. Not all ships had all of them, but we could fire all of them."
Reagan grew up in Oklahoma, a long way from the ocean. When he reached adulthood, he joined the Army National Guard for a one-year hitch. As part of the 1940 war games, he and his fellow guard members marched from Abilene, Texas, to Shreveport, La., a distance of approximately 350 miles, which they covered in about a week.
When he was released from service, Reagan headed to San Diego, where his mother and two sisters had moved. They had just finished up a round of bowling on Dec. 7, 1941, when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor. By the fall of 1942, Reagan knew it was just a matter of time before the National Guard called him back into service. He hadn't been a huge fan of marching, so in September he joined the Navy.
He assumed he would train at Camp Pendleton, just up the road from his family, but ended up being shipped to Great Lakes in Illinois. After boot camp, he went to Brooklyn, N.Y., and began his four years at sea.
His travels took him off the coast of Africa, around the British Isles and even to Murmansk, in what was then the Soviet Union.
"That was a terrible run," Reagan said. "Cold and dangerous. If your ship went down out there, you'd freeze to death in minutes."
As the war wrapped up in Europe, he and his fellow Navy Armed Guards traveled to the Pacific, passing through the Panama Canal.
He fondly remembers the warm water ports. It was in India he had what he jokes was the second-scariest moment of his naval career: a Kolkata tattoo.
"When I look back at it, I wonder how I didn't get a disease and lose my arm," Reagan said. "There was a little old guy sitting on the ground with his tattoo stuff, with wires running from batteries to the needle. He operated by pushing the wires together with his toes."
The scariest moment was only three months into his days at sea, about 50 miles off the Ivory Coast. At 2 a.m. on Jan. 22, 1943, Reagan was off duty, asleep three decks below on the SS Benjamin. The ship was carrying 8,000 tons of war supplies when a German U-boat torpedo struck. Initially, the ship listed to the side, but it righted itself when water flooded into other parts of the ship. Then a second torpedo hit.
The 66 men aboard the ship, including Reagan and 22 fellow Navy Armed Guards, managed to escape to the lifeboats before a third torpedo sank the ship. That's when the U-boat surfaced and trained a heavy machine gun on the survivors. The code books had already been dropped overboard in a perforated metal box, so after questioning them and ascertaining that they didn't have anything on the lifeboats of military value, the crew members of the Benjamin were pointed in the direction of shore.
By day's light they could see many of the landing craft they'd had on deck floating in the sea around them. One of the lifeboats had a motor and towed the other two to shore, which they reached around dusk. They stayed aboard the lifeboats another night rather than risk a nighttime landing.
It took them the better part of a month to get home, being fed and cared for by the natives and French colonists. They ended up walking for miles to reach an airfield.
"I felt like I'd walked halfway across Africa," Reagan said. "We ate a lot of fish and goat."
After the war, Reagan settled into a variety of jobs, working in a shipyard, local housing authorities and a dairy association. He eventually found himself in Las Vegas, living in a home near the airport. His wife, Isabelle, died on their 57th anniversary in 2004.
They had been socially active members of several clubs, notably dance and bridge clubs. He met Schulkins five years ago when both needed a bridge partner. The game partnership turned into more.
"I just thought he was a very caring, compassionate person," Schulkins said. "We got mixed up in a couple's bridge group, and all of a sudden, we were a couple."
It was Schulkins who secretly organized a 90th birthday celebration for Reagan during the week surrounding his March 10 birthday. Relatives came from across the country to help him celebrate. On March 12 friends and relatives gathered at the clubhouse of her Whitney-area neighborhood to honor him.
Contact Sunrise and Whitney View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 380-4532.