Kosloski off the Saratoga

March 08, 1995|By GWINN OWENS

Those who served in World War II were like driftwood in the surf.

The hasty creation of a massive military force precluded concern for each individual; the tides of war determined where he would be tossed next.

After my duty in the Great Lakes Choir foundered, I was, successively, at quartermaster school in Newport, on a destroyer crew in California, at officer's training at Colorado College and, literally overnight, transferred to limbo in San Francisco.

It is September 1943: While serving on the crew of the U.S.S. Hopewell, I write, just for laughs, an exam for admission to V-12 officer's training.

Apparently, I aced the test, for a month later I receive orders that I am detached from the Hopewell and must report to the V-12 unit at Colorado College.

Again, just as I had found myself singing instead of fighting, now I am studying instead of fighting -- in a lovely, coeducational, liberal-arts haven at the foot of Pikes Peak.

I am supposed to emerge in two years with an ensign's commission, at which point (most of us hope) the war will be over anyhow.

In addition to the required technical classes. I take electives of Shakespeare and French literature -- with a lovely, golden-haired classmate.

In the midst of total war, this is an unnaturally joyful life; it seems too good to be true -- and it is.

Near the end of the first semester, doing fine academically, I am shocked by a notice that I am to be shipped back to San Francisco tomorrow morning for reassignment as a quartermaster.

The explanation? A clerical error -- someone had failed to note that I flunked the eye test.

My V-12 assignment should never have happened. (I am not making this up.)

Acutely depressed by the capricious upheaval of my life, I bid a sad farewell to my winsome classmate, and board a dismal train for San Francisco.

Arriving two days before Christmas, I join several thousand lonely sailors at Treasure Island Receiving Ship (i.e., base). We sleep in one room of a cavernous ghost of a building that had served as one of the great halls of the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition.

Alternate evening liberty is granted according to the number of one's bunk: odds on odd dates, and evens -- I am one -- on even dates. The evens are therefore miserable captives on Christmas day, New Year's Eve and New Year's day -- another measure of military life's cruel irrelevancies.

They seek volunteers for temporary duty in the San Francisco Shore Patrol. Anything is better than this depressing routine of waiting. I sign up, get moved to more human barracks downtown on Market Street.

Quickly I am outfitted with an ''SP'' armband, boots and a billy club and booked for alternate day and night shifts, keeping a lid on the tens of thousands of sailors on the loose in downtown San Francisco.

The day shift is pleasant. As for the night shift, well, let's say it's a lot more stressful than studying French literature at Colorado College next to a golden-haired coed. Sailors in bars get into brawls, at which point someone rushes out to find a policeman or, as a second choice, a shore patrolman.

Our instructions are to break up fights with minimal force, never to use our clubs on anyone's head, and to make a formal arrest only when a sailor defies our orders.

One night a waiter from a bar rushes out onto Market Street just as we are passing by -- a fight, he says. Inside we find a gunner's mate and a signalman standing over a bloodied young man in civilian clothes.

As best we can piece it together, the gunner's mate questioned the civilian's reluctance to fight for his country.

It turns out the civilian is a merchant seaman who was twice rescued from ships torpedoed by German submarines, hence touchy about accusations of a lack of commitment.

The signalman is submissive, but the gunner's mate takes a wild swing at my fellow patrolman. A brief scuffle ensues and, pulling him off my partner, I announce, with magisterial formality, ''You are under arrest.''

The two of us hold the brig-bound gunner's mate until the screeching paddy wagon arrives. We shove him inside, and I stand at the door to frustrate any plot to escape. The prisoner, seething with rage, stares intently at me.

''Now I remember you,'' he snarls. ''You're Kosloski off the Saratoga. Look, you sumbitch, I ain't gonna forget this. Some day I'm gonna find you, and when I do you ain't gonna be worth sending home.''

Sorry, Kosloski, wherever you are.

Gwinn Owens, now retired, is the former op/ed page editor of The Evening Sun.

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