For Hansen’s 2016 Serve Our Soldiers initiative, we chose William “Bill” Sass to be our first Hansen’s Hero. As a World War II 3rd Petty Officer for the Navy Seabees, husband, and patriarch of four generations, his legacy represents both the honor and wit of The Greatest Generation. We were happy to show our gratitude for his service by removing and trimming several trees on his property, and even more pleased to tell his story here today.
Coming of Age During the Draft
Even though he never wanted to go to war, joining the military wasn’t optional when Sass turned 18 in July 1944. The World War II draft was in full effect, but by choosing to sign up before he was drafted at age 17, Sass could also choose which military branch to join. “I did not want to go out and agitate the gravel,” says Sass, referring to his avoiding the Army and the Marines. In addition, the Navy offered an opportunity to put his construction skills to use. “I got the notification the day after I turned 18,” he remembers.
Sass also remembers saying goodbye to his dad, who had been a German soldier in World War I, fought on the Russian and French fronts at 16, and been a prisoner of war before immigrating to the United States. “On the last night before I had to report, we were sitting on the porch in Buffalo, NY and we were very quiet. He said, ‘Don’t be the first…and don’t be the last. And come home to me.’ Then he got up and walked in the house. When he went to work the next morning, he called up the stairs with his German accent, ‘I’ll see you.’ And I called back down, ‘I’ll see you, pop.’ Then he went off to work and I went off to war.”
Lessons Learned at Boot Camp
They sent Sass to a base in Samson, New York along Lake Seneca. “I was not a strong swimmer by any stretch of the imagination. I wanted to swim to get the hell out of boot camp, but I didn’t. They told us the water was so cold there that your body would sink to about 60 feet. And your body would just stay there, that the gas in your body wouldn’t expand and you would literally float and stay there forever.”
His decision to stick around didn’t make it any easier to adapt to military culture. “I didn’t just dislike [the regimentation]. I hated it.” This aversion to authority manifested into more trouble, like drawing extra kitchen duty. “‘We’re going to make a pearl diver out of you,’ the chief said, ‘I want to see myself in these pots like a mirror. I want them to shine.’ So I grabbed a pot and started washing it…and washing it…and polishing it for 2 and a half hours. My superior came back and saw the big pile of dishes. I said, ‘Look sir, can you see yourself?’ and you could see his face getting red. Finally he said, ‘Dismissed!’ And after the third day they told me not to come back. A small victory,” Sass adds with a smile.
Of course, his time there wasn’t a constant state of rebellion. “After about 8 weeks or so I became acclimated and accepted it,” he admits.
Boxing & Off-Base Adventures
Luckily, there was some relief from the restricted, dull life at boot camp. “If you signed up for boxing, you’d get a 12 hour pass to Geneva. There was a post office, a little diner, a little nickel-and-dime movie house, a couple gas stations, and an American flag. So I signed up. I boxed just to get out of there.”
The trip to Geneva wasn’t much, but it was enough. The 12 hour pass included the boat ride, which moved at “3 to 4 miles per hour” according to Sass. You had enough time to eat at the diner and smoke a cigarette out in the street. “At boot camp, you could only smoke in a designated area at a designated time, but here it was great. You could just smoke walking down the street.” Simple pleasures like these were a necessary relief to get through the boot camp drudgery.
In addition, being in the military had its own set of perks. For example, Sass and his Navy buddies were on a train to North Carolina when it broke down. “We had an hour or so to wander around. Word got ‘round to the girls in town that there were sailors.” Let’s just say a lot of phone numbers were exchanged that day. “It was a good time to be in uniform,” his wife, Betty, chuckles.
Joining the Seabees
To determine where to place the new recruits, the Navy had a system in place: “If you scored in the top 10 percent, you could move on to another class.” They sent Sass to basic engineering school, where he scored in the top 10 percent. “So they put me in diesel engineering. I scored in the top 10 there and had my choice of any branch of the navy, so I signed up for the Seabees.”
Life on the Florence Nightingale
Sass was assigned to the Florence Nightingale. He was less than impressed when he saw it. “We headed to the docks and I saw the ship and thought, ‘that must be the ship that’ll take us to the real ship.’” Little did he know he’d be spending next 44 days on that ship with almost 4,000 troops.
His first move was to take the top bunk because he didn’t want his fate in gravity’s hands. “I knew some of these guys were going to get seasick. Out the coast of California, they have long, rolling waves. 15 minutes up and 15 minutes down. Every 15 minutes you could hear the nausea. I kept thinking, ‘If only I could get a little old nasty chunk of meat to chew on, I’d be fine.’ Low and behold that’s what they served us for dinner.” In addition, sleeping conditions were also less than ideal. “Laying on the canvas bunk, you’d wake up with half an inch of sweat soaked where your butt was,” Sass explains.
The troops were not allowed above deck for the first 10 days.
Time spent on the Florence Nightingale involved a lot of monotony. They’d wake up, clean their area, have breakfast, line up and fill their canteens (each sailor was allowed 1 canteen of fresh water per day), and then you’d sit around and play cards. “It was interesting that we didn’t have more fights on board because we were so crowded together,” Sass reminisces. Everyone was uncomfortable because it was impossible to stay clean. Since there was only enough water for food and drink, there was no capacity on the boat for freshwater showers. Troops were limited to washing with salt water and “sea soap” which “made no suds at all.”
Worst of all, there was no way for Sass to know how long they’d be on the ship. “We didn’t know where we were going, just that we were headed out somewhere in the Pacific.” Keeping destinations secret was a part of military security. “You never were told anything.”
After 44 days, Sass and the battalion on the Florence Nightingale arrived at Okinawa. After over a month of monotonous life on the ship, it was time for action. “We arrived in the evening. There were some destroyers and other ships…We’d been issued our carbines, our rifles, and four of us with machine guns. They lowered the landing craft personnel. We were loaded into the boats and we’d circle the ship until there was 12-15 boats loaded. Then someone gave the word and we went onto the beach. We got everything unloaded, marched [for] an hour, and then in your pack you had half of a two-man pup tent. You didn’t try to find a buddy, you just needed to get the pup tent up with whoever was next to you before it started raining.”
And rain it did. Sass tented with a guy from the city. “He didn’t know to dig a trench to stop the water, so I told him to dig one way and I dug the other ‘til we met in the middle. But after about 5-6 days of rain it didn’t matter. You would crawl into your tent wet and soon everything got wet.” The rain went on for 28 days.
During that month, K Rations were the only available thing to eat. Back before shipping out they ate pork chops, Boston cream pie, and all the fresh milk you could drink. Now they were given dry, barely edible meals in boxes the size of Cracker Jacks and lemonade that “was basically battery acid.”
Unlike life on the ship, Sass and the other Navy troops did not spend all their time playing cards. The war in the Pacific involved what Sass called “special assignments,” but he grows silent and struggles to recount the missions for this story. At last, he says with a sense of finality, “We did our job.” No doubt these haunting memories are ones that only other veterans can truly understand.
But the war did not last forever. On August 15th, Sass and his fellow sailors heard over the radio that America dropped the atomic bomb. “I had read that the Germans had been working on the atomic bomb back in 1922.” Meanwhile there were more and more people amassing in Japan. Everyone—women, children—were adamant about protecting their land. The infamous Battle of Okinawa was a brutal end to the war as Sass knew it, with a peace treaty signed on September 2, 1945 onboard the USS Missouri.
The Navy broke up Sass’s battalion, but they could only go home on the points system. Sailors accrued points by how long they were in the service, their age, how many months they had been overseas, and whether you had a family. “I didn’t get back until June 1946,” Sass recounts, nearly a year after the treaty was signed.
The ship home was a completely different experience from Sass’s trip to Okinawa. When offered a job in the kitchen, he thought, “Hell, I’m going to go where the food is.” Another perk was the unauthorized freshwater showers. “Each of us [working in the kitchen] would take turns, and one of us would stand by the door to make sure an officer wouldn’t come by.”
Adjusting Back to Life in America
When the ship tied up in San Francisco, Sass was in a different world. “You’d walk onto the street and see all the cars and buses going by and say, ‘Whoa!’ because you weren’t used to seeing and hearing the noise and the traffic for such a long time.”
To celebrate, he and his buddies had their uniforms tailored to look sharp for civilian life and bought a bottle of liquor each. “We didn’t settle for anything but a 5th of whiskey.” One of his buddies seemed to forget they hadn’t drunk anything for over a year. “Evening came and he was pretty well hammered,” Sass laughs. “We went to the USO and danced with some young ladies, got something to eat, and next thing I know it’s 5:00 in the morning. We had to be back to the base by noon.” They made it back to the base, but were expecting trouble since his friend was so drunk. “But the guy waved us on and said, ‘Ah, we see a hundred of those every week.’”
Leaving the Military
Sass took a train to the discharge center in New York, where the Navy tried to get him to sign a new contract for the reserves. Doing so would have given him a raise and other perks, but Sass decided against it. “I told them, ‘My original contract is done. When I hit that, I’m out of here.’” Still, he added that hearing taps, the ceremonial bugle call, for the last time in the military was a “bittersweet” experience.
Even though he left the Navy as soon as his contract was up, Sass didn’t rush home. Instead, he took his time and had many adventures on the way. People were very welcoming right after the war and he was treated to dinners and events by supportive families and new friends.
When he finally made it to Buffalo, he took a cab to his street. There, he asked the driver to stop rather than take him to his front door so he could walk down the street to his home. He rang the doorbell and his mother answered. “She was quite emotional, to the point where she made me take off my Navy uniform right away,” he remembers.
Beginning His Life Again
America as a whole had trouble adjusting to the return of the troops. “16 million guys and gals went into the military. So when 12 million people come back looking for jobs, there [were] no jobs. It was the law to rehire people, but I wanted to strike out on my own.” As a result, Sass started a contracting business digging ditches.
However, a job wasn’t the only thing for him when he came home. His friend’s kid sister, Betty, had grown up while he was at war. He knew immediately that he wanted to marry her. “Her mother was not too fond of me,” he laughed. “She said, ‘Bill, are you married yet?’ I said ‘No.’ And ‘Do you have a girlfriend yet?’ And I looked at Betty and said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ ‘Who you gonna marry?’ she asked. [I said,] ‘Betty. Isn’t that right?’ And Betty looked over, shrugged, and said, ‘Sure.’”
Bill and Betty dated for a few years while she finished nursing school and Sass saved his money. She was a nurse in training at the time, but Bill would take her to the Moose Club for dancing. “All the girls I’d danced with would give nasty remarks because they could tell we had something special.” They got married in 1950; that’s sixty-seven years!
Starting a Family & Moving to St. Peters
Bill and Betty Sass went on to have four kids and moved to St. Peters in 1965. There, they rented a farm on 65 acres with horses, chickens, dogs, and more. The owner sold it to a property developer, who ran out of money before they could tear down the Sass’s family home. Sass made an offer and although the property developers had already taken down the barn, the house was still available. He and his wife still live there to this day—four generations later.