Navy Radioman, Laurel resident recalls active-duty days
By GARRETT HARR
Outlook staff writer
Leonard Bestrom was a just a boy witnessing the changing tide of history as the US and the world faced war in the 1940s.
Born in 1928, Len (as his friends call him), was a teenager in high school when he was drafted in WWII. Back then, he never missed a day of school, “Not one,” he says. Education was extremely important to him. Fortunately, the Navy gave him the opportunity to finish high school if he enlisted. He did, and he did. Three days after graduation in 1946 he reported to boot camp.
Bestrom wasn’t worried, or scared, “it was different back then,” he explained. “It was the thing you did. Defending my country.”
He and many others were shipped in converted box-cars to the five-week boot camp in San Diego.
“It took the civilian life away from me,” he said of the experience.
As per the drill all recruits face, upon Bestrom’s arrival all his clothes and personal belongings were taken away, put into a box and sent home to his family. His hair was cut sailor short and he was suited up with a uniform.
During boot camp Len recalls staying in the barracks, learning how to identify ships and taking aptitude tests which determined how he could best serve his country.
Bestrom grew up quickly in San Diego. Like him, most of the recruits were teenagers on their first trip away from home, far from their families. They learned to swim, to cook, to wash clothes and to be self-disciplined.
After the grueling weeks of training had passed, a giant white board was posted with the name and destination of each recruit. Bestrom’s fate was determined by that board.
“I was totally surprised, shocked in fact,” he said. “I had no interest in going to radio-school.” He couldn’t understand why. To this very day he doesn’t truly know the reasons.
“My best guess? I always thought it was because I was a musician,” he said, “all of us in the program were and we all knew how to use a typewriter. I played the saxophone.”
In the four-week radio school program he learned Morris code and the fundamentals of routing in message format.
Radio men during and after the war would transcribe all in-coming messages. They would type everything.
Bestrom remembers working 8-12 hour intervals listening to Morris code from America’s fleet and then sending the transcripts off to be decoded.
Most of the time he didn’t even know what he was transcribing; he listened to Morris code in one ear and Baja Country in the other while having conversations with his fellow sailors, simultaneously.
“Typing the code felt so natural,” he said. “My fingers felt connected to the sounds and would work independently.” The first place Bestrom was stationed was at the Naval computer and telecommunications station in Wahiawa, Hawaii, a land base.
The living conditions were good there Bestrom remembers. They could not make it to the mainland, because of their curfew, but the food and the job were to his satisfaction.
He worked three shifts a day, and stood watch. He communicated with returning ships and soldiers and ordered supplies. The radio and radio operators were the sole form of communication.
His second station was on the USS President Jackson which was ported out of Oakland.
“I loved being at sea,” he remembers. He doesn’t fully understand why, but he still remembers the yearning he had to be out in the Pacific.
At night aboard the USS President Jackson Bestrom said the men would play movies on the dock, or play cards under a sea of stars throughout the evenings.
It was also onboard President Jackson that the young sailor received a message from his mother. Soldiers could communicate with family through Western Union if they needed too, but usually the news was not good. His mother sent a message saying Pal, Bestrom’s dog had died.
Bestrom still thinks fondly of his time at sea. He remembers when they responded to an SOS and saved men from a sinking foreign ship that was hauling whiskey. All of the occupants were huddled together on a life raft when Len and his crew arrived.
Another time they responded to a foreign cargo ship that had gone aground in Baja Mexico.
The USS President Jackson had to attach cables between the ships to get if off of the beach.
Ported out of Oakland, Calif., Len sailed the seas down the Panama Canal, up the east coast, to Boston, Italy, Australia and the Philippines. The USS President Jackson was also responsible for hauling dependents and Navy personal all over the world. Bestrom was discharged in 1949.