On Apr. 20, 1942, a young lawyer from Grand Rapids, MI joined the United States Navy and was commissioned an ensign. A former male model, Jerry Ford was featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine with then girlfriend model Phyllis Brown. He’d worn his Navy uniform for the shoot.
Because of his collegiate athletic record as a star football player, young Ford was assigned to the physical training unit headed by former boxing champion Gene Tunney, called “The Tunney Fish.”
After an indoctrination course at Annapolis, Ensign Ford was sent to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to train hundreds of aviation cadets in the Navy’s V5 training program. It was easy shore duty, but Ford wanted to be in combat instead. It took him a year of writing letters to his superiors, but Ford won out, and was sent to Norfolk, VA for gunnery training, and then assigned to the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey, then being fitted out at Camden, NJ, where he was named director of physical training, with additional duties as navigation officer. The ship steamed through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific Ocean, where it joined the US Navy’s Third Fleet, under the command of Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey.
The Monterey took part in every major naval engagement in the South Pacific, and in support of landings at the Japanese held Gilbert Islands, Truk, Tinian, Saipan, and Palau, the Philippines, Wake Island, Formosa, and Okinawa. Her most difficult encounter was
not with the Imperial Japanese Navy, however, but with a typhoon that struck the 3rd Fleet Force on Dec. 18, 1944. Ford narrowly escaped death by almost being swept overboard in the storm, but 800 sailors were lost in what came to be called “The Great Pacific Typhoon,” as well as 186 aircraft lost or damaged, three destroyers sunk, and seven damaged.
Recalled Mr. Ford later, “During the storm, our carrier caught fire. I was in the sack (sleeping) below at the time when General Quarters was sounded, and I ran up to the flight deck. The ship was rolling violently, at least 25-30 degrees, and I slid across the deck like a toboggan. I put my feet out, and---fortunately!—my heels hit the little rim that surrounds the flight deck. I was heading straight for the ocean.
“I spun over onto my stomach, and luckily dropped over the edge onto the catwalk just below. We lost five seamen or officers during that storm---sliding over the side and into the sea—so I guess I was one of the lucky ones.”
Altogether, Ford served 37 months on active duty with the Navy, returning home to Grand Rapids with the Naval Reserve rank of lieutenant commander, 10 battle stars on his chest, 70 days’ accumulated leave with pay, and excellent marks in his service record from his superior officers, such as Capt. L.T. Hundt of the Monterey, who gave Ford a maximum rating of four.
The comments in his Navy personnel file included “Excellent leader, resourceful, steady, at his best in situations dealing directly with people because he commanded the respect of all.” That assessment also held true during Ford’s later political career from Congress through the American Presidency.
The lowest rating that Ford ever received was 3.7 out of a possible four (and this on shore duty or in training.) Another comment on his wartime service was “Excellent organizer.” He returned to his former law practice at age 32, married, raised a family, ran for Congress as a Republican, and was elected to 14 terms, serving also as House Minority Leader during the Presidencies of Democratic foe Lyndon Johnson and GOP ally Richard Nixon.
During 1963-64, Congressman Ford served on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his next door office mate on The Hill when they both served together in the US House of Representatives. JFK had come to Congress with Nixon in the Class of 1948, with Ford joining them in 1949 following his first election in 1948.
In his 1979 memoirs entitled A Time to Heal, President Ford recalled his wartime service thus: “Our planes blasted Makin Island in the Gilberts, then moved southwest to hit the Japanese base at Kavieng on New Ireland. We really clobbered Kavieng, waves of planes bombing the port on Christmas morning 1943, and sinking enemy ships.
“As a gunnery officer, my job was to stand on the fantail and direct the crew firing the 40mm antiaircraft gun. The Japanese planes came after us with a vengeance.
“We had many general quarters calls, and it was as much action as I’d ever hoped to see…Just then, the Japanese planes attacked. The noise was deafening, as our gunners opened up with everything they had. A torpedo from one of the planes nearly hit us and crashed into the side of the cruiser USS Canberra instead.
“Another torpedo smashed into the USS Houston, another cruiser. After a fierce few minutes, the attack was over. Both of our cruisers were dead in the water.
“Other ships in the task force began towing them away, but they could only proceed at a speed of about four knots. At dawn the next day, we were less than 80 miles off the coast of Taiwan, a sitting target for the Japanese. They attacked us all day long. Our guns blasted away, and finally drove them off.”
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