Friday, November 09, 2012

Double duty

John Yates served in the Navy for his native England and later for his adoptive country.

Yates as a 20-year-old British sailor.

Courtesy of John Yates

Yates as a 20-year-old British sailor.

John and Shirley Yates, who live in Moneta with their dog, Cricket, are active in the Virginia Inland Sailing Association.

SHERESE GORE | Laker Weekly

John and Shirley Yates, who live in Moneta with their dog, Cricket, are active in the Virginia Inland Sailing Association.

John Yates' childhood is one of air raid sirens and incendiary bombs, of days and nights spent under the kitchen table. Fifty years of living stateside has softened his accent, but not his memories.

The 83-year-old veteran, who lives in Moneta, served in the military for two different nations. He recently recalled the stories of his past as a young boy in war-torn Great Britain and later as a serviceman for his native country and for his adoptive one.

As a young child, Yates lived the life of a privileged son of a "very well-off family." His father was heir to a successful business whose holdings included a factory and multiple stores with numerous employees. Befitting of his social order, Yates was sent to boarding school when he was 5 years old.

When he was 10, in anticipation of a German aerial attack, Yates, along with hundreds of thousands of other British children, was separated from his family and sent to the countryside as a safety measure under Operation Pied Piper.

After their factory was bombed in September 1940, the family business no longer was operable. Yates' father, like many who were displaced, was assigned to work for the war effort in a factory that modified flying boats. Norah, his mother, and Shirley, his sister, were placed on an assembly line in a Spitfire factory.

The young Yates and a cousin were sent to live with a woman in Kent. On the second night in the woman's care, a "hellacious air raid" took place, recalled Yates. The children dove beneath the kitchen table as every window in the house shattered.

The next morning, their caretaker led the children outside to see the source of the commotion: Jutting out of a great mound of earth were the fins of a half-buried bomb, Yates said.

A local bomb squad removed the bomb, and it was placed in a stand and mounted. The caretaker charged six pence for visitors to view the weapon.

"And sure enough, people from far and wide came to see this wonderful bomb,." Yates said.

The bombings and devastation, however, didn't interupt his education.

"It didn't matter if it was a damned air raid or not, everybody had to go to school. It was not acceptable to say, 'the house was bombed or I couldn't get my homework in because the whole street was demolished,'" he said.

At 15, after reuniting with his family, Yates was accepted into an apprenticeship program in the Royal Navy aboard a sailing ship. It was "a golden opportunity," he said. He served six months in the military during the war.

After the war ended, Yates, in his early 20s, served as a naval officer, sailing around the world and rising to the rank of first officer.

"The whole of Europe was destitute, starving, horrible stuff. That was a vacuum that had to be filled by countries that had plenty. All that had to be transported, and it was transported on ships," he said.

After the war, Yates' parents and sister moved to the United States. His parents settled in Florida.

"My plans were to spend six months [in Florida] and go back to England, go back to my ships and go around the world."

But a light went on, Yates said. "John, you need to go back to the States and start again," he recalled telling himself.

So instead of renewing his enlistment with the Royal Navy, Yates filled out immigration papers to the United States. The Korean War was raging, and he was told by U.S. immigration officials to register with the Selective Service; failing to do so might come back to haunt him if he ever wanted to become an American citizen, they said.

"I had no problem with that. I thought, two years in the Army? Shoot. When you're only 22, 23, it's no problem."

In 1952, Yates moved to Florida and was drafted into the U.S. Army while still a British subject.

From Camp Polk, La., he carried on a courtship by correspondence with his niece's former babysitter, who, like his sister, was named Shirley. She would later become his wife.

The "good old Southern boys" at Camp Polk took a liking to the young Brit, even though, he said, he was getting breaks and being excused from the tough duty.

His entire platoon "was getting shipped out to some damned country or another," Yates said, while he stayed behind. He finally addressed his sergeant about the situation.

"Yates, we saw that you'd just come to this country, and you'd been over there in England during the war, and figured you'd like to stay here, have long weekends, see your family," was his sergeant's response, Yates recalled.

Later that year, Yates was assigned to the military police in Frankfurt, Germany, his choice of duty. The Korean War was over, and Yates' duties were light. He mailed his paychecks to Shirley, and in March 1955, after completing his two-year tour, the couple married.

In 1957, Yates became a citizen of the United States. Through the G.I. Bill, he graduated from the University of Florida's engineering program and found work at DuPont in Chattanooga, Tenn.

They, along with their three children, lived in a home on the Tennessee River. Yates' ties with the water were never severed; they used sailing as a form of cheap entertainment for the family.

Yates accepted a transfer to Martinsville in 1975 only after being assured by his manager that there was a lake nearby. The couple, who moved to the lake when Yates retired in 1993, have been members of the Virginia Inland Sailing Association since the 1970s.

"If I had to pick on some real negative things surrounding my interface with Americans," said Yates. "I'd be hard-pressed to find something."