For two brothers who never had been out of Texas, serving on a Navy ship together brought travel and adventure on the high seas. Alton Leuschner, 76, and his younger brother, Eugene, 74, joined at the same time, served together on the USS Saratoga and live today in Robinson not far from each other.
The brothers (both born at home) grew up in the country between Elm Mott and Leroy, moving later in childhood to a farm near Tokio, outside of West. Among other crops such as cotton, corn and hay, their father grew an assortment of vegetables he sold at the old Waco farmers’ market along the river in East Waco, and to area restaurants and grocery stores.
“We picked a ton of okra. I hated the farm, and he liked the farm,” Alton said of Eugene. The boys attended West schools and, because they were close in age, would often hang out; they had a good relationship. They ended up in their final year together when Alton didn’t pass a grade. “He’s dumber than me,” joked Gene, as his friends call him.
Alton attended school for four years before quitting to work briefly for the highway department, where he helped build a section of I-35 between Elm Mott and West. He soon discovered it was not for him. “It was good the first day, but after that…” he said. However, it was a motivating force to return to school. Both brothers ended up graduating at the same time.
While still in high school, a cousin introduced Gene to the Navy by inviting him to attend a weekend drill at the Naval Air Station in Dallas (Alton was sick that day). When he returned, he had decided to join. He was 17 and still in high school at the time.
“When I came home and told him (Alton) I was going to join, he said, ‘I believe I will too,’ ” Gene said.
Gene and Alton joined the reserves in the Naval Air Division in February 1960. They had the same six-year plan: one year in the reserves, two in active duty, and three more in the reserves. They went to the same reserve meetings, served in the same squadron and went on active duty together in February 1961. Both were assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CVA-60), the fifth (some say sixth) ship to carry that name. It was in dry dock when they arrived.
The Saratoga was unlike anything the brothers had ever seen. “You couldn’t see it. It was three football fields long,” said Alton. Conversely, Gene said, “I actually thought it would be bigger when they told me they had that many people, but it is pretty big.”
And big she was. Just over 1,000 feet long, she could accommodate a crew of nearly 4,000, carry between 70 and 90 aircraft, and travel at a speed of 33 knots. “I know the flight deck was 90 feet to the water,” Gene said.
Once the ship came out of dry dock, the brothers went their separate ways. Gene worked in the fuel division, fueling planes for practicing pilots on the flight deck.
Alton, who didn’t care for the cold outdoors, volunteered for a typing position that landed him in an office and off the flight deck. Although he could type, he lacked the speed needed for the job. “I had to learn to type really quickly,” he said. Alton also handed out liberty passes for the men to go ashore.
While the Leuschner boys slept in different quarters and worked in different divisions, they could spend as much time together as they liked, and life aboard the “Sara” could be fun. There were several mess halls, a movie theater and even an ice cream parlor. Mercifully, neither brother suffered from seasickness. And for the many smokers on board, including Gene and Alton (at the time), cigarettes were just a dollar a carton once you got out about three miles. “We could all smoke all over the ship,” said Alton.
“Not on the flight deck,” Gene chimed in.
“Everybody had an ashtray on their desk. I smoked at my desk all the time,” added Alton.
In addition, they could always watch the planes take off and land during their practice rounds if they were so inclined. It was a sight to see. Naval squadrons would come aboard bringing their own crew and planes. It was a hubbub of activity with planes roaring off and landing in practice flights.
Life on the Sara was fairly routine, and everything usually rolled along smoothly. But that wasn’t always the case. The adventures were just beginning.
Next week: Brothers Alton and Eugene Leuschner leave the U.S. behind as they travel the seas and surprisingly find themselves involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.