valor William Desmuke

Waco native William Desmuke joined the U.S. Navy at 17 in 1963. Following basic training in San Diego, he served in the engine rooms on a variety of ships in the Pacific. He left active duty in 1967, and returned stateside. After getting married, he joined the reserves and eventually returned to active duty and served another 4-year hitch.

Photo by Mary Drennon

Axtell’s William Desmuke says the military was the best thing that ever happened to him. Raised in Waco, Desmuke described himself as a “punk kid” of 17 when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1963.

Desmuke, 71, went to San Diego, California, for approximately 11 weeks of basic training. He came home for a quick break and boarded his first ship, the USS Colahan, a destroyer used at the time to train naval reservists. Desmuke said much of the first year and a half of his service was spent taking reservists out to sea for exercises off the coast of Mexico. Afterward they would spend the weekend there.

He worked in the engine room on pumps and turbines, as well as operating the throttles before the ship, an old World War II vessel, was decommissioned. From there, he went aboard the USS Eversole, another Destroyer Class ship.

He was part of what’s known as the Little Beaver Squadron, established during World War II. The Little Beaver, the mascot of Destroyer Squadron 23, was a cartoon figure popular in the comic strip series, “Red Ryder,” which featured an Indian character known as Little Beaver. The ship’s crew during WWII was said to be “busy as beavers,” and the name stuck, as did the mascot of Little Beaver painted by a sailor, depicting the cartoon character shooting an arrow at Japan’s prime minister, Tojo.

The Eversole was the ship he was deployed on for his first overseas assignment when he was 18.

Across the Pacific

The first stop was Hawaii, where they took in the sights for a couple of days. Then, it was off to Yokosuka, Japan, which turned out to be quite the excursion for Desmuke. While there, the ship needed repairs and was dry-docked for about 30 days, leaving the crew time to explore. The most memorable moment for him was when he was in the chow line and got called out because someone wanted to see him on deck. When he went up, there was his brother, who was also in the Navy.

“His ship and my ship happened to be in port at the same time,” Desmuke said. “Of course, when you’re overseas and haven’t seen family in a while, it’s always good.” Desmuke and his brother visited with each other and saw the sights.

Once the Eversole was repaired, it was on to Naval Base Subic Bay in the Philippines. It was an interesting visit. “A lot of people were born and raised on sampans,” Desmuke said. Sampans are flat-bottomed Chinese wooden boats, usually with cabins on top. “They were extremely poor,” he added, saying locals would often scavenge scraps discarded from the base kitchen.

Hot times in the engine room

After a few weeks, the ship moved to Hong Kong for rest and relaxation. Desmuke said they worked six hours on and six hours off, leaving little time to accomplish much between shifts, including badly needed rest. Sailors had to shower after every shift working in the engine room, which could be as hot as 130 degrees.

From Hong Kong, the Eversole deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War, where it supported operations by conducting shore bombardments. Some of the larger ships had guns that target from 15 miles, Desmuke said. Stationed in Subic Bay, there was no real navy to fight back. Desmuke, down in the engine room, said he never really felt in danger. The thing that bothered him was the constant shaking of the ship from the guns.

The Eversole went on to the Taiwan Strait, also known as the Formosa Strait. The U.S. Navy was there to ensure China would not attack Taiwan. At times the sea was so rough, the men lashed themselves into their bunks.

Desmuke returned to the States in 1967 and left the service. He met his wife, Cynthia Crews, in Waco, and they married in June 1967.

In the late 1970s, a friend talked Desmuke into joining the reserves. He eventually applied for active duty and spent four more years in the Navy.

Desmuke started working for the VA but developed rheumatoid arthritis. From there, his health went downhill, and it was determined he had been exposed to asbestos. In 2008, he took full disability. He eventually wound up in a wheelchair.

Today, Desmuke and his wife have been married for nearly 50 years. They have one child, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Desmuke is pleased with the outcome of his service. “That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “It woke me right up.”

“Voices of Valor,” featuring stories about Central Texas veterans, publishes every Sunday in the Waco Trib. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, email Voices of Valor is proudly sponsored by Johnson Roofing.

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