By: Erin Yudt
The year is 1950. Henry Yudt Jr. had dropped out of his senior year of high school with his group of friends to work at Westinghouse in Sharon, Pa., joining his father at the electric manufacturing company. Yudt believes he is about to start his professional career, but the world has other plans.
After five years of simmering tension along the Korean Peninsula, the Korean War began on June 25, 1950. The Northern Korean People’s Army had invaded South Korea in a coordinated general attack at several strategic points along the 38th parallel. President Truman announced two days later that he was committing American forces to a combined United Nations military effort in Korea.
Yudt, being the prime age of the draft of 18, knew he was going to be selected; it was just a matter of where and when.
“My mom did not want me to be in the Army, and neither did I,” Yudt said. “I enlisted soon after the draft started. If you enlisted, you could really choose what branch you wanted.”
If men enlisted before being drafted, they had a better chance as well of being assigned a job that was not on the frontlines of the war.
“My buddies and I were able to enlist in the Navy,” Yudt said. “We were very lucky.”
Yudt’s official military career did not start until two years later in 1952 when he was 20 years old. He first was sent to Pittsburgh to fill out basic paperwork and then New York for basic training, which was the “hardest part of service” for him.
“In training, we did all kinds of exercises, but we were also placed in a large pool a lot,” Yudt said. “The main thing was they tried to get you out there knowing how to swim, and I didn’t know how to swim.”
When in this pool, the men had to swim the parameter if possible.
“I couldn’t do that,” Yudt said. “So the guy [one leading the training] held out a longboard and would push me down. I tried to climb up it because I still couldn’t swim.”
This did not change Yudt’s military course because he graduated from basic training and was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, as a seaman on the USS Kittiwake, which was a U.S. Navy Chanticleer-class submarine rescue vessel in commission from 1946 to 1994. Yudt was aboard it all four years of his service. The ship’s main job was to assist submarines and other ships coming back from overseas.
“The ship was a much smaller boat that worked with submarines,” Yudt said. “We had pipes on the ship to help get guys out. We had decompression chambers to help guys get back up to sea level safely.”
Yudt’s friends that he enlisted with were not on his ship but were still at the same Norfolk port, where he got to see them “frequently.” His one friend even got married before their four-year terms were up.
Yudt recalled about 50 men being on his ship and separated into groups of about 12 at a time for four-hour watch periods. One time at bay when he was walking on deck and not on watch, he spotted a man trying to stay afloat.
“I saw something trying to swim out there,” said Yudt. “I notified the captain, and sure enough, it was a man. The captain thanked me, and I think we [the ship] got some award for that.”
A similar scenario also occurred but on a much larger scale. When still at bay in Virginia, Yudt and his sea mates witnessed “an aircraft carrier with about 70 men flip over while trying to get back to shore.”
During Yudt’s service, there were many technological advancements being added to the military, including its first atomic vessel.
“The first atomic submarine came close to our Norfolk stop,” said Yudt. “We could go in, but I was too scared. Looking back, I do wish I went in.”
In between rescues and visits from other carrier ships, the men were off most weekends and were able to explore Virginia or try to find ways to go home, which was what Yudt often did.
“My buddies and I would hitchhike home,” said Yudt. “There was one time where three ladies picked me up and took me out to eat in Mercer. I didn’t know Eleanor [his wife] then, so it was OK. I also was able to give my parents some of the money I was making. Westinghouse workers were on strike then, so it really helped.”
There was only “one time” where Yudt got in trouble.
“My buddies and I went out drinking one night,” said Yudt. “Yes, we were kind of loud and rowdy. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, they were gone.”
Yudt asked the bartender where they went, which led him to the back of the bar.
“They were all in the back of a police wagon when I got there,” said Yudt. “They [the cops] did not see me, so I let them out the back, and we all ran back to the ship. We got a harsh talking [to] from the captain, but that was really it.”
When the men were not off and the port was not receiving a lot of ships, the ship traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Cuba, where they were tasked with a few other duties. “I had never really been outside of Mercer County before,” Yudt said. “So it was really cool to travel.
“It of course was my first time there, and man was it beautiful,” said Yudt. “We walked along the beaches, and I really could have stayed in the islands after I got out. One old lady even stopped me to ask if I could marry her daughter.”
Additionally, the ship was invited to be a part of a parade in Georgia to honor their service. The men did not receive marching training in basics, which led to marching “so poor” that they were “laughing the whole time.”
Yudt’s four-year term came to a close in 1956, but because the war was still continuing, he remained inactive for an additional four years, on call if the war became worse and in need of more men.
Looking back now, “The biggest thing I learned was to just respect everyone,” said Yudt. “There were times when we’d go out to drink, and the colored men on the ship were not served.”
Yudt had been born and raised in a predominantly African American city, but he “never really seen” this happen before until his service in the South.
“One time I was sitting at the back of a fairly empty bus,” said Yudt. “The driver yelled at me to get back to the white section. I had no idea; I rarely rode the bus. There weren’t even any colored people on the bus.”
Yudt, 89, remains open about his service to his family today, although he did not come from a military family nor did any of his children or grandchildren enlist. He thinks the military is “good for discipline” but does not want “to see anyone get hurt.”
Learn more about Yudt and watch the interview here.