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Dakota Life: Sargent Shriver, Camelot knight and 1st head of the Peace Corps, went to war on the USS South Dakota

Dakota Life: Sargent Shriver, Camelot knight and 1st head of the Peace Corps, went to war

George McGovern with President John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver who was serving as the U.S. Ambassador to France

Reprinted from Feb 11, 2016

The USS South Dakota was a legendary battleship in World War II, fighting well in big battles, wounded often and highly decorated.

She won the hearts of Americans despite a short, five-year career.

“But in that short life-time she covered herself with more honors and glory than most other ships realize in much longer periods of service,” wrote Paul Stillwell in his 1972 history of the South Dakota. “Because of her World War II exploits against the Japanese in the South Pacific, this mighty battleship became a legend before she was a year old.”

When the new ship was christened June 7, 1941, 400 South Dakotans were there as Vera Bushfield, wife of South Dakota Gov. Harlan Bushfield, smashed a champagne bottle against the USS South Dakota’s hull as she was launched in Camden, New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia.

She took the name of the World War One armored cruiser, USS South Dakota and her name again will grace a brand-new attack submarine being built in Groton, Connecticut over the next few years.

Last week, the “pre-commissioning unit,” of the sub USS South Dakota (SSN), including Cmdr. Ron Withrow with four of the 60 crew members already assigned, visited South Dakota. In Pierre and Sioux Falls, they saw parts and photos and writings of the two previous sea-going South Dakotas.

“We want to forge a relationship with the people of South Dakota,” Withrow told South Dakotans many times last week, including during addresses to both houses of the legislature in Pierre.

Diane Diekman, a retired Navy captain and president of the board of the Battleship South Dakota Memorial in Sioux Falls, says the new sub will provide new opportunities for the state to remember its connection to two former Navy vessels while looking forward to another.

“It’s good for publicity and I hope it helps more people hear about it,” Diekman told the Capital Journal.

One of the things available now through the memorial are interviews done with crewmembers of the battleship South Dakota in 2001 and transcribed by Diekman.

One interview, however,was done much earlier, in 1969, with perhaps the best known person who served on the South Dakota, although it isn’t widely mentioned in recent decades.

Sargent Shriver, who was part of JFK’s Camelot not only as husband of President Kennedy’s sister, Eunice, but as first director of the Peace Corps, was a young ensign on the maiden cruise of the USS South Dakota.

He grew up in an old-money family in Maryland and graduated from Yale before signing up to serve in the war.

As a young man, Shriver boarded the South Dakota on her maiden cruise, as an ensign in “either December of ’41 or January of ’42,” he told an interviewer in 1969.

By the time the ship was in the war zone, he was in charge of a battery of 20 mm anti-aircraft guns.

Shriver gave a vivid portrait of serving on the South Dakota and of war at sea in the interview.

The battleship had several captains during her active five-year career, but Captain Capt. Thomas Gatch is credited with winning her its most plaudits for fighting.

He also was famous for running a not-so-tight ship, emphasizing fighting, especially gunnery, over starched collars and ties, said his crew, including Shriver.

“A lot of people said this (the South Dakota) was a very bad-looking U.S. Navy ship, but Captain Gatch was never worried about how it looked. All he was interested in was whether it would fight effectively and he transmitted that spirit and concentration on the fighting ability of the South Dakota to everybody in it. So they didn’t care about anything except that.”

“I’ll tell you what he did, that I thought was very valuable. He got everybody focused on what the job was, namely, fighting. It didn’t make any difference to Captain Gatch whether you had on your uniform exactly correct, or whether your shoes were shined exactly right, or whether your tie was on exactly right, he was interested in whether you were going to be an effective fighting member of the South Dakota crew when it got into action.”

“He and Bull Halsey were very much alike. When Bull Halsey took command of the South Pacific Fleet, everybody was walking around in white uniforms, and it was so-called spit and polish, and if you didn’t have your tie on at the right time you were in trouble, and so on. Halsey told everybody, just take those ties off. He said, ‘You can get rid of the white uniforms,’ and he started wearing khaki uniforms all day long, and they next thing you knew, they cut the sleeves off, halfway down, and people were comfortable in that hot tropical climate, and they began to think about how to fight rather than how you looked. Or how the ship looked.”

After fiery battles in the South Pacific, Shriver remained on the South Dakota as it limped back for repairs at the Brooklyn shipyard and then went on to duty off the coast of Norway in the North Atlantic.

Shriver then left the South Dakota and went to submarine school and served that way.

After the war was over, he happened to be in San Francisco when the South Dakota, now famous for her battle prowess, sailed triumphantly into home port under the Golden Gate bridge, Shriver said.

“The South Dakota came back and Admiral Halsey was on board. I had a good time that day. . . San Francisco – and California – were all decked out for the returning war heroes. . . I was in San Francisco visiting and I thought, ‘Well, gosh, I ought to go get out to my old ship and see some of my shipmates.’ I made an application to go out and I found out there were no vessels being allowed to go out. . . But I managed to finagle my way onto a launch.”

On it were the mayor, Gov. Earl Warren – later to be Supreme Court Chief Justice – and a pack of Navy brass.

“I sneaked in the rear – I was a lieutenant in an old beaten up Navy uniform and I sort of hid in the hold, while this snappy cruiser went out and came alongside the South Dakota, and they all got out and stared up the accommodation ladder. Of course, I was the last one to get out, being the most junior guy there. I came up to the top and I’d never seen the South Dakota look so splendid. The whole commanding staff of Admiral Halsey were all lined up there. Admiral Spruance was there, everybody was there in spit and polish, they we playing ‘Ruffles and Flourishes,’ the Navy band was out there and I came up over the side. I saluted the flag and then I turned around and saluted the officer of the deck, which is the procedure you follow. And there was one of my best friends who was the officer of the deck, and he nearly dropped his spyglass – you used to have to carry a spyglass – and I said hello and he said welcome aboard.”

“So I was sort of part of the official party and had to go down the lineup of people. And the next thing, I found myself shaking hands with Admiral Halsey. I looked at him and I didn’t know what to say. But as that cliché in the Navy, I shook hands and I said, ‘Admiral Halsey, my name is Lieutenant Shriver. Well done.’”

“So I congratulated Admiral Halsey on the South Dakota. To me it was really funny, because I’d never seen – when you’re on a big ship like the South Dakota, you never see anybody like Admiral Halsey or Admiral Spruance.”

But his earlier wartime duty was not so fun.

“I guess that night action off Guadalcanal is the thing I will never forget. . . The thing that scared me the most was – that very night – our ship had taken all these hits . . . Part of our ship was on fire and it was the middle of the night, we had lost four destroyers there, I’d seen men churned up in the waters, there were guys all around the place shot to pieces and there was blood all over the place and half of a person’s body would be lying in the passageway, and the executive officer – Commander Ullinger – got me on the phone and he said, ‘Shriver, can you get up that foremast? There’s an awful lot of people up on that foremast who are hurt.’ And also there are some things burning up there that disclose our position to an enemy. If you’re on fire at night, it’s obviously very easy to see you. He said, ‘Can you get up that tower and put out those things that are on fire?’ And help those guys who are either dead or dying up there.”

“Let me tell you, one place I didn’t want to go, was up that tower. It was really horrible. You’d be going up the ladder and half the steps would be – the rungs would be shot out. There were these gaping holes you couldn’t see because it was midnight. You could just fall right down through a hole and maybe go four or five decks down. What’s more, it stunk so. God, it smelled terrible. It was all these – blood and guns and skin and bones all over the place. And in the middle of it, you could hear these guys groaning. You really couldn’t see them. You could feel them. I swear to God, the last thing I ever wanted to do was go up that tower. He said can you go up there and I said sure I could go up there.”

“ . . and I’ll never forget that climb up that tower as long as I live. Y’know, you get your very good friend up there, lying there, shot, with bullet shrapnel, all you could do would be to give the guy a shot of morphine . . . But it was really grizzly. . . So the problem was to walk out to where these flag fragments were burning and grab them and throw them down so they wouldn’t any longer expose our position. . . it was damn scary because you had to walk out on a very little ledge and hold onto a wire and grab these flags and we were doing about 25 knots through the middle of the night and screaming in the wind and all these people up there sick and wounded and the people screaming and the blood and the stink and everything, boy, I really hated that. . . we must have lost 25 or 30 men up in that tower.”

After the war Shriver not only married into the Kennedy clan – Maria Shriver is one of his children – Shriver forged another link to South Dakota: he ran on Sen. George’s McGovern’s ticket for vice president during the South Dakota Senator’s ill-fated presidential run in 1972.

Shriver made a faint attempt at the presidency in 1976 then left politics, mostly, for private business.

But he was a widely admired man, for helping his wife start the Special Olympics as well as for his legacy with the Peace Corps. He served as ambassador to France. He ran LBJ’s War on Poverty, starting Head Start, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), and Job Corps.

He was a part of the East Coast, liberal Democratic elite. But also a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, handsome but self-effacing, historians said.

He lived to be 95, dying in 2011.

“It’s hard to find another American figure where the disproportion between how much he accomplished and how little he is known is so large,” Scott Stossel, his biographer, told the Washington Post at Shriver’s death. “For 12 years, Sarge was always at the center stage, or just off center stage, of American history.”

Shriver was asked, in that 1969 interview, if his war experience influenced his leadership of the Peace Corps.

“I think and I hope it isn’t any longer feasible to settle differences between people by armed warfare. . . we have to have new ways of expressing our belief in our system of government or our conception of man. One of the ways of expressing belief in the American system of government and in our philosophy of man is by serving in something like the Peace Corps. By doing that, I think in a sense we are bearing witness to what has made our country great, just as the people do in wartime by fighting. I think now we are waging the peace. I don’t know who it was that said it, but it’s true: ‘It’s more difficult to wage peace than it is to wage war.’ The Peace Corps is in the business of waging peace. It’s a very difficult business, but in my judgment, it is just as important as waging war.”