FARRAGUT STATE PARK, Idaho – Gerald Ives was 17 when he arrived at Farragut Naval Training Station.
The Army had drafted him, but Ives – a Spokane kid who struggled at school – didn’t want to spend World War II in a damp foxhole. Instead, he enlisted in the Navy.
After eight weeks of boot camp, Ives was a sailor, en route to the battles of the Pacific.
A total of 293,000 sailors were trained at Farragut between 1942 and 1946. The Navy built the inland base for security. Hidden away in the Idaho Panhandle, it was both safe from the Japanese and so remote that even the most homesick of recruits had trouble going AWOL. Most recruits, like Ives, were just 17.
On Saturday, about 250 Navy veterans and their families gathered at Farragut, now a state park, for an annual reunion. Many had their picture snapped with “Farragut Rite of Passage,” a bronze sculpture of a sailor. The piece by Coeur d’Alene artist Dave Clemons pays tribute to the youth, ideals and sacrifice of the “boots” who trained at Farragut.
“You wouldn’t believe that the sailors here sunk the Jap fleet. I know, because I was one of them,” said Ives, glancing around the crowd of gray-haired men, some stooped with age and a few in wheelchairs. “Oh, it was bitter.”
Ives survived a fiery kamikaze attack that killed 250 of his shipmates aboard the USS California.
“You’re naïve when you’re 17,” said Derrel Gibbins, of Fremont, Calif., explaining how he’d enlisted in the Navy. “I wanted to fly. My second choice was to be on a submarine.”
Gibbins expected to go to boot camp in San Diego, but after an influenza outbreak at the base, he was put on a troop train to Idaho. The thigh-deep snow at Farragut dismayed him.
Gibbins wound up on a destroyer. He and his shipmates spent a tense 24 hours on the Japanese coast before the peace treaty was signed, not knowing whether attacks would resume.
After the signing, “I knew then that we’d get to come home,” Gibbins said. He’d just turned 18.
For two decades, Farragut sailors have gathered each September in the spot that was their prelude to war, reminiscing about the light-hearted moments and tragedies. “Every time someone died – American, Japanese or German – somewhere, a mother cried,” one vet said.
Last year was supposed to be the final reunion. With the youngest sailors in their late 70s, organizers said they were getting too old and tired to arrange the event. But many showed up again on Saturday to see the sailor sculpture on its new platform outside the Brig Museum, which houses artifacts from the years that Farragut was a training station.
“He’s all-weather. He’s bronze,” said Randell Butt, manager of Farragut State Park, assuring veterans that the statute would survive the elements.
The sculpture is informally known as “Mac.” “It’s typical of what you saw,” said George Emauelson of Bloomington, Minn. “You’d go into Coeur d’Alene or Sandpoint or Spokane and it was all sailors.”
Farragut had a population of 50,000 between the boots and the staff, making it one of Idaho’s largest cities at the time.
The brig is one of the few remaining training structures left at Farragut. As Emanuelson strolled through the museum, he paused beside a narrow cot. As a new recruit, he spent a month in Farragut’s hospital with pneumonia. Nurses woke him up every four hours to make sure he took his sulfa pills.
“They made us keep every other window open in the barracks, even in winter, until the doctors complained that they were getting too many pneumonia cases,” said Emanuelson, who became an armed guard aboard merchant marine ships.
Merrill Marcy’s most vivid memories of Farragut revolve around a close call. As Marcy’s training wrapped up, an officer handed out future assignments. Boots who received red slips of paper became naval amphibians.
As Marcy was handed a red slip, he let it drop. The officer gave him a blue one instead, which landed the Bonners Ferry man a spot in the Seabees, the Navy’s construction battalions. He built warehouses and ship parts. The Navy issued him a 45-caliber pistol, but Marcy never fired it.
“I left it on the bench until it rusted,” he said.