Judge Greenhill’s War Reminiscence Recalls World War II
By Jim Cullen, TSCHS staff writer
A prolific writer, as colorful in print as he was in person, Judge Greenhill in 1997 provided family and friends a detailed personal reminiscence of his and Martha’s experiences during World War II. Titled “The War Years,” the 60-page retrospective opens with the young couple’s June 15, 1940, wedding in Tyler and chronicles their story through Greenhill’s January 1946 discharge from the U.S. Navy and return to his pre-war position as a Texas Supreme Court briefing attorney.
While every veteran of the war had common experiences, there were, of course, millions of individual stories. As was the case through his life, Joe Greenhill could tell a story and, predictably, his look back at the war five decades after the fact is full of insight – and humor.
In a completely subjective fashion, we’ve drawn excerpts from the Greenhill reminiscence (lightly edited for space considerations) to illustrate his WW II-era experiences, as well as Judge Greenhill’s unique perspectives on those experiences. Our first offering tells of the Greenhills’ learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor — and what followed for the couple.
“On December 7, 1941, several of us were on a picnic at Bull Creek. We either had no car radios, or didn’t turn them on. So we didn’t learn about Pearl Harbor until late in the day. As I recall, Martha and I went by the apartment of Harry and Dinx Shuford (Martha’s brother and sister-in-law). Harry Shuford, Jr., had been born, and Mr. and Mrs. Shuford were there. The news was a shock. Lynn Milam, already in the Naval Reserve, had to leave immediately.
“The next day, December 8, the Court with its six commissioners met in its conference room on the third floor of the Capitol. There was a radio, and we listened to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech. The gloom was high and deep….Martha was then carrying Joe. There was already a “draft” of men. Those with classification “1-A” were soon called up. Because we were married and Martha was “with child,” my classification was “3-A.” I’m not sure that I would even have been called up, but volunteering seemed to be the thing to do.
“I went with Martha to New Orleans to apply for a commission in the Naval Reserve. Since I was a lawyer, the intelligence branch was thought to be the most useful service to Navy people. So many lawyers had volunteered that the Judge Advocate’s (lawyer’s) jobs were available only to lawyers over 35, and I was 28. So my application went in for the intelligence division, classification IV-S.”
Judge Greenhill’s war experience could have unfolded in an entirely different direction, his means of offering wartime service initially being up for grabs. A second notable option to the Navy was described as follows:
“…I not only applied for Navy duty right after Pearl Harbor, but I also applied for service in the FBI. Either would be worthwhile duty. Maurice Acres a Texas Phi Delta Theta, was head of the SW division of the FBI. He encouraged me to join the FBI. Abner McCall, later Dean of the Law School and President of Baylor, was in the FBI. He was a good friend whose advice I sought. Johnny Furrh had been an upperclassman in the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. He was then head of the FBI in New Mexico. I talked with him. He recommended the FBI.
“Both the FBI and the naval intelligence investigated applicants thoroughly. I didn’t hear from either until July 4, 1942. The Navy acted first, and I responded promptly.”
Judge Greenhill’s initial duty with Navy intelligence was in San Antonio, “censoring all telephone, telegraph, and cable traffic into and out of Mexico.” In May of 1943 he was detached from San Antonio and ordered to the Naval Training Facility for Small Craft at Treasure Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. There he received what he describes as “some exposure” and “the basics” in a wide range of wartime small craft sea duties, his training crafts actually shrimp boats converted for mine-sweeping duties. In one telling recollection of this training school, Greenhill gives his version of what could occasionally be considered official stupidity, and in the process revealing something of his own humanity.
“Quite often, we’d be ordered to take off-shore trips just for the sea duty experience. If the weather was bad, that was good for the experience. Once when the weather was terrible, and the safety of the shrimp boat was problematic, I just returned to the harbor and our dock on my own. There was a device on the wall in the steering area that showed the degrees of the roll of the boat, and a point at which the boat would capsize. Our rolls were dangerously close to the capsize line. I tried to keep the boat headed into the waves, but we got tossed around and had to turn around sometimes, and get in the troughs. So I came in. After a while, the people at the control post must have gotten worried about our safety. After we’d docked and were just sitting there (I wouldn’t let anybody go ashore), a call came on the radio to us, “Return to base.” I replied, “Roger, Wilco,” i.e., “Message received, will comply.” I waited a period of time for us to get in, and then I let the men go ashore…
“… I was the only officer on this shrimp boat-minesweeper, and I was the only white man on board. The Navy was segregated. All the men were black. But whatever their color, it was — to me — stupid for their lives to be risked just for the experience of it. This was particularly true when I was so completely inexperienced in controlling the boat for their safety. A real shrimp boat captain, who knew what he was doing, wouldn’t have been out there in the first place, or he would have come in without delay.”
Greenhill was eventually on a commissioned ship, headed overseas. His minesweeper assembled with a convoy of nine landing ship tanks (LSTs) and headed for Pearl Harbor from San Francisco. He describes witnessing acts there driven by men’s fear.
“A lot of the men in the LSTs were volunteers ready for duty. Others were drafted into the service. It is hard to imagine the fear, even terror, that filled some of them. During the voyages, several jumped overboard. Imagine being so afraid of being killed that you’d jump overboard. We were directed to pick them up. We never found anyone. A head is very small in a rough sea with white caps.”
Greenhill’s ship was ultimately directed to warm equatorial area operations in the Central Pacific, and he mentions his crew’s natural inclination to roll up their sleeves for comfort. Forced by an upper command directive that all sleeves must be rolled down and buttoned (to avoid severe burns in flash fires), the young executive had no choice but to enforce the directive. His men didn’t appreciate it, admitting years later he “didn’t blame them.” Shortly after implementation of that unpopular order, the ship crossed the equator, an event that triggered an initiation into Neptune’s Realms for those crossing the first time. With the shirt sleeves order clearly in mind, Greenhill’s crew, among them many “regular Navy, old salts,” put their young executive officer through his paces.
“…[T]hey made a long, narrow “pipeline” of canvas which we had to crawl through. At the far end, they had a fire hose with lots of power. They damned near drowned me. They insisted that I wear my shirt sleeves down and buttoned.”
Recalling his first Pacific typhoon, Greenhill’s assessment of human emotion was, as earlier, graphic. Referring to the storm as “terrible,” he says:
“If those storms don’t destroy you, they will scare you to death. The best a 180-foot ship can do is keep its bow into the waves at full power. There was no sleep and no meals. Mostly you just hold on, or lay down if you can. You feel sick, but it’s not seasickness, it’s fear.”
Interludes of humor did find their way into Joe Greenhill’s war experience, as they did others. One such story was about running into an old friend and the memorable evening that followed.
“…On Guam at the officers club, I ran on to Tommy Shelton, an oldfriend at UT. He was gunnery officer on a merchant ship (called “armed guard duty”). He knew the post commander, who had a jeep. Tommy borrowed it. We ate together and bruised a bottle of bourbon. Tommy drove the post commander’s jeep off a cliff. He killed that jeep. I got back to the ship as quick as I could. I felt sorry for Tommy, explaining how he had to race that jeep when some Japs jumped him. I think that the post commander bought the story. At least, Tommy got back to his ship.”
Among the more serious on-board incidents Greenhill recalls was the occasion when the ship’s senior boatswain’s mate, an “old Navy” vet who’d previously been a Boston bartender, stabbed one of the ship’s three Black enlisted men, a steward. As the ship’s executive officer, it was Greenhill’s duty to hold a “captain’s mast” to mete out discipline. The accused was, apparently unrepentant.
“The offender didn’t dislike this particular sailor. He just did not like Blacks and didn’t want any on his ship. I didn’t lecture him. I ‘busted’ him one rank. The Captain agreed. Later, on a dark night at sea, this man came up to me and said, ‘You SOB, I’m going to throw your ass overboard one of these nights.’ He could have. All I could say was, ‘If you think you’re big enough, you just try it.’ He made me uneasy on subsequent nights — which was probably his intention — but he didn’t bother me.”
When the war was over and Greenhill finally had his discharge, he returned to the Supreme Court as a briefing attorney. In the years to follow he would go on to work on Attorney General Price Daniel’s team, join a distinguished private Austin practice, and ultimately accept Governor Daniel’s appointment to the Supreme Court. It was a calling that occupied Greenhill for the next quarter of a century, right up until his 1982 retirement from the court and subsequent “of counsel” work for Baker Botts. When writing his 1997 memoir of the war, he revealingly admitted that the Bible had played an important role in his experience.
“Reading the New Testament, over and over, a lot made a difference. You could say there was nothing else to read and that would be right. When you were in areas where imminent death crossed your mind a lot, the meaning and value of the New Testament teachings and values took on new and deeper meaning. I was convinced of the truth of the Master’s teachings. At Episcopal funerals, one is buried ‘with sure and certain hope’ of the life hereafter. My conviction was beyond a ‘sure and certain hope.’”
Judge Greenhill freely admitted that the war years experience had a “profound” effect on him, including helping him realize that “money was not important, it was not nearly as important as a lot of other things, such as your family, and life itself.” It was a realization — and a guiding principle — that stayed with him the rest of his life.