Varians at Sea: A Veterans Day Salute

November 11, 2018

During my admittedly erratic meander through ancestral time and cyberspace, I’ve come across several mentions of the ship USS Varian (DE 798), a 1,400-ton Buckley-class destroyer escort that  accompanied Atlantic convoys during WWII and helped sink two German submarines. Varian is not a very common name. Could there be a connection? 

 

From left: USS Varian, photographed while she was operating out of Miami, summer 1945. Battle of Midway hero Bertram S. Varian, Jr. My brother George Varian, who joined the Navy during his senior year of high school. Click images to enlarge.

 

Like many other naval vessels, the ship was named for a fallen service member. 

 

According to "The Evolution of Ship Naming in the U.S. Navy" an article on the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) website, most destroyer antisubmarine patrol and escort ships were named “in honer of members of the naval service killed in action in World War II.” 

 

Bertram S. Varian, Jr., my fifth cousin once removed, was one of them. 

 

 

Thumb through the 1937 Boise High School Courier, and you’ll find the smiling 16-year-old junior sporting his ROTC uniform. Elsewhere in the yearbook, Bert is hailed as a “lucky boy” who made it to the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, where he won the first heat but was eliminated in the second.  

 

Bert enlisted in the Navy two years after graduation, and became an aviation cadet. Four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise VII (CV 6),  which was stationed in the Pacific. According to Stephen L. Moore’s stirring, meticulously researched Pacific Payback: The Carrier Aviators Who Avenged Pearl Harbor at the Battle of Midway, Bert was among seven rookie ensigns assigned to the vessel’s Bombing Squadron Six (VB-6), which had recently lost several men to transfers. The young pilots received additional bombing practice, and in June 1942 found themselves fighting in the critical Battle of Midway 

 

According to the Varian entry in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships on the NHHC website, on June 5, 1942, Bert “flew with the third division of ‘Bombing Six’ in their attack against the Japanese carrier Akagi. [The squadron] pressed home their attack, often diving to very low altitudes to ensure their bomb’s delivery, and severely crippled Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s flagship.”

 

“Of the thirty-three Enterprise SBDs [scout plane/dive bombers] launched against the Japanese carriers, sixteen planes failed to return,” writes Moore in Pacific Payback. He documents Bert’s final hours when, fuel tanks punctured, he lands in the water about 50 miles northeast of the Japanese fleet. “Varian and his gunner, ARM3c Charles Young, were seen to climb into their life raft.” And they were never seen again. 

 

Varian family historian Howard E. Bartholf is my sixth cousin once removed. An Army veteran who served in Vietnam, he is also the father of two service members (one active duty, one retired). Howard is the author of Camp Merritt, the history of a World War I Army base in Bergen County, New Jersey. Through his Varian and military history research, Howard has learned that Bert, the son of an Idaho State Supreme Court justice, held several jobs in high school, working for the Idaho Candy Company, the Idaho Power Company, and the Olof Nelson Construction Company. Before enlisting, Bert attended Boise Junior College, and during off hours enjoyed tennis, swimming, and fencing.

 

The "Bombing Six" aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, June 3, 1942. Bert Varian is standing, third from right. (Photo by U.S. Navy photographer William T. Barr.)  Bert Varian in civvies. (Photo courtesy  of Howard E. Bartholf.) Click images to enlarge.

 

In 1992, Howard attended a 50th anniversary gathering of Midway veterans, where he was able to speak with some of Bert’s surviving squadron-mates, one of whom said Bert was seen helping Charles into the life raft. The veterans feared that Bert and Charles may have been picked up by the Japanese, questioned, then thrown overboard, their hands bound and their legs weighted down with water-filled gas tanks, which reportedly happened to other downed aviators.

 

Ensign Bertram S. Varian was 21 when he disappeared. He was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross, and his name is engraved in the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The ship named in his honor was launched by his sister Barbara Brunkow in November 1943, and earned two battle stars for her Word War II service.

 

Some two decades later, my brother George enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was 17 years old and knew nothing of Bertram. But he says he  “always wanted to be a sailor.” As a boy, George was captivated by the World War II TV documentary series Victory at Sea: “I always loved the sound of the opening music. And the sight of the big waves.” 

 

Because of his age, George needed a parent’s permission to join the service (our father signed for him). He enlisted under a delayed-entry program while still in high school; after graduation, he drove a garbage truck at Orchard Beach, in the Bronx, for two months, then reported for duty in August 1965. 

 

“I had a satchel with my underwear, socks, t-shirts,” George recalls. “There I was, on my way downtown. Mom told later me she was crying as she watched me go down the street, while I looked like I didn’t have a care in the world. I wanted to get out of the house. I wanted to go to Vietnam.” 

 

“I wasn’t afraid,” he adds. “When you’re young, you’re stupid.”             

 

But fate had other plans for my brother: 

 

“Every time, I ended up going in the other direction.”  

 

George’s journey began at boot camp on the shores of Lake Michigan, followed by a stint in a floating barracks in Annapolis, then back to the Great Lakes to train to become an electrician, something he’d shown an aptitude for during testing. 

 

“I got back a week early for school, so they stuck me in the records room to work as a gopher,” he recalls. “There was an attractive young lady there, and I took her out.” 

 

A friend on base was just back from Vietnam, where he'd served on a swift boat. George decided that’s what he wanted to do.

 

“I was 17, almost 18, and you think you’re invincible,” he says. So much so that, when tryouts were announced for the Underwater Demolition Teamwhose personnel would be used to form SEAL teams—George decided to give it a go.

 

A former high school gymnast, he found the calisthenics portion of the test easy. “Then we had to run one mile in under six minutes,” he recalls. During the last-quarter mile he started throwing up his breakfast, and one of the test administrators suggested he stop. George responded with an expletive and kept going. Next was a grueling swim test—“four types of strokes, 50 yards each, no splashing.” Finally, the few men remaining were asked to spell their names, backwards.

 

Afterward, George hobbled over to a fence and dry heaved. The man who’d suggested he stop told him, “You’re our kind of guy.” 

 

George completed his electrician training and eagerly awaited his new assignment. “Everybody was getting orders for the Pacific, to go to Vietnam,” he says. But as the days went on, he didn't hear anything. Then he saw the girl in the records room. “She says, ‘You’re never going to believe this—you had orders for underwater demolition, three weeks’ start! I sent them back. I got you on a ship coming back from Vietnam that’s not scheduled to go again until six months after you’re done.’ ” She stopped when she saw the look on his face. 

 

“Wait, you wanted to go?” 

 

The would-be SEAL ended up serving as an electrician on the destroyer USS Richard E. Kraus (DD 849), which was named for a 19-year-old Chicago-born private first class killed in action on Pelieu Island in October 1944.

 

The ship would take George to the North Atlantic—“just below the Arctic Circle in winter, a crappy detail”—Europe, the Caribbean. There was a tension-filled detail in the Mediterranean during the Six-Day War, and an “around the world in 80 days”-style trek that included stops in South Carolina, Florida, Puerto Rico, Brazil, the Azores, Portuguese Angola, Mozambique, Madagascar, Bahrain . . . 

George never made it to Vietnam. But he did earn a letter of appreciation from W.C. Thayer, commanding officer of the destroyer USS Stickell (DD 888), which was tied up next to George's ship back in the States. On the evening of November 30, 1967, George saw smoke billowing from a Stickell hatch. He alerted his quarterdeck watch officer. Then, anticipating a loss of shore power, he switched to the emergency diesel generators. 

 

“I organized a fire party and went to their engine room,” George recalls. “We fought the fire for 45 minutes. You’d think it would be bright, but it wasn’t. It was gray, with a red glow.” 

 

George "donned an OBA [oxygen breathing apparatus] and entered the after engineroom," the letter of appreciation states. "With your capable assistance in removing sections of the switchboard and spraying CO2 on the hot molten metal, this ship was able to extinguish the fire and remove any further complications.”

 

George separated from active duty in 1969, then spent another six years in the reserves. He’s a married father of two girls, grandfather to two more, and Supervisor of Mechanics at City College, in Manhattan, where he earned a BA in Sociology. 

 

George can’t remember the name of the young woman in the records department who diverted his orders for Vietnam. But 50 years later he thinks of her with gratitude.

 

“I hope she had one of the best lives possible,” he says. “Because without her, I might not be here.” 

Up on the roof: George with the author at City College, New York. Photo by Peter Bloch.

 

Photo of Bertram S. Varian , Jr., in civvies courtesy of Howard Bartholf.

 

This series on family history, mysteries, and the city is a gift to my relatives and, I hope, a fun read for everyone else. Where’s your family from? Do you have genealogy anecdotes or research tips to share? Feel free to comment below. (Your email address will not be visible.)

 

Previous posts: City in the SkyWhy George Washington Stopped at Mrs. Varian’s Tavern; Original Isaac

 

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