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Centenarian remembers Mare Island in World War II and Napa as it was

Mare Island in World War II (Mare Island Naval Shipyard photo/WikiCommons)

As Hal Halloran watched the two crippled destroyers coming into Mare Island, he had one feeling: “Mad.”

Halloran was a machinist at the naval base when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The U.S.S. Cassin and U.S.S. Downes had been in dry dock in Hawaii alongside the battleship U.S.S. Pennsylvania that day when a Japanese bomb ignited a fire on the Downes that consumed both ships.

“They welded some plates, temporary bows, on them” and brought the wrecked ships into Mare Island.

Halloran and his fellow shipyard workers rebuilt the ships almost from scratch, using what they could salvage from the originals. The Downes was returned to service in November of 1943 and the Cassin in February of 1944.

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“I think I was in the right place I could do the most good,” Halloran, now 100, says of his wartime experience fitting out and repairing combat ships.

Halloran grew up in Napa, the grandchild of immigrants, his mother of German roots, his father of Irish. He remembers an idyllic small town.

“We knew everybody for several blocks around,” he says. “It was a very happy childhood.”

They had a house at Pine and Wilson streets downtown, and later moved to a house on First Street, near Wilson.

“When we first moved, we didn’t have city water,” he said. “We had a well in the basement and a tank house out back.”

When he was 16, he got a job at Levinson’s Pharmacy, one of five downtown drug stores, in the building now occupied by Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company and Napa Running Company. His job was to deliver prescriptions and other goods to customers. He worked nights and weekends making deliveries aboard a sporty Harley Davidson motorcycle.

The delivery boys for the other drug stores “were envious because I had a motorcycle.”

Among his customers was a woman named May, who ran the most prominent bordello in town, located roughly where Clinton Street and Socol Avenue meet today. “She was crazy about astrology,” so when the latest astrology magazines came out, he’d take a trip to “May’s Place” to make the delivery.

After high school, Halloran took the test to qualify to be an apprentice at Mare Island. He got a good score, but it still took a couple of years to get a position. In 1940, he began his apprenticeship to be a civilian machinist.

His specialty was repairing and installing guns and the complicated systems for operating them and supplying them with ammunition.

After the fighting started, Halloran and his fellow workers spent time mostly on damaged destroyers and cruisers. He particularly remembers working on the H.M.S. Orion and H.M.S. Liverpool, British light cruisers brought half way around the world to get expert repairs after being damaged in combat in the Mediterranean.

At first, he worked as a civilian, and he was temporarily exempted from the draft because of a bout of Bell’s Palsy, a temporary paralysis of the facial muscles.

By October of 1944, however, he was recovered enough to be drafted into the Navy. During his boot camp in San Diego, the commander of the nearby naval repair yard approached him for help. He had heard from some fellow Napans about Halloran’s skill with guns. If the young man could fix a couple of troublesome guns aboard some ships under repair, the commander promised a nice promotion.

Halloran fixed the guns and was rewarded by being elevated to Machinist Mate 1st Class. He continued to repair damaged vessels throughout the war.

In the meantime, he had met and married a young lady named Fernanda Podesta.

“I saw this cute little Italian blonde girl at St. John’s church at 10:30 Mass,” he recalls. He asked his sister – who “knew just about everyone in town” — for an introduction. His sister let Fernanda, known as Fern, know that her brother would like to meet her the next week after Mass.

“Fern made sure she didn’t go to the 10:30 Mass because she didn’t want to meet any more sister’s brothers,” he said with a laugh.

Halloran was persistent, however, and eventually convinced her to go for a car ride. “Everything went pretty well,” he said, and a little more than a year later, they were married.

As soon as the war ended, he got orders for his first and only deployment outside the U.S., aboard the U.S.S. General George M. Randall. The huge transport vessel had been part of the planned invasion of Japan but was quickly repurposed to bring troops back home.

The ship picked up about 5,000 soldiers and marines – including three men he knew from Napa – and brought them home.

He was discharged in 1946. He and Fern returned to Napa. He resumed his job at Mare Island, and Fern was a buyer for Carithers Department Store.

Together, they raised daughter Cheryl. He now has one grandchild and two great grandchildren. The whole family remains in the area, he said.

Halloran worked at Mare Island, in a series of increasingly responsible supervisory jobs, until he retired 1976 after suffering a serious heart attack and resulting major surgery.

During his career, he developed a reputation for pulling off tricky or experimental jobs. Among his favorite tasks was installation of the huge doors and launch equipment for the U.S.S. Halibut, the first submarine designed specifically to deliver guided missiles, on the front lines of the Cold War.

After retirement, Halloran kept himself busy with various hands-on projects, including building an elaborate pool house at their Browns Valley home, and learning to build cabinets.

Fern died in 2008. Halloran has been living lately at The Meadows in Napa. He turned 100 in July.

He says he remembers fondly the old days downtown, when there were many shops serving needs of locals.

“Now you need to go out of town if you need a nice suit,” he said.

He also mourns the loss of Mare Island, which closed in 1996.

“I think it was a dirty shame,” he said, “because there was tremendous, good experience down there, tremendous.”

Today at 100, he is vigorous but he has “mixed feelings” about reaching this age.

“I’m very fortunate and I thank goodness every night” that his health is good, he said. “But when you start thinking how many years are there after 100, can’t be too many. That’s the downside of being 100.”

Although he never served in active war zones, he is proud of his wartime service. He said his job allowed him to use his talent and experience to make the strongest possible contribution to the war effort.

“I think it was a very good experience,” he said. “I think it’s good for everyone to have a tour in the military. It teaches you things, discipline among them.”

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