Survivor recalls perished Naval class

Published 10:02 pm Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Joseph Rehm Jr. says he is the lone survivor of his 1944 training class from the U.S. Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Ill. (WDN Photo/ Mona Moore)

Joseph Rehm Jr. was a 16-year-old copy boy at the Washington Post when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“People were in the streets running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” he said. “When they said Pearl Harbor had been attacked, I said, ‘What in the world is Pearl Harbor?’”
Like many of his contemporaries, Rehm felt compelled to join the Navy after the attack. Because of his age, his parents had to give written permission. Rehm’s mom approved of the decision, but his father wanted him to finish school.
Rehm was born and raised in Washington, N.C. He and his family moved to Washington, D.C. when he was 12 years old.
Rehm was drafted in 1944 when he turned 18. Because he had been held back three years when he transferred from North Carolina to D.C., Rehm was still in school. His father wanted all of his kids to get diplomas and wrote a letter to the draft board to keep him in school. The request was denied.
Rehm joined the Navy. His combat training at the U.S. Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Ill., lasted only three weeks, not the three months he was told to expect.
He said he was one of the few people in the group of D.C. recruits who could shoot a gun.
Rehm did not leave basic training with the rest of his group.
“The good Lord gave me a bloody nose in the Great Lakes,” he said.
The bloody nose turned out to be a blessing. Rehm’s father told him he ran into the only surviving member of the outfit. They had all perished during one attack.
“There was 125 men in one company … That’s a lot of young boys, 18 years old,” Rehm said.
Rehm said he has never been able to learn the details of the attack, but his father’s account explained a lot for him.
Rehm was hospitalized with the bloody nose. He had a wisdom tooth removed “that froze my mouth up and they had to feed me through my veins,” Rehm said.
He remained in the hospital for more than four months before being sent to Alameda, Calif.
A “90-day wonder” threatened to court marshal Rehm.
“That’s an officer who had just got out of college,” Rehm said.
The officer accused Rehm of going AWOL to avoid being shipped off with his outfit. Once the issue was cleared up, Rehm said the base’s captain asked, “Son, what am I going to do with you? Your outfit is gone.”
“He didn’t call them ‘dead.’ He called them ‘gone.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about until Daddy told me what happened,” Rehm said.
He was given odd jobs on the base until he landed in the commissary bakery.
Rehm switched to the Air Force in 1957.
“I did that because they wouldn’t make a chief out of me and I was doing a chief’s job,” he said.
Rehm was eventually put in charge of running a post exchange in France. The highlight of being in Europe was a visit to Prussia. Rehm learned the history of his family and his connection to royalty. He said German soldiers treated him as family.
“They said, ‘You’re our ruler’ and they carried me down to places others wasn’t allowed to go,” Rehm said.