US Navy, 1919-1946
Bert Oldham grew up on a farm four miles south of Marceline, the youngest of six children. He was born in 1904 and his mother died two years later. His two sisters died as children. His oldest brothers served in WWI, George in the Navy and Henry as a pilot in the Army. The youngest sons, Russell and Bert, began getting into trouble and playing hooky, so their father enrolled them in Kemper Military Academy in Boonville. At 16, Bert was waiting to graduate so that he and one of the older brothers could travel and see the world, but that brother suddenly fell in love and eloped, and Bert, in a fit of anger, ran away to St Louis, lied about his age and joined the Navy.
His first ship was the USS Huron, outfitted for tropical duty. The sailors slept in hammocks on deck, and as they sailed up the coast of China they sometimes woke to find snow on top of their blankets. At that time China was known as “the sick man of Asia,” ruled by warlords and filled with foreign merchants, whose interests were protected by their national navies. These sailors often fought amongst each other and formed various alliances. The Americans could depend on the Indian Sikhs to come to their aid in a confrontation, while the French navy was mainly composed of convicts and in bad favor with almost everyone. Bert was in China for most of the 1920’s, serving on the Yangtze River shore patrol and at one time running an officer’s club. He was what was known as a “China hand.”
He was also a “mustang,” an officer who came up through the ranks rather than going through officers candidate school. He achieved the rank of chief petty officer, and after he retired he was promoted to Lieutenant, J.G. As a chief he was on board ship once and overheard a conversation between two sailors who were out of view; one sailor, obviously new to the ship, asked what the chief was like. The other replied, “Oh, he’s an old mustang, a real s.o.b…” at which point Bert walked into view and the sailor finished “…but you’ll like him!”
In WWII his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Wasp, was torpedoed in the South Pacific. Bert was in the water for 17 hours waiting to be rescued, while there was burning oil on the water, and sharks. He was one of a group of sailors hanging onto a floating piece of the ship, while one sailor who couldn’t swim was spread-eagled on top of the debris and wouldn’t let anyone else on it. 26 officers and 167 men died, while 171 officers and 1798 men survived.
After the war, Bert retired and was living in San Francisco when he met the woman who would become his wife, Ada Ferne MacDougall. They had two daughters and eventually moved to Bert’s hometown of Marceline. Barbara (Oldham) Garvey and Nora (Oldham) Othic still live on farms outside of Brookfield and Marceline, respectively. Bert died in 1978 and Ferne in 1981.