Service to country, skills for a lifetime

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Margaret Plevak | May 15, 2016

DELAVAN — His military assignments took him to places as exotic and distant as Morocco, Trinidad and Cuba, and his post-war business trips had him crisscrossing the United States from Florida to California, but next week will be Dave Perkins' first trip to Washington, D.C., when he and some 200 other veterans depart Beloit and roll into the nation's capital on a fleet of buses.

“It's the chance of a lifetime, as far as I'm concerned,” said Perkins, a Delavan resident who served in the Navy from 1947 to 1952.

The trip, which runs Sunday, May 22, through Wednesday, May 25, is courtesy of VetsRoll, a nonprofit organization that gives servicemen — most of whom have last seen service decades ago — a special four-day visit to Washington at no cost to them. The vets are accompanied by assistants and a medical staff.

The participants are World War II and senior veterans in military service through 1963, and women dubbed “Rosie the Riveters,” who replaced men in the workforce during World War II.

So far, 1,325 veterans and “Rosies” have taken part in the tour, according to the VetsRoll website.

Based in South Beloit, VetsRoll was started in 2010 by John and Mark Finnegan, the sons of a World War II veteran. The brothers wanted to honor people like their father, dedicated men and women who stepped up to serve their country when called.    

The annual trip includes stops at Washington highlights like the Lincoln Memorial and sites especially poignant for veterans, like memorials to World War II and the Korean War, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Even more than seeing the sights, though, Perkins is looking forward to getting together with other veterans.

“We were like a big family,” Perkins said of his fellow crew members of Unit 7 of the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion of the Seabees. “We worked together, ate together, lived together. That's the way it is in the service.”

About a decade ago, Perkins heard about a reunion of his MCB and jumped at the chance to go.

“You haven't seen these people in 45, 50 years, and to stand there and watch grown men cry is the hardest part,” he said. “But we were really close.”

Now 86, he still attends the reunions when he can, which are held in a different state each year.

His half-brother spent World War II aboard a Navy aircraft carrier, but Perkins had been too young to enlist. As a 17-year-old high school graduate, though, he thought the military was his way out of a dead-end town.

Born in Lansing, Michigan, Perkins moved north with his family when he was in seventh grade to Greenfield, Michigan, a rural community where the main local businesses were a refrigerator manufacturing plant and a leather shop.

“My dad wanted me to go work on the railroad and I told him he was crazy,” Perkins said. “I didn't want any part of it.”

The Navy sounded a little more refined than the Army.

“I said I didn't want to sleep in a mud puddle, but we had some pretty rugged places,” he said. “You get used to it after a while.”

Perkins attended the Great Lakes Naval Academy for basic training, then headed to school in California to become a Seabee. The Seabees, which got their start in World War II and their name from the initials for “construction battalion,” are Navy servicemen and women whose job is to construct everything from airfields to hospitals, readying sites for troops. Perkins became a steel worker, learning how to put up buildings, tie re-rod and splice cable, among other jobs.

“It was actually an educational five and a half years,” he said. “Until I went to California, I didn't know anything. I was just out of high school. I knew how to goof off.”

During his first assignment in Trinidad, Perkins developed a fungus in both ears, destroying his eardrums. He was sent stateside and hospitalized for months in New York, but a promised discharge turned into a return to active duty overseas.

As a Seabee, Perkins laid airstrips in Bermuda. In French Morocco, he built underground ammunition storage buildings while avoiding the anti-personnel mines left by the Germans who'd occupied the country during World War II. In Cuba — where he worked three separate times — he headed a crew that built two-story, solid concrete barracks at a new Naval base in Guantanamo City, across from the old base, which now houses a controversial military detention center.

“The first time we were there you could go into Gitmo City — it wasn't locked off,” Perkins said. “Then we started a completely new base across the bay from the original one.”

The heat was so stifling in Cuba, construction work stopped at 2 p.m. every day. But despite the conditions, the Seabees worked tirelessly.

“Down in Cuba the first time we demolished a pier they used to pull ships in and tie up to. The contractor wanted 19 months to cut it up and move it away,” Perkins recalled. “We did it in six.”

By the time Perkins' four-year Navy stint was up, the Korean War was beginning, and he was given an extension.

Perkins was dissatisfied with the care he'd gotten at the VA hospitals, so after he was discharged, he went to a private doctor to have his eardrums rebuilt.

As a civilian again, he took his construction skills to Pettibone, a Chicago-based company that manufactured heavy construction equipment.

After he married in 1957, he moved to Delavan, where he raised five children with his wife, who died in 2005.

In Delavan, Perkins worked in the city's public works department, then as a driver's license examiner along with his son-in-law, Tim Sturtevant.

Even after he retired in 1991, Perkins kept busy as a volunteer driver for VIP Services in Elkhorn and at various senior communities.

When Sturtevant heard about VetsRoll a few years ago, he thought of his father-in-law.

“I figured it would be a good thing to do, give something back to the vets like him,” Sturtevant said.

Perkins' wife didn't like to travel, so he gave up road trips for a while. Now, outfitted in a VetsRoll jacket sporting a Seabees logo, he's ready to make one special journey.

He thinks back to those years in the Navy, the heat and the back-breaking work and the disease that robbed him of his eardrums.

“We weren't out there for a vacation. We were there to work,” he said. “We just did it.”



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