Published 12:00 am Monday, November 4, 2013
CLEVELAND — At 17, Carl Lyerly had been to town once.
He wasn’t sure when he traveled to Salisbury, but he recalled catching a movie in Cooleemee once, too.
Things changed quickly when the Cleveland farm boy joined the military.
Two weeks before he turned 18, Lyerly followed his brothers into the Navy.
Three months after that he traveled half the world with the president of the United States on one of the most revered Naval warships of its time.
“I’ve lived a charmed life,” Lyerly said, through a half-smile.
With Veterans Day approaching, the 95-year-old Lyerly pulled out a few certifications, photos and a worn envelope with his World War II discharge papers.
Lyerly did all sorts of jobs in the Navy — from seaman, to cook, to a “jammer man,” which helped load ammunition to the fearsome gun turrets that lined the ship.
But it wasn’t all work as Lyerly was quick to recall.
He also did a fair bit of sightseeing — including one instance when he was caught after he sneaked off ship to see the Galapagos Islands — and even boxed some, too, despite being 110 pounds soaking wet.
“I was an ornery little fella,” he said with a laugh.
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In August 1936, Lyerly signed up for the Navy and went to bootcamp in Virginia.
It wasn’t long after that he was in New York City, having a beer for a nickel in a local speakeasy.
He rode a wooden roller coaster on Coney Island, too.
But in November he finally joined his brother on the U.S.S. Indianapolis and was soon joined by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“My brother was on the Indianapolis,” he said. “I put in for it and it wasn’t long they came by and I got my bag and got on it.”
By the end of World War II, Lyerly and four of his brothers had fought in the war. They all survived.
Engineers had built an elevator into the Indianapolis, Lyerly said, so Roosevelt — a wheelchair bound polio victim — wouldn’t have to take the stairs. F.D.R. stayed in the admiral’s quarters.
“I can remember him. When he did come on deck he was in a wheel chair,” Lyerly said. “I also remember one of the bodyguards died and they brought him back on the airplane hanger. I remember that — seeing his coffin.”
Roosevelt’s voyage was part of a “Good Neighbor” tour to several countries in South America, including Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay.
Lyerly said the coast was lined with ships when they pulled into Rio De Janeiro.
The city had pipe music playing into the streets and vending machines had pie by the slice.
“That was years before they had it here,” he said. “There were huge crowds to meet us down there. They were friendly nations.”
Near the bottom right-hand corner of a large framed certificate Lyerly had pulled out was Roosevelt’s signature — a mark that signified the President’s presence when Lyerly became a “Shellback.”
In the Navy, officers were called “pollywogs” before they crossed the equator. They then were put through a series of initiation rites before becoming a seasoned “Shellback.”
“They whipped ya,” Lyerly said laughing. ‘They even had cattle prods that shocked you.”
Lyerly said F.D.R. got his Shellback paperwork on the trip, too.
He wasn’t whipped, he said.
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Lyerly spent the late ‘30s in the Navy before being discharged.
He took a couple of jobs before becoming a refrigerator tester for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y.
But in ’44, the military came calling again and Lyerly climbed aboard the U.S.S. Robert Brazier — a destroyer escort — and began sailing to the Mediterranean and later the South Pacific where he spent most of his tour.
On one memorable stop, Lyerly snuck off the ship when it anchored near the Galapagos Islands.
Lyerly said he had been in trouble before on the boat — nothing serious, he said — and wasn’t given liberty to ride the islands.
“I was on the list. Every time they would need something done, peel spuds or something, they’d call ol’ Carl,” he said.
“I put on my dress whites. Crawled under the poop deck, the liberty motor launch, and went ashore and I enjoyed myself and came back,” Lyerly said. “When I came out back I let them tie it up and I came up and the boatswain’s mate was waiting on me.”
Lyerly said the ship he was on was also crafted to sink Japanese submarines — and he thinks they sunk a few.
“We were a floating arsenal. We slept on ammunition,” he said. “Thankfully, we were never bombed. If we were I wouldn’t be here now.”
Two instances jumped out in his mind when asked about his time in the South Pacific: the invasion of Mindanao and the remnants of Hiroshima.
As the U.S. tried to capture Mindanao, which was overrun by Japanese forces, Lyerly’s ship was part of the fleet called in to bomb the island.
“We bombarded it. We just manned the guns and shelled the island in preparation for the troops to take over,” he said.
After the Hiroshima bomb dropped, Lyerly’s crew sailed to Japan.
“We cruised up and down around Australia and when the World War ended — six days after we sailed up Tokyo Bay. We made a circle. We came back by Hiroshima,” Lyerly recalled. “I saw that — the ruins of Hiroshima. You just seen all the desolation.”
Lyerly’s daughter, Marilyn, said her father didn’t often speak about the war until recent years.
“I didn’t hear any of these stories ‘til he was nearly 90 years old,” she said. “About how he had been with FDR and how he had been on the ship and how he got ‘shellback’ papers. I was like, “Are you kidding me. You didn’t tell me about this a long time ago?”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.