Matchmaking by way of inter-service rivalry sparked a love affair that endured for decades.
“They said it would never last,” recalled Harry Pace, 93, of Carlisle. “But we were married for 67 years.”
The North Carolina man was a sailor onboard a repair ship when he received his first letter from Margaret Eppley, an employee of C.H. Masland & Sons.
World War II raged overseas where Pace served as a supervisor in the machine shop of the USS Vulcan anchored off North Africa in the Mediterranean Sea. His job as a machinist mate was to fix broken equipment and to fabricate parts for warships and merchant vessels temporarily out of action due to battle damage or wear and tear.
While in the Navy, Pace befriended James Otstot of Carlisle. The story goes Margaret Eppley had a thing for Army Air Corps guys while the rest of the women in the payroll office were attracted to Navy men.
Otstot’s fiancée, Millie, worked in the payroll office and was among the co-workers lobbying Eppley for a change in preference.
“They wanted her to switch to Navy,” Pace said.
Whether on a dare or out of curiosity, she folded under the peer pressure, setting in motion a long-distance relationship.
For 11 months, Pace and Eppley exchanged letters across a turbulent ocean swapping stories of everyday life on a Navy ship in a warzone and a factory town on the home front. The words formed a bond that kept growing stronger.
On Dec. 20, 1944, Pace left duty on the Vulcan for a stateside assignment in the machine shop of Camp Perry in Williamsburg, Virginia. He continued to write Eppley every week and, at one point, they exchanged photographs.
But the two would have to wait until Easter weekend 1945 when Pace made the trip to Carlisle to meet Eppley for the very first time. They chose a neutral location – the James Wilson Hotel on the southwest corner of High and Pitt Streets. He waited for her in his sailor’s uniform.
“She brought a couple of her girlfriends along ... I guess she didn’t trust me,” Pace joked. “It was love at first sight I guess ... I think the writing had more of an effect.”
Pace saw in his beloved Peggy a down-to-earth working-class gal he could relate to and spend a life with. They were married around Thanksgiving 1945 and were together until her death in December 2012.
A relationship that started with shifting preferences in servicemen blossomed into a love that gave them three children, five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and photo albums full of fond memories.
Rocky start in war
Pace enlisted in the Navy in December 1940 and was sworn-in the following month. After training, he was assigned to the newly commissioned USS Vulcan that was deployed to the North Atlantic as part of a task force to counter Nazi Germany.
Months before Pearl Harbor, the US Navy was involved in escorting merchant convoys midway across an ocean infested by U-boats. It was a dangerous game the Roosevelt administration was playing with American neutrality in an effort to keep England in the fight against Hitler.
“I had to hitchhike,” said Pace recalling how the Vulcan failed to pick him up as planned in Philadelphia during its transit to Iceland. The island was used as a staging area and supply facility for Allied forces during the Battle of the Atlantic.
To catch up to his duty assignment, Pace had to endure a slow cruise on two Navy tankers that had a top speed of 10 knots. After leaving Newfoundland, the second ship the USS Salinas rode out a hurricane for five days.
“We lost all the things that were not welded down topside,” Pace said. “The catwalk was washed off. People in the forecastle could not get back aft.”
More scared than seasick, Pace remembered using one hand to hold himself steady while the other was used to drink mulligan stew from a soup mug.
But he arrived safely at an anchorage about 35 miles from Reykjavik that the Allies had nicknamed Valley Forge. The Vulcan was anchored about six miles offshore ready to repair any ship that tied alongside her.
On Oct. 17, 1941, U-568 fired a torpedo into the starboard side of the destroyer USS Kearny killing 11 American sailors in what was the first attack on a US Navy ship during World War II. Just under two months later, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor ushering in US involvement in the war.
The nearest repair facility for the Kearny was the Vulcan. Sailors pumped so much water into the port side compartments that it caused the destroyer to tilt to one side while it was tied to the repair ship.
Carpenters on the Vulcan built a wooden cofferdam to fit snugly over the hull to seal off a gash measuring 36 ft. long by 17 ft. wide caused by the torpedo explosion.
Pace cleaned out the pumps that were drawing seawater from the damaged section of the Kearny. The liquid and the gunk around it smelled like dead rats. Meanwhile other sailors welded steel plates over the opening that allowed the destroyer to make way for the US where permanent repairs could be made.
The Vulcan was on station at Valley Forge from late September 1941 to early April 1943 with a brief side trip to Boston. From Iceland, the repair ship sailed to Norfolk, VA before deploying to the Mediterranean in late June 1943.
By that time, Allied forces had defeated the Axis in North Africa and were gearing up to invade Sicily in July 1943. The Vulcan served in support of the invasion fleet gathering in Oran, Algeria. Later the repair ship was involved in the invasion of southern France in mid-August 1944.
Balloons and bombast
Valley Forge in Iceland was subjected to occasional overflights by German recon planes. That was not the case in the port of Algiers where enemy bomber pilots came over almost daily like clockwork at 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. “You could set your watch by it,” Pace said. “There were 200 ships in the harbor and everybody had a barrage balloon.”
Each small unmanned dirigible floated over a ship and had a metal cable suspended from the bottom as a way to deter low-flying attack planes and dive bombers.
Pace remembers how novice sailors were manning an anti-aircraft gun during an air raid on the harbor one day. The newbies were cheering every time a target came down. Trouble was the show-offs were popping more balloons than knocking down enemy aircraft.
Battle stations for Pace was a 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon mounted under the barrel of a 5-in. dual-purpose gun. One day during an air raid or drill, an inexperienced gunnery officer had forgotten to tell Pace to stand down from firing his short-range gun. The concussion of the larger cannon firing knocked Pace flat to the deck.
“I laid there for about a half a minute getting my senses,” Pace recalled.” I thought we were bombed.” The larger gun fired again knocking Pace down. “I still have ear trouble ... I got locusts singing in there all the time.”
Life on the edge
Repair ship sailors were called on routinely to upgrade other vessels. The most challenging job Pace ever took on was to drill and countersink a 4-inch hole on top of a mast so that other sailors could install a new instrument panel on an Allied cruiser.
Pace had help from James Otstot of Carlisle. The two men were perched atop a mast 90 feet above the water on a platform that kept rolling back and forth even though the ship was at anchor behind a breakwater in the port of Oran. The only protection from them falling off was a guardrail that encircled the platform.
“It was the scariest thing I did,” Pace said. “You don’t even look at the distance.”
Not only did the Vulcan repair ships. It provided vessels tied alongside with electricity, fresh water and supplies. Crews from the attendant ships were invited on board the Vulcan to watch movies. There was also entertainment.
Two weeks before Pearl Harbor, the machine shop of the Vulcan hosted a smoker and happy hour which included “24 Action-Packed Rounds of Boxing!” The event featured such colorful match-ups as “Pesty” Hester vs. “Viva” Mexico, K.O. Adams vs. “Slugger” Schaeffer and “Hammering” Hannah vs. “Sparky” Smith. “Vulture Vinchell” was the master of ceremonies.
Upon his discharge from the Navy in June 1946, Pace moved to Carlisle to take a temporary job at C.H. Maslands. That turned into a permanent position and a 36-year career with the company. Pace was a supervisor in the quality control lab and a process engineer for most of that time. He retired in 1985 but stayed active as a local firefighter and member of Kiwanis.