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In Love and War

One of our UMass alums is among the last of the Pearl Harbor veterans.

Flashing Signal Light

The signalman at work, 1945. (Images courtesy of the Gardner family.)

Six months after arriving in Hawaii, the 20-year-old seaman first class from Amherst, Massachusetts, was still charmed by the scent of tropical air. That Sunday morning, he rose through a hatch onto the deck of the USS Reid, one of five destroyers nestled at anchor in Pearl Harbor beside the destroyer tender USS Whitney. Clutching the ditty bag that held everything he needed to shower and shave, he was off to make his way across several gangplanks to the Whitney, which offered the fresh water the Reid temporarily lacked.

He heard what he thought was the daily 8 a.m. general-drill alarm, but it went on and on. It was 7:55. He looked up at the bridge—his station, given that he was a signalman striker, a signalman in training. He saw, but in the din could not hear, the head signalman, the only other man on deck, frantically yelling and gesturing. The young striker ran for the bridge as a plane with red circles on its wings swooped over and dropped something on the naval station on nearby Ford Island. A powerful explosion followed.

“And that,” Leonard Foster Gardner ’49 has often said since, “was my introduction to World War II.”

The planes kept coming, the bombs kept falling. The head signalman ordered Gardner to go below and waken that part of the crew—something like half—who weren’t on shore leave. Many dawdled until they heard the deck guns roaring.

Because the ship was so undermanned, Gardner was ordered to retrieve belts of 50-caliber ammunition from the hold. He staggered under their weight as the battleships lined up beside the island began going up in flames and oil spread in the harbor. Hemmed in by the surrounding destroyers and tender, the Reid’s gunners struggled to get open shots at the two immense waves of airplanes passing overhead. Ships, buildings, and oil in the water were all aflame. Small boats brought sailors back from leave and picked up survivors from the battleships. 

Hemmed in by the surrounding destroyers and tender, the Reid’s gunners struggled to get open shots at the two immense waves of airplanes passing overhead.

The Reid’s crew quickly retrieved and reinstalled the ship’s valves, gauges, and other instruments that had been on the Whitney awaiting calibration. By midmorning, they had fired up the boilers, gotten up steam, and were one of the first ships out of the harbor. They had no idea what they might encounter, but a quick circuit of the island revealed no enemy ships.

 The Reid then spent several weeks convoying supplies from the mainland to Midway Island, before being dispatched with a small task force to protect against an attack on the Aleutian Islands. It encountered a larger enemy force during the battle for Midway and went on to support the battle for Guadalcanal and the landings in New Guinea. There it underwent four months of continuous action, being strafed, dive-bombed, high-level bombed, and missed by torpedoes by hair-raising margins. In 1944, Gardner transferred to new construction and returned to the Pacific for the battles for the Philippines and Okinawa. 

Gardner saw out the war on the staff of a flotilla of 36 landing-craft gunships, first as a flag signalman and quartermaster and later as chief signalman. During the invasion of Okinawa, his ship, the USS LCI-657, underwent daily kamikaze attacks. It survived, unlike the Reid, sunk by kamikazes at the cost of 103 lives. Gardner’s ship returned to Pearl Harbor and was preparing for the invasion of the Japanese homeland when the war ended.

On completing his six-year stint in the Navy in 1946, the young man who had left high school with no expectation of pursuing higher education, was—thanks to the G.I. Bill—able to attend Massachusetts State College. He already had ties there: his mother, widowed since 1929, when Gardner was eight, had worked at that institution’s predecessor, the Massachusetts Agricultural College. In his days as a newsboy, Gardner’s route took him through the campus’s experimental plantings of berries and grapes on his way to the president’s house.

Len and Doris, 1946.

After arriving on campus in the fall of 1946, Gardner was inspired by two history professors, Theodore C. Caldwell and Harold W. Cary, to choose history as his major, earning a bachelor’s degree in a mere three years. Along the way, he met Doris Anderson, a senior at the point he entered as a freshman. They married in June 1947, days after her graduation, and have been together ever since. 

The couple went off to California, where Gardner earned a master’s degree in history at Stanford University, then moved back east for him to pursue a PhD at Clark University. There the strains of trying to provide for a growing family—there were eventually four children—forced him to leave before receiving his degree.

Gardner signed on for a junior-management program with the federal government. He was soon on a steadily rising trajectory that took him from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to the Polaris submarine program and thereafter to the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Science Foundation, from which he retired in 1977.

Well before retiring, Gardner became active in local government and with social and recreational activities. In retirement, he rose to become county supervisor in Fluvanna County, Virginia, where Len and Doris still live. Throughout the years, they have rejoiced in the arrival of 10 grandchildren and seven (soon to be eight) great-grandchildren. 

“Life is a never-ending series of choices,” Gardner muses. “On balance, I believe that the majority of my choices have turned out well—particularly so, my choice of a lifetime partner.”