Carlton R. Wagner, U.S. Merchant Marines
Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.
Enlistment: U.S. Merchant Marines, U.S. Army, Korean Occupation, U.S. Army Reserves, U.S. Army
Spec 4, Pay Grade E-4
Positions: Heavy equipment operator, truck driver and communications specialist.
Carlton Wagner was born Oct. 29, 1927, in Buffalo’s Salvation Army Hospital to Stance M. Walker and Ethel (Walker) Wagner. Growing up, Wagner was raised by the Hipwell family on their farm in Portland. Times were bad for the entire country.
Most were unemployed, and without any savings, growing up on a farm in those times meant food on the table. Cutting wood all summer meant a warm house in the winter. Of course, living on a farm meant endless chores, too. Wagner had to run out to the barn at 5 a.m. rain or shine, winter and summer, to milk the cows, feed and water the livestock and clean the stalls. The barn had to be clean for the health and safety of the animals, and a secure place to store expensive farm equipment that was difficult and inconvenient to replace.
Living on the Hipwell farm with Rufus and Inace Hipwell and stepbrother Harry made a wonderful home for Wagner. There were grapes and corn, livestock and tomatoes, and whatever else the Hipwells could coax to grow on their land. The farming community worked together, and bartered goods and services. In certain cases, crops grew better on one farm or another; one family had extra beef and another had extra vegetables. They were one big happy family and they saw each other through the hard times.
One of Wagner’s important jobs on the farm was to deal with the cows. After he milked them, he had to separate the milk from the cream. The fresh milk would be put into a container with special cylinders and disks to be filtered. The fatty particles would be separated from the milk and turn into cream, and later, into butter. The family would take the milk they needed, then the remainder was canned for the local milk pick-up, which came at 7 a.m. sharp. If you didn’t get your milk ready in time, you had to find something to do with it. The barn cats loved it when the farmers ran late! It meant a good, free meal for them. By 7 p.m., Wagner was usually in bed, getting some rest for the next day’s hard farm work.
In Wagner’s spare time, he would meet friends at their local hangout place: the Portland bowling alley. Here, friends Bill Kaminski, Chuck and Bob George, Leon McIntyre and stepbrother Billy Hipwell spent the evenings talking about farm work and speculating on their futures. It was a group of boys who knew right from wrong. Every parent wanted their kids to have friends like that.
Wagner spent grades one through six at the Portland School. By seventh grade, he was in the Westfield and Brocton school systems. He would graduate in 1945, putting a cap on many years of hard work.
Working on the farm didn’t bring Wagner any pay, though he did appreciate the security of a warm home and a table full of food.
Any money that he earned as a teenager came in from doing side jobs for others. Wagner’s life changed one day in high school when the principal announced that the railroad was looking for hard working young men to work part time doing track maintenance. The job involved a few hours a day and being called in for emergencies. The job paid 67 cents an hour. Wagner worked all he could, putting in hours after school and between his farm chores. He picked up any shifts that other workers didn’t want.
It wasn’t long before Wagner wheeled his bicycle into the barn and mounted it securely to a rack. The days of riding his bike to school and work were over. He had saved enough money to buy himself a car. It was a 1934 Ford Coupe. He had the hottest car in town! But for $600, it better have been.
One of the saddest days of Wagner’s life came when the man who had raised him passed away. Rufus Hipwell was gone, and not long after, another family took over the farm. Wagner walked to the barn one day to start his normal schedule of chores when a man drove up and announced that he, Wagner, wasn’t needed anymore. Wagner explained that he was willing to work for room and board, as that was how he lived with the Hipwells, but the man turned down the offer. The man told Wagner to pick up his things and move on. That, too, was a very sad day for Wagner, as he had to leave his home and the life he had always known.
Luck smiled on Wagner when he was taken in by the Thompson family on Munson Road. Here Wagner worked on their farm and on the railroad.
Being the age that he was and feeling the red blood running through his veins, it wasn’t all work and no play for Wagner. He was good-looking and a hard worker. At weekend square dances, he didn’t stand in a corner alone. During that time, large farm owners in the county had square dances every weekend, and kids came from Jamestown, Falconer, Steadman, Sherman and Westfield just to hear some of the county’s best country and western bands play. Admission was 25 cents; if a good band was playing, 45 cents. The first song started at 8 p.m. and the party ended at 2 a.m. This left only three hours of sleep for the dancers, who had to be up at 5 a.m. for farm work! No drinking or smoking was allowed at these parties, and the girls came in a group and left in a group. Those were the standing rules. Those rules made sense: a careless person tossing a cigarette in a wooden barn full of hay led to a vacant piece of land pretty quickly!
With the war in full gear, the U.S. government in 1945 passed the War Regents Diploma Act. This act was necessary because the war was in its fourth year with no definite end in sight. Every young man out of school was fighting in the war; there were no young men left to work the farms. This act meant that young men in their senior year of high school could take the Regents exam six months early. If they passed, they could graduate early and leave school to work on farms. Wagner took advantage of this, passed the test and devoted more time to farm work.
But Wagner wanted to do his duty to his country, too. He went to Dunkirk with the intent of enlisting in the Navy. He was rejected and told to come back when he was older. Closer to his 18th birthday, he returned again and was again turned down. Wagner was upset; he wanted to be a part of the war effort. He heard of the Merchant Marines. With the Merchant Marines, he could be on the water and serve his country. The Merchant Marines were often in danger, unescorted and carrying fuel, munitions and much-needed cargo to troops. Any German submarine captain would love to put a torpedo in the belly of a Merchant Marine ship and send it and its cargo to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
After signing the papers, Wagner was off to Sheephead Bay for eight weeks of seamanship school. Ship safety, along with fire protection, were at the top of his coursework. It wasn’t long before Wagner was off to Jacksonville, Fla., to catch his first ship to France. The ship carried pre-fabricated homes to France, which were needed for those who were left homeless by the German invasion.
Next week: Part two.