Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.
Ship fitter, Naval welder.
U.S.S. Tutuila, ARG-4 Repair Ship
Robert J. Harrington, U.S. Navy
U.S.S. Maury, AGS-16 Survey Ship
Robert Jerome Harrington was born at Dunkirk's Brooks Memorial Hospital on Jan. 15, 1932. Harrington's father, Austin Harrington, right, was a World War I Navy veteran who saw action escorting a convoy of supply-laden ships to France. Seeing ships torpedoed and sunk to the ocean's bottom was an everyday occurrence for Austin Harrington during his days of service, when cargo, crew, life and limb were always at risk.
When Austin Harrington completed his service, he returned to his Cook Street home in Dunkirk and got a job with the Chevrolet factory in Buffalo. He didn't build the cars; he was a general maintenance employee who worked on machinery of a different caliber - military equipment was still being built, and Austin Harrington knew how to do it. Most of these machines were in the planning stages and absolute secrecy was demanded. Our country, just out of "The war to end all wars," wasn't taking any chances. They would not be caught with out-of-date technology and machinery.
The Harringtons' home on Cook Street was the family homestead for more than 100 years. At one time or another, Harringtons owned or lived on the entire street. Eventually, it was changed to "Harrington Road." The Harringtons like to believe that it wasn't due to convenience but to their exemplary military service.
Robert was raised as most children are in the country. His mother, Lamar (Smith) let her children run in the fields, swim in the neighbor's pond and go on adventures in the woods. Robert and his friends would take long walks along "Gulf Creek," a wooded waterway that eventually led to Lake Erie. They would camp along its banks and enjoy nature there. It was a popular place for fishing, hiking and camping.
Robert attended school in a one-room school house not far from home. He didn't sit on a school bus until he was a high school freshman. In those days, going to school meant walking there. Harrington knew to bundle up in the winter and to be prepared for rain and snow always. Even though in the wintertime, Harrington would arrive to school half-frozen, he says he actually lived in one of the closest houses. He felt bad for the kids who had to walk even farther.
Every veteran I've spoken to who attended a one-room school house with a single teacher teaching all the grades seems to be satisfied with his education. School was different back then - you were there to learn, and you better sit down and be respectful. The teacher ran the show and the students fell in line. There were no computers or iPads, but the children of that era made it through just fine and went on to lead impressive lives.
Back then, Harrington remembers that families who could afford luxuries would show off their telephones. These weren't cordless, wireless or cellular. They were just basic telephones, but they were new technology and they were expensive! These phones were large, heavy boxes mounted to the wall with bolts and screws. There was no privacy, no taking the phone with you as you did housework or ran errands. Often, the operator would cut into the conversation and tell the speakers to get off because other people had to make calls! Imagine how that would work today.
Harrington's experiences with high school opened up a whole new world. A school bus came to pick him up every day, which he rode 30 minutes to Dunkirk's high school. It was a great place to learn, to have fun and to make friends, but for Harrington and his classmates, war loomed just beyond the school's windows. It was the 1940s and World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific. They knew that if the war went on for much longer, their names could be called up in the draft.
While he attended high school, Harrington wrote articles for the school newspaper. He covered all the sports events and he loved the job; it gave him free access to all the basketball and football games.
Harrington also worked a part-time job during his teenage years, enabling him to purchase his first car. For most people, a first car is like a first love, something you will never forget. For Harrington, this was a 1936 Ford - his dream car, purchased at Mirek's Auto in Dunkirk's First Ward. He knew the car was rumored to have problems; Fords from that era had a reputation for breaking down. But it was also a sharp-looking car, and Harrington had to have it. Keeping gas in the tank and the car insured meant Harrington had to now work two jobs: being a baker's helper on Main St. and working at JCPenney. When he cruised the streets of Dunkirk, though, it was all worth it.
With a car and some spending money, Harrington's teenage years couldn't have been better. Harrington could always be found with his two best friends, Danny Brill and Mooney Harrington (no relation). The trio always voted on how to spend their time, and most often, they voted to take the '36 Ford and cruise Central Avenue from Dunkirk to Fredonia and cap the night off with a visit to the Hillcrest Diner or the Main Street Diner. On school days, they would drive slowly home, looking for girls walking home who needed rides. They always found them. It was all a lot of safe fun, cruising Central Avenue or Point Gratiot or down to Wright Park.
In 1949, graduation came around. Now in its third year of peace following the Great War, the country seemed calm. Harrington figured it was time to find a serious job. He landed a position as a mason's helper with the L.E. Kimble Company, which constructed hundreds of houses built entirely of blocks. The work was hard but the money was great. Harrington was paid $1.80 per hour - worth more then than now, of course. But Harrington wanted more out of life.
That quest to make more of himself and make a difference to his country led Harrington to the local recruiter's officer, where he soon signed papers to become a United States Naval sailor in the Naval Reserve. After an eight-week boot camp, training took place once a month for two days at a time. During his training, Harrington learned Naval customs and practices, rules, regulations, basics of conduct and the practical knowledge that would teach sailors how to perform their duties as enlisted men. The Navy wanted to make sure these sailors knew what to do when they boarded their first Naval ship for their two years of duty.
Harrington and his fellow trainees had the privilege of being taught by the very same men who had just returned from World War II. These men had seen and done it all. These veterans were called "Navy Salts" and were highly respected by the new recruits, who were called "Boots." This term was given to any new Marine or sailor, even if the difference between two men was only a day.
Then, with his Reserves training behind him, Harrington was off to join the fleet. He reported to the Buffalo Federal Building on his 20th birthday: Jan. 15, 1952.