The Biography of Michael Gessner | Part I
I was born on December 1, 1915 in Newark, Delaware, and ‘round about 1921, my family settled in the Homestead/Munhall area of Western Pennsylvania. My father was a college graduate with a degree in Agriculture and farmed in the early 1900’s before taking more lucrative work in the steel mills. I was the only boy of seven children. With six sisters keeping me in line, I learned to cherish love and family from an early age. We survived the Great Depression of the early 30’s together, which only strengthened our familial bond. On April 2, 1934, at the age of 16, I enlisted in the Navy at $17/month, $10 of which was sent back home to my mother.
Michael Gessner 1934
Boot Camp took me to Norfolk, VA for three months, after which I was assigned to the Battleship USS Colorado. I boarded at Portsmouth, NH and sailed to our homeport of Long Beach, CA via the Panama Canal.
On board, I was assigned to the Signal Division, which was responsible for control and management of all naval communication. One of our more exciting tasks was fleet maneuvers. One of our maneuvers was the Airship Macon, which crashed off Big Sur, CA with the loss of two men. For three years, I slept in a hammock below deck.
In 1937, we sailed to Hawaii where we received a very special mission. We were ordered to sail for the Equator toward Howland Island to search for Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Captain Fred Noonan. The duo had been on the last leg of their notorious flight around the world when they crashed and disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean. We searched for about three weeks to no avail.
We sailed into San Francisco Bay during the Treasure Island 1939 World’s Fair and under the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridges, which had opened in 1937. I’ll never forget Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, which was featured at the World’s Fair.
Sally Rand's Nude Ranch
Treasure Island 1939 World’s Fair
However, no adrenaline-fueled mission could compare to the quietude of the Caribbean Sea, as we sailed along through its blue and smooth waters. Days were hot and the nights were warm below deck, so we’d take our hammocks and a mattress to the open deck to find respite in the cool sea breezes. As the ship knifed through the glassy sea, I would gaze at the millions of stars, and the only sound other than the ripple of the sea against the ship was when the bugler sounded the taps. Made me feel like I was in a world of my own where I was able to recount my childhood, my memories with family, and my bright future to come more vividly than ever before.
In September of 1937, I was transferred to the Adriatic Fleet in China and was to serve on the Cruiser USS Augusta, so I boarded the Transport USS Henderson en route to the Augusta at Shanghai. During this time, the Sino-Japanese conflict was going on, and so the Augusta was moored in the Huangpu River by the Bund, a waterfront area in central Shanghai.
Our cruises on the Augusta were adventurous and exciting and made cruises to South China ports in Singapore, Siam, Bali, French Indochina, and Saigon and North China ports to the Great Wall of China and the Philippines for overhaul at Olongapo Navy Shipyard. The USS Panay, a River gunboat was up the Yangtze River when she was bombed and sunk by Japanese Aircraft. The survivors were brought down river to board the Augusta, still moored in the Huangpu.
Planes were offloaded at Cavite, P.I. , where we lived in tents behind the marine barracks for three months during the interim period. It was in Shanghai where I met my first love, the exciting, lovable, and beautiful Nina Relbekel, a Russian who was born in Harbin, Manchuria in 1919 during the Russian Revolution and later brought to Shanghai by her mother and brother. We shared so many great times together in China, and our love never dimmed.
Mike & Nina in Shanghai
I was transferred back to the United States in 1939 and served aboard the USS Jacob Jones (DD-130), a Wickes-class Destroyer, or “Four Stacker,” which was sunk off Cape May, NJ in 1942 by a German submarine, leaving only 11 survivors.
USS Jacob Jones (DD-130)
In 1940, I was assigned to Jacksonville, Florida.
Mike, sister Rose and father Michael in Jacksonville, FL
December 7, 1941, “A day that will live in infamy.” World War II broke out. Two months later, in February of 1942, I was shipped overseas to Base Bobcat (Bora Bora) to form Squadron VS-2-D14. Our duties included observation, scouting planes, and operating in the South Pacific and Marshall Islands. My father died during this time, and unbeknownst to me, Nina had been taken prisoner of war shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She had married a British Navy man whose ship was sunk off Java by the Japanese. Her husband did not survive. Being a British subject, she was eligible to leave China, but while en route, the Japanese subs overtook her ship and made all on board their prisoners of war. The POWs were transported to the Philippines to Santo Tomas internment camp and later to Los Banos, 40 miles north. She was interned until 1945 when she was liberated by American paratroopers, ground troops, and amphibious forces.
Santo Tomas internment camp
The Japanese would not correspond with the military, but as fate would have it, I did receive news of her internment. A card was incorrectly addressed to me in care of my mother to Munhall, Philadelphia, USA, but it found its way from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and to my mother’s door. She forwarded it to me in the South Pacific, and I learned that Nina was interned, but thankfully in good health, and the lovelight between us only grew brighter with hope and longing.