Veterans Day 2015: Memories of a three war-veteran

Hal Farrar rides aboard a Coast Guard cutterafter transferring from the Navy.  Farrar worked aboard buoy tenders, diver class vessels and three lighthouses during his time with the Coast Guard.  Photo provided by Hal Farrar.

Hal Farrar rides aboard a Coast Guard cutterafter transferring from the Navy. Farrar worked aboard buoy tenders, diver class vessels and three lighthouses during his time with the Coast Guard. Photo provided by Hal Farrar.

In 2014, the Veterans Administration estimated that somewhere around 7.3% of all living Americans have served in the military at some point in their lives. By those numbers, approximately 23 million out of 318 million citizens have proudly worn a uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces. 16.5 million of these veterans served during wartime, and an even smaller amount served through multiple conflicts. Among those few, brave men and women is a humble child of the South tempered by service during three of the United States’ bloodiest and most tumultuous wars.

Henry “Hal” Eaton Farrar was born in Little Rock, Ark., in 1926 to a family of farmers and ranchers. His father was a veterinarian who trained and cared for horses used in World War I and Farrar grew strong through hard work and long days on the family farm. Always big for his age, Farrar left the Georgia Military Academy to enlist with the Navy at the age of 17 and, with World War II in full swing, he reported to the Pacific theater to fight the Japanese.

Farrar was first sent to an LST at Pearl Harbor. LST’s were landing craft used to deploy equipment, supplies and personnel to beaches, often under heavy enemy fire, and Farrar’s group was sometimes escorted by Col. Pappy Boyington and the men of the renowned U.S. Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-214, otherwise known as the Black Sheep Squadron . The war eventually took Farrar as far as Wake Island and Guam where he took part in destroyer and tanker escort operations. The South Pacific at the time was a tornado of flaming steel, bullets and bombs, and it took men of iron to carry U.S. troops and their weapons to Hirohito’s doorstep.

“It was a rougher service then,” said Farrar who trained as a heavyweight boxer during his time in the Navy. “Whenever I transferred to a new vessel or got assigned to a new division, I would pick the meanest and toughest man in my division and have a fight with him. I would then stand as leading seaman in the division.”

Hal Farrar pilots a smalboat during his WW2 service in the Navy.  Farrar served aboard Landing Ship, Tank vessels, delivering troops, equipment and supplies to enemy held beaches during the war.  Photo provided by Hal Farrar.

Hal Farrar pilots a smalboat during his WW2 service in the Navy. Farrar served aboard Landing Ship, Tank vessels, delivering troops, equipment and supplies to enemy held beaches during the war. Photo provided by Hal Farrar.

Farrar served 10 years with the Navy, sticking with the service through the end of WW2 and the following Korean War. His duties, by then, had taken him back to the United States where he served in California as a Petty Officer 1st Class but getting advanced to Chief Petty Officer was starting to look like it might never happen. “Guys were retiring at 20 years as E-5s because nobody could advance,” Farrar said. “I scored 98 percent on my test for Chief, but the Navy decided they only needed one Chief Boatswains Mate that year.” That’s when a chance encounter with a man called “Fender Head” set him on the path to becoming a Coast Guardsman.

“‘Fender Head’ Ellis was the chief at the local Coast Guard station, and I bumped into him at the restaurant where my wife Dene was working at the time,” Farrar said. “I told him about my situation and he says to me, ‘Well, a boatswain’s mate is a boatswain’s mate whether they’re Navy or Coast Guard.’ That got me thinking so I put in for a transfer.”

Based on the strength of his recommendations from past Navy supervisors, Farrar was readily accepted into the Coast Guard but he would have to take a temporary reduction in rank until his new command was sure of his abilities. Farrar reported to Alameda where his seamanship and experience quickly earned him a leadership position without him having to beat anyone up. One year later, he was awarded the rank of Chief Petty Officer.

Hal Farrar stands at ease after the end of WW2.  Farrar served in the Navy for 10 years before joining the Coast Guard.  Photo provided by Hal Farrar.

Hal Farrar stands at ease after the end of WW2. Farrar served in the Navy for 10 years before joining the Coast Guard. Photo provided by Hal Farrar.

Farrar spent time on buoy tenders and diver class ships until he was recommended for officer in charge of the light station on Angel Island. His assignment to Angel Island marked a relationship with lighthouses that sent him from Angel Island to Point Bonita, but it was time at the Farallon Island lighthouse that would become his most memorable billet.

“The Farallon Island facilities were a mess when I got there,” said Farrar. “The lighthouse was filled with moss and the paint was cracked and flaking off everywhere. There was a professor living in the Coast Guard housing studying rabbits on the island who would warm them up in the oven when it got too cold at winter. Of course, the rabbits would get scared so the place ended up smelling terrible. I told the admiral I could fix the place up but I couldn’t wait on requisition forms and paperwork. Whatever I needed, I would need to have fast.”

Farrar got the professor kicked off the island and put his crew to work restoring the lighthouse and its grounds. In their off time, he and his crew would catch abalones to share with visiting air crews and enjoy fish fries or participate in local events. When Santa Claus visited, Farrar operated a basket on a winch to retrieve the jolly old elf from a boat at the bottom of the steep cliffs surrounding the island. Farrar’s wife, an accomplished artist, created paintings of the lighthouse that now reside at Coast Guard Pacific Area in Alameda. Farrar and his crew also assisted with the Coast Guard’s traditional mission of search and rescue.

“A scuba diver from a nearby diving school was attacked by a shark and we had to go get him and take him to the helicopter waiting on our landing pad,” Farrar said.

The United States was becoming further embroiled in Vietnam by the time Farrar’s service to the Coast Guard was nearing its end. After 13 years in the service, he was looking to retire but the Coast Guard had a final offer for him. Established by Congress in 1958, the rank of Senior Chief Petty Officer was still relatively new to the Coast Guard but Farrar’s supervisors thought he would make a good candidate. They gave him the choice to advance to Senior Chief or to become an officer, but he would need to obligate three more years to the service. With 23 years of active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces and three wars under his belt, Farrar was ready to get out. He planned to stay in California, but fate intervened and he wound up in Alaska after remembering how he and his wife had fallen in love with the Last Frontier during a brief trip to Anchorage.

Farrar is now 89 years old and remarried with three stepchildren after Dene passed away after 53 years of marriage. Owing to his mother’s influence on his childhood and a love of classic singing cowboys like Gene Autry (who he met twice and even flew with during the legendary performer’s time as an Army Air Forces pilot,) Farrar became a songwriter and poet who entertains at banquets, gun shows and church functions when he isn’t at a local airstrip involved with teaching pilots to fly bush planes for missionary work. He still maintains a connection to his fellow veterans as a member of the local VFW and serves as a mentor to the next generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsman through interactions with the JROTC. Like all veterans his age, Farrar still loves his country and he holds strong opinions about its future but, as another Veterans Day rolls by, he maintains faith in the 1.4 million out of 318 million men and women who currently have the guts to put on a uniform and defend it.

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