Ask Danny | Ep. 19: Happy Veterans Day! Featuring WWII Vet, Centenarian Rex O’Dell


Happy Veterans Day! In this episode of “The Ask Danny Podcast,” I’m taking a break from giving home improvement advice and information to honor my Uncle Rex O’Dell, a World War II veteran who just turned 100. 

Uncle Rex joined the United States Navy in 1942 and served aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard. Watch the video above as he shares his memories, war stories, and wisdom in this special podcast that honors his service and all our veterans. 

Here’s a preview of the podcast. 

Split photo of Rex O'Dell with his wife Jean and a picture of him when he first joined the Navy
On the left is Rex with his wife Jean, and on the right is Rex when he first joined the Navy. (Photos courtesy Peggy O’Dell)

Growing Up in West Virginia

Danny: Hello, everybody, and welcome to this “Ask Danny” podcast. This is a very special one because, how often are you able to sit and talk with someone who’s 100 years old? I recently was able to celebrate my Uncle Rex’s 100th birthday with him. Welcome to “The Ask Danny Podcast.”

Rex: Thank you.

Danny: First, Happy Veterans Day! We really appreciate all veterans and your service, but let’s go back a little chronologically here. Why don’t you start by telling us where you were born?

Rex: I was born in a little town in West Virginia called Middle Creek. From there, we moved to Ronda, West Virginia. Father got injured real bad in a coal mine accident and he was never able to go back to coal mining. We moved to a little town called East Bank. I went to grade school, high school and was in the Navy in 1942.

Danny: I remember you telling me a story about helping your father build the house that I’ve visited many times, but tell me a little bit about the house. 

Rex: We were a real poor family, and Dad negotiated with the coal company. He bought two coal company houses. We tore them down, took all the nails out of them, and loaded them up and brought them back to East Bank, where he had purchased a 50-by-100 lot. And he used this lumber to frame the house. Of course, he had to buy siding to put on it and make it halfway livable. We built that house in the wintertime and we lived in tents (during construction). 

Danny: Wow, and it gets cold in West Virginia! 

Rex: Yeah, and we didn’t have heat in the tents we slept in at night! That’s a house that the rest of the kids were born in. 

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31)
Rex was stationed on the U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard during World War II. (U.S. Navy photo)

Enlisting — and a ‘Shakedown’ 

Danny: Moving on to the Navy — what made you decide to get into the Navy? 

Rex: Well, so many of my friends were drafted, and I wouldn’t have had to go because I helped my mom raise the kids, but I went to Charleston and signed up. In two weeks, I was on the way! I got on a train in Charleston, rode the train to Cincinnati, and changed trains to take my training at Naval Air Station Jacksonville

Then we went to a little town called Lake City, where they were building a new air base. I was there for about a year and then went aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard. We (were) there for about five months before we went to sea. The ship wasn’t completely built at the time, and we were outfitting it. 

When we were going for a shake-down cruise (to test the ship’s performance), we went out on the river and learned that we miscalculated the height of the carrier and the Brooklyn Bridge! The ship wouldn’t fit underneath that. 

So, we had to take the superstructure (the portion above the hull and deck) off the top, and wait until completely low tide to get that ship underneath that bridge. Then, we had to go over across the bay to New Jersey to put the superstructure back on.

During that shakedown cruise, they got that thing going as fast as it can go and put it in reverse just as fast. They were trying to tear it up to see if it was built right! 

You could hear both popping and cracking, which wasn’t very good, and they had to, of course, fix it again when it come back from the shakedown cruise. 

A photo of Rex O'Dell in his Navy uniform with his shipmates
Rex, far right, poses with his shipmates. (Photo courtesy Peggy O’Dell)

A Secret Mission

Danny: I was on (a battleship) recently at the USS Midway out in San Diego and you just have no idea how big that structure is until you walk from one end to the other. It’s quite a structure. 

Rex: Ours was the biggest they made at that time. It was an Essex-class ship, and they built several of them before the war was over. 

Danny: So, where did you go from there? 

Rex: From there, we went through the Panama Canal. And then we picked up some recruits in San Diego to take to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I think we took about 2,000 recruits there. 

When we got them to Honolulu, that’s where we picked up our Air Group. I don’t remember exactly how long we were there, not more than probably a day or two, maybe three. Then we were heading out to the battle area with our fight crew with actual fighter planes and bombers.

Danny: So, everything was fully equipped and all the airplanes, personnel and the good gourmet food that you got to eat — that was ready to go?

Rex: Oh, yeah, and we then went out and joined the Third Fleet. “Bull” Halsey, Adm. (William Frederick) Halsey (Jr.), was in charge of the Third Fleet. 

Danny: Where was the fleet headed?

Rex: Well, that was all secret. The fleet commanders knew all that stuff. All we did was man the guns and stop any bullets heading our way. 

Photo of a 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun
Pictured is a 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun, similar to what Rex worked with during World War II. (Pixabay)

Doing Damage Control

Danny: What was the thing that was just the most uncomfortable, other than, you know, the unknown? 

Rex: There were about 5,000 men on that ship  — that’s as big as a lot of cities. There were a lot of seasoned Sailors that had already been in combat and were training us.

My first job when I went on there was what you call damage control. I was down below decks, and if there was any damage, we were to repair it. I didn’t like being down there, with all the shooting going on up above, because I wanted to be up where all the action was. Back then, I was young and wasn’t scared of nothing. 

They finally put me on an anti-aircraft gun — what they call a Quad 40. We didn’t shoot the guns. All we did was load them. Every fifth shell was a tracer, so you could tell where you were hitting the plane or how close you hit the plane and how much adjustment you had to make. 

One time, the fighting was so intense and we were firing so much that the barrels just went over and melted. 

A split photo of Rex O'Dell in both of his Navy uniforms
Above is a split photo of Rex in both of his Navy uniforms. (Photo courtesy Peggy O’Dell)

Always on Call and on Alert

Danny: Wow. So you were kind of on call the whole time. You never knew if at 1:00 in the morning or 1:00 in the afternoon you’d have to man that gun in a hurry.

Rex: They had what you call an “alert.” When you got your alert, they’d ring a bell in general quarters. When that bell rang you had to GET. We were down probably about four decks and had to come up through little holes, like your whole body when it goes through, up to the top of the ship where the gun station was. 

Danny: History tells us how everything ended up, thank goodness. And fortunately, you were able to make it through. I know a lot of your friends and fellow servicemen didn’t make it. As the years went along, were you able to communicate very much with your family?

Rex: Well, yes, we had what they called airmail. You could send regular letters, and they were free. It took forever for them to get there, because they had to take it off our ship then on to another ship and another ship, and then to the states. 

Rex O'Dell, right, dons a hula skirt in this photo with a fellow sailor
Rex, right, dons a hula skirt in this photo with a fellow sailor. (Photo courtesy Peggy O’Dell)

The War Ends — and Celebration Begins

Danny: So, when you found out things were going in a good direction for America, tell us about when you did finally get that word that the surrender had taken place and that you guys would be headed back to the States. How was that?

Rex: Well, buddy. That was a great thing! That was after the atomic bomb, of course. Two of them were dropped not a day apart. They had an announcer, he wasn’t a Navy person but he got all his information from chiefs of the Navy. 

Right after they dropped it, it was explained how devastating it was, and how many people estimated were killed. We knew then that the war was about over. It wasn’t even announced then because before that the fighting had kind of eased because they were running out of people and were running out of ammunition.

I was also there on the ship when they signed the peace treaty, too. They signed it on the Missouri, and we were right beside it when it was signed. It was a wonderful feeling, I’ll tell you that. 

Danny: So they turned the ship around and you headed back to the states, where I know you were welcomed warmly. 

Rex: We came into the States at Alameda, California. We even got to come in underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. They estimated 100,000 people on that bridge — they had horns and firecrackers that sounded like bombs. They had big bands playing and people screaming. We came underneath that bridge and it wasn’t too far from there to Alameda where we docked. 

Rex O'Dell pictured at the shipmates reunion of the USS Bon Homme Richard
Here’s Rex at the 2022 USS Bon Homme Richard Shipmates Reunion in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy Peggy O’Dell)

Reunited and It Feels So Good

Danny: You’re in St. Louis, Mo., right now. Tell us about the special event (a USS Bon Homme Richard Shipmates Reunion) you attended.

Rex: You wouldn’t believe how nice they have been. (emotionally) It’s really wonderful. 

Danny: Well, I heard they treated you like a superstar yesterday. And you’ve never been shy about putting your arm around a girl and getting your picture taken. 

Rex: Oh, no, no. I even turned my cheek (for a kiss). I got another cheek, to make me get both of them! You get to my age, you don’t turn down things like that, you know.

You will not believe it, they put me in front of the chow line and introduced me. The people clapped real, real loud! Makes you feel really good. 

Watch the full podcast in the video above this article! Uncle Rex and I love each other, and we certainly love our country. 

And this podcast is our gift to you — Happy Veterans Day!

Further Reading


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