Local vet recalls military service through three wars

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Nov. 5, 2012
This vintage portrait shows Dan Ponder as a chief petty officer, the rank he held when he retired from the service in 1968.
This vintage portrait shows Dan Ponder as a chief petty officer, the rank he held when he retired from the service in 1968.

When he was just 14 years old, with World War II raging on both sides of the globe, Silas Daniel Ponder spotted a poster in a Jacksonville, Fla., storefront: Uncle Sam pointing a finger right at him, declaring “Uncle Sam Wants You.” Young Dan went in and enlisted, telling the recruiter the truth about his age. Amazingly, Uncle Sam took him.

That’s how Ponder found himself in a party of four sailors on a rubber raft in the Pacific Ocean, heading toward the island of Chi Chi Jima, in advance of Allied troops set to storm the Japanese stronghold on Iwo Jima. The quartet was charged with the mission of taking out a key radio tower on the tiny island, deep in enemy territory, under cover of darkness.

“The other three went up and left me with the boat,” Ponder recalls. “I was 15 years old.” His senses were heightened by his fear. “The waves were lapping up gently there on the shore, but to me it sounded like breakers on the ocean. When the guys came back down they were whispering, ‘Let’s go,’ but they sounded like a herd of elephants.”

Ponder, who now lives in Norwich, served in the Navy in three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. From a 12-year-old kid “invited to leave home” by his stepmother, he struck out on his own and built a career on submarines, traversing the globe three times and achieving the rank of chief petty officer by the time he retired.

An Arizona native, Ponder lost his mother at age 4. When his father married a woman not much older than Dan and his brother, family tension grew to the point that one day the boys found their plates upside down on the dinner table. “That meant, ‘Boy, you don’t live here anymore,’” he explained. Dan worked his way cross-country to the Maritime School in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he studied engineering and joined the Merchant Marine.

“The Joseph Conrad [now an exhibit at Mystic Seaport] was our training ship,” he said. When the ship he was assigned to later was torpedoed in early 1944, he landed back in Florida, out of work and in need of money. Uncle Sam took him on as a minor Navy enlistee, not needing parental consent since he was already self-supporting. His initial rank on the USS Cero, his first posting, was motor machinist mate, fireman second class; base pay was $21 per month, not counting his sub and sea pay.

Ponder’s story unfolds through his stack of scrapbooks, containing all the photos, papers and military ephemera his first wife, Nancy, saved throughout his Navy career. His present wife, Sue, urged him to organize the memorabilia and research the history of each of the subs he served on. She also used her digital embroidery skills to make him a jacket that tells the story of his military service. It bears his officer’s stripes, his medals, and patches representing each of his ships, as well as his Holland Club patch, denoting 50 years of qualification in submarines.

But Ponder tells the stories better himself. “I’ve been torpedoed, bombed, depth charged, hit the bottom and been run over by surface craft,” he said. He served briefly on a captured German submarine while the Navy studied its advanced snorkel technology. Before the Navy sank the high-tech prize, “We took President [Harry] Truman and his daughter Margaret out on the boat for a day,” he said.

Just prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ponder’s boat, the USS Ethan Allen, tested nuclear missiles in the Pacific. “[President John] Kennedy wanted the Russians to know that he had submarines with missiles that could knock out Moscow or Vladivostok,” he said. One Cold War-era tour of duty, then top-secret, took him into Soviet waters. “I guess I can tell you about that now,” he said.

Throughout his career, Ponder “volunteered for anything I could get,” including training in biological, chemical and atomic warfare. His jacket bears patches representing nautical milestones: the Blue Nose, for crossing the Arctic Circle; Shellback, for crossing the equator; King Neptune, for a tour in the Mediterranean; and the Golden Dragon, for travels in the Far East.

Following his retirement, Ponder worked as an engineer at General Dynamics, then as an independent contractor, before retiring for good in 2005.

Sue said that he never really spoke about his years in the service until they connected with the American Warrior project, which sponsors all-expense-paid day trips for World War II veterans to the national WWII monument in Washington, D.C. Dan went on the first trip from Norwich, in 2007, and the floodgates of stories opened. Now the couple works with Chris Coutu to coordinate the annual trips, taking about 100 veterans a year to see the monument as honored guests and listening to the wartime tales they have to tell.

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