BRISTOL – Veteran Dick Fitz takes a look back at his time in the service, remembering his days in World War II. Fitz, 97, enlisted in 1942 when he was 17 years old, leaving Bristol High School to join the U.S. Navy.
“I walked by the old granite post office and it said ‘Uncle Sam needs you,’” he said. “The rest is history.”
Fitz decided to enlist after seeing the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 as well as “Hitler overrunning countries in Europe.”
“Hitler had such a big powerhouse military he invaded one country after another, boom, boom, boom - it was terrible,” said Fitz. “Plus, I didn’t care for high school that much. I lived on Cedar Lake and I loved sailing on the water. So, I said it’s got to be the Navy.”
Fitz enlisted as a United States Navy Reserve. He explained that a United States Navy would serve for four years, while as USNR would serve until the war was completed. Fitz would leave the service as a Gunner’s Mate Third Class with the Navy Armed Guard. However, he said, many other World War II veterans had never heard of his unit before. “It was the least published unit in the service,” he said. “We didn’t want the Germans to know that we were arming the merchant ships,” said Fitz. “They knew that none of them had guns, so they would surface and fire on them with their deck guns. Franklin Roosevelt said that we have to protect those ships. So, he brought back the Navy Armed Guard, which had been inactive since 1919. But, he didn’t make this widely known. 10 guns were placed on each merchant ship. When the subs surfaced to sink them, expecting an easy target, they were sunk themselves.” Fitz said that he has “great respect” for the Merchant Marine sailors, whom he said took him “in and out of hell so many times.”
Carol Denehy, of the Memorial Military Museum, said that, in total, 1,554 of these Liberty Ships were sunk during the war, and 8,000 to 12,000 sailors were lost. 74 men from Bristol served on the Liberty Ships during the war. Denehy explained that the Merchant Marine Liberty Ships which the Navy Armed Guard were protecting delivered vital supplies and equipment to the allies throughout the war. The ships were hunted by German Wolf Pack U-boats, aircraft, bombers and battle ships and also had to contend with bad weather. Fitz said that when sailing in the North Sea near Russia during December, waves that were 50 to 70 feet high were common.
“I crossed the Atlantic 11 times and I traveled to the Arctic Circle,” said Fitz. “They called you a polliwog when you got out of boot camp. You were a shellback when you crossed the equator. When you went to the Arctic Circle, you were a polar bear. I went into the Navy wanting to be on a battleship or an aircraft carrier. But, I have so much pride about serving with the Navy Armed Guard.”
One of the more dangerous areas, Fitz said, was when sailing off the coast of occupied Africa. He saw action when Germans came by for strafing runs, but said that he did not want to talk about it. The crews of the Liberty Ships had no doctors on ship, no dentists and no barbers. The men had to cut each others’ hair.
“The only medical treatment you got was a lieutenant who could put a band-aid on you,” he said. “Meanwhile, the fleet ships had movies on deck and an ice cream bar.”
Fitz said that he has been to 29 countries on every continent except Antarctica through his service during World War II, dealing with temperatures ranging from 20 below zero in Russia to 110 degrees in Iran. He served alongside a lieutenant who was a history teacher from New Jersey. He would often point out historical sites along their route. Fitz recalled him pointing out Mount Sinai and saying “that’s where we got the 10 Commandments.” Once, when a canal was blocked with a sunken ship, requiring a week of clearing, Fitz was allowed to visit Cairo, Egypt. He recalled spending three days in Egypt, traveling along the Nile River, riding a camel and visiting King Tut’s Tomb.
“The inside of the burial chamber was cool and there were openings where, at certain times of the year, you could see certain stars,” said Fitz. “It was their religion.”
Fitz also recalled taking, the extremely dangerous, “The Murmansk Run” to bring supplies to the Russians in Russia. “We brought them two ice cutters, which they named Stalin and Lenin,” said Fitz.
Fitz recalled being coached to say “ne ponimayu” or “no understand” when dealing with Russian guards and being told that if Americans ever stepped over certain lines they would be shot. He said that it snowed three to four inches every day when he was in Russia.
“They served us vodka and all of us were young kids,” he said. “We didn’t know that you were supposed to sip it. The Russians would sip it for maybe an hour and a half. We got it down the hatch like it was a beer. After a couple of those, it didn’t take much to face the arctic.”
Fitz also recalled, during his service in the Pacific, that he encountered a Medal of Honor recipient from Kansas.
“He had so many blue dots on his legs from all the times he was shot,” said Fitz.
The existence of the Navy Armed Guard was made public after the war.
When he returned home from the war, Fitz decided that he wanted to go to school. He attended a technical school in New Britain.
“The veterans who were in those classes had been through hell on wheels,” he said. “A lot of them had battle fatigue and if they didn’t like something they would get up, shout and walk out. It took me two years to get the war out of my mind. I don’t talk about the gritty stuff because I don’t want to go back there. But, when you’re there, you didn’t think - you just acted. It was automatic.”
In 1951, Fitz married Carol Fitz. They had met as children on Cedar Lake in Bristol. They had remained friends ever since.
“We had a son and a daughter and I couldn’t ask for more,” said Fitz.
The family continued to grow with the addition of grandchildren and eventually great-grandchildren. Carol Fitz died Sept. 13, 2021, at 94. They had been married for 70 years.
Fitz worked for Superior Electric before retiring in 1987 after more than 40 years. That same year, he would join American Legion Post 2. During a Legion meeting, he met with Jack Denehy, founder of the Memorial Military Museum and Carol Denehy’s late husband. Jack Denehy died in 2010. Fitz described him as a “Veteran’s Veteran.”
“He saw that I had a U.S. Navy Murmansk hat on and started talking to me,” he said. “We talked back and forth for 26 days. What separated Jack from other people was that he understood what it was like to serve. He understood what it was about. There are not too many guys that I would call a veteran’s veteran.”
After Jack Denehy’s death in 2010, Fitz put on a program at the Memorial Military Museum which he dedicated to Denehy’s memory.
Fitz kept all of his photos and letters from the war, which his wife helped him organize into several large albums. He has kept a newspaper announcing the end of the war, and a photo of himself holding it when it was new. He also has a photo of himself with a Liberty Ship gun.
Three or four years ago, Fitz said, he was called by a man from Texas who was the son of the captain on a ship he served on.
“He said I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but my father was a captain on your ship,” said Fitz. “You used to call him ‘old man’ when he was 27 years old. He had seen an interview that I’d done with Jack Denehy which he put on the internet. I talked to him a bit and he later came up to visit me with his wife. He showed me pictures of his father. I took the model ship I made down and showed it to him. He said ‘My God, that’s it.’”
Fitz made a model replica of the type of Liberty Ship he served on over the course of two-and-a-half years. He is an avid woodworker and, among numerous other sculptures, also made a carving of the Navy Armed Guard symbol - an eagle clutching a German submarine and a Japanese plane. Fitz’ model boat will be on display at the June 18 program.
Fitz has also sculpted his dentist and the “Rogers Bakery wagon” which is on display at the Plainville Historical Society. That sculpture is engraved with his initials and those of the late Plainville historian Ruth Hummel.
Fitz said that the government is providing him with “nothing but great care” sending a physical therapist to his home on Sunnydale Avenue to work with him on exercises which keep him spry and able to move about with little difficulty. He is also helped by his daughter, Barbara. His neighbors, he said, frequently stop in to check on him - bringing him dinner and helping to take care of the outside of his home. However, he insists on cutting his lawn himself with his riding mower.
The Memorial Military Museum will honor Fitz, during an upcoming event.
The program will be held at 1 p.m. June 18 at the Bristol Historical Society at 98 Summer St. A video will be shown of Fitz being interviewed, enhanced with photos, World War II film footage and music. Following the program, Fitz’ story will ultimately be given to the Library of Congress for preservation.
Denehy encourages anyone who served in the Navy Armed Guard, or whose family served, to come to the program.