Harold Connolly wanted to join the military so bad, he tried to enlist a year before he was eligible.
When he was 16, Connolly and a buddy went down to the recruitment office with a woman posing as their mother.
“The recruiter, he looks at her and looks at us and (says) ‘Get out of here, come back when you’re seventeen,’” said Connolly.
According to the National World War II Museum, there are a little over 167,000 WWII veterans alive today across America.
Connolly is one of them.
Born in New York City, Connolly was raised by his mother and grandparents.
He was 18 months old when his father died in 1931.
He’s been working all his life, he says, getting his first job around age eight or nine selling pencils.
Got off the bus one day and followed a crowd of people to the racetrack, where he heard some of them complaining that they didn’t have pencils to mark their bets.
Later, he took ten cents down to the five and dime and bought twenty pencils.
“They didn’t have erasers on ‘em, just straight pencils,” he said.
So, he cut them in half, sharpened them, and sold all forty pencils at ten cents a piece.
He brought home four dollars, twice the 25 cents an hour his grandfather made building store fronts.
School was never a big priority.
At fourteen, a friend helped him get a job scraping barnacles off barges.
He would go to mechanics and welding classes and leave vocational school early to go work in the barge yard.
“I had teachers I’d never met,” he said.
Eventually, it caught up with him.
The principal came into the welding shop one day while Connolly was in class and told him, “When you turn 16... you’re done here.”
That was around the same time Connolly and his friend tried to enlist.
By 1946, he was seventeen and the recruiting office didn’t turn him away a second time.
The USS Harlan R. Dickson (DD-708) left the United States in January with Connolly aboard.
The ship didn’t return until October.
“That was quite the experience,” said Connolly. “Some of the experiences were good. Others get in your head and you can’t get rid of.”
He remembers sweeping mines in the Adriatic Sea, east of the Italian boot.
The Allied forces had overpowered the Axis in north Africa and invaded Sicily.
The next step was Italy.
“Hitler knew we were going to come up the Adriatic and invade the middle of (the Italian) peninsula and cut the south half (off) without supplies,” said Connolly.
“He mined the hell out of that (southwest) section (of the Adriatic). Anything that was floating, we would shoot with the 40 millimeter guns (and) blow up.”
All the while, the Harlan R. Dickson towed a device Connolly describes as a large magnet, which attracted additional naval mines in the water for safe detonation.
At another point, the Harlan R. Dickson got tied up in the field in Naples, Italy.
The city had been bombed by British and American forces.
“It was completely wiped out,” said Connolly.
It was March, and there was snow on the ground.
There were people— mostly old women with babies and small children— living on rafts underneath the docks.
After meals, the Harlan R. Dickson’s crew would scrape uneaten food into G.I. cans - large trash cans.
“And they would take that G.I. can with the plate scrapings and put it on the dock,” said Connolly. “These people came out from under the dock. Some didn’t have knives, forks, cups, plates, so they’d dip into with their hands and eat. (Even) little kids (would) eat out of their hand. They were starving to death.”
Later, Connolly describes traveling through what is now the Suez canal and down the Arabian peninsula.
“We wound up (sailing up) the Tigris River as far as Basrat. Basrat was bitty town — it wasn’t as big as Blackshear,” he said.
The Harlan R. Dickson was the first modern warship to sail that far up the Tigris River, according to Connolly.
Basrat was an essential loading point for dates. Date palm trees grew along the canal as far as the ship’s crew could see. They grew dates all along the canal.
“All these natives carried big bundles on their head. It was like a string of ants,” said Connolly.“They’d gather the dates and load the ships. They had a gang plank going up and a gang plank going down.”
The navy didn’t have Connolly stay aboard the Harlan R. Dickson after it returned to the U.S.
He spend his remaining service time in the Philadelphia Navy Yard before being discharged.
The passing of time was played in big role in Connolly’s decision to not go further with the Navy once his term of enlistment concluded.
At the time, he reasoned that there had been 20 years between the first and second world wars.
He didn’t want to wait that long, so he left the service.
“If I would’ve knew there were two more wars coming back to back. I never would’ve left. I loved it,” said Connolly.
A lot has happened since then.
He’s been a through a few marriages and one very short date with a woman who hated motorcycles.
Jobs came and went. He spent several years as a police officer, a boilermaker and other things here and there.
He remodeled a house boat and had only put in a motor box and dive platform when Hurricane Andrew came and undid all his work.
June 2020 found him moving to Blackshear from Woodbine to be closer to his daughter, Stella Alderman, and her family.
Connolly is 93 now.
He goes out most Friday nights. He sings karaoke, shoots pool, dances and recently won a $50 bar tab in a costume contest at Rivers Bar in Waycross. He was a zombie Joe Biden supporter.
“He was telling everybody he came back (from the dead) to see how (Biden) was doing after we elected him President, because (Biden) pulled so many names out of the cemetery,” laughed Alderman.