The last time Howard “Chris” Christianson saw the Port of Hueneme, he was 24 years old, leaving a wife and young daughter behind in Illinois as he shipped off to the Marshall Islands to fight and serve in World War II.
That was in December of 1943.
A few weeks ago, Chris, now 93, revisited that entryway to the Pacific and tried to connect it to his memories. So much had changed. The buildings, the ships — nothing looked as it did when this area was a key shipping-out point for equipment and men advancing across the Pacific Theater.
His bewilderment grew as he traveled around what is today Naval Base Ventura County, Port Hueneme. He became uncertain; nothing looked familiar.
Until he saw a Quonset hut.
“There!” he announced, his eyes lighting up as he pointed to the buildings at Pacific Avenue and Salsa Street that now house battalion supplies.
The builder in him took over.
“They were either 16-by-20 or 16-by-48,” he said, remembering the dimensions of the Quonset huts he lived in before shipping out and that he helped construct in the Pacific. “Some were 48-by-100. They were strong as all get-out. They were worth their weight in gold.”
Christianson eased back into the passenger seat, satisfied, his confidence back, ready to share more memories.
His son Val, himself a Vietnam War veteran, grinned. The trip from their home in New Mexico had now been worth it.
The Christiansons were in California for a visit down Memory Lane. They visited the Seabee Museum, then went on a pre-arranged “windshield tour” of the base, where the senior Christianson had served in the 109th Naval Construction Battalion as a second class carpenter’s mate, the rate equivalent to today’s builder. He had been in one of four waves to Oahu, and from there had gone on to the Marshall Islands and later, Guam. He spent Thanksgiving 1945 aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-10), coming home.
On the islands, Christianson helped build embankments, a mess hall and a hospital.
“The sooner we got a building done, the sooner we’d have hot chow,” he recalled.
The enemy was never far away, and the Seabees were always carrying an M1.
“It weighed 8.9 pounds,” Christianson said. “We always said that after a 10-mile march, the decimal point dropped out.”
He was struck by the beauty of the islands when he arrived.
“But after the engagement, all the trees were gone,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”
At the Seabee Museum, Christianson enjoyed the black-and-white photographs among the World War II exhibits.
Volunteer Tom Melugin escorted him through, pointing out the different displays.
“Oh look at this,” Christianson said as he entered the room displaying the Humvee. “That’s big! Much bigger than the old Willys Jeep!”
After the war, the family moved to Albuquerque, where Christianson was a journeyman union carpenter until his retirement in 1983.
He doesn’t remember feeling fear the day he shipped out.
“I was looking forward to it,” he said. “I wasn’t scared or afraid of anything. We were serving our nation, and we all knew that we had to prevail. ‘Can-Do’ was always our motto.”