As I was making drinks for my wife and mother last night in our home tiki room that I named after my grandfather Bill Prettyman (“Prettyman’s Atoll”), my mother reminded me that the previous day (March 1) was Bill’s birthday. I’ve never been good with birthdays, but I can remember years, and so when she said that, I realized that March 1 was the 100th anniversary of Bill’s birthday on March 1, 1919. Had he lived, he would have turned 100 years old on Friday.
I feel like the 100th anniversary of his birth calls for a post, but as these posts usually take days to write and I only have a few hours before I return to the workaday world, I’ll see what I can do. I’d love to write a full biography of him, but given the short time I have, I will instead present a short sketch of the first twenty-five or so years of my grandfather’s life.
Note: because of the speed at which I’ll be writing this, I’m bound to make some mistakes. Please do point those out in the comments section so that I may correct them.
William (“Bill”) Eugene Prettyman was the second-born child of Charles Austin (“C.A.”) Prettyman and Rosa (“Rose”) Cecilia (Gores) Prettyman. Bill had an older brother Robert Austin (“Bob”), a younger brother Richard Francis (“Frank”, “Arch”), and a baby sister Joan (“Joanie”).
Bill’s father C.A. came from a family with modest means but great ambition. C.A. worked his way up the economic ladder, from being a farm hand to a railroad worker, a barber, a real estate appraiser, a salesman, an insurance agent, a loan officer, and finally a mortgage lender and real estate speculator.
C.A.’s success in business, combined with marrying the daughter of a man who was himself a self-made man, meant that C.A. and Rose were able to provide a comfortable home life for their children. They lived in a large house, had a maid, and were not hard hit by the Great Depression. At a time when much of the country was struggling to afford food and shelter, Bill and his brothers were enjoying their pet pony. His was truly a charmed childhood. See this post for another colorful bit about Bill’s childhood and the enduring love his father had for him. Before I continue, I should note that while C.A.’s position as a mortgage lender gave him financial stability during the Great Depression, it was with no small amount of pride that Bill told me that his father never took advantage of the situation by foreclosing on anyone during the Great Depression.
Bill’s childhood was spent playing with his brothers—being outside fishing, canoeing, and playing sports. Most every story Bill told me about his childhood involved his brothers and being outdoors.
From 1926 to 1934, Bill attended St. Ann’s grade school in Wadena. From 1934 to 1937, Bill attended Wadena High School. Although he didn’t know it at the time, his future wife entered Wadena High as a freshman when Bill was a junior. They didn’t actually meet for another few years, after they had both independently moved to California. But that’s another story altogether.
In high school, Bill was an outgoing young man who was a letterman in basketball and football, got good grades in his classes, who had a beautiful singing voice and loved to sing and act in school plays, and who loved to relax with friends and enjoy a drink or two.
Bill learned to drive around 1935. In the summer of 1938, Bill was hired to drive friends of his mother (three women and a young girl who was a daughter of one of the women) from Minnesota to Washington State and back. On the return trip, Bill’s car was hit by a drunk driver and the three women were killed. Bill and the young girl were seriously injured (see more details in this post). Bill’s father rushed out to be with his injured son, but his mother Rose did not come. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she blamed Bill for the crash and for the death of her three friends. While Bill was recovering in the hospital, Rose threw away many (most?) of Bill’s cherished possessions. This is a large part of the reason why (unlike with my other three grandparents) I’ve inherited essentially nothing from Bill’s childhood—no letters, no photo albums, no favorite books, no school photos, no yearbooks, no trophies, nothing. From what Bill told me, it was a long time before his mother would even speak to him again.
Bill was an intelligent young man, and after his graduation from high school he attended St. Thomas College from 1937 through 1940, and St. Paul College of Law from 1940 through 1941.
During this same time, Bill was helping his father renovate and subdivide apartments in Saint Paul. His father would take an apartment building that had two large apartments per floor and redesign and rebuild the apartments so that there would be four or more apartments on that same single floor.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, Bill chose to leave school in the spring of 1941, and that summer or fall he moved to California. He got a job at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank, and worked in the tool and die department at Lockheed.
Bill and his brothers had an early and abiding fascination with aircraft, as this earlier post on a toy plane they built together (or perhaps that their father built for them) hints at.
Bill wanted to pursue his dream of being a pilot, and so he applied to the U.S. Naval Air Corps Cadet Program at some point in the summer or fall of 1941. I don’t know whether he applied in Minnesota before coming out to California, or whether he applied in California, although I suspect the former. In any case, he ended up having to wait a couple of months (from November 1941 through the end of January 1942, according to what he told me in the 1980s) to get into the program.
On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As with many Americans, this event changed the course of Bill’s life. He recalled that the newspapers and the media “were going nuts for enlistment.” Bill decided to “give up a good job on the jigs at Lockheed” and join the armed forces. This doesn’t completely align with what he told me about applying to the U.S. Naval Air Corps Cadet Program in November 1941, so I’m not sure whether he enrolled in the program before Pearl Harbor, or just after.
In any case, Bill recalls becoming a cadet on January 8, 1942, and being sworn in sometime in February 1942. According to the naval records I’ve found for Bill, he was enlisted on March 6, 1942, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Like his wedding, Bill’s military service will have to the subject of another, much more detailed post. For now, I’ll just cover the highlights.
Bill served in the United States Navy from January 1942 to November 1945. Because he was color blind, he was not allowed to become a pilot. Instead, he became a naval aviator and, at times, a naval aviation instructor. He ultimately achieved the rank of Lt. J.G.
From March 6, 1942, until August 15, 1942, Bill completed the Primary Flight Training Course at the U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base in Minneapolis. On the day after completing his training, he arrived at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas. From August 16, 1942, until October 22, 1942, Bill served as a cadet at Corpus Christi. On October 22, he accepted a commission as Ensign. For the next couple of years—from November 1942 until July 1944—Bill was tasked with teaching Naval Air Navigation at Corpus Cristi N.A.S.
After his time as at Corpus Cristi, Bill was reassigned in July 1944 to the VR-11 squadron in California (Oakland, I believe). It was here, sometime in summer or fall 1944 (I think September 1944), that this Wadena-born fly boy was introduced to the Wadena-born Harriet Askew by her “cousin” (actually her half-uncle), William Leighton (“Bill”) Askew, who was also serving in the Navy. Bill Askew was based in Hawaii, so I imagine he met Bill Prettyman on one of his flights out or back.
Bill remained with VR-11 until April 1945, when he was reassigned to the VR-2 squadron (headquartered in Alameda, California, I believe). He was with VR-2 until the completion of his service in November 1945.
During his time with VR-11 and VR-2, he flew to destinations all over the Pacific Ocean, from the Alaska and Siberia in the north to Hawaii and Kwajalein Atoll further south (see this post for more detail about his time on Kwajalein Atoll).
Bill and Harriet were married on June 12, 1945, while Bill was still on active duty. I’ll write more about their wedding—and how it ended up being a tiny affair—in a separate post.
Bill recounted that while he was with VR-2, he would fly 2 to 3 flights west, then one flight east (returning to Alameda). In August 1945 he was put on special orders and required to report immediately. The only thing he was told was that he would be flying to Alaska. They had three new DC-4s, and Bill was the Head Navigator. They picked up the planes in Seattle, then flew to Fairbanks, Alaska. They then flew for two days to Kebarask (?), Siberia (I think this was actually Khabarovsk, Russia). Here, he was involved in the effort to establish the LORAN (long-range navigation) radar network over Russia.
After his first trip to Fairbanks, they needed to make a trip to Seattle, and Bill volunteered to navigate the flight. He called Harriet to let her know he’d be flying back stateside, but she had only bad news—Bill’s mother Rose and a family friend had drowned in a tragic accident on the St. Croix River on September 3, 1945. Bill got emergency leave, and flew back to Minneapolis for his mother’s funeral.
Bill’s military service was up just a couple of months later, and he was out of the Navy in November 1945.
After his military service, Bill moved back to St. Paul with Harriet in January, 1946, in large part to be with his family and help them in the aftermath of his mother’s death. From January 1946 until June 1948, Bill and his two brothers, Bob and Arch, ran a real estate business together in Minnesota.
In order to get this blog post out today, I’ll end this sketch of Bill’s early life here. Please do let me know in the comments section if you know of other stories or tidbits from Bill’s first twenty-five years. And if you by any chance know of any surviving writings or personal effects from Bill’s pre-marriage years, please do let me know!