The late Thurlow Fernandez was a first-generation American who fought in World War II in the European and Pacific Theaters. He was serving on a ship that was part of a convoy that came under attack. Fernandez was honorably discharged in 1947 and used the GI bill to go to school.
WASHINGTON -- As we recognize Military Appreciation Month, U.S. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) honored the service and sacrifice of the late Thurlow Fernandez, a World War II veteran who served in the European and Pacific Theaters, in "Salute to Veterans," a series commemorating the military service of Arkansans.
Fernandez passed away in 2017, shortly after being interviewed by a member of Boozman's staff for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. This initiative provides all of us the opportunity to continue to honor and remember those who have served our nation.
Fernandez was a first-generation American. His Spanish family lived in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago, so Fernandez said he had to learn how to defend himself.
"The type of neighborhood I grew up in, you had to learn how to fight," the 94-year-old Fernandez said during the interview.
He took that energy to the boxing ring. When he joined the Navy he continued with the sport, becoming the service's welter weight champion at 147 pounds.
"Nobody wanted to mess around with me."
Fernandez enlisted in the Navy when he was 18 years old and completed basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois. He still had a lot to learn when he boarded his first ship.
"I had to go to the bathroom. Some sailor said, 'We don't have bathrooms on this ship, you have to ask for the head.' I found out where the head was at. That was the toilet," Fernandez said.
He recalled his eight-day trip across the Atlantic Ocean during an interview in late 2016. Fernandez was serving on a ship that was part of a convoy that came under attack.
"I have no idea how many ships were lost," he said.
Fernandez was stationed at U.S. Naval Operating Base, Londonderry in Northern Ireland. While he and his fellow sailors were getting ships ready for the invasion of Normandy, Fernandez also fell in love.
"I needed permission from the Navy to get married," he said.
He received permission and wed. He and his wife, Joyce, received two days leave for their honeymoon.
Fernandez didn't participate in the D-Day invasion because he was hospitalized at the time, and said it's unlikely that he would have survived.
"All of my shipmates were killed."
He returned to the United States on a ship carrying soldiers wounded from the Normandy invasion in addition to German prisoners of war.
He also served in the Pacific Theater where he was in charge of the diesel room on the ship he was serving on. It was during this assignment that he befriended a new member to his team, Bob Drexel, a sailor who was pulled from the water after his ship had been torpedoed by the Japanese.
"He took a liking to me and gave me his address and phone number," Fernandez said.
Fernandez witnessed the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay. He also helped decommission the USS Delta. During the interview at his Sherwood home, he proudly pointed out the clock sitting on his mantle which he saved from the ship as a memento.
Fernandez was honorably discharged in 1947 and used the GI bill to go to school. He also reconnected with his friend Drexel.
"When I got out of the Navy I looked him up. He worked at General Motors. That's how I got to work at General Motors."
Fernandez held a variety of jobs in his 32 years at the company.
He was married to Joyce for 38 years before she passed away. He found love again with an Arkansan, Margie, to whom he was married for more than 30 years.
Boozman said: "As a member of the Greatest Generation, there is a lot we can learn from people like Thurlow Fernandez, whose service and sacrifice helped defeat tyranny. Honoring Thurlow and our veterans by sharing their experiences of serving our nation in uniform is important to understanding our history. I'm pleased he shared his story with us so his family and future generations of Americans can learn about his remarkable memories."
Fernandez's entire interview is part of the Veterans History Project collection. This initiative of the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center aims to collect and retain the oral histories of our nation's veterans.