Jean Taves is far too modest to ever consider herself a living treasure, but it didn’t take me long to add her to my own short list of San Pedro treasures after she sent me an email and we sat down and talked.
She knew how to get my attention; attached to that initial email was a copy of a letter written by her older sister, Barb, to her fiancé in October 1945 that describes a scene that many San Pedrans might still remember, the return of the Pacific Fleet to its former home port. The fiancé, Ben, was serving on the heavy cruiser USS Helena, then in New York. Barb wrote on Oct. 25:
I surely wish it could have been the Helena coming up the channel this morning instead of the cruiser Los Angeles. I paid particular attention to her as I know your ship is the same type. The new cruisers are really beautiful, aren’t they? So long and sleek and powerful looking. I’m glad you did get your big ship if it had to be a ship again. The troop ships have been returning every day as well as the battleships Texas and Nevada; cruisers Astoria, Baltimore, Tucson and L.A.; carriers Shangri-La and Hancock, several CVEs; mine destroyers; and several others. We have a marvelous view of them from the balcony of the building which is upstairs over the Cabrillo Theatre on Seventh and Beacon streets. There is a tiny fishing boat which is painted white and decorated with flags which meets each ship as the tugs bring her in to berth, and their favorite record seems to be ‘California, Here I Come.’ There is to be quite a program in the Coliseum at USC following a street program in L.A. Saturday (parade), and a sky parade of 300 Navy and Marine planes. There will be four submarines among the ships open for inspections Saturday. I’ve been aboard the larger-type ships years ago, but would like to see the inside of a sub.
Jean had just graduated from San Pedro High that June. Barb, a 1941 grad, was employed by the Navy in its public relations office, which was adjacent to the Fox Cabrillo Theatre below the Elks Club. Barb, who died in 2010, and Ben had a long life together.
Like most of her generation, Jean, now 85, has vivid memories of the long-ago past. In 1927, her parents’ house was the last one on west Santa Cruz, just below Walker and the original McCowan’s market. The boys she grew up with almost all ended up serving in the war.
In another email, she wrote: I still grieve over several friends who never returned whose names you referred to in your poignant article several years ago. In my mind’s eye I see the gold star in Robert Stambook’s mother’s front window in her tiny house off 9th Street. He was in the 5th Marine Division, wounded in the invasion of Iwo Jima, and sent back into the battle and was killed.
I have a copy of a March 1945 clipping from the News-Pilot with a picture of Stambook, a Summer 1943 San Pedro High grad, that says his “helmet saved his life on Iwo Jima, and permitted him to return to the fighting there after treatment at a first-aid ship offshore for shrapnel wounds in the head received the day his marine regiment invaded the island, according to word received by his mother, Mrs. Hazel Nelson of 1045 S. Alma.” Just 19-years-old and engaged to a high school friend of Jean’s, he was killed in action on March 14; he’s buried in Rosecran’s National Cemetery in San Diego.
Jean also recalls her stepfather, Arthur W. “Bill” Christensen, who survived a ship torpedoing in WWI while in the merchant marine, being recruited by the Army in WWII. Christensen was a longshoreman working for Crescent Warehouse when the Army came calling, seeking the services of stevedores to help get bomb-damaged ports in France back in operation following D-day. When he returned to San Pedro, he finished his career as a supervisor at Crescent.
As usually happens when two San Pedrans who’d never met before get together, we discovered common bonds. Years ago, she was a neighbor of my old San Pedro High math teacher, the late Glen Gallaher, who used to email me regularly. Now she lives just a few doors down the street from me, in the same house she’s owned since the early `60s. She mentioned a family that once lived next door, the Karmeliches, and the boys her son, Brian, played with. It turns out one of those boys, Chris, stands right in front of me when we line up at the casual hall.
Brian attended Crestwood Elementary and Dodson Junior High, but Jean sensed her son was destined for something special and enrolled him at Narbonne High because of its highly regarded public speaking program. He graduated in 1977 and went on to earn his Ph.D. from USC. Jean herself graduated from UCLA in 1953 but cut short a teaching career to care for her mother.
She was right about her son, but his story is going to have to wait for another day. Stay tuned. spt