THE ROAD TO ANNAPOLIS
By Dick Couch
If you open the 1966 United States Naval Academy yearbook Lucky Bag the first thing you will see is a full page photo of a proud, brand-new graduate of that class. It is not an unusual picture. It is one you may expect, he stands tall, smiling, while his girlfriend clips the ensign boards to his dress whites. Nothing unusual for “Commissioning Week”, but this random photograph captures one of the most unusual and unlikely graduates every to attend the United States Naval Academy.
In the spring of 1941 Europe was at war. Earlier in the century, at the conclusion of the War to End All Wars, the victorious allies creating Yugoslavia, forcing Serbs and Croats to live tougher without borders. Amidst all this, Joseph Mandich was born on April 13, 1941 in Ljubuski, a small Croatian village in what is now western Herzegovina. His parents, Ante and Matija Mandich could neither read nor write and made a subsistence living, farming harsh land and herding sheep. That summer, the extended Mandich family, along with baby Joe herded their sheep to summer pastures in the mountains a hundred kilometers north of Ljubuski.
It was an annual trek, only this summer, Germany attacked Russia. In the Balkans, ethnic rivalries surface very quickly. The Mandich’s pastured their sheep in a Serbian dominated area. The Serbs attacked and they were forced to flee. As the women drove the sheep from the mountains, the men fought against the Serbs. Weak and hungry from days of forced march and bitter fighting, Matija Mandich had to choose between her newborn son and the safety of Joe’s older brother and sisters. She wrapped Joe in a blanket and left him hidden in a thicket, then fled before the advancing Serbs. An unthinkable act for a mother? Certainly, but the world was on fire in the summer of 1941 and mothers all over Europe had to make desperate choices. Fortunately, a break in the fighting that same evening allowed Matija and one of her nieces to slip back and find the infant. Joe Mandich has survived his first battle and he was not yet 3 months old.
The years following the war were harsh for Croatians living in communist Yugoslavia. The land was cruel and there was little food. In 1951, Frank Mandich, Ante’s brother, visiting the family. Frank has emigrated to America and settled in Aberdeen, Washington. On seeing the poverty and near-starvation conditions in Ljubuski, Frank immediately agreed to take 2 of the children to America. Joe and one of his cousins were selected and began the 3 year visa process to leave Yugoslavia. Joe’s cousin died of tuberculosis so Joe traveled alone to America. After 3 days on trains, buses and airplanes, Joe arrived in Aberdeen. He was just over 5 feet tall, weighed 80 lbs and spoke not a word of English.
There was a small Croatian community in Aberdeen, but few spoke a dialect that he understood. The Croatian-American children spoke only English and there were no English-as-a-second-language programs in Aberdeen in 1954. Joe had completed six years of school in Yugoslavia but was made to repeat the sixth grade. By the end of the first year in his new school, Joe was getting A’s even an A in English.
Uncle Frank owned the local taxicab company, and Joe worked part-time as a dispatcher. Life was good in America, but during the summer of his sophomore year in high school, his beloved uncle fell ill and died. His aunt Eva sold the cab company, but Joe still needed to work. Jobs were scarce, but Joe now had been in America for five years, so he could become a citizen. Joe wanted to join the Marines, but Eva would not hear of it. Her son, a Marine, had been killed in action in Korea. Joe was seventeen and needed her signature to enlist. She did agree to let him join the Navy. Joe joined the Naval Reserve and went off to boot camp in San Diego between junior and senior year.
During his senior year, Joe attended weekend drills, drew his pay and continued to excel in school. His grades were such that he was invited to compete for an NROTC scholarship. Joe sat for the exam and won the competition, but the selection panel chose an alternate candidate. He needed security clearance, and his parents lived in a communist country.
Following gradutation, Joe reported to the Oakland Navy Yard and the Alvin C. Cockerel for active duty and shortly after he reported the XO called him to his stateroom.
“Mandich, you seem like a bright guy and you scored well on your tests in boot camp. How’d you like to go to the Naval Academy?”
“I don’t see how that would be possible, sir,” Joe replied. “I tested ok for ROTC, but I had a problem with the security clearance.” He smiled and added “You don’t need much of a clearance to be a fireman.”
“There may be a way around that,” the XO replied. “You see, a lot of Plebes wash out so they don’t initiate security clearances until the second year. By that time, it’s be too late to kick you out. What do you say: want to give it a shot?”
Getting a copy of the fleet exam for the Naval Academy was not easy. The test arrived in Oakland when the ship was bound for Pearl Harbor. Then, the test was forwarded to Hawaii after the ship had traveled west for Subic Bay. The Cockrell was in waters in Vietnam when the test arrived at Subic. When the ship arrived in Subic, the test had been forwarded to Clark Air Force base. Fireman Mandich was sent to Clark in search of the elusive test. After several days in transit barracks, a weary Joe Mandich sat for the competitive fleet examination for admission to the Naval Academy. Joe returned to Subic just entire to catch the ship to Yokosuka. On arrival, the ship received a garbled message that ordered Fireman Joseph Mandich to the USNA Prep School at Bainbridge, Maryland on 28 June for processing and induction into the Naval Academy with the Class of 1966.
Joe arrived at Friendship Airport the afternoon the 27th of June 1962. With his last money, he bought a bus ticket to Bainbridge. When he reached the Prep School later that evening, he immediately knew something was wrong. Except for the watch at the gate, the place was deserted. Yet his orders said 0800, 28 June. The following morning, he was summoned by the commanding officer.
“Mandich, where have you been,” he demanded. “You were supposed to be here on the 20th!.” The garbled message had been read as the 28th and he was able to leave the Cockrell that day. “You’re supposed to be sworn in as a Midshipman this afternoon. Damn it, Mandich, it takes a week to process someone ‘from the fleet’ and complete the paperwork for the Academy.” The captain paced the room while Mandich stood at attention. “You be back here in an hour, got that?”
An hour later, Joe was taken to a room staffed a small army of personnel men. There were stacks and stacks of forms laid out on a long table in the school administration office. For the next two hours, Joe signed his name and filled out forms. Then ex-Fireman Joe Mandich was driven to Annapolis in the Commanding Officer’s sedan. Wearing the same set of whites in which he’d traveled all the way from Japan, Joe Mandich was sworn in with the Class of 1966.
Joe studied hard and felt good about his final exams. But when the grades were posted, he had flunked English. He was devastated. All this effort to get to the Naval Academy and he was to flunk out. The next day he found himself before the Academic Board, lots of gold stripes and stern looks – over 20 officers in all.
“Mister Mandich,” the captain at the end of the green table intoned, “are you trying to flunk out of the Naval Academy?”
“Oh, no sir!”
“Well your English professor seems to think so. Professor?”
Joe’s English professor leaned forward and eyed him over the top of his glasses. “Well, Mandich, then why did you misspell over 40 words on your final English exam?”
Standard response, “I’ll find out, sir!”
Off to one side, a commander studying Midshipman Mandich’s file raised a hand. “Excuse me, but I have a question for this Midshipman.” The captain nodded for him to continue. “Mister Mandich, is English your native language.”
“Just exactly when did you begin to learn English?”
“When I came to this country, when I was 13.”
Now the hard looks around the table were fixed on the English professor.
“Mandich, why don’t you have a seat out in the hall and we’ll let you know what we decide.”
Midshipman Mandich was allowed to remain at the Naval Academy and the professor directed to work with him to master the inconsistencies of correct spelling in the English language.
Joe was presented with an opportunity to go home to Yugoslavia, but it would not be easy. A generous classmate lent him $300 enough to help him travel home if he could get on a ship in the Mediterranean. That summer, defense budgets froze all nonessential foreign military travel and Joe was ordered to a ship in Hawaii. But he was determine to go home.
For 20 days of his 30-day leave period. Midshipman Mandich sat in a passenger lounge at McGuire Air Force Base waiting for a space-available hop to Europe. With only 10 days remaining, he managed to get aboard a flight to Paris. From there he took a train to Trieste, Italy on the Italian-Yugoslav border. Ljubuski was a 500 mile trip down the Adriatic to the Dalmatian Coast. Joe had a passport, but no visa, a navy bag full of U.S. Navy uniforms and he wanted to enter a communist country. In Trieste, he boarded a bus for Yugoslavia not knowing what to expect. At the border, a smiling Yugoslav border policemen charged him $3 and stamped his passport with a tourist visa. Through a series of buses and shared rides, Joe managed to work his way along the coast to a point near his village with 8 remaining days of leave. Ljubuski was 15 miles inland from the coast. There he hired a cab for the final leg of the journey. Joe was able to direct the cabby up the dirt road to his house; nothing had changed in 11 years.
Matija was in the front yard churning butter when they drove up. At this point the driver knew the story and he waited while Joe got out. She paused to lean on the shaft of her churn and they just looked at each other. His mother looked much the same as he remembered her, but Joe has changed considerably. He was 11 inches taller and 95 lbs heavier. She did not recognize him. The cab driver was unable to contain himself and lept from the car.
“What’s the matter, old woman,” he yelled. “Don’t you recognize your own son?!?”
Then the reunion began. There were aunts and uncles he had never met and a younger brother born after he left home. The small village turned out in force and it was quite a homecoming.
After 4 days of celebration and an endless procession of family, Joe began the long return journey that would ultimately take him through Sarajevo, to Austria and on to Germany. He arrived at Rhineholm Air Base with 2 remaining days of leave and $225 in his pocket, not quite enough for a commercial ticket home. Flights to the US from Rhineholm were as doubtful as the flights from McGuire had been coming east. Things looked bleak and he faced that telephone call no Midshipman wants to make – to report yourself overdue on leave. But Joe’s luck held – a C-130 was leaving for Dover, Delaware with plenty of seats. Joe couldn’t believe those ahead of him on the waiting list declined the flight. He soon learned the reason. The 130s only cargo was 5 coffins containing the remains of American servicemen killed in an automobile crash. Joe and 4 sailors were the only live passengers onboard. The 5 Navymen played poker for most of the 9-hour trip across the Atlantic.
Joe arrived at the Naval Academy with hours to spare, ready to begin his last year at the Naval Academy. He was able to repay the $300 loan and send some money back to his parents to Yugoslavia. Joe was also lucky when it came to poker.