OKEECHOBEE — Born and raised in Southern New Jersey, down in the “Pines,” veteran Ed Abbott’s family was in dairy production as far back as 1876. The family had a big dairy, not just a small farm. Abbott’s Dairy covered six states. He had his whole future planned out, he said. He knew what he was going to do with his life. He was going to graduate high school, then go on to college for business administration or something like that.
He had been working down in Atlantic City in the bottling plant at Abbott’s Dairy during the summer breaks from school, so when he graduated, he went right to work there. He thought it would be a good place to decide what to do next, and he spent about a year learning the business from the bottom up. One day, he got a draft notice, but growing up in Southern New Jersey with the bay on one side and the ocean on the other, and having grown up with boats, he decided that if he was going in the military, he would much rather go into the Navy. He went to a Navy recruiter and explained the situation, and that was all it took. He was in the Navy!
He was on a bus to Bainbridge, Md., for boot camp three days later. He loved it. He was brought up with a lot of discipline, so it came natural to him, he said. At the end of it, he was made a first platoon leader and led the troops in marching and things like that, and when they graduated, everyone was given an assignment to go to Korea, because there was a war going on. Except him! He was told he was being assigned to President Truman’s yacht as a deckhand.
Unfortunately, about a week later, the president decided to sell his yacht and they sent him to work on a tugboat in New York Harbor instead. He was in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They hauled ammunition from New Jersey to the Navy yard and loaded it on ships bound for Korea. It was a great duty, he said. “But I got in trouble.”
He was so close to home that he hitchhiked home almost every weekend. The skipper on the tugboat did not care who was on the boat as long as there were two guys to run the lines and two to run the engines. So, Mr. Abbott kept talking the guys into letting him go home on the weekends. At one point, his friend wrecked his car and was in a coma, and Mr. Abbott called to tell the guys he worked with that he would like to stay to be with his friend.
“I thought he was gonna die,” he said. But, they were fed up with him taking advantage of the situation and told him to get back. “I couldn’t leave my buddy, though,” he said. “So, I was what they call, ‘over the hill’.” When he got back, two Marines grabbed him and marched him up to the brig. His punishment was working in the base, and he was off the tug. He was doing dishes and cleaning tables, things like that.
His father, who was a big executive with Abbott’s Dairies, went to the Navy base and demanded to see the commanding officer, because his little boy got in trouble. He told that commanding officer, “There’s a war going on. These boys don’t have enough to do. Get him over there to fight the war!” About three days later, he was put on the USS Abbot and was on his was to Korea. He didn’t know about his father’s influence until many years later.
They went to Korea and fired in where the Marines in the trenches told them to shoot. They were shot at by a suicide plane several times. He saw a lot of action while he was there, but he was a Navy boy, he had a bed to sleep in, three meals a day, movies on the fantail. Because of that, he has always felt a lot of guilt, he said. The war ended while they were there, and the captain was given permission to make a world cruise out of it. He was told to take his time coming home and go visit any country he wanted to on his way there.
Between June and December of 1954, they took a world tour of more than 20 countries. Mr. Abbott went ashore in each of those countries and learned how they live there. This made him grateful to be in the United States, he said. “It was quite a lesson going to all those countries.”
In Hong Kong, China, two elderly women got permission to paint the ship with rollers in exchange for what the garbage men would scrape off their trays. The women used this to feed their families. “These are lessons you learn and never forget. I think that’s why I’m so patriotic today and so happy to be in this country. A lot of people don’t realize what we’ve got here.”
Mr. Abbott considers himself very lucky. He spent three years on the USS Abbot. He jokes that he used to tell his crewmates it was his grandfather’s ship, but it had no relation to his family, and was spelled with only one “T.”
He was initiated when the ship crossed the equator. He said they dump you in garbage that’s been sitting out for a week or two and they beat you with boards. A shellback is a sailor who has been across the equator, and a polliwog is one who has never been across, he explained. Once you become a shellback, you carry papers to prove it so they can never do that to you again.
After the world cruise, he said they hit a typhoon. He loved it. He grabbed a camera and climbed up on the catwalk above the decks to the crow’s nest and braced himself so he could watch and take pictures.
In all, he served four years before his discharge. He returned home to the family business.
One funny tidbit Mr. Abbott shared was that he never had a cup of coffee in his life until after he left the Navy and became a milkman. “Everybody drinks coffee in the Navy,” he said. “But, I didn’t.” He started drinking it when he would sit at the diner early in the morning with the other guys waiting to go out on their milk routes, he explained.
Mr. Abbott has lived in Okeechobee for about 20 years.