“We heard about it on a Sunday afternoon. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was.”
Building a Victory
-An oral history of Clayton Lee

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When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Mr. Clayton Lee was playing trombone with the Elks’ Club band. That day, Mr. Lee stopped playing and went to work. He closed the family plumbing business that he had taken over at age nineteen and went to work for the Houston Shipbuilding Company. On the docks of the Houston ship channel, Mr. Lee “helped build 123 Liberty Ships,” which carried ammunition and supplies overseas. He recalls the first ship he helped build, the Sam Houston. “It didn’t even get out of the Gulf of Mexico before the Germans sunk it,” Mr. Lee remarks.

Early in 1944, Mr. Lee volunteered to join the Navy. He “had always wanted to be in the Navy,” so the decision to volunteer was relatively easy. Mr. Lee and the other new recruits boarded a train in Union Station—now a part of Enron Field—and headed north to Faragot, Idaho. After six weeks of Basic Training and subzero temperatures, the Navy transferred him to a destroyer base in San Diego, California. There Mr. Lee, a Metal Smith Second Class, worked with the Ship Repair Unit in the copper shop.

My job was to help repair ships that had been damaged in the war from being hit with shells or kamikaze planes,” he says. “We got ‘em fixed up, so they could go back to war.” When Mr. Lee had spare time on his lunch and dinner breaks, he— “being an enterprising young man”— would make improvements to landing craft in exchange for coats, shoes, and cigarettes. He would also get permission from the ships’ officers to eat on board while working, so he could avoid the long mess lines. Mr. Lee laughs, “I enjoyed the Navy. I really did.”

Because Mr. Lee was what is called “Ship’s Company,” he was permanently assigned to the San Diego base and was not involved in combat. “I was blessed. I did not ever see any action,” he reflects. Still, for Mr. Lee, the day the war ended was a joyous one. It was “such a relief” that World War II came to a favorable close. Mr. Lee reminisces about his fellow soldiers’ reactions. “I saw enlisted men pick up men in uniforms and throw them in the fountains. . . . I even saw one man walk through a plate glass window he was so excited.”

Mr. Lee’s wife and child came to live with him in San Diego until his discharge from the Navy on March 16, 1946. The Lee family then returned to the Heights, and Mr. Lee returned to the family plumbing business. “I’ve been in the plumbing business ever since. Now my boys run the business—the oldest plumbing business in the city of Houston,” Mr. Lee beams with pride.

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