Friday, February 11, 2011

Life of a Young Army Family 1929 – 1938

Life was good. Young First Lieutenant Wallace Howard Hastings and his wife, Virginia, were at Fort DuPont, Delaware, where he was in the Army Corps of Engineers and they were expecting their first baby. Shortly before the baby was born on 29 October 1929, what today is known as Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed
. Of course this did not affect them personally, as they were young and had no money invested in the stock market. Nothing could detract from their excitement. On 7 November 1929, their baby was born at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC. They had a boy and named him after Papa, Wallace Howard, Jr. Their dream was for him to follow in his father’s footsteps.

In 1930, Lieutenant Hastings was ordered to West Point where he taught in the school of engineering. They were here for the next four years. While there they had their second son, Charles DeRosear (my husband) in 1931. This was a very happy time in their life. It was a beautiful place to be, and they had lots of friends there. This was the time of the Great Depression, but this did not directly affect them. Papa was not going to lose his job, they had a place to live and good food to eat, and were well taken care of, living in the protection of the U.S. Army as an officer’s family.

In 1934, it was off to Fort Logan in Denver, Colorado. This was a long and difficult trip for this couple with two small children. They had to sail from New York to San Francisco and then take a train to Denver. All this for just two years, and then they were traveling again.

In 1936, now Captain Hastings and his family were going to the Panama Canal Zone. They sailed from San Francisco and were stationed at the Army Post in Corozal, which was not far from the Pacific Ocean and Panama City. The two boys, 4 and 6 years old when they arrived, have lots of memories from the time spent there. They both had horses, Freckles and Jimmy, to ride, and someone to help them with the horses. They remembered going to the beach, playing in the jungle, and, on occasion, going to Panama City. Life was still good for this family, despite the financial devastation at home, the darkening clouds of impending war in Europe, and the invasion of China by the Japanese. This was all far away and someone else’s problem!

In 1938, Captain Hastings was assigned to duty as the assistant to the district engineer in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was to go directly there, leaving Panama by ship to Charlston, South Carolina. Virginia decided that she wanted to visit her family in southern California and let the boys spend some time with their grandmother, aunts, and uncles. They sailed on an Army transport ship to San Francisco, and with great excitement entered the waters of the San Francisco Bay, going under the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, as it had just opened a few months earlier.

This is the account Charles wrote of that trip from Panama to San Francisco, written a few months before his death in 2005 (with ages corrected):

"I’m Charles, 6 years old. My mother, 8-year-old brother, Wally, and I sailed from Panama to San Francisco on a rather smallish Army transport ship. Father had gone more directly to his new duty station in Mississippi, but mother wanted to visit family in California.

"I felt anxious and confused embarking from Panama City – a small band, good-bye wishers, porters, and boarding officers. I remember walking up the creaky, swaying gangplank and being led to a tiny, dimly lit stateroom, and finally throwing paper streamers over the side as we left. There was one bunk bed, the bottom for Mother, and the top shared by us boys, Wally on the outside. A round port hole looked from the upper bunk, the only outside light. Mother ordered, “Don’t ever open that! Ocean could come in!” (Occasionally water did splash up over the port hole during heavier seas.)

"The cabin was almost completely filled by a huge black steamer trunk, opened side-to-side like a book, with drawers on one side and Mother’s hats and hanging clothes on the other. Not to mention all the other suitcases. Navigating the room was a challenge, especially with the ship’s motion. In addition, the small “potty room” felt weird with the tossing sea.

"We were warned that we might become seasick, and many passengers could be seen hanging over the rails during the rougher days, or missing at meals. Everyday there was mandatory lifeboat drill, with a three-blast alert, and we all had to report to our designated tarp-covered lifeboat from wherever we were, don our life vests, properly fastened (mine never fit right – came half-way up my face), and be counted! No excuses! Once we were allowed to peer into the lifeboat, rows of benches, and a stack of oars along the sides. And thy let us taste hardtack, a very, very hard survival biscuit.

"Finally we arrived outside San Francisco Bay. Everyone was excited! Everyone was top-side! Everyone was ecstatic, because the Golden Gate Bridge had just been finished!

"After long hours of anticipation, a pilot boat came out, and a special pilot boarded up a ladder to bring the ship into the harbor.

"Hello, California! As we went under the bridge, the ship listed dramatically. My brother, who was standing on a ladder, almost slipped off because of the tilt, and he remembers this vividly to this day. I held tightly onto a rail. I believed for many years that the pilot had to tilt the ship to get it under the bridge. Only after returning to San Francisco 25 years later did I realize that this was a myth, deep in my mind.

"Boy – I wish I could remember my recent trips as well as that one 68 years ago!"


Military Personnel Records for Col. Wallace Hastings, National Archives and Records Administration, St. Louis, Missouri.

"Hastings Family Migrations,” outline by Charles and Wally Hastings.

Historical timelines and resources:,,