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Keizerite heads to reunion, celebrates role in WWII

First-class Petty Officer Don Conat, a World War II veteran, served aboard the USS Somers, a destroyer that took part in the Invasion at Normandy and the invasion of sourthern France. Conat is taking part in a reunion for service members who served aboard the ship. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

The USS Somers has a storied history in U.S. Navy lore and this week Keizerite Don Conat traveled to Cameron, Okla., to celebrate his part in it.

“It’s interesting because you can talk a lot about things and some of the guys were on ships at different times,” Conat said.

Six U.S. ships have been christened  USS Somers, but Conat was crew on the fifth, a Somers-class destroyer during World War II. Conat traveled with his sons Rick and Terry to the reunion for crew members aboard his ship and the USS Somers that set sail almost a decade later.

“We had 381 people on the ship when I was on duty, but at the last reunion there were only 11 of us that showed up,” Conat, 88, said.

Conat joined the Navy in 1942 after graduating high school and, after basic training, he was shipped to a Naval base in Algeria in North Africa. After a year on terra firma, he was assigned to the Somers and had a role in both the Battle of Normandy and the invasion of southern France. Conat was a gunner on the destroyer and manned a five-inch gun from the deck.

“We had another guy figure out distances. I just pointed it where it was supposed to go,” Conat said.

Before taking part in the battles, the boat was part of convoy operations across the Atlantic from New York to Europe.

Conat often wondered why the ships needed an escort since so many were launched at a single time. In the end, they ended up killing more whales than sinking enemy subs.

“We didn’t have the best radar and we’d get a school of whales and we’d take them out as if they were the enemy,” Conat said.

It was tough going in the winter. Enormous swells kept the boat rocking so badly that lunch couldn’t be served in the mess hall.

“They served sandwiches out of buckets,” Conat said.

At the invasion of Normandy on the north coast of France, the USS Somers served in a support capacity.

“We bombarded from out a ways,” Conat said.

A month later, the Somers was patrolling the Mediterranean Sea, when it was dispatched to make way for an invasion along the southern coast of France.

“We knew something big was happening because, at the last stop at port in Corsica, a minister was brought on board and we were told to go to service if we needed to,” Conat said.

The Somers was tasked with leading a fleet of seven British minesweepers into France’s southern coastal area to clear it.

“We were the first ship in and they shot the hell out of us,” Conat said.

The experience culminated in a three-hour battle with two German destroyers.

“We put six men aboard one of them and got a whole bunch of minesweeper charts that helped us as we headed into Marseille,” he said.

Conat served for four years and left the service as a first-class petty officer. He returned home to Minnesota where he married his wife, Blanche, a bond that has lasted 66 years.

He went into the lumber business with his father and brother but left it to become a professional umpire.

“I went with the Cubs five years in spring training, went with the Giants one year in spring training. In fact, I called Willie Mays out one time,” Conat said.

When the time away from family became too much to bear, he left the sport and took work as a manager for a southern California paint supplier. He retired from that almost 30 years ago.

“I never went to college so [the military] was a pretty good education,” Conat said. “I think I learned a lot about life and what a great country this is.”