Life is full of twists and turns, some of them out of a person’s control. Some are from his own choices. Young Merrill Goff experienced both, but they eventually led to his life’s work.
Merrill was already six feet tall at age 17, when–in the spring of 1941–he lied about his age to get into the Marine Corps. Seventy-five years ago this month, he wasn’t yet nineteen when his ship, the USS Pensacola (CA-24), was torpedoed in combat near Iron Bottom Sound in the Pacific, where dozens of American ships were lost.
Even his growing-up years were challenging. Right after he was born–in 1924, not 1922 as he’d stated when he enlisted–both baby and mother (Tessie) came down with mumps.
Tessie died, leaving Jennings Goff of Guthrie County, Iowa, a widower with a toddler and a four-day-old infant.
The Great War
Five years earlier, the Goffs–at least three brothers and their father–had lost farmland from the slump in farm prices after the Great War, or WWI. Jennings, Merl, and Wayne Goff had raised popcorn before they were drafted to serve in France. Jennings sold his fast Kissel car before mustering at Camp Dodge.
After they were discharged, land prices plummeted. Brothers Jennings and Merl decided to buy the Oxford Cafe in Guthrie Center. According to the Guthrie newspaper, the Goff brothers “served the public in the most approved style,” but just five months later they sold it to Frank Cronk. (It was still known as Cronk’s Cafe even when I was a child in the 1950s.)
I don’t know what Jennings did for a living after that, but the summer of 1920, he married Tessie Sauvago. Baby Maxine was born the next year, and Merrill three years later. He was four days old when their mother died of mumps.
Merrill also came down with mumps, and Maxine–not quite three–caught chicken pox. Merrill was nursed back to health by Tessie’s folks near Wichita, in Guthrie County, Iowa. Jennings and Maxine stayed in his family’s Victorian home in Guthrie Center.
Move to Dexter
They didn’t live there long though. No longer tied to any Guthrie County land, Goffs–including Jennings and his small children–moved to a two-story house that still stands along the highway in Dexter–to be near their oldest daughter, Leora Goff Wilson, who lived on a farm with her family of six children. Leora, Jennings’ older sister, had three older children plus twins the same age as Maxine and a son a few months older than Merrill. Leora’s next son, born the next year, would be in Merrill’s class in school.
After the Wilsons moved into town, just south of the Goff home, those cousins spent many hours together, playing in the neighborhood and walking to the big two-story brick Dexter schoolhouse. Merrill and Danny Wilson were in the same class.
Maxine and Merrill spent summers with their Sauvago grandparents at Wichita. But when school was about to start in August, some of the Wilson kids would ride along with their Uncle Jennings–to get in on a watermelon feed, and to take the Goff kids back to Dexter.
In those days Jennings Goff sold Watkins’ products–liniment, vanilla extract, etc.–from door to door. Grandfather Goff died in 1930, leaving a widow and two grown sons–Uncle Merl and Jennings with his two children. Even with no grandfather, those were good years for Merrill and Maxine under the care of their kindly grandmother, with fun cousins nearby.
During those Depression years, jobs began to dry up. People didn’t have money to buy Watkins’ items anymore. Jennings’s two oldest Wilson nephews joined the Navy after high school, and their father Clabe worked WPA jobs every time he could.
Jennings and Uncle Merl decided they could make money hauling gravel, so they bought a couple of gravel trucks, using the Goff house as collateral. Unfortunately, as the Depression deepened, they couldn’t make payments on the trucks and buy gas, so they had to sell the trucks.
But they couldn’t save the house.
Move to Omaha
Clarence Goff, another brother, owned a heating company in Omaha, Nebraska. He offered Jennings a job. The spring of Merrill’s sixth grade year, the five of them–Grandmother, Uncle Merl, and Jennings with Maxine and Merrill–moved to Omaha, finding a furnished house across the street west of Hanscom Park.
Two years later, in 1937, Jennings remarried. He had met Bernadine Paxson when she taught school in Dexter. Merrill and Maxine now had a stepmother. Their Grandma Sauvago died in Iowa the same summer. Then two years later a baby step-brother joined their family.
These were major changes for a teenager, especially when his sister Maxine got married in 1940. So Merrill lied about his age to join the Marines. At age seventeen.
Someone said that choices are the hinges of destiny. This one certainly was for Merrill Goff.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Merrill had already been at sea five months, aboard the heavy cruiser USS Pensacola, which was on its way to Manila in the Philippines from Pearl Harbor. The ship was diverted to Australia before returning to Pearl for more orders. Part of a 5-inch Marine gun crew, Merrill was in combat early in the war–in the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. (He could see his cousin Donald Wilson’s ship USS Yorktown in trouble, then sinking from torpedoes, not knowing whether Donald had survived.)
Late fall 1942, the Pensacola was in combat to help seize and secure the Solomon Islands. During the Battle of Santa Cruz Island, they also rescued nearly 200 survivors of the sinking of an aircraft carrier. Part of the desperate struggle to wrest control of Guadalcanal Island from the Japanese, the cruiser also took part in the Battle of Tassafaronga in the same area.
Torpedoed November 30, 1942, the Pensacola’s guns still continued to fire, even though the engine room was flooded and oil tanks ripped open. In spite of heavy damage, they managed to pull into a port still aflame. One hundred twenty five were killed, 68 injured.
Merrill Goff was later commended for “outstanding performance following the torpedoing of the U. S. S. Pensacola by Commanding Officer.”
The USS Pensacola was out of action for weeks of extensive repairs. After two years of sea duty Merrill Goff was assigned to the Marine Air Station at El Toro, California, where he was trained as a photo lab technician and an aerial photographer.
There were many twists of fate for this young man, but he ended up finding his life’s work. After his discharge from the Marines, Merrill Goff made a living in Omaha as a photographer and eventually owned his own studio.
Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with 1 Silver Star, 1 Bronze Star
American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp
WW II Victory Medal
USMC Good Conduct Medal
American Campaign Medal
For more stories about each person, click his or her name in the tags below.