By Jonathan Williams
Times West Virginian
Back when the mines were booming, Rivesville was one of the busiest and most bustling towns in the county.
You’d have to look a long way to see the evidence of it today, but Joe Karpis, a World War II and Korean War veteran who served in the U.S. Navy, remembers it almost like it was yesterday.
Outside of his 20 years of service in the military, Karpis has spent his whole life (almost 90 years) in Rivesville.
“Downtown Fairmont was really out of this world, with everything going on all over the place,” he said. “It was the same way for Rivesville. Downtown Rivesville, especially this section here, had so much going on,” he said.
At that time, he said, there were three coal mines running around the town, which provided work for a lot of people, including his father.
“My dad, he was lucky if he could get three or four days a week in a coal mine,” Karpis said.
That might have been because he was “a little hard-headed” though, he said.
“He would clean up a place and somebody would see how he was doing ... so they would give the boss a few dollars and next thing you know my dad was out of there to another dirty place. My dad would get mad, leave his tools and come home,” Karpis said. “So the next thing you know he was out of a job, but since he was a coal miner he was always able to get a job at one of the other mines.”
Karpis’ mother didn’t want him to follow in his father’s footsteps, and Karpis had no plans of going to college, so when he was old enough, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
The year was 1942, and the United States had just entered World War II. The draft was in place, and he wanted to make sure he joined a military branch he thought he’d enjoy.
“I spent a lot of time during the summer on the Monongahela River swimming, and so I took a liking to water,” Karpis said.
It seemed like a good fit.
After going through boot camp and basic training, he trained to become a “fire controlman,” which is a highly skilled position that oversees the operations and maintenance of weapons systems aboard Navy ships. He went through the advanced training as well before being assigned to a destroyer-escort ship sailing out of Boston to the South Pacific via the Panama Canal.
“I stayed in the South Pacific until after the war ended, when they dropped the bomb,” he said.
Their mission was to do reconnaissance for Army tugboats that “got lost” in the Philippines, he said, as well as escorting fleet convoys through dangerous waters.
“You’re always in a combat area,” Karpis said, whether there are guns firing or not. “We went as far south as Hollandia, New Guinea (now Jayapura, Indonesia) to Okinawa (Japan), through the Philippines and all the islands there.
“We had a few submarine scares. We dropped a few depth charges, but they never found anything.”
That wasn’t true when he deployed again for the Korean War.
“I saw combat every day,” he said.
“I was at a critical rating” as a fire controlman, he said. So though he applied for shore duty after the war ended and he re-enlisted, when the Korean War broke out, they called him out of his station in Bridgeport, Conn., and shipped him and every fire controlman they could find to the Pacific.
“They put me on the heavy cruiser St. Paul, and so we went to Korea for eight months and we bombarded from the lower end of Korea all the way up to the Manchurian border,” he said.
Then they went around to the other side and did it again.
Karpis had about 100 men reporting to him on this ship to keep all the guns and equipment working. With all the rounds they fired (they completely wore out the rifling in the guns after eight months), he also sustained permanent hearing loss.
After further tours of duty, Karpis retired from the Navy in 1962 after 20 years of service. He spent several years working as a custodian at Rivesville High School before retiring completely.
Was Rivesville different when he came back?
“Like night and day,” he said. “When I went in (to the service), it was a very vibrant little town,” with two theaters and people up until 9 or 10 p.m. just talking with each other out in the open air.
Today, he appreciates the peace and quiet of it all. Karpis lives alone, though he stays active working in his garden, keeping up with the neighbors and doing some handiwork around the house.
Email Jonathan Williams at jwilliams@
timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @JWilliamsTWV.