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'If you don't pray, you learn how to pray'

97-year-old WWII, Korean War vet tells of battles, bombs and life as Navy corpsman

Joe Alvarez, 97, of Danville looks at a photo of himself at age 18, one year after joining the Navy during World War II. (Photo by Gina Channell Wilcox)

Joseph "Joe" Alvarez joined the Navy because it paid $20 more a month than his job as a busboy in a cafeteria.

But, as Alvarez pointed out, that $20 a month was a lot of money in 1942.

Alvarez joined the Navy on July 24, 1942, a little over seven months after "the date which will live in infamy," as President Franklin Roosevelt described the day the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

"I was 17. I didn't have to go in," Alvarez said. "A year later I would have had to. I would have been drafted a year later."

He didn't know anything about the Navy except just seeing pictures.

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"I didn't get in the Navy because I thought I was going to fight in a war," he said. "Just so happened I found out, 'oh, I'm in a war.'"

Now, 80 years later, Danville resident Alvarez can look back at what was gained and what was lost personally and in terms of the country he served during World War II and later in the Korean War.

Joe Alvarez joined the Navy in 1942 at the age of 17. This photo was taken at Mare Island in 1943, where his ship, the St. Louis, was taken for repairs after the bow was damaged by a torpedo. (Courtesy Joe Alvarez)

"I went from World War II to the Korean War," Alvarez said, explaining that he re-enlisted in 1945 because, as a Navy chaplain pointed out, he had no parents, no siblings, no wife or children.

Alvarez's father died two months before he was born and his mother died in 1932. He and his half-sister were shipped to an orphanage in Texas and he only saw his sister once after that.

At 14, Alvarez was on his own, working as a busboy making $30 a month and getting a free hot meal every day, which, he said, "was big stuff" after time in an orphanage. And after he paid his $10-a-month rent, he could "go dancing and do all kinds of things. You could buy stuff for a nickel, and drinks didn't even cost a dollar."

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The idea of making $50 a month -- with no rent -- was too good to pass up.

After boot camp and six weeks of hospital corpsman training, he was transferred to Mare Island, where he worked at the hospital. Navy corpsmen provided emergency medical care.

Alvarez said the war was "what they were training the hospital corpsman for." They were shown how to apply a compress, use a tourniquet, give artificial respiration and told never, ever give morphine to a patient in shock.

"They taught you all that stuff and to just get (the wounded) to the doctor as soon as you can," he said.

Trained as a hospital corpsman, Alvarez was given a first aid kit and assigned to the USS St. Louis, a 'Brooklyn-class light cruiser' warship, in November 1942.

Almost a year prior, on Dec. 7, 1941, the St. Louis was moored at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Within minutes of the attack, the crew of the St. Louis was able to shoot down three Japanese aircraft. A Japanese submarine tried to take out the St. Louis with a torpedo while she was in open sea, but missed its target.

By Dec. 10, the St. Louis had returned to Pearl Harbor and for many months escorted transport ships with American casualties to California for medical treatment, and returned to Hawaii with reinforcements.

Japanese people were villainized because of the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that took more than 2,400 American lives. To prove this point, Alvarez told of an incident in early 1943.

"We picked up some Japanese people who were floating in the water," Alvarez said. "We had Marines on board and those Marines stood guard over the Japanese prisoners to make sure the Americans wouldn't kill them."

Kula Gulf and Kolombangara

In early 1943, the St. Louis began offensive operations against the Japanese alongside two sister cruisers, USS Helena and USS Nashville, and a few destroyers, which are smaller vessels.

The ships worked together to block 10 Japanese ships from entering the Gulf of Kula where they planned to unload 2,400 troops and supplies.

During the night of July 6, 1943, American radars picked up a group of Japanese ships.

Trained as a hospital corpsman, Joe Alvarez was assigned to the USS St. Louis, a ‘Brooklyn-class light cruiser’ warship, in November 1942. (Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives #80-G-1827)

Between the St. Louis, Helena and Nashville, there were almost 1,500 radar-directed shells fired at the Japanese ships within about five minutes. They sank two before the Japanese launched torpedoes at the American ships. Hit by the torpedoes, the American ships used the heavy smoke and darkness of night to conceal their whereabouts while they reloaded.

Alvarez said during this time, he and his crewmates "heard something loud and went 'Wow! What was that?'"

Later they learned their sister ship was hit by enemy torpedoes in what was called the Battle of Kula Gulf. Torpedoes tore the Helena into three parts and, when she sank, 168 crewmen were lost.

"We didn't know they were sunk," Alvarez said, shrugging and shaking his head.

As he looked over historical information about the Battle of Kula Gulf, Alvarez held up the papers and said, "See, all this time, I don't know what happened. This is telling me more than I knew then."

The St. Louis was hit by a Japanese torpedo only a week later, on July 13, 1943, during the Battle of Kolombangara.

Shortly after midnight, Honolulu's radar picked up a group of unidentified vessels and a "star shell" was fired to illuminate the ships, which were immediately identified as Japanese destroyers. Torpedoes were launched by both groups; the St. Louis was hit.

"The torpedo hit caused the entire ship to lean to the other side," Alvarez said. "You think it's going to go over."

"I'll tell you something, when you're getting hit with bombs, if you don't pray, you learn how to pray. If you're not a believer, you're a believer," he said. "The fear is really deep there. You're scared. You're scared of another hit."

A photo taken from the USS West Virginia in November 1944 shows the USS St Louis during an air attack similar to the attack on Feb. 14, 1944, in which the St. Louis was struck by bomb mid-ship. The attack left 23 dead and 20 injured. (Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives #80-G-273003)

The St. Louis didn't sink because all the water-tight door hatches were sealed immediately after all the sailors were ordered to their assigned battle stations.

"I forget where mine was, but I guess it wasn't at the bow anyway," he said with a laugh.

There were no fatalities and injuries were minor, but the St. Louis' bow was so damaged that they had to return to Mare Island for repairs. During that time, three-quarters of the crew members were able to take "R&R" -- rest and recuperation. Often during R&R, he would be invited by strangers to join them for dinner to enjoy a home-cooked meal.

"During World War II, the American public treated the Navy people real well," he said. "They would invite us to their homes. The people who stayed behind really helped out the service people. Compared to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the people were just so good."

With the ship repaired in November 1943, the St. Louis resumed combat operations, including providing gunfire support to Marines. In February 1944, alongside the Honolulu, the Americans were planning to seize the Green Islands, which were to the east of New Britain.

On Feb. 14, 1944, the Japanese launched an air attack against the ships.

"We were attacked by Japanese airplanes. I think there was maybe about six of them," Alvarez said. "They were dive bombers and they just dived down and dropped their bombs."

Alvarez described the captain steering the ship in a weaving pattern to make it more difficult for the dive bombers to hit their target, but it tossed the ship from side to side.

"The captain on the bridge, he's turning hard trying to get away, trying to make it more difficult. The ship felt like a piece of cork," Alvarez recalled.

The St. Louis was hit by one of the bombs in the midship, killing 23 and injuring another 20.

Joe Alvarez with a photo of the St. Louis after the bow was hit by a Japanese torpedo on July 13, 1943, during the Battle of Kolombangara, Alvarez said the hit caused the entire ship to lean to the other side and the crew to brace for another hit. (Photo by Gina Channell Wilcox)

"When we got hit with the bomb, that was our mess hall. You couldn't eat there for a long time because the shrapnel sunk some of that flesh into the bulkheads (steel walls)," Alvarez said of the power of the bomb. "That made the mess hall stink. You couldn't stand it."

"This one sailor, he was an electrician, he got his arm blown off when that bomb hit," Alvarez said. "He was a big guy. To get him down to sick bay where the doctors are, we were able to get him there mostly because he was in shock," which made him more pliable and easier to move through the hatches without being carried.

The sailor was stabilized and transported to a hospital on shore.

About two weeks later, they heard "scuttlebutt" that the sailor died of gangrene.

The 23 dead were buried at sea.

"They'd take what looked like a coffin draped with an American flag and the bodies would go down into the water, weighted down in the water," Alvarez said. "The bodies would sink."

When he got off the ship in June 1944, he had two weeks of R&R, which was given to sailors who had been out to sea for a long time and exposed to battle. He went to Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County.

"They provided us with young ladies to dance with us, and that was nice," he said, noting that the sailors were expected "to behave yourself, leave the girls alone, don't get too friendly."

Alvarez re-enlisted in 1945 and he was promoted from corpsman to chief corpsman, which changed everything from the hat and uniform he wore to the food he ate.

"Before I made chief, it was a mess hall. When I made chief, they had chief's quarters and chief's mess and I was waited on!" he said. "I thought, 'Whoa, this is nice!'"

He was now a chief corpsman and served on destroyers, which traveled in foursomes. There was one doctor for the four ships, and often he was the only medical personnel on a ship. If someone on a ship was wounded or ill enough to need the doctor, the ships would come alongside each other traveling at the same speed; the patient was placed in a steel chair attached to a wire and basically zip-lined to the other ship.

"That's a good ride," Alvarez joked. "The water is (churning) and, if you fall, that water's going to rough you up."

In 1946, while at Mare Island, Alvarez got a nice surprise.

"I saw him," he said of the electrician who lost his arm in the Feb. 14, 1944 battle. "He was still a sailor, working at a photo lab and doing photography with one hand.

"I was so shocked to see him. It just brings tears to your eyes," he said, with his eyes welling up. "It really hits you. I mean you thought he was dead. I was glad to see him. Really happy."

From one war to another

When he left Mare Island in 1946, he was stationed with the Marine Corps near Peking (now Beijing) China, when the communists were taking over China.

"Right after (World War II), we were there to protect the Chinese people and to make sure there were no Japanese people left in the country," Alvarez said.

"The Chinese communists attacked our facilities and stole some of our ammunition," he remembered, describing the incident and how angry the Americans were. "We went looking for them. We were going to get them, but we were way outnumbered.

"When they had parades it was endless soldiers," he explained. "They'd be marching six abreast and you couldn't see far enough to see the end of the line.

"That's what happened in Korea, too. We were outnumbered once the Chinese came into it. It didn't matter when we were just fighting the (North) Korean people, but when China got involved, we were totally outnumbered."

Eighty years ago, when he was 17 years old, Joe Alvarez joined the Navy. He went from World War II to the Korean War. (Photo by Gina Channell Wilcox)

It was in China that Alvarez met a family from Poland and spent many days and ate many meals with them. He ended up marrying their daughter -- Victoria -- and in 1950, they welcomed their daughter, Cynthia.

Between 1956 and 1960, Alvarez was stationed in San Francisco with the Marines, which is when he fell in love with the Giants and the 49ers -- and his second wife, Mae. Their daughter, Lisa, was born in 1961.

During this time, with general peace worldwide, he had more opportunities to enjoy time on shore.

He and his Navy and Marine friends would see a 49ers game, then hit the town.

"The 49ers played at Kezar then and you'd have to walk back. You wouldn't have to walk too far and you'd find a bar," he said. "Hey, I'm a young guy ... Your drinks weren't that expensive either. When you're young you drink a little bit more."

In 1964, he said, "I was on the bowling team with some enlisted men and we got to go to the ABC (American Bowling Congress) tournament in Alameda and my team won its section. I had an average of 170 then, and I didn't bowl low, but the anchorman went crazy. He had about a 180 average but he bowled like 220 a game."

He retired from Naval Air Station Lemoire on July 6, 1965.

After his 23-year career with the Navy, Alvarez enjoyed a 29-year career with AAA.

Fast forward 80 years and a lot has changed in the country Alvarez served.

For example, while those who served in WWII were treated with respect and kindness, those who served in later wars -- particularly Vietnam -- were not. There is no draft. Injured military personnel can get from one ship to another on a helicopter. The Japanese are no longer an enemy.

Even with the passage of nearly a century, some things have remained the same. North Korea and China are still threats. The Marines are still part of the Department of the Navy, and Navy corpsmen still provide medical services to Marines. Lives are still lost in battle.

The St. Louis was removed from the US Naval Register and commissioned into Brazilian service in January 1951. She was sold to "ship breakers" in 1980.

For Alvarez, at 97, he has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He still loves the Giants and the 49ers. He still dances, now with his girlfriend Carol Lemach. He still bowls, though his average is now 140. And he still drinks beer, though not as much and it's much more expensive.

As for personal changes, Alvarez said, "When I went into the Navy in 1942, I was 5-foot-6. Now I'm 5-foot-3."

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Gina Channell Wilcox is the president and publisher of Embarcadero Media's East Bay division. She previously worked as the executive editor/associate publisher at a division of the Chicago Sun-Times and has earned several state and national journalism awards, including for investigative journalism and in-depth reporting. Read more >>

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'If you don't pray, you learn how to pray'

97-year-old WWII, Korean War vet tells of battles, bombs and life as Navy corpsman

by / Danville San Ramon

Uploaded: Fri, May 27, 2022, 2:01 am

Joseph "Joe" Alvarez joined the Navy because it paid $20 more a month than his job as a busboy in a cafeteria.

But, as Alvarez pointed out, that $20 a month was a lot of money in 1942.

Alvarez joined the Navy on July 24, 1942, a little over seven months after "the date which will live in infamy," as President Franklin Roosevelt described the day the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

"I was 17. I didn't have to go in," Alvarez said. "A year later I would have had to. I would have been drafted a year later."

He didn't know anything about the Navy except just seeing pictures.

"I didn't get in the Navy because I thought I was going to fight in a war," he said. "Just so happened I found out, 'oh, I'm in a war.'"

Now, 80 years later, Danville resident Alvarez can look back at what was gained and what was lost personally and in terms of the country he served during World War II and later in the Korean War.

"I went from World War II to the Korean War," Alvarez said, explaining that he re-enlisted in 1945 because, as a Navy chaplain pointed out, he had no parents, no siblings, no wife or children.

Alvarez's father died two months before he was born and his mother died in 1932. He and his half-sister were shipped to an orphanage in Texas and he only saw his sister once after that.

At 14, Alvarez was on his own, working as a busboy making $30 a month and getting a free hot meal every day, which, he said, "was big stuff" after time in an orphanage. And after he paid his $10-a-month rent, he could "go dancing and do all kinds of things. You could buy stuff for a nickel, and drinks didn't even cost a dollar."

The idea of making $50 a month -- with no rent -- was too good to pass up.

After boot camp and six weeks of hospital corpsman training, he was transferred to Mare Island, where he worked at the hospital. Navy corpsmen provided emergency medical care.

Alvarez said the war was "what they were training the hospital corpsman for." They were shown how to apply a compress, use a tourniquet, give artificial respiration and told never, ever give morphine to a patient in shock.

"They taught you all that stuff and to just get (the wounded) to the doctor as soon as you can," he said.

Trained as a hospital corpsman, Alvarez was given a first aid kit and assigned to the USS St. Louis, a 'Brooklyn-class light cruiser' warship, in November 1942.

Almost a year prior, on Dec. 7, 1941, the St. Louis was moored at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Within minutes of the attack, the crew of the St. Louis was able to shoot down three Japanese aircraft. A Japanese submarine tried to take out the St. Louis with a torpedo while she was in open sea, but missed its target.

By Dec. 10, the St. Louis had returned to Pearl Harbor and for many months escorted transport ships with American casualties to California for medical treatment, and returned to Hawaii with reinforcements.

Japanese people were villainized because of the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that took more than 2,400 American lives. To prove this point, Alvarez told of an incident in early 1943.

"We picked up some Japanese people who were floating in the water," Alvarez said. "We had Marines on board and those Marines stood guard over the Japanese prisoners to make sure the Americans wouldn't kill them."

In early 1943, the St. Louis began offensive operations against the Japanese alongside two sister cruisers, USS Helena and USS Nashville, and a few destroyers, which are smaller vessels.

The ships worked together to block 10 Japanese ships from entering the Gulf of Kula where they planned to unload 2,400 troops and supplies.

During the night of July 6, 1943, American radars picked up a group of Japanese ships.

Between the St. Louis, Helena and Nashville, there were almost 1,500 radar-directed shells fired at the Japanese ships within about five minutes. They sank two before the Japanese launched torpedoes at the American ships. Hit by the torpedoes, the American ships used the heavy smoke and darkness of night to conceal their whereabouts while they reloaded.

Alvarez said during this time, he and his crewmates "heard something loud and went 'Wow! What was that?'"

Later they learned their sister ship was hit by enemy torpedoes in what was called the Battle of Kula Gulf. Torpedoes tore the Helena into three parts and, when she sank, 168 crewmen were lost.

"We didn't know they were sunk," Alvarez said, shrugging and shaking his head.

As he looked over historical information about the Battle of Kula Gulf, Alvarez held up the papers and said, "See, all this time, I don't know what happened. This is telling me more than I knew then."

The St. Louis was hit by a Japanese torpedo only a week later, on July 13, 1943, during the Battle of Kolombangara.

Shortly after midnight, Honolulu's radar picked up a group of unidentified vessels and a "star shell" was fired to illuminate the ships, which were immediately identified as Japanese destroyers. Torpedoes were launched by both groups; the St. Louis was hit.

"The torpedo hit caused the entire ship to lean to the other side," Alvarez said. "You think it's going to go over."

"I'll tell you something, when you're getting hit with bombs, if you don't pray, you learn how to pray. If you're not a believer, you're a believer," he said. "The fear is really deep there. You're scared. You're scared of another hit."

The St. Louis didn't sink because all the water-tight door hatches were sealed immediately after all the sailors were ordered to their assigned battle stations.

"I forget where mine was, but I guess it wasn't at the bow anyway," he said with a laugh.

There were no fatalities and injuries were minor, but the St. Louis' bow was so damaged that they had to return to Mare Island for repairs. During that time, three-quarters of the crew members were able to take "R&R" -- rest and recuperation. Often during R&R, he would be invited by strangers to join them for dinner to enjoy a home-cooked meal.

"During World War II, the American public treated the Navy people real well," he said. "They would invite us to their homes. The people who stayed behind really helped out the service people. Compared to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the people were just so good."

With the ship repaired in November 1943, the St. Louis resumed combat operations, including providing gunfire support to Marines. In February 1944, alongside the Honolulu, the Americans were planning to seize the Green Islands, which were to the east of New Britain.

On Feb. 14, 1944, the Japanese launched an air attack against the ships.

"We were attacked by Japanese airplanes. I think there was maybe about six of them," Alvarez said. "They were dive bombers and they just dived down and dropped their bombs."

Alvarez described the captain steering the ship in a weaving pattern to make it more difficult for the dive bombers to hit their target, but it tossed the ship from side to side.

"The captain on the bridge, he's turning hard trying to get away, trying to make it more difficult. The ship felt like a piece of cork," Alvarez recalled.

The St. Louis was hit by one of the bombs in the midship, killing 23 and injuring another 20.

"When we got hit with the bomb, that was our mess hall. You couldn't eat there for a long time because the shrapnel sunk some of that flesh into the bulkheads (steel walls)," Alvarez said of the power of the bomb. "That made the mess hall stink. You couldn't stand it."

"This one sailor, he was an electrician, he got his arm blown off when that bomb hit," Alvarez said. "He was a big guy. To get him down to sick bay where the doctors are, we were able to get him there mostly because he was in shock," which made him more pliable and easier to move through the hatches without being carried.

The sailor was stabilized and transported to a hospital on shore.

About two weeks later, they heard "scuttlebutt" that the sailor died of gangrene.

The 23 dead were buried at sea.

"They'd take what looked like a coffin draped with an American flag and the bodies would go down into the water, weighted down in the water," Alvarez said. "The bodies would sink."

When he got off the ship in June 1944, he had two weeks of R&R, which was given to sailors who had been out to sea for a long time and exposed to battle. He went to Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County.

"They provided us with young ladies to dance with us, and that was nice," he said, noting that the sailors were expected "to behave yourself, leave the girls alone, don't get too friendly."

Alvarez re-enlisted in 1945 and he was promoted from corpsman to chief corpsman, which changed everything from the hat and uniform he wore to the food he ate.

"Before I made chief, it was a mess hall. When I made chief, they had chief's quarters and chief's mess and I was waited on!" he said. "I thought, 'Whoa, this is nice!'"

He was now a chief corpsman and served on destroyers, which traveled in foursomes. There was one doctor for the four ships, and often he was the only medical personnel on a ship. If someone on a ship was wounded or ill enough to need the doctor, the ships would come alongside each other traveling at the same speed; the patient was placed in a steel chair attached to a wire and basically zip-lined to the other ship.

"That's a good ride," Alvarez joked. "The water is (churning) and, if you fall, that water's going to rough you up."

In 1946, while at Mare Island, Alvarez got a nice surprise.

"I saw him," he said of the electrician who lost his arm in the Feb. 14, 1944 battle. "He was still a sailor, working at a photo lab and doing photography with one hand.

"I was so shocked to see him. It just brings tears to your eyes," he said, with his eyes welling up. "It really hits you. I mean you thought he was dead. I was glad to see him. Really happy."

When he left Mare Island in 1946, he was stationed with the Marine Corps near Peking (now Beijing) China, when the communists were taking over China.

"Right after (World War II), we were there to protect the Chinese people and to make sure there were no Japanese people left in the country," Alvarez said.

"The Chinese communists attacked our facilities and stole some of our ammunition," he remembered, describing the incident and how angry the Americans were. "We went looking for them. We were going to get them, but we were way outnumbered.

"When they had parades it was endless soldiers," he explained. "They'd be marching six abreast and you couldn't see far enough to see the end of the line.

"That's what happened in Korea, too. We were outnumbered once the Chinese came into it. It didn't matter when we were just fighting the (North) Korean people, but when China got involved, we were totally outnumbered."

It was in China that Alvarez met a family from Poland and spent many days and ate many meals with them. He ended up marrying their daughter -- Victoria -- and in 1950, they welcomed their daughter, Cynthia.

Between 1956 and 1960, Alvarez was stationed in San Francisco with the Marines, which is when he fell in love with the Giants and the 49ers -- and his second wife, Mae. Their daughter, Lisa, was born in 1961.

During this time, with general peace worldwide, he had more opportunities to enjoy time on shore.

He and his Navy and Marine friends would see a 49ers game, then hit the town.

"The 49ers played at Kezar then and you'd have to walk back. You wouldn't have to walk too far and you'd find a bar," he said. "Hey, I'm a young guy ... Your drinks weren't that expensive either. When you're young you drink a little bit more."

In 1964, he said, "I was on the bowling team with some enlisted men and we got to go to the ABC (American Bowling Congress) tournament in Alameda and my team won its section. I had an average of 170 then, and I didn't bowl low, but the anchorman went crazy. He had about a 180 average but he bowled like 220 a game."

He retired from Naval Air Station Lemoire on July 6, 1965.

After his 23-year career with the Navy, Alvarez enjoyed a 29-year career with AAA.

Fast forward 80 years and a lot has changed in the country Alvarez served.

For example, while those who served in WWII were treated with respect and kindness, those who served in later wars -- particularly Vietnam -- were not. There is no draft. Injured military personnel can get from one ship to another on a helicopter. The Japanese are no longer an enemy.

Even with the passage of nearly a century, some things have remained the same. North Korea and China are still threats. The Marines are still part of the Department of the Navy, and Navy corpsmen still provide medical services to Marines. Lives are still lost in battle.

The St. Louis was removed from the US Naval Register and commissioned into Brazilian service in January 1951. She was sold to "ship breakers" in 1980.

For Alvarez, at 97, he has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He still loves the Giants and the 49ers. He still dances, now with his girlfriend Carol Lemach. He still bowls, though his average is now 140. And he still drinks beer, though not as much and it's much more expensive.

As for personal changes, Alvarez said, "When I went into the Navy in 1942, I was 5-foot-6. Now I'm 5-foot-3."

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