|Doc Praytor (r) with 3rd Marines
A Navy Warrior Remembers
By Doug Russell
When they met, he was a Navy recruiter working in Oklahoma City. So was her father.
Forty-nine years later, they’re still together — but they haven’t made it through nearly a half-century of
marriage without some difficulties.
As a “Navy brat,” Gerri knew pretty much what to expect when she took Joe Praytor’s hand in
marriage; but the duties of a wife and the duties of a child differ somewhat, as she learned many times
during the years that followed.
“I remember being home one time — he’d just gotten back from the Caribbean or somewhere, and he
came up and said they’d all had to make out their last wills and testaments,” she recalled.
“He said he was going away, but he couldn’t tell me where.”
Not long afterwards, Joe was aboard a submarine, heading for Cuba.
It was April 1961 and Joe was among a group of Americans dispatched to support the doomed Bay of
Planned and funded by the U.S., the invasion was an attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel
The invasion, which cost approximately 100 exile lives as well as the lives of approximately 2,000 Cuban
soldiers, failed after four days, leading to the capture and imprisonment of more than 1,200 Cuban exiles.
The invasion was a major embarrassment for the administration of President John F. Kennedy and
raised Castro’s popularity in many Latin American and Third World countries.
But the politics of the situation mattered little to Joe Praytor.
He was a sailor and his job was to go where he was sent and do what was needed; just as it had been
since he’d first talked his mother into signing for him so he could enlist in the Navy in March 1943.
“I wanted to go,” Praytor said with a shrug. “It was the right thing to do.”
After finishing boot camp and military occupation training, the not-yet 17-year-old medical corpsman
was in the Pacific, going island to island with the U.S. Marines.
With the close of World War II, Praytor decided to try civilian life for a while, but that changed in June
1950. His country needed him. The Korean war was on.
When the war ended in 1953, Praytor decided he’d stay in the Navy rather than returning to civilian life.
He worked as a recruiter at various times when not aboard ship, and that’s what he was doing when he
“One of his proudest memories is that he recruited (Admiral) Dr. John Cotton,” Gerri said. “He was
always proud of that.”
It was around the time they were married that the United States found itself involved in another war,
this time in a Southeast Asian country few people could find on a map: Vietnam.
And Joe had to go off again.
In 1959 Joe switched from surface ships to the submarine service, going under the surface in the diesel
submarine U.S.S. Thornback.
There wasn’t a lot of room in the diesel submarines. They were larger than their WWII counterparts,
but not nearly as large as a modern nuclear sub, Praytor said.
Sailors slept in shifts, getting out of their bunks just to have another sailor crawl into the same space.
They learned to sleep with their arms tucked in because, in the limited space, someone rushing past
could snap an arm that was dangling from a bunk.
Showers weren’t possible in the first weeks of a long voyage because “The shower bins were full of
potatoes and fresh vegetables and fresh produce,” Praytor said.
He also served on the Redfish, Voladar, Diodon and Salmon, the last of which was a prototype nuclear
Chief Petty Officer Joe Praytor retired from the Navy in 1968, but he was hardly ready to quit working.
Instead, he went to work for the University of Oklahoma, helping with studies that used prisoners as
subjects. After a major prison riot at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 1973, however, the university
stopped its studies with prisoners and Joe was offered a position working in the prison infirmary.
In 1993, he retired again, this time as the health administrator of the prison.
“It’s been a good life for us,” Gerri said. “It really has.”
Published: May 11, 2006
reprinted with permission from: