‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’ — Joseph B Bourgeois Jr.

Published 10:03 pm Saturday, May 31, 2008

“He never really talked a lot about it cause it was so traumatic,” said Diane Courouleau, daughter of the late Joseph B Bourgeois Jr., but she does know that her dad’s time in the Navy was largely spent aboard the USS New Orleans (CA-32), reportedly one of the most highly decorated ships of WWII. She also knows that he died with eight pieces of shrapnel in his leg — pieces of New Orleans that they were never able to remove.

Courouleau says her dad was born and raised in New Orleans and never lived anywhere else until he moved to Pearl River County 31 years ago. Before enlisting with the Navy, her dad worked for the HD Hill stores which later became Winn Dixie. “He used to deliver groceries on a bicycle when he was 12 years old,” she said. After his military service, he would return to Winn Dixie. “He never worked for anyone else,” said Courouleau. He retired as a manager and a trainer for the meat department.

“He used to move around to all the stores, open them, get them on their feet and then he would move to another store,” she said.

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#Bourgeois’s discharge papers show he enlisted December 14, 1941. “He was drafted in the army, but he loved to fish so he decided he wanted to go into the Navy. That was his only reason,” said Courouleau. She said her dad laughed about it because they never did let him fish. To make up for that, he would spend every Tuesday for the rest of his life fishing.

Aboard the ship, Bourgeois was introduced by his commander as the “french chef.” That was later shortened by the crew to “Frenchie.” He earned the nickname by rolling potatoes with sugar and using leftovers to make sweets for the crew.

He also used to love to box according to his daughter, and he would box for fun aboard the ship.

Bourgeois was on the ship for one of her most famous battles, “The battle of Tassafaronga” in the Solomons. Text taken from the public domain “Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships” says this battle took place on the night of November 30, 1942. New Orleans fought alongside “four other cruisers and six destroyers”. They engaged in battle with a “Japanese destroyer-transport force.” That night New Orleans was hit with a torpedo which took off a significant amount of her bow. The reports say it was the heroic acts of the surviving crew members that kept her afloat.

#“The seamanship kept her afloat, and under her own power she entered Tulagi Harbor near daybreak, 1 December.” The men continued protecting the ship by camouflaging her from air attack while they fashioned a bow out of coconut logs.

Courouleau can only imagine what her dad went through that fateful night, but he did tell her that he was sitting in the galley when the torpedo hit and he was the only survivor in that area of the ship. She remembers him saying the survivors strapped themselves on guns to survive as the ship continued to power herself through the waters and the crew worked to keep her afloat. The family still has a piece of the ship from the wreckage.

There is also documentation and several cards proving Bourgeois crossed the equator several times, taking him from a “pollywog” to “a trusty shellback.” The cards make him a member of the “Ancient Order of the Deep.” The New Orleans crew had to undergo special training for this mission.

Bourgeois was discharged from the navy on January 28, 1946. His ranking was SC 1/c at the time of his separation. His discharge papers say he received 19 stars, 17 for Asiatic Pacific and 2 for Philippine Liberation, and he was recommended for the good conduct medal.

He met Courouleau’s mother after his discharge. He married Bernice Bourgeois later that same year on August 17. The couple had two daughters.

Even though he was tight lipped to his family about the truth of the horrors he experienced on the USS New Orleans, something a lot of veterans experience, Courouleau remembers the famous Naval song he learned, which he sang often — “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”. The song reportedly came from words spoken by a chaplain on the USS New Orleans, while the ship was engaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The song was written by Frank Loesser.

Later in life, Bourgeois was supposed to receive the only known flag still in existence from the ship. The day of the presentation, he was in the hospital suffering with pancreatitis, a disease which eventually took his life. A relation to the family picked up the flag and it was donated to the V.F.W. hall in Chalmette, La. where it remained until Katrina came through and destroyed the building.

“Up until his death he was a member of First Baptist Church. He was a Gideon and very devout Christian, very,” said Courouleau. “He lived for his church.”

#Bourgeois passed away on October 11, 2003. By this time, Bourgeois’s military nickname, “Frenchie,” had been traded for a nickname given to him to his friends and family, “Papa B.” As Papa B, Bourgeois would hand out candy to children and all the people he met. Courouleau says that at his wake, a big bowl of candy was placed next to his casket, and as all the children came through to pay their respects, they put candy back into the bowl for him. It was in this befitting way the community honored the man who gave so much to them, his church and his country.