Lester "Les" Kent was known around Sebastopol for his friendly way of strumming guitar tunes for audiences at the Apple Valley Nursing Home.
His music also helped he and his Navy shipmates remain calm on a cold night in October 1943, when his ship, the U.S.S. Borie, sank into icy Arctic waters after a firefight during World War II. Kent was one of 129 men who survived the sinking; 27 died.
Kent wrote about the fateful night in an unpublished memoir he penned a decade ago. Kent died peacefully on Sept. 23. He was 88 years old.
"He was a beautiful person," said his wife, Connie Kent of Sebastopol, as she recalled his life and read excerpts from his memoir. "Warm, giving, and ready to play music any minute that anybody had an instrument."
Kent was born in Canadian, Texas, and grew up in San Luis Valley, Colo. When he was 17, he came home one night and learned from his mother that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
"I didn't sleep much that night as I knew that our lives were in for a major change," Kent wrote in his memoir. "As soon as school was over …. we got in my Chevy and headed for Monta Vista, and the Navy recruiting station."
In the Navy, Kent went learned to operate sonar equipment, and served on the U.S.S. Thrush, U.S.S. J. Fred Talbot and finally the U.S.S. Borie.
On Halloween night, 1943, the U.S.S. Borie was heading south from the Arctic Circle when it came across a German submarine, called a U-boat.
"Our search lights were on the sub, which was good for our gun crews, but also gave the sub something to shoot at," Kent wrote.
Eventually, the bow of the ship got hung up on the submarine, and Germans started firing.
"We had to use handguns, flare pistols and just about everything imaginable to fling at the Germans," during the attack, including a nice coffee mug from Brazil and cans of condensed milk, Kent wrote.
Eventually the Navy ship broke free of the submarine, and prevailed in the fight. But its engine rooms were flooding, and the ship was badly damaged. The crew began throwing nearly everything overboard to off-load weight, including a bunch of gasoline. To fire up the ship's generators and send an S.O.S. signal, the crew collected fluid from cigarette lighters.
To pass the time before they were ordered to evacuate, Kent had a musical jam session, until it became clear that he would have to evacuate in lifeboats.
"I put my &‘Sons of the Pioneers' song books in a waterproof plastic bag and secured them under my wool sweater, then went upside and had a couple of cocktails," Kent wrote.
When the evacuation began, Kent and his crew mates had to swim in 38 degree water. When he reached the lifeboat he sang &‘Cool Water' to entertain the crew.
"That cocktail helped a lot but was wearing off fast," Kent wrote.
As his fellow servicemen, hanging onto the side of the lifeboat, gradually slipped under the water, Kent stayed in the lifeboat until the bow of the sinking ship crashed into his vessel, knocking him into the water.
A sailor helped bring him to safety, and eventually Kent came to on another ship, where a doctor helped restimulate blood circulation in his legs.