FOREWARD. I am writing these memoirs of my life and times as a participant in the events and actions of World War II, and within that conflict specifically, the Pacific Theater as it was then and now known.
I have written this not out of a sense of any heroics I might have performed, nor to suggest that my involvement in this conflict should somehow place me with those that acted above and beyond the call of duty, giving what Abraham Lincoln termed, "Their last full measure of devotion." I was fortunate. I was one of the lucky ones who endured, survived, and came home to family and friends. A blessing far too many did not share.
More simply, I have written these memoirs as an account of what so many of us truly were, merely young men seeking an adventure while believing we were fulfilling a time-honored sense of duty to a country we had been raised to love and protect.
But perhaps even more importantly, I have written these memoirs of my time in war from a sense of regret at not knowing more about my own father, my mother, and those of my family who came before me. Sadly, I knew few of these individuals to the degree I would have liked, my father having died when I was still but six or seven. I have only those childhood memories that an all-too-brief time with my father could produce, supplemented by stories of him that my mother shared with me.
My life, when measured against the events of these times I have lived through and the greatness of men who have left their mark on the national character, would most certainly be judged as ordinary enough; and yet, from the moderate success I have achieved, I have provided for my family, known the love of a remarkable woman, my wife, and have raised three sons of which I am extremely proud.
Therefore, I have put pen to paper in order that my own children, my sons, Roger William, Gary Gordon, and Scott Allen, might know more of their father and the generation from which I came, and hopefully, through knowing my story, better understand and appreciate my generation for the sacrifices it has made in order that those that have and will come after us will never know the world our enemies had planned for them. Earl William Long December 25th, 1997.
It was Sunday morning, December 7th. There is not one of my generation who does not remember Pearl Harbor, and like those that were alive when JFK was assassinated in Dallas, most everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing that Sunday, December 7th, when word first reached them of the Japanese attack.
When the announcement came over the radio, it seems ironic that at that precise moment, my wife's brother-in-law, Abner Jackson and I, were examining and discussing an old Union musket that had been carried by my wife's great grandfather, William Boyd, during his time of service in the Civil War. That rifle remains a part of the Long family to this day. I only mention the Civil War rifle because it would not be long from that Sunday morning before I, too, would be carrying a rifle of my own in a modern day conflict
As I recall, the general consensus among Americans was that the Japanese were foolhardy to attack a country as vast and rich as the United States, and much like those that went off to fight in our Civil War, it was generally believed at the time that the war with Japan would be over in, at most, a few months. Little did we know that it would last four years and result in tens of thousands of American casualties before the Japanese were finally forced to surrender.
Obviously, the public response to the sneak attack at Pearl was one of extreme outrage. Like many other men of my age, I wanted to enlist immediately, but as I was married at the time, and my wife Doris didn't take kindly to the idea of me joining up. Reluctantly perhaps, I realized that despite my own desires, it was no longer a question of what I wanted. We were a team, we were now an "us."
As it would soon turn out, the decision was taken out of my hands. Even though at the onset of the war my being married resulted in me being exempt from the military, it wasn't long before I was drafted into the service. In those days, unlike in later wars such as Vietnam, being drafted could result in you winding up in any one of several branches of the service, not just the U.S. Army. August of found me as an official member of the United States Navy. More specifically, a member of the naval construction battalion known by any other name as the seabees.
Now, I must admit that this had not been my first choice, originally hoping to find myself among the ranks of the U.S. Marines, but the military in their infinite wisdom classified me as being on special assignment, which I would later discover for me meant the Seabees.
The Seabees was at the time a relatively new branch of the service, but from all that I had heard, they didn't exactly have a very savory reputation. As rumor had it, the Seabees was thought to consist of basically older, much rougher group of men pulled in from the civilian construction field. As an age group, at 22 years old and up, we were considerably older than guys in other military outfits who ranged in ages from 18 to 20. With this difference in age, we were thought to be far more experienced in our chosen fields and thus a particularly valuable asset. In short order, I was to find to my surprise and great relief that the Seabees, contrary to the stories told about them, was a good outfit to be associated with and I was proud to be one.
It was early in September of that year, 1943, that I left Newark, New Jersey for Camp Perry, Virginia. Up until then I had never been more than 100 or so miles from home. I found myself at the then tender age of 23 about to begin a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I would also find that I would grow into manhood at a rate not normally experienced by people of my age. In spite of my real or imagined toughness, I entered this new life with some trepidation.
While it is not my intention to give a day-by-day account of this new life, I would like to illustrate how quickly one learns in the military. The chief asked us who had a wristwatch, and I and a few others raised our hands. Before I knew it, we were all made fire watchers, and as such, our job was to see that all was well from midnight to 4:00 a.m. every night. Not what many would consider a plumb task. Again, I mention this only to show how quickly one learns the benefits of adhering to the true military credo, "Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. Volunteer for nothing."
Life in boot camp was pretty much as it has been depicted by Hollywood and TV: Up early, exercise, drill, bayonet practice, long marches, lectures on everything from rifle cleaning to personal hygiene, and of course that great separator of men from boys, the obstacle course.
The obstacle course is something devised by man to do exactly what it claims to do: Build bodies and determination. With aching muscles and fatigue, you become determined that you're going to beat it; and with enough perseverance, it happens. I won't say that it gives you a swelled head, but it makes you feel good that you made it so many times when others, who tried just as hard, failed. In the vernacular of the times, they couldn't cut the mustard.
Boot camp was much the same routine for the first two weeks: Plenty of work and no liberty. The next two weeks things got a little better, and we were free from late afternoon until reveille the next morning; and finally, there were liberty and passes off the base. I don't know how it happened, but I managed to get room reservations in a private home in Richmond, Virginia. It would turn out to be the home of a distant relative of Edgar Allen Poe.
Through a misunderstanding, my wife arrived from home prepared for just a weekend's stay. It was my intention for her to stay for at least two weeks. As a result, she went back home for more clothes and quit her job at General Motors Aircraft Plant. After hearing some unsavory stories about the place, I wasn't too happy about her working there and wasn't at all disappointed when she gave notice.
I, of course, could only be with Doris in the evening, but she seemed to enjoy her stay at the Poe house and became quite taken by Richmond overall. Like myself, Doris had never traveled far from home, at least not for any extended length of time. Other than a school trip once to Washington D.C., this was a new experience for my young wife as well.
The rest of my time in boot camp passed without any problems, and when my time there came to a close, we were given ten days leave. It was spent all too quickly back home which at the time was 135 Cherry Street, Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The next phase of my story began with a train trip across the country to California. Not just your average fare ride either, but a seat aboard a Pullman car, that railroad version of a first class flight. I was soon to learn that being in the Navy had its privileges. We were first class all the way: Riding in Pullman cars, eating in dining cars, and sleeping in sleeping cars with porters to make our beds. Inasmuch as I had been fascinated with trains even as a young boy, I can remember, that was a trip of a lifetime.
Most of the men played cards, read, or jabbered all day. My day was spent almost entirely looking out the train window, taken in by the beauty and vastness of the landscape. Until you travel this country by train or car, you can have little idea how much there is of it and how captivating each new region is as you pass through it.
I can't recall precisely how many days and nights the trip took, but we eventually arrived at Camp Hernain in Oxnard, California. I do recall, however, that at this point the training took on a different focus. It was harsher, with an accent more on aggression and self-defense. There were now longer marches with full field packs and a rifle. We were issued gas masks as part of our gear. There was still the same obstacle course to be reckoned with, only this time we did so carrying all our gear; and there were now more drop-outs. We usually had an ambulance standing by at the ready for those that the obstacle course broke.
After some weeks of this existence, we were suddenly restricted to base. There was no more liberty. It was just as well for me since for some unknown reason we had not been paid and I was very short on money. I had written to Doris asking her for a money order of $50, but before it could arrive, we were ordered to ship out; and loading up on the train again, we left base. I did so with a grand total of cents to my name. Fortunately, the Red Cross had given us a care package, and best of all, a carton of cigarettes. In retrospect, it would seem to be of no importance, but it was then.
As is often the case with those who fight in wars, you tend to remember some of the more humorous aspects of the things you see and do and dwell less on the ugly things that war makes you face. One funny sight in particular comes to mind as our unit made its way from the train depot to the docks where we were to board ship. One of the cautions at the time was "Loose lips sink ships," yet here we were, a body of uniformed men marching through the streets of Seattle, Washington with sheepskin coats on and rifles. We still didn't know where we were going, but we were damn sure it wasn't to an island in the South Pacific; and so did everyone else that saw us that day.
We shipped out on the S.S. Yukon early in the morning, heading for what we were then told was Island X. For reasons of security, all destinations at the time were Island X. The first night out we encountered a rather severe storm, and by that time a lot of the mates were now quite seasick. Some of the men were rolling about the foredeck in their misery, not caring if they lived or died. A few of us managed to get them inside where some of them still rolled from wall to wall in the passageways. At least they were dry now, but little else could be done to ease their suffering. The weather continued to be bad for a day or so longer, but I myself was not stricken with seasickness.
The Yukon was manned by merchant marines. They were worked the ship, and also cooked and served the meals which were offered family style with everyone sharing. A few days later when the guys began to feel better, and a few even managed to make it down to chow, one of the men serving us asked if anyone would like some greasy pork chops. There was an immediate mad rush for topside by many with their hands held tightly over their mouths.
My job aboard ship was to stand watch in the bow gun tub. As we got into the northern latitudes, it became sharply colder. Our gear was comprised of very heavy clothing, with a wool hat and felt mask that covered the face completely. I remember that the cold was so penetrating that we were relieved at our watch stations in short intervals of four hours throughout the day and night. We wore wraparound red tinted goggles before going on night watch to prepare our eyes for night vision. Even so, it didn't help much. One time we got a radio message from the bridge not to sound an alarm when a battleship and a cruiser were passing, one on each side of us. We never saw a damn thing.
(CHRISTMAS EVE - 1943) On the day of Christmas Eve, 1943, we arrived at the pier in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Cargo was being loaded off a good part of the day. Sometime in the early morning, I was sitting on the ship's rail just under the bridge. The bay was as calm as a mill pond, and the sound of Christmas Carols drifted across the water. I guessed the music was coming from a church or recreation hall somewhere off in the distance. The sound of that music had a melancholic effect on me, bringing forth thoughts of my wife and home, a place I now felt so far away from. Up to this time in life I felt I could handle most situations, but I was quite nostalgic and I felt very much alone.
The weather could not have been more ideal at the moment, however it was not to last. The weather in the Aleutians can be dramatic, shifting suddenly and with severe consequences. In a matter of little more than an hour's time, the winds had picked up and were slamming into the island and everything on it. Our ship, which at 375 feet in length and a weight of 5700 tons, was by no means a small vessel. Yet within minutes, the lines holding it to the dock simply snapped with a loud crack. The end result was that throughout the night, we had tug boats doing all they could just to hold us against the dock and prevent us from being beached at some point along the shoreline.
In the morning, all was calm again. In the Aleutians, the storms are called will-a-wahs (ph), and are a force of nature to be respected. For ships at sea in these regions, they can be deadly. Only a few nights before we had made it to Dutch Harbor, we were passing from the North Pacific to the Bering Sea. The weather was bad, and Unimak Pass is not the best place to be in unfavorable conditions. I was in my bunk, and the ship began to make a terrible noise and started to shudder and vibrate. Being told by the ship's crew earlier that Unimak Pass could be dangerous, I scrambled out of my bunk, grabbed my life jacket, and went topside. Others had the same reaction, and soon joined me there. I was to discover that the cause of this frightening sound was that the seas had become so rough that the ship was being pitched in and out of the water from bow to stern. When the ship's stern raised out of the water, so did the giant blades of the ship's propellers. Without the water around them to provide resistance, they spun wildly causing a great vibration all along the hull. Even a ship as large as the Yukon can be little more than a cork bobbing on the sea. Mother Nature is always the boss.
HEADING FURTHER EAST Our final destination turned out to be Adak Island lying about mid range along the Aleutian Island chain. On duty at the forward gun tub and not being aware of where we were, I finally spotted a flashing signal light in the distant horizon and realized land was nearing. After all the black nights at sea, it was a welcome sight.
A few hours later, we disembarked at what was then called Navy Town on Adak Island. This was, as it would turn out to be, our home for the next 11 months. Adak is a barren, treeless, dismal place. I could probably count on my fingers the days during our stay there that it did not rain or snow to some degree. The main reason for the lack of trees or even shrubs was the strong prevailing winds, and the wet ground which would not allow trees to sink roots in for stabilization. Also, the Arctic tundra was shallow and frozen at a short depth most of the year.
Our stay in Navy Town was short-lived. In a matter of days, we moved to a more permanent area. When we initially arrived at Adak, we were a replacement unit. Now, as we settled in for the duration, we officially became Company D of the 86th Construction Battalion which we would remain until the end of the war.
I want to sidetrack a moment and recall one very positive thing that came from all the days we spent at sea, and later remote outposts such as Adak, a chain of islands that formed the last few remnants of land stretching out across the upper half of the Pacific. It was something that would change my life forever: Books. The simple fact is that partly out of boredom and partly out of nothing else much better to do at times, I learned to appreciate books and reading.
One night while still at sea, I was off duty and got ahold of a copy of Reader's Digest which contained as a feature article a condensed book about the Aleutian Islands. By this time, many of us had begun to suspect that it was this chain of islands that we were headed for, and ironically enough, this particular issue covered the region in some detail. I remember that, at that moment, the revelation that not only was I absorbed in the author's telling of the islands, but that I suddenly found myself actually enjoying myself. For me, it was a new experience. Having left school in the 8th grade to begin working and helping to bring money into my mother's house, I had not had much of an opportunity to develop or appreciate the level of knowledge and understanding about the world that books could provide. I recall as a boy in those times, we were not required nor gave much thought to reading books, classical or otherwise. Now as I was reintroduced to books, seemingly for the first time, it was for me the true beginning of my education. The library and I have been best friends ever since. I would take out National Geographic, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and all manner of material that I could learn from, both from a practical as well as a conceptual sense.
As a Seaman First Class, I had varied jobs to handle. These ranged from the more interesting work as a carpenter's helper to the more mundane pick-and-shovel detail. One day, however, all of this was to change for the better. Each morning our work crew met at our work shack for projects and assignments for that day. For some reason, all the rest of my crew had jobs assigned except for me. There was one truck left and the chief asked if I could drive it, and with a straight face and not thinking twice, I said yes, I could drive a truck. A little white lie perhaps, but it worked. And before I knew it, he had sent me to the quarry for a load of crushed stone.
How I managed to get there without tearing out the truck's transmission is a wonder considering all the grinding of gears I did that day. After some effort, however, I did finally manage to get to the quarry and immediately began seeking out the help of my friend and mate, John McCrone (ph), a rough-and-tumble man with a heart as big as all Ireland and a passion for tipping a glass or two. John took me out to the back roads and gave me a half hour crash course in handling that rig. It was all I needed. It seems that the trick was in learning how to double clutch, learn the shift pattern, and how to gauge the truck's weight and load on the many hills we were forced to navigate up and down. From then on, my job in the Seabees was that of driving trucks. No easy task though what with the roads and weather we had to contend with at times. Still, it was a far sight better than being on the pick-and-shovel brigade.
At the risk of belaboring my point about the weather, let me again give you a sense of what we were up against. The weather was one of our main and constant concerns. After a period of 11 months, I don't believe it would be an exaggeration to state that in all that time, there were but a handful of really nice, balmy, warm days, even in the summer season. A typical day was gray: Rain, snow, or sleet, and wind at a velocity that very often knocked you off your feet.
One situation resulting from the weather was that when we parked our trucks for the night, we had to remove the windshield wipers and gearshift knobs. As a result of the persistently bad conditions, there was a shortage of wiper blades, so we were forced to safeguard them by literally taking them to bed with us at night. Why the shortage of gearshift knobs, I was never able to determine.
For understandable reasons, we could not disclose our location when writing back home, but I knew my wife was concerned for my whereabouts; and since our mail was being censored, I devised a little subterfuge to help folks back home locate me. The mail we used was known as V Mail, short for Victory Mail, which was a one-page preprinted form that was copied on film and reprinted back in the States for delivery.
Obviously, there wasn't much room for a very chatty letter. Nevertheless, in one particular V mail letter I asked my wife how Aunt Ada was feeling, indicating in the letter that I knew Aunt Ada was sick. I expressed concern for her health. Of course, I knew that there really wasn't any Aunt Ada back home and realized everyone back home knew the same. I would learn later that it took a while, however, for them to figure out that Aunt Ada was my way of telling my wife that I was at Adak.
A great majority of the material we hauled was natural gravel which had accumulated on the island over perhaps thousands of years in the bays. We used the gravel to construct causeways. By means of a dragline, we dredged out the gravel and loaded it on trucks to be hauled away to the construction site. On one particular day, the man guiding me and my truck back to the water's edge misjudged the distance and over I went on my blind side, truck and all. As the truck started to roll over, I scrambled out of the cab and fortunately the water, though very cold, was not too deep. I wound up standing in water up to my knees on the side of the overturned truck about ten feet from shore.
I climbed into the dragline bucket and was put ashore. With the same dragline, they lifted my truck out of the bay looking very much like a drowned rat. I never saw that truck again. The chief made sure I was all right, and I was given another truck to drive that afternoon. I want to tell you that our chief was a great guy to work for, and the men always gave him a full day of good work. He in turn looked the other way, so to speak, when we needed him to, such as the time we got together to open the beer hall.
The beer hall didn't come into being until several months after our landing, but when it did, it was very much welcomed. The system was simple enough. We could have as much beer as we wanted at 10 cents a bottle. The catch was that the bottles were all sold pre-opened and had to be consumed on the premises. As you might expect, however, it wasn't long before one of the wise guys in the group tried to break the rules. He stuck three bottles of beer in his belt and concealed it under his jacket as he walked out of the beer hall; but the shore patrol was onto him, and as soon as he stepped out of the door, they struck him across the mid section with their billy clubs, busting the bottles of beer. As you can imagine, the results were messy and embarrassing. After that day, I never heard of anyone else trying that ploy.
. By this time our accommodations had changed from canvas tents on the ground to Quonset huts, which was much to our relief and comfort. My reason of bringing this up at all is to illustrate the difference in treatment of personnel from one branch of service to the other. The Army units were right next to us, and although they had been in the area for many months, some even eight or nine months before our arrival, they were still forced in live in tents. They took their meals in mess tents and ate out of mess kits. We had a wooden mess hall, had our meals served on metal trays, were allowed to eat all we wanted, and had galley crews to do all the cleaning up. When we left the island several months later, the Army units' living conditions had not changed one iota.
I remember that later on that year when the movie house was built, the unfairness continued. The Army and Navy personnel formed separate lines, Navy going in first, and then if there were any seats left, the Army guys were allowed in. The Army area had one line, but it was always Navy first, and then what remained of the GI Joes was first come/first served among themselves. I am not trying to infer that the Army was by any means thought of as inferior to us. Quite the contrary. They were there under the same government as us and were fighting for the same reason, but I always did and still do feel that the inequality was wrong. Perhaps the most disturbing incident of this sort occurred when we were about to return to the States. A lot of our unneeded clothing and blankets, some of it even unused, was loaded on Navy trucks to be destroyed. Army men came to our area and asked for some of it, but our brass had given orders to refuse their requests. Things like this saddened me, but it was beyond our control.
Aleutian weather has to be experienced to be believed. Even while still at sea, the ship was covered with ice. Moving about the ship was quite hazardous in spite of the extra life lines that were always rigged about the deck. On land, it was much the same. Dark, dismal, damp, cold and windy. One woke up with it, worked in it, and went to sleep with it. No change; day after day, week after week.
About this time, the ice and snow began to melt, however we were still contending with the rain and wind. More often than not, the rain was almost horizontal due to the will-a-wahs. We did experience a few weeks of fairly warm weather, and even had a few hardy flowers bloom.
Each day was pretty much like the rest though. But one day we got through the camp scuttlebutt that our ship back to the States was about to dock. It arrived sometime in November 1944. Our unit, Company D, which arrived initially as a replacement unit, had been at Adak now for 11 months. I believe the rest of the battalion was there close to 18 months. It was time for celebrating. We were heading home.
I don't recall if we were ever given a reason, but there was a lot of pressure to unload the cargo that had just arrived in the ship that would take us home. As a result, we worked around the clock, plus a few hours. If memory serves me, we worked from early one morning until noon the following day. We were fed coffee and sandwiches on the run. I also seem to recall that no one complained, as we all knew that the faster the ship was unloaded, the sooner we would be shipped aboard to leave.
BACK TO STATESIDE At last we shipped out sometime in late November, and as can be expected for those northern latitudes, the conditions back at sea were not the best. The trip to the States was pretty much a repetition of the voyage out, with ice, snow, rain, and high winds meeting us all the way. The seas were heaving with swells and waves that seemed as big as the mountains back home. The one big difference was our frame of mind on this voyage. We were going home, and that was all that really mattered.
One incident that shook everyone aboard, however, involved losing a man overboard. It was never determined if he fell or jumped over the aft rail of the ship, but it did put a pall over the ship's entire crew. As it was war time and there was always a threat of enemy submarines in the area, we were not permitted to stop and jeopardize the rest of the ship. I do remember that the captain did make a circle around the area as a rescue attempt, but to no avail. It would have been futile anyway because the water was so frigid that no one could have survived more than a few minutes at most.
When we did finally reach Seattle, we were split into two groups. We were put on two AK class attack ships that were brand new, and we were part of the shakedown crews down the west coast of California. Everything was sparkling new aboard those ships. After some of the conditions we had recently lived under, it was a pleasant change.
Once we landed again in California, our company was given a 30 day leave. The train trip back east this time, however, was somewhat less luxurious than our initial trip west. For one thing, we had to pay our way home. So instead of going by Pullman, we traveled in coach which meant having -- (END OF SIDE A, TAPE 1, BEGINNING OF SIDE B, TAPE 1) After several days we were finally back in New Jersey. My train was supposed to terminate at Newark, but the train made an unscheduled stop in Elizabeth, my real destination. In a flash, I grabbed my bags and jumped off the train, saving myself a trip by bus from Newark to Elizabeth. It was about 6:00 in the morning when I got off the train, and although my arrival was expected, it was certainly not at that hour of the day. Seeing my wife at the door was really a heart-thumping emotional experience, but only those separated for long periods of time can ever truly understand. We had not seen nor talked with each for over a year. The feeling of holding her close to me again remains one of those deepest of memories for me. It is those little things in life such as an embrace or seeing familiar sights again that one can never truly appreciate until they are taken from you. Even common things that we take for granted.
Through my letters, for example, I had let it be known that there was something I wanted to eat more than anything else; More than expensive stake or chops, although as I have said, our chow was adequate, certainly better than what the Army survived on. There was something I had hungered for now for nearly a year an item that might seem so common yet on a barren outpost such as Adak, it was obviously not to be had. I was tired and in rather bad need of a good shower after traveling so many days, but no sooner had I gotten squared away than I laid out across my bed like a Sultan and was treated to the most mouth-watering delicacy: A lettuce and tomato sandwich.
I had been absent from home, family, and friends for well over a year. Now there were hugs and kisses and handshakes all around. All in all, it seemed that it was one sustained party during my entire leave. Yet as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and this was no exception. Far too short. Far too short.
LIBERTY IS OVER, BOYS. The members of our battalion who lived in the eastern U.S. received orders to regroup in Davisville, Rhode Island. From there, we were once again on our way to California. What lay ahead, we knew not. But I can tell you, we were no longer the young lads who made the original trip west the year before. As the saying has it, we were no longer wet behind the ears, our experiences at Adak having made us a tad older now.
Being a railroad buff that I was, I was again enjoying my trip west. Dawn until nightfall, from can't see to can't see, I was at the train window almost constantly. Again, as on our first government sponsored trip, we traveled in Pullman cars. Our berths were put up at night and taken down in the morning by porters. We ate three meals a day in the dining cars, served by waiters. Who could ask for anything better. Although I had no control over it, I still felt badly about the conditions under which the Army traveled. Sleeping in bunk beds and eating chow from mess kits, then washing them by swishing them in garbage cans filled with hod sudsy water and rinsing them in clear hot water. The disparity between the various armed services is something I could never understand. After all, we were fighting for the same cause.
After several days, we arrived at Camp Parks, California. Camp Parks was near San Francisco. Our training became more intense: Close order drill, long marches with full gear, hand-to-hand combat, hand grenades, judo draining, and gas mask drills. As I recall, I even took a course involving the assembling and disassembling of .50 caliber machine guns and firing them at airborne targets. It was about this time that I qualified on the 100 and 200 yard ranges for the rapid-fire .30 caliber rifles. It was my second time to earn the Expert Rifleman Badge.
For the next couple of months the routine was nothing special. I was assigned the job of driving our chief about the base in a stake body truck, picking up various materials, and delivering men to and from work sites. Without warning one day, we were restricted to base. These orders, of course, meant only one thing: We would be shipping out soon.
In a matter of days we boarded a ship in San Francisco Bay by the name of the John Likes. She was a 417 foot long vessel with a weight of over 6000 tons. Under full steam, she could cruise at 14 knots.
As before, we again did not know our destination. But as we went under the Golden Gate Bridge and headed west out the Golden Gate, we knew we were bound for another Island X as all destinations in the Pacific were so named at that time. As I had already said, one of the common sayings of the time was that "Loose lips sink ships," but after a few days at sea, it became apparent we were heading in the general direction of Hawaii.
I don't recall how long it took, but we eventually arrived at Pearl Harbor without incident. As this location was the scene of the now famous Jap air raid that resulted in so much death and destruction, we were surprised by the fact that there was no evidence of the sneak attack. Our stay at Pearl lasted the best part of a week, during which time there were war ships coming and going, day and night: Destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers and submarines; but oddly enough, not one battle ship. I suppose this was due to so many being demolished during the December 7th attack.
When we had first left the States, we were at sea unescorted, but when we left Pearl Harbor, we were a part of a convoy of several ships escorted by destroyers. Traveling these waters was a big contrast from the North Pacific and the Bering Sea. First of all, it was much warmer and the seas were nowhere near as turbulent. The whole scene was just as the name implies: Pacific. The voyage was far different than the one we had experienced on our way to the Aleutian Islands. There were times when it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of a vast ocean rather than simply afloat on a large inland lake.
One day was much like the preceding until we reached the Marshall Island group which consists of such islands as Kwajalein, Bikini, and Eniwetok, made famous by earlier conflicts with the Japanese. After a short stay, we left the area with the convoy now considerably larger at this stage and with more destroyer protection.
As I mentioned before, the ocean was unbelievably calm. From my high vantage point in the bow gun mount, the array of ships which appeared to stretch from horizon to horizon was a sight I will long remember. Our trip to the Aleutian Islands in comparison to this one was on the short side. That being the case, I was able to, using some subterfuge, let me wife know my final location. This time there was no way to communicate, and there had not been for several weeks. It had to be very, very hard for her to go week after week, not knowing my whereabouts and whether or not I was all right.
Although our situation was far from ideal, at least we knew what it was. Those back home could only guess, hope, and wait for word from us. If the circumstances were reversed, I know I would have spent many a sleepless night and spent many an endless day in worry. There has been an abundance of praise lauded to the military efforts made during the war, both about the men and women that participated, but I have always felt that there has been a gross lack of similar praise bestowed upon the wives, mothers, and sweethearts who remained at the home front, working and sacrificing to keep the war effort moving forward.
As a married man, there was an allotment taken out of my Navy pay and sent to my wife every month. I don't recall how much money it consisted of, but the point I'm trying to make is that all these allotment checks my wife received, she saved; every last one of them. Many of my mates' wives did not, or perhaps because of more dire need, could not. In more ways than I can count, my wife has always been one in a million.
THE ROYAL COURT OF KING NEPTUNE It is a tradition of the sea that when a ship passes across the International Dateline, or the equator, it enters the realm of King Neptune and his Lords of the Deep. The crossing is a simple initiation of paying homage to Neptune's Court, and those involved receive weird haircuts, are painted with machine grease, and soaked down with fire hoses. Rank has no bearing on whether or not one is subjected to the initiation. The criterion was whether or not you had ever crossed either line before. I was lucky, all I got was the grease and fire hose treatment. No haircut. Well, not exactly. I did have half my mustache shaved off; but no one escaped some form of kidding. I don't remember his name or rank, but one officer was forced to stand at the ship's bow rail with two Coke bottles to his eyes like a pair of field glasses pretending to be scanning the horizon for about an hour. He took his ribbing in good spirits nonetheless.
ENTERING THE WAR ZONE The group of islands we were now entering was known as the Carolines. These included Ulithi, Truk, and Ponape. These islands, like the Marshall Islands, had been occupied by the Japs and had to be wrenched from them by our military at a cost of many lives.
Heat, heat, and more heat each day. Making matters worse, the only source of drinking water on the ship was a couple of water coolers that due to the climate we were in, did little in the way of dispensing cool water. After being lined up for almost an hour, we received a single canteen cup, no more than 12 ounces of hot water, so hot the cup had to be held with a rag wrapped around it. We were told that the main evaporators that were converting salt seawater to pure water were not working. Our showers were even salt water. The soap we were issued was a joke. It was supposedly formulated for salt water use, but it was like a block of wood. No lather to speak of, but at least the water in the showers was a little cooler. Many of the men would tie their clothes together in a loose bundle and toss them overboard, attached to a line to let nature do their laundry. And I'm sure a lot of clothes got lost that way.
When in close proximity to the equator, a ship with men aboard in midsummer can become quite an uncomfortable situation. There were times when many a temper ran short. Below decks was akin to a melting pot. Crowded, hot, and humid, and very little exchange of air. Yet in my case I had lined my bunk, which was about four inches from the hot steel floor, with my rain poncho. Sweat would collect in my bunk at the rate of nearly a cupful every day. I was not alone in this misery. As it might be said, we were all in the same boat.
Though normally calmer than the seas at the northern latitudes, it should not be thought that these waters were always calm and serene. At times, it could get quite rough. The only difference between here and the Bering Sea was the warm temperatures. Another main difference was the duration of bad weather. In the northern waters bad weather could last for days on end, but here a storm could be seen on the horizon, and in a matter of hours we would be right in the middle of it: Black skies, wind, lightning, huge waves, and torrential rains. Yet when all this was going on around us, just a short distance away on the horizon could be seen a thin line of sunshine. Then just as quickly as it had set upon us, the storm would move off.
In the Aleutians, the seas were far more treacherous. When the ship's bow would plunge headlong into the sea, it seemed as though I could just reach over the side rails and touch the wall of water that was passing. But in the southern waters, there were also different sights to be seen. In the song, On The Road To Mandalay, there is a line, "where the flying fish play." We were in such waters now, and the fish rose above the ship's bow and really flapped wings and flew a considerable distance before going back into the water. They would repeat this over and over again as the ship steamed along.
Another strange thing that occurred was that on some evenings, just about twilight, a glowing light could be seen as the prow of the ship went through the water. I was told that it was a combination of warm water, salt, and friction of the ship as it passed through the waves that caused this unusual sight.
On one night when I was on watch and with nothing else to do, I was looking out across the water at a full moon. It not being too high in the sky as yet, I noticed that it seemed to be changing shape as we moved along. As time passed, the shape kept changing, the light from it becoming less and less. It was then I realized that what I was witnessing was a lunar eclipse, after becoming near pitch black and then slowly returning to full moonlight. I was bemused by the whole episode because no one had bothered to mention the coming event.
With so many men aboard with limited space, limited drinking water, the constant heat and humidity, and lack of any real activities to keep from thinking about these conditions, the days seemed to drag on forever. Card playing and reading was about the only thing to do, and even this became tiresome. I do remember that there was something new and novel that the government had issued to us. They were pocketbooks, called such because they were small books that could literally be slipped into one's pocket.
SOUND GENERAL QUARTERS We had now been aboard ship about a month and a half, when at about 5:00 or 6:00 one evening the call to general quarters was sounded. This was a call to put the entire ship's complement on alert and resulted in a mad scramble to assigned battle stations. My station being up in the bow gave me a clear view along both the port and starboard sides of the ship. As yet, we did not know what was going on.
Anxiety was at a fever pitch. In a matter of only a minute or two, a destroyer that was already running alongside us as an uncomfortably close distance began launching depth charges, one after another. Immediately following, two other destroyers came alongside from other parts of the convoy and also began dropping the garbage can size charges into the sea as the three ships laid down a deadly pattern of underwater explosions. The ruckus lasted for what seemed like an eternity before we were relieved from our battle stations. The rest of us, having taken our positions at the first sound of general quarters, remained at our posts until after dark.
DESTINATION: ANOTHER ISLAND X The following day, sometime around late afternoon, we made landfall at our destination, Island X. I don't remember at what point along the journey most of us began to guess what our destination was, but Island X turned out to be Okinawa, a Japanese-held island located in the Sea of Japan. Being anchored out in the bay, there was not much to see of the island other than the general topography of the area.
Just before dark, all hell broke loose. Once again, we were called to general quarters as the sky began glowing red in the distance. We were later told that it was an ammunition dump blowing up. Like always, no other details other than the usual scuttlebutt and rumors.
Early the next morning, we were assembled into platoons with full field packs, gas mask, canteens, hand knife, and of course our rifles and ammunition. Upon orders we began to disembark, each squad taking their turn going over the ship's rail, down the landing nets, into the landing craft waiting below. In all the noise and confusion, it was a wonder anyone knew what was going on. As I had said before, the military operates on a need-to-know basis. Personnel are told only what they need to know to do their job, and little else. That being the case, we were pretty much in the dark most of the time as to just what to expect.
Nearing the shore, the landing craft known as an LST stopped. The heavy metal ramp that served as the bow of the ship was lowered into the sea. We waded forward, working our way ashore in hip deep waves, spreading out as we hit the beach. Although there was no action coming our way at this time, we were told to be ready for it. All around us was the evidence of what had been happening just before our arrival. The beach was littered with wreckage. Everywhere there were craters created by the shelling. Trees were shattered into pieces, many just mere stumps now. The scene along the beach that day was one of general chaos as the American forces continued to bring men and materiel onto the island. The date was July 5th, 1945.
I remember its significance. It had been just nine years earlier when I stood helpless at the age of 15 watching my father die. It comes to mind now as yet another moment in my life that will remain forever painfully vivid in my mind. My dad had been sick with pleurisy and something else the doctors of the day called dropsy. Too ill to climb the stairs to his second floor bedroom, he spent his days and nights on a cot put up for him in the dining room at our house at 10 Gunther Place, Passaic, New Jersey.
Being the summer months, there was no school and I stayed awake at night to tend to his needs so my mother could sleep a little, which she did in an overstuffed armchair every night by his bedside. Thus we managed for a few weeks. Because of his condition, he could not get out of bed, and later it was to be learned that he had been placed on heavy medication to relieve the considerable pain he had to endure as his condition worsened. Before long, he was gone. My father was not only my dad, but he was also my best friend.
Later that day on Okinawa, we were stationed on a high ridge overlooking Buckner Bay, which before the war had been known as Nagagusuku Bay. It had been renamed Buckner Bay in honor of the American general who was head of our forces on Okinawa and was killed by enemy fire. Like the beachhead we had first encountered, the area around us too was like a scene from some vast disaster zone. Shell holes big enough to drive a Jeep into, trees and foliage stripped from the land. I picked up a piece of shell shrapnel big enough to cut a man in half. What I remember most about it not only was how large it was, but how the jagged edges were as sharp as a razor.
Part of our field pack was a shelter half, a section that when snapped together with a similar section from another man's field pack, created a small tent. That meant that each man carried with him half a tent and a single section of the tent's center pole designed to mate up with a section carried by another man. It brought new meaning to the term buddy system. It also helped lighten the load any one individual had to manage as we moved further into the interior of the island.
On our first night, it was my lot to be chosen to guard a rather large spring of fresh water, which served as our water supply. Not a particularly large piece of real estate as things go, but unquestionably a very vital one. I might add, a very strategic one as well, for fresh drinking water like so many other things that can be in such short supply on an island become critical commodities. On the first few days after our landing, we had been issued a daily ration of one canteen of water. From this, we had to use it for drinking and for taking care of our other needs. In the sweltering heat of the tropical climate, that small allotment of water was barely adequate. Fortunately, being the resourceful Seabees that we were, that condition was to improve in short order.
As it was our first night in hostile territory, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I took my post guarding the spring of water. As it wasn't quite dark yet, I had a chance to reconnoiter my surroundings. I found myself located in a small ravine. I discovered later, as the full moon rose, that the only darkness I could rely on to conceal my presence there was close up against a wall of rocks. The lack of more cover made me extremely uneasy.
But my stint on guard duty passed without incident, and I was glad when someone from my squad came to relieve me just after midnight. Actually, I discovered that I was to be replaced by two men, and I remember thinking afterwards how very much I would have appreciated having a second man with me when I pulled my shift guarding the water hole. In fact, on the next night the routine was changed to include two men, for every watch, from dusk to dawn. In no particular order, we would spell each other as far as sleep was concerned, or at least as much sleep as a man could get under such conditions.
Our posts were at fixed intervals encircling the entire camp. Each post had a number assigned to it, and we were at hailing distances from one another. Even though in the darkness of the night we could not see each other, if help was needed, all we had to do was call for the officer of the guard and call out our post number. This would be repeated from post to post until it reached headquarters and assistance was sent out. The first couple of nights the officer of the guard made his rounds of each post, giving the appropriate password as he approached. One night, however, he almost got shot by one of our own men, so henceforth we found ourselves alone at our posts from dusk to first light.
My partner at my post was a man by the name of Richard Earl Snodgrass. He had also been on our crew on Adak as had John McCrone. The three of us had pitched several liberties together stateside, and having become friends as such, made a good team. Thus we stayed together, each watching out for the other. We did not have a tent, so we had just the bare ground, open sky, and the ever present swarms of mosquitos. As protection against the blood hungry insects, we kept our pants stuffed into our socks, sleeves buttoned at the wrists, collars buttoned at the neck, and we kept our helmets on our heads. This was the best we could do against the insects and other things such as various ground bugs, rats, and poisonous snakes.
From our position along the ridge overlooking Buckner Bay, we could see the vast semicircle of land that extended along the horizon for several miles. All through the night, we could see the blossoming light of trip flares reaching skyward breaking the darkness at a distance. Each time the sky lit up, the sounds of machine gun and rifle fire followed indicating another attempt by the enemy to infiltrate our lines. Below us on the slope of the ridge was another unit. I don't know if they were Army or Marines, but every night in the wee hours before dawn, there would be machine gun tracer bullets over our head. For every tracer bullet you see, there are four or five rounds behind it that you never see. The sound of bullets ringing and ricocheting off the rocks was unsettling. We just laid low and kept our fingers crossed that none of the rounds would find their mark in one of us.
When we weren't dealing with enemy fire or trying to sleep, we existed on K rations for our three meals-a-day, issued in containers the size of a Cracker Jacks box. I don't recall exactly what was in each of them, but I do remember that each had a small can about half the size of what tuna fish comes in, a small, folding can opener, a fruit bar, three or four cigarettes, a small book of matches, and a few sheets of toilet paper.
As for shelter, after a few days, things began to change for the better. We were given a two-man tent. Not bad, only the Navy assigned us a third man to share it with. I can only recall that his first name was Bill and he was new to Company D. He was also one of the youngest in our platoon, no more than 17 or 18 years old. We now not only had a tent, but the luxury, if you will, of mosquito netting. We finally began to think we were truly living high on the hog as the saying goes. With our tent, we also had two cots; three men, two cots. Guard duty 24 hours a day helped ease the problem. While one man pulled duty, the other two would try to catch up some sleep. And it was considerable comfort to finally be able to do so in a bed, as sparse of a cushion as they were.
In time, we were given new responsibilities. It was now our duty to protect the battalion commander and his aids at night. It was common knowledge that the commander was given to drink, sometimes more than just a few, at which time inevitably late at night, he would come to his tent calling out to make sure we were there on post. Where the hell else he thought we might be, I still don't know. On more than one occasion he would fire his .45 service pistol down the slope, and in doing so did little to keep our location secret. After a few days of this nightly routine, he and his aids were removed. Needless to say, we were not the least bit sorry to witness his departure.
Several nights later, all hell broke loose again. Just a little after midnight, I finished my stint at my post and went to sleep in the tent. Before long, I was suddenly awakened by the sound of Snodgrass hollering for me to get the hell out here. Startled, I grabbed my helmet and rifle and scrambled out into the darkness on the ready. Snodgrass quickly informed me that although he still wasn't sure how many Japs there were out there coming at us, he thought he had for sure hit one in the neck at close range. Before he could say more, a hand grenade exploded close by. By now, Bill, our new recruit, had reached us from inside the tent and we lay there flat on the ground ready for whatever was to happen next. There was a sudden flash as another hand grenade exploded, this time in a slightly different direction from the first, and noticeably closer.
All of this, of course, took place faster than it takes to tell it. At the same time the call for the captain of the guard to bring reinforcements had been relayed from post to post until it reached headquarters. Meanwhile, I had heard some more rustling just a few yards in front of my position. I called to the guys in the post nearest to ours to hit the ground and I commenced firing my M1 carbine just as fast as I could pull the trigger. I was on my knees spraying rounds from right to left. I thought I heard another cry in the dark just as another hand grenade exploded, and then there was nothing but the silence and the dark.
Soon other men began arriving by truck and spreading out along our perimeter. One pair of reinforcements spotted me crouching down in the tall grass and shouted, "There's one." He stood just a few yards away, pointing the barrel of his rifle directly at me. He had obviously mistaken me for an enemy Jap. The only thing I could think to do was jump up and shout, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" To my relief, they realized I was one of their own. I would learn later from talking with the two solders who had spotted me in the grass that they had believed me to be a Jap simply from what I was wearing at the time. When Snodgrass had yelled for us to get out of the tent and the Japs began their attack against our position, I had nothing on but my white shorts and my helmet. The only other item I wore was my steel rimmed glasses, which with the white shorts and naked waist made it quite easy to mistake me for a Jap shoulder infiltrating our lines.
We stayed alert for the rest of the night, and as dawn broke we could see some damage in the area. One dead Jap lay just a few yards off, his insides blown out. He was riddled with bullet holes. I suspect the last grenade I had heard go off during the night had done the damage. He had probably been about to throw the explosive at our position when he was hit by our rifle fire. Dropping where he stood, the grenade likely fell near him and exploded. We found out that two other Japs, including the one wounded in the neck, had been captured by the men in the camp just below us on the ridge. We would never know what had happened to the other enemy soldiers that had attacked our position, or even how many there had been.
(END OF SIDE B, TAPE 1, BEGINNING OF SIDE A, TAPE 2)
As we crept out of our position and began to survey the scene around us, we noticed that the soldier that we had killed was a Samurai warrior, or at least he was carrying the sword of a samurai. He wore a cummerbund with various symbols including a large red rising sun. I don't know whether it was coincidence or not, but he had been shot dead right where our commander's tent was, to which the commander commented, "Dirty yellow bastard." Nothing more. Our commander was not a man we held in the highest esteem, and was criticized quite a bit. He did, however, praise and thank us for a job well done. I believe in this instance, it was said in true appreciation.
As can be imagined, the whole camp was buzzing with what had happened during the night. By midday, a fair size group had gathered to look over the area and talk with those of us who had "seen the elephant," a phrase used during the Civil War to describe men who had undergone combat for the first time. Before long, the situation would be taken out of our hands and the responsibility for cleaning up the area given to another group of men. It was decided that the body of the dead Jap might be booby-trapped, a not-so-uncommon trick the enemy deployed. Retreating soldiers would leave an armed grenade tucked up under a fallen comrade, who, when moved by unsuspecting American GI's, would cause the grenade to explode. As for myself, having been there in the fighting that had taken place the night before, I could see little chance of the body being booby-trapped; but as I have said before, you learn quickly in the military to keep your mouth shut and do a lot of standing by while others, who supposedly know better, work things out.
It was decided that the safest thing to do was to tie a rope around the dead man's legs and drag him about five or ten yards. Surely an armed grenade, if there indeed was one, would go off at the slightest such movement. A rope was applied, the body was dragged, and as most of us had suspected, nothing happened.
As was often done, we began to search the area and the body of the dead man for some trivial item, some small piece here and there, as mementos of the fighting. Every man collected these things, souvenirs of the events we were experiencing and hopefully would live through. The only thing I got that day was a metal match container out of the shirt pocket of the Jap soldier. As small as it was, it too showed signs of the rifle rounds that had pierced the Jap's chest. I don't remember who got the Samurai sword, but I do recall that it too had been bent, most likely from a bullet. I also remember that at the time the most revolting sight was one of the guys prying out the gold fillings that that dead soldier had in his teeth. It must be understood that these were different circumstances and a different place from the one I am living in now. War does not always bring out the best in human beings. I cannot blame nor condone such actions, I can only say that in war they exist, even though I realize that in combat, it always comes down to a "me" or "them" situation. One thing I remember to this day was the dead man had a photograph of his wife and three small children, a family that would never see him again.
The next few days were rather calm except for the explosions of dynamite going off frequently. Our people were closing up the entrances to the many caves, tunnels, and tombs on the island to cut down the enemy's access to them. These caverns held many Japs and local natives. Through interpreters, we were trying our damndest to convince those hiding in these underground holes to come out and be spared. The Japs that remained would eventually be forced out by grenades or flamethrowers, but many of the enemy soldiers would sooner die for the emperor than surrender. Even the local natives were reluctant to show themselves at first, having been told by the Japanese that the Americans would rape the women and kill all the men. All too often, many of these natives would take their own lives by jumping off of cliffs before surrendering to the Americans. It was sometime before our people could end this senseless loss of life by finally convincing the islanders that they were in no danger. Despite this, the islanders would at times continue to resist, and on occasion even show signs of aggression.
I recall that late one morning I happened to see what I thought was a fairly good sized wooden box flying through the air. The box, as it would turn out, was actually a block of stone, and it tore through the medical tent roof. The tent was only about 20 or 30 yards from where I stood, but when I got to it, I found the doctor already mopping up the blood of a wounded Navy corpsman. I got the doctor more towels, and he asked me to call for the commander. The corpsman never knew what hit him. He had been struck in the side of his face while he had been sitting on a cot writing a letter home. I returned to what I had been doing and never saw the sailor again. I assume he recuperated from his wounds. But even without conventional weapons of rifles and grenades, we were in danger of anything that could be picked up and wielded as a club or thrown.
HURRY UP AND WAIT Several days later, I was no longer on perimeter guard duty. My job now was to supply water to the construction crews who needed it for mixing cement, which was used to construct building foundations and small bridges. I had a truck with a rather large square tank on it, and a gasoline powered pump for pumping in water from whatever source we could find. Some of what we found was not the best, but in the hot tropic climate of the island, anything would do, just so long as it was not salt water.
I remember thinking that compared to guard duty and some of the other tasks we could be assigned, it was a pretty cushy job. Since the water wasn't needed until all the wooden forms were built, my job consisted largely of standing by, which meant hanging around our tent waiting to be called. I didn't even have to drive the truck myself, having been assigned another guy for that purpose. My sole job was to operate the gasoline powered pump, and ride shotgun.
We also had to supply fresh drinking water to the crews out in the small tank cart. All in all, I recall it as one of the better duties I had been given since arriving on the island; but as fate would have it, it didn't last long.
LONG AND McCRONE, PLUMBERS AND COMPANY The next job that I had was working with my mate, John McCrone, the man I had befriended during our stay in the Aleutians. Out of the clear blue, John had volunteered my services to help him on one of the more dangerous assignments, but I couldn't have been in more reliable company. Like two old shoes, we were a good match for one another.
Our job was to measure the fresh water volume available in the surrounding jungle mountains. This was done by estimating the amount of water flowing over a stake driven into a stream bed about ten feet in back of a weir, a small dam made across the waterway with an opening of predetermined size. Our readings were turned over to headquarters for evaluation and recording. The military, it seems, likes to make records of everything. Water falling down the mountains was just another example of the details the Navy kept.
What made the job so risky, however, was that there was still a fairly large number of Japs roaming around what was supposedly a secured island. On several occasions, John and I found ourselves alone in those mountains at a good distance from camp. Although we carried with us our carbines and plenty of ammunition, it still wasn't much comfort when you consider the possible odds of us running into the enemy still holding out in the hills. Like any job in the military, someone had to do it and it just happened to be us.
I don't recall how long John McCrone and I were on this detail, but before long we again found ourselves teamed up on yet another adventure. I call it an adventure because it turned out to be almost a comedy of errors rather than an assignment. We were given the job of plumbers at the new battalion hospital. Our job was to simply follow the blueprint they had handed us, and install the water pipes to various facilities. As it turned out, what we did worked out all right in the end, but in between was another story.
First of all, suffice it to stay that John and I were many things, but plumbers we were not. Bad enough that most pipes we cut we either cut too long or cut too short, but the building's water supply could only be shut off in certain parts of the hospital and not in others. I remember the dentist who was working in the building had laid out a set of fresh clean towels near his sink preparing to use them in his day's work. All of a sudden one morning, as we were fitting pipes, the faucet on his sink just blew off spraying water everywhere. Needless to say, he was as mad as the proverbial wet hen.
At the end of each workday, we had learned that it was best to cap the ends of any pipes we had not finished connecting so that the water could be turned on throughout the building during the evening for those who needed it. One morning, I arrived on the job just a little after John had. I assumed that he had turned off the water upon arriving so we could continue our day's work without fear of spraying anyone else with water. As he was working in another area I climbed up into the ceiling overhead, and without checking with him, began removing the pipe caps so I could continue installing the water pipes, but as I took the cap off, I was met by a stream of water pouring out all over the place. I don't remember if I found the cap and replaced it or scrambled down and shut the water off, but before long I stood there, soaking wet, surveying the damage. There was water everywhere, dripping from the ceiling tiles and forming pools along the floor.
The one thing I also remember clearly was the reaction we got from our commander who had stopped by that morning to see how John and I were getting along with our detail. I recall we could hear him long before we actually saw him that morning. He was standing in the hallway, foot deep in water, swearing and calling out at the top of his lungs, "Where the hell are those Goddamn plumbers?" Fortunately, I managed to find John in the building before the commander did and suggested our best plan was to immediately knock off and go get lunch. John started to argue that it was too early until I told him what had happened. I don't remember who went out the backdoor first. I'll never know why, but we never heard anything more about the incident. I do know that we were suddenly off the plumbing detail. Thinking back on it, the whole thing now seems rather funny, but given our commander at the time it could have been an entirely more serious situation for two young Seabee plumbers.
SETTLING IN FOR THE DURATION In time, life on Okinawa began to settle into a routine. We now had the luxury of showers, even if they were nothing more than a water pipe with a few holes in it and a wooden platform to stand on out of the mud; but they were nevertheless quite welcomed. The shower, of course, was out in the open where just about anybody happening by could see you. One day I came upon three island women hiding in the bushes giggling and pointing at the naked men. They were having a good time until they saw me standing nearby. With loud shrieks, they ran away covering their faces from embarrassment, fright, or both.
When we weren't working or showering, we were looking either for something to eat or drink. I remember in particular how the beer and soda was issued. We could have our choice of three cans of either beer or soda once a week. By limiting our access to beer, the Navy had assured itself against any of us becoming falling down drunks on such short rations. The strange thing was that when we were back in the States or on the Aleutians, I had never had a problem consuming my fair share of beer, whiskey, or any other form of booze that we might come across or manufacture ourselves; but try as I might, all I could manage to get down was a half a can of beer at best.
From our position on the higher ground, I could see the bombers in considerable number taking off in the early morning hours on their missions over Japan. We had paid a high price in men to seize the island of Okinawa from the Japanese. As the last such island before their homeland of Japan, the enemy had fought hard to prevent it from falling into American hands. From this island, we could now launch wave after wave of aircraft, each carrying a payload of bombs to be let loose on the cities of Japan. I never was able to tally up how many bombers there were that left with each day's new mission, so it is hard to say how many might not have returned in the late afternoon. But I remember it was a warm feeling I had each time I saw the squadrons return from their daily runs. Many a brave airman climbed aboard those aircraft. Most returned, a number of them did not.
It is next-to-impossible for the average person who has not been involved in war to understand the massive effort, both in logistics and in courage that it takes to wage a war. From our vantage point above Buckner Bay, we could see the endless line of ships, both military and cargo, that were required to carry out various tasks and keep us supplied. From the edge of the shore to the distant horizon, the ships came and went. If I recall correctly, just our battalion alone, the 86th, required between five to $10,000,000 worth of gear and machinery just to equip us for our job, and that's 1944 dollars which bought considerably more than a dollar buys today. Our battalion consisted of roughly 1,000 men and officers. There were many individual units that went into making up the 86th Battalion. It boggles the mind to contemplate all that was needed to carry out what we were sent there to do. Although the vast majority of our supplies and equipment were put to their intended use, I do recall that there was also quite a bit of what has always struck me as senseless excess and destruction. There were wrecked trucks and tanks, piles of bombs, large cannon shells, and stack upon stack of ammunition boxes which in all likelihood would never be used. I suppose this is the way it is in all wars.
A few weeks after my stint as a plumber, I was assigned to a crew working near a road project. I recall one day we had brought in a large road grader to help level out the ground we were working on. As it made another pass along the road, it snagged an unexploded bomb lying buried in the dirt. The bomb ended up sticking out of the ground, one end up in the air. Being near enough to see what happened, I wasted little time following the gang of rapidly retreating men who quickly cleared the area. I remember being amazed at how fast I could run. We took cover behind the heavy equipment that lined the roadway. Fortunately, the bomb remained just as it was, and before long it was defused by a bomb disposal detail.
Not long after that event, I and one or two other guys in my detail were meandering around the island even though we were warned not to go in certain areas for our protection. We came upon a medium sized stone building with a thatched roof. It had once been a Jap military outpost. Inside we found the floor of the hut littered with torn papers and maps of the area. In one corner of the hut, we discovered a small safe about three by four feet in size. The door was partly open and I could see a metal box inside, just far enough back to require opening the door of the safe a little more to reach it. As my curiosity was now quite aroused, I stood there examining the safe looking for signs of wires or other evidence of it being booby-trapped. I must have studied that safe for nearly half an hour. In the end, good sense prevailed and I left the hut never finding out what was in the metal box. I did, however, find a beautiful clay tea pot and a couple of China saki cups which I stuffed into my ditty bag for the journey home.
That same day we went across the island to Naha which is the capital of Okinawa. The devastation wrought by war on this city was indescribable. This had once been a vital city to the people of Okinawa and many thousands of people had lived within its borders. What we saw was nothing short of total devastation. There were practically no signs of life. Large buildings had been reduced to rubble. Bomb craters were everywhere you looked. I even saw a steam locomotive and the freight cars that had once been attached to it strewn about like so many damaged toys.
There was also a rather unpleasant stench about the area. It wasn't hard to imagine what was causing the odor. As we surveyed the ruins, digging around under the piles of debris, I even found a small piece of twisted metal that by its marking told me it had come from one of the Jap zeros that had been shot down by our forces.
The whole area was dotted with small caves, many used for internment of the human remains that were still being found among the destroyed city. We were told that the custom of the island was to bury the dead for a period of time until the flesh is eaten away, then the remains are dug up and burned until the only thing left is ash. The ashes are put in earthen jars and placed in stone steps carved into the sides of the caves used as ornamental burial chambers. Most were of modest size, but some were large enough to walk around in and there were no doors or gates to prevent anyone from entering. I remember one in particular had a bright colored Oriental woman's kimono neatly folded up and placed on the ledge next to the jar. I considered taking it home for my wife, but after some pondering, I realized that my wife would not really appreciate it if she knew where it had come from, so I left it there. It may well still be there even to this day.
In time we continued to see more and more improvement around the camp. While we still had to live in tents, we nevertheless now had our own hospital with actual running water. No thanks to John and myself. And two large Quonset huts called Elephant Huts that served as chow halls. We were also now getting regular cooked meals, a welcome relief from the weeks of living on K-rations. We also no longer had to watch movies sitting out on a hillside. The chow halls now doubled as the camp's movie theaters.
RUMORS OF SURRENDER One evening we saw a sudden series of bright flashes through the frosted Plexiglass windows of the mess hall. It appeared that we were under fire. We could hear no outside sound because of the movie sound system. We didn't panic, we just formed lines quickly and rushed out into the open evening sky. We were confronted with all manner of gun fire: Flares rising into the air, men yelling and running about. It took a few more seconds to understand what had started all the commotion. Through the camp scuttlebutt, the news reached us that the war was at least over. From my position on the bluff above and around the bay, we could see that the whole area was going berserk. As far as the eye could see, guns and weapons of every caliber, flares and rockets were lighting up the sky. The noise grew in intensity.
Like the others around me, I was filled with elation. I ran and grabbed my carbine and about 90 rounds of ammunition. With my comrades I celebrated, firing into the air, round after crazy round, my heart nearly bursting with joy. I cannot even today find the words to describe the scene. It was pure jubilation. The war was over. We had survived and we were soon to be going home. But the celebrations suddenly came to an abrupt end. The commander and the other officers were yelling through the PA system for us to "Stop! The war is not over! The war is not over!" They kept repeating above the noise. I guess most of us by now had stopped firing our weapons, not because we could hear the commander, but simply because we had run out of ammunition. As the truth began to sink in, a terrible silence fell on the camp. It had been nothing more than a rumor. How it had started, we would never find out, but it was a cruel moment when we again realized we would not be leaving the island any time soon.
Adding to the feeling of despair, the next day our rifles were taken away from us. There was now an overall gloom about the camp. No one was cheering, no one was laughing. We remained this way for nearly a week when once again the rumor of the Jap surrender began to spread around the island, only this time the rumors were true. The war really was over. We did not celebrate as we had the time before. We had nothing to celebrate with, having had our weapons collected from us earlier to prevent someone from shooting themselves if and when the news finally came. Now, slowly, almost reluctant to believe it was so, we began to accept that we would be going home.
The process, however, was not as simple as one would think. You simply don't just order up a huge fleet of ships, put everyone on them, and sail away. A person's age and length of service was one of the determining factors as to who went home when. These factors translated into points, and it was by points that each man would be considered for being rotated back to the States. A lot of the men in my battalion were quite a bit older than me, and I knew it would be sometime still before it was my turn to head home.
It was only a few days following the news of the surrender that we were treated to yet some more excitement. We were advised that the island was going to be hit by a typhoon. There had been one or two smaller storms we had lived through, but they would turn out to be child's play compared to the next one that would roll its angry winds and rains up and over the island.
I remember that the skies had been growing darker all morning. When I came out of noon chow, I got soaked to the skin as the rain began to increase in its intensity. When I got to my tent, I took my shirt off and took everything out of my pockets and put them in my wooden foot locker. I was going to put on dry clothes but I figured that since I was wet anyway, I would first go out and check on the tent ropes. I had no sooner emerged from my tent and began to inspect the tie downs when the tent in the next row blew down, and the wooden platform it was secured to rose up and flew into my tent collapsing it. I checked to see if the other guys inside were okay, and together we left camp in search of a safe hiding place. The strong winds blew my glasses off my face and into a puddle of muddy water. Fortunately, one of the guys with us saw where they landed and I was able to retrieve them.
All of us seemed to scatter and I ended up in the high grass. I don't know how long I stayed there, but I was chilled to the bone and night was beginning to fall. I was sure I wouldn't last the night, so I rolled down a small embankment and to my relief found my friend Snodgrass and the other kid Bill. They were dressed in foul weather gear. They immediately covered me with their bodies which brought some relief.
I told them I was still quite cold, and that while there was some fragment of daylight remaining, I was going to try to get to the chow hall. They decided they would make the attempt with me rather than stay put. It took everything we had to make our way through the wind and storm to where the chow hall was located, but when we got there, it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Both buildings were completely demolished. Continuing down the road, we came across the heavy equipment which by now was loaded with men hanging on for cover. Further along we came upon a village that had been abandoned by the islanders. The Gooks, our name for the natives, had previously been moved to a central point on the island where they could be more closely monitored by our forces.
Being unable to distinguish between a native of Okinawa and an enemy Jap in islander clothing, the military thought it best to keep a close eye on everyone.
To our pleasant surprise we found other men from our battalion holed up in the village. The best part was that there was a large iron cauldron with a roaring fire in it. It was my first welcome sight of the day, and the first chance in hours that I had to get finally warm. One of the men there also had an extra shirt, which he gladly gave me and I gladly accepted. I remember that putting it on felt like I had suddenly slipped into a heavy overcoat. That was how cold I was and how warm the shirt made me feel. I never caught the man's name, but I hope God has blessed him for his simple gesture. Even to this day, particularly on cold days, it crosses my mind.
It was now about 8:00 at night. I had lain out in the storm since noon that day. We stayed in the village for several hours trying to remain as comfortable as we could under the circumstances. A few hours later, with the storm still raising havoc, my friend, John McCrone, showed up at the hut with of all things, five gallons of ice cream and one tablespoon. The only thing we had to dish it out on was the container lid. We each had what we wanted, and passed the spoon and lid to the next guy. Since most of us hadn't had a thing to eat since the day before the storm hit, I can tell you I never tasted ice cream so good.
But John McCrone, being the man of many resources he was, wasn't done yet. He returned a little later with a case of frozen chicken, hard as a rock. With some bamboo sticks, we managed to skewer them and held them over the fire to cook. After several failed attempts of sticks burning and dropping chicken into the fire, we were able to cook enough to tide us over for a while even though the chicken we were eating was still half raw on one side and mostly charred black on the other.
I really don't know where John kept finding these items, but I do recall he nearly came to being court marshaled for what he did. I suppose as far as military law was concerned, he could have been brought up on charges of theft and other disorderly conduct, but from my point of view, the food would have been wasted anyway since any refrigeration on the island had been knocked out by the storm. Besides, there were a dozen or so men with food in their stomachs that weren't about to be willing witnesses after the fact.
Around 2:00 in the morning the storm had pretty much run its course. All that remained now was a light rain and a little breeze. I borrowed a flashlight and went to the camp area, hoping to find my locker and clothes. As there were no lights on anywhere, it was difficult to edge my way through the twisted wreckage that was everywhere on the island. After some effort, I finally was able to locate the locker which was now about 200 feet from where our tent had once been. It had been made of packing crates, and although had it been tossed around in the storm, it fortunately suffered very little damage. I opened the locker and found my belongings and wallet. My watch was also there, and believe it or not, was still running.
In the daylight next morning we could see that there was now nothing left that even remotely looked like our base camp. It was a scene of utter destruction. Like the rest of my mates, I began looking for pieces of whatever I had left behind. What I was able to recover turned out to be of little use to me, as it was all pretty much torn or saturated with mud. Even my bedding, which had once consisted of white wool blankets, was now nothing more than hardened sheets of mud caked cloth. Until we were finally able to wash them some days later, we were forced to sleep in our fatigue clothing just to stay warm at night.
One strange thing I recall was that I had had a colored photograph of my wife in a folding frame. I found the frame but I never found the picture, even though the glass was still intact. I have never since been in a storm that had anything like the fury of the one that had swept across the island that day..
(END OF SIDE A, TAPE 2, BEGINNING OF SIDE B, TAPE 2 ) As the weeks progressed, I moved closer to having enough points to rotate home. In the meantime, my anxiety over getting home seemed to increase more and more with each passing day. Finally the day did come, and there was a frenzy in my unit of men preparing to pack up and head out..
On the day we left the island, John McCrone and I were lying side-by-side on the beach with all our gear waiting to board ship. I had been through some of the most fearful times of my life on that island with John. I had also been through some of the most memorable. Funny, but had it not been for the war, I would never have met John McCrone. I would have missed the opportunity to establish a friendship that has continued even to this day, 53 years later..
As we lay there waiting on the beach that day, the Navy went about assigning men to various ships for the return to the States. They did this alphabetically, splitting the company into different groups based on the first initial of our last names. As luck would have it, they divided two of the groups between the letter L and M., and thus were separated Long and McCrone. We said our goodbyes, he boarding one ship and I another. We had been together since October 1943 until that moment in the fall of 1945..
The only event of any particular interest on the voyage home was one day we came upon a loose floating mine. It wasn't of any specific danger to our ship being some distance off the port side, but it had to be destroyed to prevent it from being a danger to any other ship that passed through those waters. To destroy the mine, we simply started shooting at it with large and small caliber bullets, but we didn't seem to have much success in hitting the right spot to detonate it. After a series of rounds from us expert riflemen, an officer on the bridge leaned over and with one lone shot, hit it dead on the mark. The mine exploded with a blast of water and steel fragments shooting into the air.
I don't recall how long it took to reach Seattle, but when we reached port, we were driven into camp where the camp guard suggested us to a surprise sea bag inspection. After examining my gear and not finding whatever it was they were looking for, I was passed through the gates. I no sooner stowed my gear than I took care of a chore I had been waiting a long time to do. I was finally able to send my wife, Doris, a telegram which simply read, "Am in the States safe and sound. Will be home on or before my birthday.".
My brief stay in Seattle was followed by another trip across the country to Lido Beach on Long Island where there would be more needles and a mustering-out physical. Finally, on December 15th, 1945, just one day before my birthday, I was given an honorable discharge from the United States Navy Seabees. I was on my way home to my wife and civilian life..
As I look back and reflect on the events of my experience in war, I remember what we did, we did out of love for our country. What we experienced turned many a young boy to young men. Over the years since, I have known the love of a good and caring woman, my best friend, through all the ups and downs, my wife. I have watched my three sons grow to manhood and been thankful that they have been spared the ordeal of fire my generation was tested under.
I have owned my own business and prospered. I have a lifetime of memories, the good ones far outweighing bad. I have enjoyed a long life, years that for many of my generation were cut short defending a way of life that all too often these days seems to be disappearing. Those years, now so long a part of my past, an indelible part of my youth remain to a large degree one of the high water marks of my life. For only those who have experienced war know the strength of the tie that forever binds you to the event.