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Interview with James H. Belt [11/28/1994]

Douglas Clanin:

My name is Douglas Clanin, and I'm an editor for the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis. I'm in the home of Dr. James H. Belt, M.D., on the north side of Indianapolis on November 28th, 1994, and beginning this tape recording at approximately 5:00 p.m. I'm in Dr. Belt's home to discuss aspects of his military service in the United States Navy during World War II. Dr. Belt, where and when were you born?

James H. Belt:

I was born October 14th, 1925, in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Douglas Clanin:

What were the names of your parents, sir?

James H. Belt:

My father's name was James Howe Belt, H-o-w-e, and my mother's name was Martha Ellen Gill Belt.

Douglas Clanin:

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

James H. Belt:

No. I was an only child.

Douglas Clanin:

What were your parents' principal occupations when you were growing up?

James H. Belt:

My mother was a worker--did some waitressing and also worked in a laundry. My father was an operator for streetcars and, later on, trolley (cars).

Douglas Clanin:

Where did you attend elementary school or schools and then also high school?

James H. Belt:

I was born in west Indianapolis and attended School Number 46 in west Indianapolis. And then later on, my mother was divorced, and I lived with my grandparents for a while, and then we--finally she remarried, and we moved to Broderville, and I went to the seventh and eighth grade at School Number 80 in Broderville and then later went to Broderville High School, in 1939, and finished a little early, in May of 1943. After that, I entered Bloomington, that May of '43, and spent three semesters at Bloomington studying pre-med. And then I can't remember whether I was drafted or volunteered; but, anyway, I went into the Navy, with some help of a friend of mine, H. Duff Vilm, V-i-l-m, who knew one of the recruiting officers in Indianapolis. And when I went through the line, well, they picked me out, and I went to the Navy because it was my choice.

Douglas Clanin:

I see. I want to back up just a little bit. When you were in high school, could you discuss some of your extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, major field of study while you were in high school?

James H. Belt:

I didn't really have any job when I was in high school. I was a cheerleader for part of my time at Broderville High School, worked on the school paper and also the yearbook. I was a traffic boy when I was in grade school, didn't play sports.

Douglas Clanin:

When did you decide to go into the medical field? Was there someone in your background who influenced your decision?

James H. Belt:

Well, I had a great-great-great-grandfather, Dr. Ephraim McDowell, who was a physician in Kentucky. He actually performed the first abdominal surgery operation on a lady in--in Kentucky, so I think that influenced my career a lot. And then I just kind of fell into it. I was in pre-med; and then when I went into the Navy, why, they put all of those guys into hospital corps school, so I went through hospital corps school and--and lots of corpsmen during my time in the Navy.

Douglas Clanin:

Can you describe a little bit of the--the training that you received at the hospital corps school, where it was located and the length of time that you took courses there?

James H. Belt:

Well, it was about a two-month course. It was in San Diego, San Diego Hospital Corps School. There were a lot of guys from I.U. that were there. We were up in Balboa Park, and it was really a--kind of a first-aid kind of a training kind of a course, basic things. It was considerably easier than what we had been studying at--at Bloomington. And after I finished corps school, my first assignment was in Oakland Naval Hospital, in Oakland, California; stayed there about a couple of months, didn't really like working on the wards and things like that. And then a--a guy that I had met who was also from Indiana, James Eugene Bennett, down from Freetown, he was there, and so he and I volunteered to go aboard ship. Then I went on up to Bremerton and boarded the USS TICONDEROGA, and he boarded the old SARATOGA.

Douglas Clanin:

At the time you boarded TICONDEROGA, what was--would be the approximate date that you boarded?

James H. Belt:

That was probably sometime in May of '45. She had been in dock at Bremerton because she'd been hit with a couple of kamikazes someplace over in the Pacific. And she was refitted, and then I boarded her then in probably early May of--or maybe April of '45.

Douglas Clanin:

And this is the time of V.E. Day, but V.J. Day had not taken place, so we were still at war with Japan at that time?

James H. Belt:

We were still at war. We went out through the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and then on down to Hawaii, anchored outside the Pearl Harbor. And the Skipper had the choice of about three different air groups, and he watched them perform. So he selected one of those air groups, and then we went on out to the Marshall Islands in the middle of bombing practice on some hold-over Japanese up in the Marshalls, and then from there went on and participated in the Battle of Okinawa. It was in June of '45, went through a typhoon in June of '45, lost a screw, went down to the Phillipines for repair, and then I participated in the last months of the bombardment of--of Japan proper. There was a pretty ship with us, the INDEFATIGABLE, and the--the Big T, or Ticonderoga, and another ship. And we all had a task force with either Bull Halsey or--I can't think of the other guy's name. We were the Fifth Fleet with like Halsey and--and the Seventh Fleet, when the other guy took over.

Douglas Clanin:

Would that have been Spruitts, possibly?

James H. Belt:

I'm not sure.

Douglas Clanin:

Okay.

James H. Belt:

I'll think about it as we go along. This is a map of some actual times that we--that we were--we were in Ulithi in May of--of '45. 12

Douglas Clanin:

That's spelled U-l-i-t-h-i?

James H. Belt:

Uh-huh (Affirmative).

Douglas Clanin:

All right, sir.

James H. Belt:

So then we were up in Okinawa in June, came down to Leyte for repair, and then went to Guam. We were in Guam July 5th through the 19th in '45, and then participated all in this--bombing runs through Tokyo and were actually in Tokyo Bay September 6th through the 20th. I remember vividly, because when we were in Tokyo Bay, the MISSOURI was there. And when she left, where they'd signed the treaty, why, then we exchanged military honors with her as she went out and we came into the bay.

Douglas Clanin:

Was your aircraft carrier, the TICONDEROGA, under direct kamikaze attack while you were in operations off Okinawa?

James H. Belt:

We did have some activity, but we were never hit.

Douglas Clanin:

Okay.

James H. Belt:

We fired the guns and things like that. My station was up on topside, so you could--you could hear them pepper out up there.

Douglas Clanin:

What were your principal duties onboard the TICONDEROGA? Can you describe, you know, your daily routine activites?

James H. Belt:

Well, I think my first assignment was--was in the operating room. Then I spent some time in a dental office. And the last time of--my last assignment was up on the hangar deck, was my first-aid station up there, so that while we were bombing, through the Okinawa campaign and the--the bombing of Japan proper, we'd get up like at three o'clock in the morning, go up on topside and stand your duty station until the planes came off and then go downstairs and have breakfast, and the planes would come back at about 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning. Pilots all got two ounces of brandy when they came back at nine or 10 o'clock in the morning. And then the rest of the day just was kind of, oh, maybe sick call and just regular--just stuff. And you write letters in the evening and go to bed and get up in the morning, three o'clock. So we did that for about a month, and we bombed all of these places. We sank a good-size ship of the Japanese at Yokohama. And then when I went into--this was the ship we sank. And then when I went in Tokyo Bay, I found a lady and I traded her a candy bar for a model of the ship that we had sunk in the Naval base there at Yokohama. And also when I was in Tokyo Bay, I absconded with this blue momento off of one of the houses. We went ashore with .45s, and we walked kind of in pairs. And this--this is Japanese, and I--they put them on the houses. It indicated that this house had a person who was in military service for the Japanese. So I did abscond with that, picked up some other things there, a little pickle thing, a little jar, a little saucer. This is an opium pipe that I got while I was there. They used to put the opium in a small pipe and smoke it. This is a traditional fan that they had. I remember when we went ashore in Tokyo, most of it had been leveled. I remember a few kind of western buildings still standing, but the greater part of Tokyo had been leveled by our bombings. They 29s would come over from Guam, and sometimes they wouldn't let us know when they were coming. And they'd come usually around 10 or 11 o'clock during the day. So we'd gotten all of our planes back usually, and then they'd come over. And sometimes we didn't know about it, so we'd go to general quarters and then find out they were, of course, 29s. But there were a lot of activity, as well as the--we put up a thousand planes a day out of our little task force.

Douglas Clanin:

What type of aircraft were flying off of the TICONDEROGA?

James H. Belt:

Well, it was called a Wildcat. It was called an F4F, was a fighter plane. Then they had a SB2C, which was a two-seater torpedo plane. And then there was another plane. I can't remember exactly what it was called, but it was mostly Hellcats, F4Fs and SB2Cs. And we'd lose one occasionally, because when you'd launch, your (?Steamcat's?) supposed to take the first part off, and then he'd--the next groups that came off were these SB2C torpedo planes that were a little heavier, so we'd lose one every once in a while, and the destroyers would follow us as we launched and pick up our pilots. But when they gave the pilot back, usually around noon, when we'd got--you know, everything had gotten back on board, why, they wouldn't give our pilot back unless we sent ten gallons of ice cream over in the bos'n's chair first.

Douglas Clanin:

A form a blackmail.

James H. Belt:

Right. That was in a way (pretty ?sporting?).

Douglas Clanin:

Did you have direct contact with a--say, a flight surgeon or with a regular ship's doctor on board ship when you were doing your--performing your duties?

James H. Belt:

Yeah, there were some people that I -- there was a Dr. Henderson, who was a dentist who was a commander, and he was really a pretty steadying influence on me. I was only, like, 19, 20 years old, and I really remember him quite well. It was kind of a small group, so you kind of knew the surgeons pretty well. We had a bomb explode a couple times, once up on deck and had to bring some guys down we operated on. We had some guys hit, so that--the pilots that would come back, so you got to know the people pretty well, and you had a good relationship, because it was a small group of people.

Douglas Clanin:

How many people would you estimate formed the--the medical staff?

James H. Belt:

Oh, probably not more than 20.

Douglas Clanin:

Really?

James H. Belt:

Maybe 25.

Douglas Clanin:

And then on the aircraft carrier itself, what would be the approximate number of personnel?

James H. Belt:

Well, there were 3,000 people on the aircraft carrier. I can probably tell you how many were in the--because we had these--this is a book about the ship, and, see, this is kind of a duplicate of the map that I showed you earlier.

Douglas Clanin:

But that would encompass all of the activities of the TICONDEROGA, then, for all the various tours? It's just like a floating city with that many people on board, Marine detachments and--

James H. Belt:

The Marines usually were the ones that did the firing of the guns. Well, here's the hospital division, so here we go. You can see--

Douglas Clanin:

That looks like about--

James H. Belt:

One, two, three, four, five, six--

Douglas Clanin:

Six, seven, eight--

James H. Belt:

--nine--15, 16, 17, 18--25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33-- 26

Douglas Clanin:

36.

James H. Belt:

36 on board.

Douglas Clanin:

Okay.

James H. Belt:

And there's me.

Douglas Clanin:

That's a good picture. I don't know if it would be possible. Sometime--and maybe if you have access to a copy machine to--if you could send me a picture of--of the staff--

James H. Belt:

Yeah. Well, you can borrow the book if you want to. It's the only one I've got, so--

Douglas Clanin:

That's why it would probably be better if you just sent--maybe send me a copy there at the Society, because this is the only copy you've got--

James H. Belt:

Yeah.

Douglas Clanin:

--to make sure nothing happened to it, if--

James H. Belt:

Sure.

Douglas Clanin:

--I miss contact with you at the Service Club. So if you could--

James H. Belt:

Yeah.

Douglas Clanin:

You know, at your convenience; you know, it doesn't have to be--you know, there's no urgency, but--and, also, if you happen to have a--a picture of yourself, you know, taken--

James H. Belt:

Well, there's a picture that I could borrow that was taken--and I found this. This is taken on--on the ship.

Douglas Clanin:

If I could borrow that--

James H. Belt:

Sure.

Douglas Clanin:

--if that's--

James H. Belt:

Sure.

Douglas Clanin:

That's the only one that was probably taken. But is that near your area where you would normally work--

James H. Belt:

Right.

Douglas Clanin:

--near your duty station?

James H. Belt:

Right. That was up on topside.

Douglas Clanin:

In case they went to general quarters, did you have other duties to perform; for example, you know--of course, you were medical staff. You wouldn't be asked to fire any weapons, would you?

James H. Belt:

No.

Douglas Clanin:

Just wondering if there was, you know, fire control or other duty assignments, sometimes people would have to do double duty when--when they would sound general quarters.

James H. Belt:

No, when we went to--when we went to general quarters, you just went up topside and manned your own station. Here's some more money I guess I got when I was in Tokyo ___+.

Douglas Clanin:

Approximately how many months would you estimate your were at sea on the TICONDEROGA?

James H. Belt:

I served on TICONDEROGA about a year, about 12 months.

Douglas Clanin:

About 12 months?

James H. Belt:

After the war was over, we came back to Pearl Harbor, and they refitted our hangar deck with bunks. So we went to Okinawa, picked up a load of soldiers, brought them back, so we ferried back and forth for a while. And then when we got back in in May of '46, I had enough points to get out. So I left the ship in Bremerton, got mustered out, came back to Indianapolis and enrolled in Bloomington in that June and picked up summer school, applied to medical school and got accepted in January of '47, and went to medical school in September of '47.

Douglas Clanin:

When did you receive your M.D. degree?

James H. Belt:

About four years later, in June of '51. So I got in medical school with approximately five semesters' work and was able to qualify for a B.A., and then got my M.D. in June of '51.

Douglas Clanin:

And what was your medical specialty during the years that you've been--

James H. Belt:

I became a pediatrician and practiced for about--I practiced in Indianapolis from July, '54, to September of '87, and then I went to work for this company called Project Hope. And I had gone to Grenada right after the invasion for a couple of months, in January and February of '84, then went full-time with Project Hope in '87, and spent a year in Grenada running a maternal/child health program for them and then the next year transferred and spent a year in China and then ran the programs for them there, did not do any medical work, just administrating. And then after that, why, I went back to Grenada and did a couple of programs for University of Alabama in Birmingham and then hooked on and did some work with Project Hope in Russia for about a year, made about six trips back and forth to Russia.

Douglas Clanin:

I see. I wanted to ask you a question, maybe back up a little bit. But you mentioned that you went ashore in Japan during the war, if I--well, actually at the end of the war.

James H. Belt:

Uh-huh (Affirmative).

Douglas Clanin:

Did you have any contact with the Japanese people at the end of the war; and if so, what was their response to you, if you had any inter- --interchange between yourself and those--and the Japanese citizens?

James H. Belt:

Well, I remember going ashore rather vividly. I know we walked down to what was kind of a rubbly kind of a city, and in the basement of this rubble some guy was selling dolls, entrepreneur, Japanese. We walked back through some of the houses, and I remember that the Japanese had kind of little lookouts so that when somebody would come up the block somebody would signal them at the other end that there was somebody coming down the block. So they really were very passive; they avoided us, but they wanted to have some kind of alert system. And I--and I don't remember the house that I took this little thing off of, but we never encountered any kind of hostility or anything like that. We did carry .45s, but we'd had no training to use them or anything like that, so there's this big hunk or iron on your side.

Douglas Clanin:

But your visits were restricted to mainly Yokohama and Tokyo when--

James H. Belt:

I only went ashore in--in Tokyo. I did not go ashore in Yokohama, but I had--this is a picture that was taken with one of our aircraft, where we'd sent this little sucker in--into Yokohama Bay there, in the Naval--and we--we sailed--must have sailed fairly close, because I remember seeing all this burned-out hangar area things that--we pretty well leveled her. That was one of our assignments, was the Naval base there at Yokohama.

Douglas Clanin:

Were you present--I may have misunderstood what you said. But were you present the day that the surrender ceremony was signed on the battleship MISSOURI?

James H. Belt:

No, we weren't, I don't think, in there. But we came in Tokyo Bay as the MISSOURI was leaving the bay, because that must have been around August the 15th, I think, and after September, I--in my--in my--and we were not there until the 6th--6th of September--

Douglas Clanin:

Until the 20th.

James H. Belt:

--until the 20th. So she must have left Tokyo Bay on about the 6th, when we came in.

Douglas Clanin:

I know in--in our Traces Magazine, there's a eyewitness account by Mr. John Hughes, the late John Hughes, who was a member of the service club for many years. He was on Halsey's staff, and he talks about arranging the surrender ceremony, and I think the date's probably listed in the magazine article itself.

James H. Belt:

Nimitz is the other guy.

Douglas Clanin:

Nimitz, okay, Chester Nimitz.

James H. Belt:

I can't remember. I think we were the Fifth Fleet when Bull Halsey was in command. And when Nimitz was in command, we became the Seventh. We were not a flagship. But those were the two guys that we sailed with.

Douglas Clanin:

You also mentioned--and this is interesting, because in World War II Magazine, it has the account of Halsey's fleet when they were beset by the typhoon in December of 1944, and then you mentioned that you went through a typhoon--

James H. Belt:

June of '45.

Douglas Clanin:

--in June of '45. And I think, again, it was Halsey's fleet was involved in that typhoon. Now, what was that experience like--

James H. Belt:

Well--

Douglas Clanin:

--going through a typhoon?

James H. Belt:

--I remember we were there; and I know a day or so before it hit, all the destroyers would come in and we'd fill them up with oil to give them a little ballast. And I remember--when the thing hit, I remember standing in a passageway drinking a cup of coffee, and, man, the whole ship dropped about six feet, and the coffee was over me. And we took water in a--in a forward elevator and lost a couple of plates, and the waves were breaking, breaking, halfway to the-- of the flight deck, over a thousand-foot flight deck. And I don't know how many feet high we had, but they were--they were big, big waves.

Douglas Clanin:

Did you lose any ships on that occasion, that you're aware of?

James H. Belt:

Apparently they lost some of the--the smaller one or two destroyers on the periphery. The aircraft carriers were in the very middle of the--of the operation, then the anti-aircraft cruisers, and then on the periphery were these little destroyers that were supposed to, you know, take the first hits or kind of let us know when they were coming.

Douglas Clanin:

You mentioned that your ship was never attacked by the kamikaze planes directly. But did you observe the--the kamikaze operations and see the--the Japanese planes fly at any--

James H. Belt:

No, I never did really see that. I--I remember being up on topside and hearing the--the 40-millimeters go off and--and those big five-inchers, so--these are the big five-inchers, huge things.

James H. Belt:

lot of times when the planes that come to landing, if I wasn't sure whether they were going to hit the cables or not, I'd duck behind those five-inchers, because I knew there wasn't anything going to move those big five-inch mounts.

Douglas Clanin:

And I've seen photographs where the planes were skidding out of control, and some of them had--

James H. Belt:

Right.

Douglas Clanin:

--fuel, and some of them had bombs hung up, and that was a very dangerous situation for not only the pilot but for the people on deck, too, because--especially if the plane was out of control.

James H. Belt:

There was a--a flight man at the end of the--of the deck, the--the landing deck. And if he would wave you off, the plane would go off. And the worst thing that could ever happen to a pilot was to get a wave-off and land anyway, because he'd be putting too many people at risk if he wasn't properly lined up or if he had something--they'd rather have him ditch and have one of the destroyers pick him up that way.

Douglas Clanin:

So probably get in big trouble--

James H. Belt:

Big trouble.

Douglas Clanin:

--with a host of people if he went ahead and landed and ignored the wave-off.

James H. Belt:

I was just a pharmacist mate, so I didn't, you know, have an opportunity to--to know a lot of that, but, I mean--but I remember one time I was going to general quarters, and--and you just got to your station as quickly as you could. And there was an officers' ladder, but at that time it didn't make any difference, and this commander was coming down, and I was going up, and--but, you know, there was no rank at that point; you just used whatever ladder you could use to get to where you were going.

Douglas Clanin:

Dr. Belt, what was the morale of the fellows that you worked with every day like? I mean, was it high; would you estimate it was--

James H. Belt:

Oh, yeah, it was really pretty high. I think that, you know, you're all young people and, you know, have your--have some feeling of immortality, you know. Some of the guys had seen some of the guys that were off the FRANKLIN when over in Pearl Harbor one time, and the FRANKLIN was burned horribly, and these guys had to drop off the end to abandon ship, and they were court martialed because they abandoned ship without, you know, being told. So some of those stories, you know, kind of filtered around through the fleet, of course.

Douglas Clanin:

I always ask this question of the veterans that I've interviewed. Did your wartime experiences change you as a person? You were very young, of course, when you joined the service and--

James H. Belt:

Oh, absolutely, you know. I--I became a lot more mature. I remember the last semester I was at Bloomington, I made five hours a D in a German class. And, I mean, I--my--I wasn't really focused very much on that. But when I came back and went back to school, ironically I--I did receive a proficiency in German, because if you'd had any language prior to your service, they automatically give you a proficiency, which gave you a B.A. degree. So here I am, five hours, a D, and get a proficiency in German. But, man, my grades were much, much better when I came back, and I was a much better student, a lot more--lot more mature.

Douglas Clanin:

We might mention on tape, because it's probably not in this--you C.V., but your late wife's maiden name and where and when you were married and then the names of your sons.

James H. Belt:

My wife's name was Ellen Louise Orcutt, O-r-c-u-t-t. We were married in Vincennes, Indiana, September 10th, 1950. And the oldest son is Gregory James Belt, the second is Jeffrey David Belt, the third is Thomas Guy Belt, and the fourth child was Robert Matthew Belt.

Douglas Clanin:

Do you have any grandchildren?

James H. Belt:

Yes. I have three granddaughters and two grandsons.

Douglas Clanin:

All right. Is there anything else you'd care to add to this narrative, any anecdotes, especially about your wartime service that--that we've____ upon?

James H. Belt:

Oh, I had a lot of fun with this guy from--James Eugene Bennett, who was from Freetown, Indiana, and--on one of these ferry things, we came into San Francisco, and--he was on THE SARAH. And we went ashore and had a lot of fun for a night. The only other thing I'd like to add was that I remember when they were dropping the bomb, we'd been working up and down the Japanese coast for about 30 days, getting up at three o'clock in the morning, and it was pretty hard. It was cold up in the northern part of Honshu, where we were--we'd strike. And all of a sudden, we stopped, and nobody could figure it out. And we all pulled out to sea, and everybody wondered what was going on. And then all of a sudden, why, Bull Halsey came--comes on the radio and tells us what's happening. But we had no idea that all this was going to take place; we just had figured that we were softening things up and we were going to do a landing there in Japan.

Douglas Clanin:

But for the distance you were away from Japan, you--you couldn't see the___ (operation)?

James H. Belt:

No, we were all pulled out of there a long--

Douglas Clanin:

Okay.

James H. Belt:

--way from where that thing dropped.

Douglas Clanin:

Had you had any--received any scuttlebutt about the possibility that such a weapon existed and they were going to--

James H. Belt:

No.

Douglas Clanin:

--something dramatic--

James H. Belt:

No.

Douglas Clanin:

--was going to happen?

James H. Belt:

No.

Douglas Clanin:

Okay.

James H. Belt:

We just--we just--our only frustration was with the 29s, the B29s that came over. We'd always know they were coming, and we'd have to go to general quarters and disrupt our whole day and stuff like that, so--but other than that, it was--it was really a great experience. I had a lot of fun; it was a great experience. And I paid all of my medical school with the G.I. Bill. I didn't use it until I got out of medical school, but I had enough credits with the G.I. Bill to pay for my whole medical school education, which was really quite a--quite a gift.

Douglas Clanin:

All right. Well, thanks very much, Dr. Belt.

James H. Belt:

Sure.

Douglas Clanin:

I sure appreciate getting the opportunity to talk to you this afternoon. Thank you very much.

James H. Belt:

Well, I enjoyed it.

Douglas Clanin:

Thanks very much.

James H. Belt:

Welcome.

 
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