Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dynamite Stories: Episode 3 - Guarding the M

In September 1940 I became a member of the pledge class of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the Colorado School of Mines* along with seven other freshmen from Illinois, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, and various towns in Colorado. We were given the duty on the night before the Colorado College football game to guard the "M," a large lighted stone assemblage high on the side of Mount Zion in the front range of the Rockies (above Golden) that could be seen for many, many miles out towards Denver and the prairies. We were given a pack of fused dynamite to use as a signal to alert the campus below if any Colorado College vandals showed up.

It was a long trudge up the mountain to the darkened "M" that night, but we were honored and alert. A road block at the bottom of the mountain intended to deter any invaders was manned by other Miners so we confidently settled in, not expecting any action. Then over the other side of the mountain from the direction of Buffalo Bill's grave on Lookout Mountain came several automobiles with their lights out. CC Invaders! 

We were obviously outnumbered but we ran around in the dark, throwing stones and shouting hoping that the CC guys would think there were many of us. I was in charge of the dynamite so I lit the fuse and threw the pack over the side of the mountain. It exploded with a glorious "BANG" that rang across the entire valley below.

The CC guys were obviously startled and spooked and jumped in their cars and roared down the mountain. I learned that most of them avoided the roadblock but one carload was captured. They were treated to an application of fast-evaporating carbon tetra-chloride to their privates, had their heads shaved and an "M" drawn on their bare scalps with hair-growth inhibiting silver nitrate.

I don't suppose that kind of activity would be tolerated these days.

At least one of the unsuccessful Colorado College vandals who got captured and dosed with carbon-tet and silver nitrate was a good sport. At the following football game at Colorado Springs he was vending popcorn or peanuts or something in the stands on our side of the stadium. Some of our guys recognized him even though he was wearing a cap to hide his shaved dome. We all started yelling for him to take it off. With a smile and a laugh he doffed his cap and bent over to show the audience his heard with the "M" plain to see. The cheers and laughs were loud and gratifying.
*Being a mining school with Army Engineer ROTC mandatory explosives were part of the curriculum. We didn't ring the school bell to awaken the campus, we would set off dynamite over the face of Castle Rock which would reflect the sound far and wide.
© Arthur Lakes Library

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dynamite Stories: Episode 2: Don't Try This at Home

When I was a kid on Paw Paw Avenue in Watervliet, we had an old red shed out back full of tools and junk and one wooden box mysterious to us boys. It turned out that it was a box partially full of old sticks of dynamite. Now dynamite is actually sawdust-like "fuller's earth" or diatomaceous earth soaked in nitroglycerin and wrapped in a kind of wax paper. When it gets old and sits around too long it leaks some of the nitroglycerin. That was the case with this old box. The wood of the bottom and lower sides of the box were soaked with nitroglycerin.

As you can imagine, this creates a tricky situation safety-wise. How do you get rid of old dynamite in a nitro-stained wooden box? You sure don't haul it to the town dump.

Our solution was for Dick and I to gingerly lift the box and carry it down to the woods in the river-bottom behind the house. Then Dick got his .22/250 varmint rifle with the telescopic sight, assumed the prone firing position on top of the hill, aimed at the box, and fired.

The result was tremendous blast that reverberated up and down the Paw Paw River Valley, and, as we later learned, scared the hell out of the people in the house nearest across the river. 

Obviously, we didn't publicize the incident.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Dynamite Stories: Episode 1 - The Lombardy Poplars

Conversations with my nieces and nephews about trees in the yard at the old home place on Paw Paw Avenue in Watervliet reminded me of a number of stories involving dynamite. This is the first in the series.

Episode 1 - The Lombardy Poplars

If you've been to the Woodruff family compound in Watervliet, you might wonder, "what Lombardy poplars?" There are none anymore. Their demise is the story.

Between Mother and Dad's house (now owned and occupied by Pat and Geoff Geisler) and the field where my brother Dick built his house were a number of trees. From north to south: an overly mature sugar maple out by Paw Paw Avenue, then two mature Lombardy poplars just east of the house, a big spruce tree, and finally two Catalpas.

One of the Lombardy poplars died a natural death--they are relatively short lived--and soon after the other just gave up and died too. Dad cut it down or had it cut down (I don't remember which), then decided to get rid of the stump. This was before you could get somebody to come in with a "stump grinder" to make the stump go away.

Dad's choice for stump removal was dynamite.

The problem was the trees were pretty close to the house, and Dad didn't want to splatter the house with dirt and wood chips. (I don't think Mother was around when Dad decided on dynamite.) So he came to us and asked for our favorite pup-tent to smother any debris.

We boys objected strenuously to that idea but Dad convinced us that our tent would be alright. So he dug in around the roots of the poplar stump and inserted what turned out to be an excessive number of sticks of dynamite.

He lit the fuse (we boys were in the house observing out the dining room window) and BALOOEY!! Our shredded tent sailed all the way over the house and dirt thoroughly splattered the east side of house. 

Mission accomplished, you might say--the stump was completely disintegrated--but we were not privy to the discussion Dad eventually had with Mother about the whole episode.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Battle of Okinawa, Part IV

The noise of battle was continually moving south and 10th Army Headquarters was being established around us. My men drew sentry duty on the perimeter which consisted of hunkering down after dark with a rifle and a "snooper scope," which was an early version of night vision equipment. Most of the movement at night was by natives trying to get away from the fighting and cattle wandering loose, but one night it was Japanese soldiers trying to get through our lines and get to the north where there were still pockets of Jap holdouts. When they were confronted by our sentries two of them committed suicide by holding hand grenades to their bellies and pulling the pin. How many got through I don't know. There was no question that nasty battles were going on down south. The Japs were dug in on a line of hills called Shuri Ridge and our soldiers and Marines were paying an awful price. Cemeteries were established north of us. I will never forget the sight of a truck full of dead Marines on the road.

They declared Okinawa secured on June 21. We held a parade-ground type ceremony at 10th Army Headquarters in recognition. General Buckner had been killed while observing the fighting and General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell had taken command. Our outfit started receiving maps for "Operation Olympic," the planned invasion of Kyushu in November of 1945, and "Operation Coronet," the invasion of Honshu (the Japanese main island). I was able to look at those maps and figure out where I would probably be. Not a happy prospect.

Then they dropped the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Then they dropped another on Nagasaki, and the Japs surrendered. The whole island erupted in gun fire as the Americans celebrated by shooting their guns in the air. Me, I retreated to my roofed foxhole until the firing died down. Several soldiers were reported wounded, one nearby right in the buttocks as he dived for his hole. You could hear stuff hitting as it returned to earth.


In September my unit was ordered to leave all our stuff and board ship with the XXIV Corps troops and go to Korea. On October 6 Okinawa was hit by an enormous typhoon which wiped out our Map Depot and reportedly spread our maps all over the island and nearby ocean. On the way to Korea our ship was battered by high seas generated by the typhoon. I remember marveling at how we bucked and rode the huge waves, but I didn't get seasick.

Posted by the editor: BONUS VIDEO of selected photos and drawings (including cartoons by Jim) of Jim's military service.

Read Part I     Part II     Part III

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Battle of Okinawa, Part III

Back row: Glenn Skousen (AZ), Craig Deardorf (PA), G.P.Starr (AL), Author (MI), Art Johnston (MI), Stuart Bean (OK), George Brayman (NY)
Front row: Kazimiesz "Rosie" Rozoff (MI), Donald Treglia (NJ), Johnny Mason (PA), Louis D. G. DeGeneris (MI), Lynn Foltz (MT), Stanley Lalko (NJ)

Map Depot Operations

Soon GIs and Marines started arriving wanting maps. We were really a sort of retail store out in the boonies. I had made a sign out by what was becoming a busy road pointing to us. They would ask for whatever maps they wanted and my men became like clerks at a mall store, except everything was free. Sergeant Foltz from Montana and I had our own small headquarters wall tent out front. 

We kept improving our setup and eventually had a small narrow-gauge railroad running through a line of tents full of map boxes. We had taken the Weapons Carrier out to a sugar cane mill and "liberated" some track and a couple of small hand carts. It turns out that the mill was being guarded by an MP with a Doberman who almost caused me to wet my pants when it "greeted" me (I distracted the MP and his dog while my men made off with track and carts). Tenth Army Headquarters started growing up around us, much to our dismay because that introduced Chicken Shit in the form of Colonels and clerks.

When we first arrived, combat operations were uncomfortably close to our south and the noise of explosions and artillery and gunfire quite plain. The 7th, 27th, and 96th Army Divisions and the 1st Marines were pushing the Japanese southward. The 6th Marines, who had come with us, were clearing out the north end of the island. Eventually they came back south and replaced the 1st Marines. 

My old Beta buddy Jim "Dogbutt" Brown from Bluefield, West Virginia, was a lieutenant with the 6th Marine Engineers. He used to come visit me and tell me war stories. He would invite me to go back south with him but I always politely demurred. He eventually won a medal for building a Bailey Bridge under fire across a creek north of Naha, the island's capital. One time he brought me a Japanese "Horn Mine" he had cleared from a beach and deactivated. I steamed out the picric acid explosive and painted it up and set outside my HQ tent. 

When Major Fullerton, to whom I reported at 10th Army HQ, found out I had been playing with Japanese explosives he gave me hell. A number of of the men in my outfit swore they were going to hunt down Major Fullerton after the war (he was from Detroit and worked for Detroit Edison). Two of my guys were from Michigan, Art Johnston from Owosso and Louie DeGeneris from Flint. Louie came and visited me a few years ago.

Next: Part IV

Read Part I     Part II     Part IV 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Battle of Okinawa, Part II

U.S.S. Cepheus (photo courtesy of NavSource)
On the Way

On the way we had to cross the Equator where an elaborate ceremony was held by the Coast Guard sailors who had already crossed the Equator someplace. One of them was dressed as Neptune, God of the Sea, wearing a wig made of a cotton mop and a toilet plunger for a scepter. There was dunking of initiates in a pool on deck and hair cutting. I was especially singled out because of my luxurious, wavy hair, the result of dating girls at Waikiki. They cut swaths two ways down to my scalp. When they were done I had one of my men finish the job and my hair has been short ever since. A lot of time was spent on that long voyage watching flying fish in the bow wave. There was never a sign of sea-sickness then or on any of my other trips on the Pacific. All-in-all I spent 51 days on various ships on the ocean.

Our first stop was the little island of Tulahgi, located across the Savo Strait north of Guadalcanal. There was an American naval establishment on the Island complete with with an Officer's Club. The Naval officers offered the officers aboard the Cepheus a ride to shore and drinks at their club. We readily accepted and a few hours later they put us back on our ship, woozy from their free booze but absent all our money from playing poker. Then the ship moved across the strait and anchored off Guadalcanal. We had a chance to go ashore and see where the battle had been fought and so many men had died. It was really strange and sort of haunted. We went swimming off the beach one day until we were spooked by the sighting of barracuda.

After loading some equipment on deck and the 6th Marines loaded on Navy transports the convoy headed for Ulithi. As you probably know, the atoll of Ulithi in the western Pacific is the one place in the world that all three of the Woodruff boys visited during and after the war (Google it). From there we moved to join the invasion fleet. "L" Day was scheduled for April 1, 1945. The invasion beaches were on the far side of the main island of Okinawa. Some of the Top Secret maps we were carrying showed the location of these beaches. So the invasion fleet assembled on the west or China side to hit the beaches. In my mind's eye, I still picture us coming in on the East side. I was always somewhat disoriented on Okinawa for that reason.

Off Okinawa

It was an awe inspiring sight to see that enormous invasion fleet spread out over the ocean but soon the Jap Kamakaze planes and bombers were swarming. I liken it to becoming somewhat like a huge but deadly ball game, all the ships shooting at the Japs and when one would get hit and spiral down to the ocean every one on board would cheer. I remember wishing I could dig a fox hole in that steel deck.

I Googled USS Cepheus to find out what our ship was doing. Wikipedia says: "Cepheus arrived in the transport area off Okinawa on April 1, 1945, and since her cargo was destined for use after the initial assault, sent her boats for use in unloading three other transports. She retired seaward for the night, and came under enemy attack while returning to the island the next morning. During that raid she fired upon seven Japanese enemy aircraft and aided in downing three."

I vividly remember one tragic happening. A Marine Corsair was shot down by our own gunfire as for some unknown reason it flew over the beach parallel to shore during a Japanese attack. I thought I saw him waggle his wings for recognition but in vain.

The day of the invasion my most distinct memory is of battleships bombarding the landing beaches. o back out to sea for the night and then return the next morning. On the third day the 1746th unloaded and landed on shore. The Japanese had chosen not to defend the landing beaches so our Coast Guard landing craft just put us onshore and we drove off and were on Okinawa. The most excitement of our unloading from the Cepheus was when Johnnie Mason, our oldest soldier (30), fell off the landing net as he was crawling down to get in the bobbing landing craft. Some sailors grabbed his pack and rifle as he plunged into the sea between the ship and the boat. He popped right up and avoided getting squashed between them. The sailors took him back on board and after a while here came Johnnie, grinning. They had fed him some whiskey in the process of de-watering him. I was afraid he would fall in again to get another shot.

Onshore on Okinawa

Our Detachment had but one vehicle, an open Dodge Power Wagon known as a "Weapons Carrier". I always felt dissed because I didn't have my own Jeep. How did we look as we landed onshore on Day 3? A Lieutenant and 10 enlisted men and a Weapons Carrier loaded on an LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personel) manned by a Coast Guard Coxswain. I don't remember what else was on that LCVP. It drove right up on the beach and we drove off and headed for the area where we were to set up. I also don't remember who was our guide but he took us to a spot in a field that turned out to be off the end of Kadena Airfield. We had long Army tents known as Squad Tents. My Dad sold hundreds of them out of his War Surplus stores after the War. We set up the tents and the boxes of maps started arriving. We arranged them around the inside perimeter of the tents about shoulder high like a fort. When we were all set up and admiring our work a couple of Japanese planes showed up high overhead. All of a sudden the most God-awful racket commenced and scared the crap out of us! We didn't know that out of sight on top of the hill behind us was a 90 MM Antiaircraft Battery. You understand that whatever is fired into the air, whether a 30 caliber rifle bullet or a 90 MM shell that explodes, has to come back down to earth? And that according to the laws of physics it is accelerating and the rate of 32 feet per second per second?

I had a canteen cup full of hot coffee in my hand when this started, but no place to hide. So I ran for a nearby shallow ditch and hunkered down until the firing stopped. When I got back up the battery started firing again so I repeated my sprint for the ditch. When the Jap planes went away (unharmed) I got back out of the ditch, the coffee un-spilled but stone cold. We checked back at the tents and found several very nasty shrapnel tears in the roofs so we stopped and all dug fox holes, something we should have done immediately on arrival. Over time I kept improving on my hole until eventually it was sort of a luxurious hideout with a sandbagged roof.

Daughter Karen made a video using this cartoon--you can watch it by clicking here.

Next: Part III - Map Depot Operations.

Read Part I     Part III    Part IV

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Battle of Okinawa - Part I

For the record: Here is my story of the Battle for Okinawa, the last great battle of World War II. I have already told humorous parts of this in "Grandpa's Stories" for the entertainment of my immediate family.

The Secret Orders

In the fall of 1944 as a brand new Second Lieutenant training Engineer troops in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I received orders marked "S E C R E T" to proceed to Ft. Shafter, Territory of Hawaii, and report to the Commanding General, Pacific Ocean Area, for duty. At the bottom of the order was this ominous warning:


Well, that was scary. What kind of a secret mission was I being sent on? The mystery deepened as I reported to Hamilton Field, an Army Air Force base north of San Francisco, and became the only passenger on a four-motored C54 transport plane heading for Hawaii. In those days the way you normally got from California to Hawaii was by troop ship. Well 11 hours later the C54 touched down at Hickam Field near Honolulu. I was met by an officer and handed assignment orders to an Engineer Spare Parts Platoon! How glamorous was that? Worse, after a couple days I was reassigned to an Engineer Dredge Company! Some secret mission....Then I reported to the 64th Engineer Topographic Battalion at Scofield Barracks (where eventually "From Here to Eternity" was filmed). It turns out all this was all an elaborate cover for the assignment of a replacement officer in an outfit which was making Top Secret maps for the next invasions, the Phillipines and  Okinawa. I ultimately was told that I replaced an officer who had committed suicide in remorse over losing Top Secret maps for the planned invasion of Yap. We never did invade Yap.

My first assignment was to spend every night at the printing plant of the Honolulu Advertiser, the local newspaper, where I was armed with a 45 caliber pistol and watched printing press operators (who looked Japanese) print large scale Top Secret maps of the island of Luzon. I was to see to it that none of these maps strayed and to destroy any spoiled copies. A side benefit of this job was that my days were free to swim or surf at Waikiki Beach...tough duty. 

My roommate at Schofield was Lt. Al Jacobsen, a handsome First Lieutenant from Chicago who was a champion swimmer in college. This almost led to my drowning in a rip current off the North Shore of Oahu where the TV shows of surfing contests are now made (I tried to keep up with him as he did a Johnny Weismuller-type crawl through the surf). He and I met and dated a couple of girls at Waikiki (mine was "Bubbles" Jones from Texas).

The 1746th Map Depot Detachment

One day I was was called in to see the Battalion Commanding Officer and he informed me that I was to form a separate detachment for the purpose of taking a large supply of Top Secret maps to Okinawa and establishing a central map depot on the island. He said he regretted losing me but orders were orders. I was delighted at the prospect but I did't let on that I would be happy to quit baby-sitting Advertiser printing presses. Ten men from the battalion were assigned to my detachment. I ultimately became suspicious that the various company officers were passing off their malcontents and goof-offs to my new 1746th Engineer Map Depot Detachment. However, I was happy to have them and determined to form the best damned Map Depot Detachment in the Pacific Theater.

First we were carpenters. My men built a humongous number of heavy-duty wooden crates from plywood and dimension lumber. Then we packed them full of maps, all Top Secret, and so stenciled the boxes. When we had all the maps crated we loaded them on a long flat-bed semi-trailer and headed for the Honolulu docks, a jeep with armed MPs leading and another following. Riding on top of the load was yours truly brandishing a sub-machine gun. At the docks we saw our conveyance for the next few weeks, the Coast Guard-manned USS Cepheus. If you saw the movie "Mr. Roberts" that's how we looked after loading and heading out across the Pacific in a large convoy. On board I learned that we were headed for Guadalcanal to pick up the 6th Marine Division.

Next: Part II - On the Way

Read Part II     Part III    Part IV 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Burning Couches

see the article on - photo

I wondered if they burned any couches in Ann Arbor. Now I know. Burning couches is tame compared to what we used to do in Golden with dynamite.

Being a mining school with mandatory Army Engineer ROTC, explosives were part of the curriculum. We didn't ring the school bell to awaken the campus; we would set off dynamite over the face of Castle Rock, which would reflect the sound far and wide.