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 MLive.com - annarbor.com 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.