A WORLD WAR II VETERAN’S STORY
By Lee Schaefer
At seventeen, I dropped out of the tenth grade at Richmond Union High School in California to enlist in the U.S. Navy January 17, 1944.
The first time I saw snow was at boot camp in Farrugut, Idaho, where we learned discipline and teamwork. We marched as a group everywhere—to and from classes, on the parade grounds, and down the road to row boats on Lake Pend Oreille. Each of us took turns standing guard duty with a wooden replica rifle.
I graduated electrical school at the State School of Science in Wahpeton, North Dakota, as a 3rd Class electrician’s mate.
On Liberty home, I rode a vintage “Jessie James special” train with wooden bench seats. Locomotive soot blew in through the open windows and turned the white stripes black on my Navy uniform. I spent Liberty at home in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving on to Camp Shoemaker, east of Oakland, a naval training center for personnel on the way to or from the Pacific theater.
At 5 a.m., I stood in line with hundreds of other recruits carrying seabags. Each of us reported our name and serial number to a yeoman who checked them off on his clipboard.
“You’re scratched,” he told me. No one knew why. Recruits don’t question authority. All my schoolmates left without me and I never saw or heard from them again.
Rumor circulated that for a little cash, a yeoman pulled your records to set aside for later release if you wanted to postpone deployment. Your records went with you. Without your records, you couldn’t leave. Someone mistakenly pulled or switched the wrong records. I remained behind for two weeks’ work detail moving sprinklers to water the football field.
Every morning I checked the barrack bulletin board for my name to deploy with a group. Finally, it appeared. The next morning at 5 a.m., we boarded a bus to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. We were kept in the stockade to prevent any AWOL then packed like sardines on a ferry to a ship docked near the San Francisco Ferry Building.
The five day cruise to Hawaii in the hole of a ship with bunks stacked six high around bulkheads was hell. A large garbage can looked out of place in the center. Just outside the Golden Gate in rough sea (called the potato patch), we learned the purpose of the garbage can. On deck for lifeboat drills, wind blew vomit down like rain on everyone. I volunteered to wash pots and pans in the galley to keep busy so avoided throwing up.
I spent fourteen days at Aiea Naval Base in Hawaii waiting for assignment to a ship.
The chow line must have been a hundred feet long. When I learned of the shorter chow line and better food at the nearby submarine base, I ate there. The submariners’ barber shop gave better haircuts, too.
On Liberty, I rented swim trunks at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel where the submariners lived. To avoid hassle by the Shore Patrol, who enforced proper dress code or failure to salute an officer on the street, I sat on the beach all day and acquired a tan.
Finally, I was assigned to the O.H. Ernst, a transport ship with everyone who had been AWOL. I never knew why or how I got in that group. Marine guards patrolled the ship, ordering anyone sitting in one spot too long to keep moving.
I spent three months trying to catch up with the fleet for my assigned ship. At every port, the fleet had just left. On 13 September 1944, we crossed the Equator south toward Guadalcanal. Everyone received a certificate signed by Davey Jones and Neptune Rex for participating in a stupid ceremony similar to a fraternal initiation.
Anyone who worked received three meals a day; if not, two meals a day.
I needed something to do and asked the chief if I could see the engine room.
When the ship weighed anchor, the crew never knew where we were going. And when we got there, we didn’t know where we were until afterward.
We caught up with the fleet in Ulithi, a more or less safe harbor for ships because of a surrounding reef, where ships picked up supplies and personnel. I boarded my assigned ship, the U.S.S. Mobile, a light cruiser. The speed of light cruisers kept up with the carriers to protect them in the task force group.
Ulithi was also a recreation island with ball fields and gambling, dice and cards. I loaned cash to friends I knew and trusted at 10 per cent interest. All repaid the loans and my $20 month account increased.
The required dress code on the main deck was to cover up with dungarees-long sleeves and trousers and hat to protect burns from any torpedo explosions. If a man overboard, his hat turned upside down and knotted trousers filled with air helped keep him afloat.
We were in three severe typhoons. The ship lunged up and down and rolled from side to side. During typhoons, mess tables were tied against bulkheads and we sat on the metal deck to eat. Coffee spilled easily. People slid back and forth into each other pinned against bulkheads. Cooks were unable to cook in large pots and made only sandwiches.
Our task force group lost one of three tincans (destroyer) in the heavy seas. Tankers supplied ships at sea with fuel. In addition to their regular assignments, both tankers and destroyers delivered mail. In return, we sent over shop-made ice cream from our geedunk stand.
I watched generator gauges in fore and aft firerooms and sat in a chair attached to the deck. Cold air blew down a chute from the overhead ventilator on deck about 30 feet above water on the side of a stack. I braced myself when I heard a roar during heavy storms because that signaled cold salt water was about to rush down the chute and shower me.
I was in charge of the electrical system in turrets and moved around from power shop to fire control shop. Each group helped the other. We worked as a team. The machine shop drilled holes in 6-inch powder cans for coffee pots. The electrical group made hot plates. Every group had a hot plate and a coffee pot. The bakery returned favors by baking extra cakes for us.
One of my jobs was to check ice buildup around coils in ice boxes. I “lifted” two cubes of butter from the officers’ ice box and from the captain’s ice box for our group.
Once a warrant officer came to the power shop and asked what we were cooking. The aroma of bacon and eggs floated through the ship. It was better than standing in the chow line of 3,000 personnel. You only went to the head of the chow line if you had to relieve someone on watch.
Blacks were segregated with their own uniforms (better jackets and caps) in their own compartment as mess cooks for the officers.
In the Philippines, we served protection for our carriers. Planes left on early departures. Japanese kamikaze pilots knew when our planes returned. Our assignment was to shoot down the kamikaze planes before they hit our carriers.
We returned to the West Coast shipyards (Long Beach, San Pedro and San Diego) a few times for refitting, new artillery or replacement personnel. On one return trip to the South Pacific, our ship altered course so the crew could observe Christmas before we crossed the International Dateline; otherwise, we would have missed Christmas.
We were at Okinawa during the entire campaign, and directed our guns for continuous 24-hour bombardment. In Buckner Bay, a minesweeper ahead of us shot and exploded mines. Observers in “gooney birds” launched to locate enemy ground troops. Japanese sent out planes during our dinner hour to disrupt our meals and sleep.
A war correspondent came on board and said the Marines appreciated our artillery.
My general quarters station was in turret three on the electric deck. We burned out our gun barrels and returned to Guam for repair.
In Leyte Gulf, supposedly a safe harbor with submarine nets, a two-man Japanese sub got through and blew up a tanker.
“Stand by to take torpedo mid-ship!”
I assumed it stuck in the mud because that’s where I stood.
When the sub surfaced, we shot off its conning tower and took the two men prisoners.
As far as I know, the U.S.S. Mobile was the only cruiser to sink a sub.
We listened to Tokyo Rose call the Mobile, Biloxi and Birmingham “the three unsinkable ships”.
Nighttime searchlights, horns and noise were everywhere on our last return to Leyte Gulf for supplies.
We heard the war was over but our cautious captain ordered lights out and quiet.
Two weeks after the nuclear bomb exploded over Nagasaki, we arrived as a member of the “Magic Carpet” fleet to pick up Dutch, Australian, British and American POWs from the Bataan Death March and transport them to Guam. Able-bodied American POWs walked from the prison through the jungle to the other side of the island where they boarded planes.
When we tied up midstream waiting our turn to pick up POWs at the pier, Marines stood guard around the ship listening for any tapping noises in case a fanatic tried to attach explosives to the ship.
The POWs had been isolated with no decent food for years. Many ate too much of our food and were unable to keep it down. We gave up our bunks so the POWs had a decent place to sleep. One Dutch POW traded a small Japanese flag for the second pair of shoes I kept polished to wear for inspection only.
Sasebo, a Japanese naval base at the inlet of the East China Sea, was heavily bombed in 1945. A Japanese harbor pilot maneuvered us through the 3.5-mile long, 1-mile wide Sasebo harbor littered with Japanese ships on their sides.
After a work detail returned from ashore, the boatswain piped his high-pitched whistle for everyone who wanted a souvenir to report to the main deck. Japanese rifles and bayonets found in a warehouse were issued. Our names were checked off as we were handed our souvenirs.
We were paid in occupation currency instead of U.S. dollars to spend in Japan, given curfews, and ordered not to enter any houses in Nagasaki.
Downtown Nagasaki was not destroyed. I bought a Japanese geisha doll in a glass case at a department store, and three 78 rpm records in a music shop: one recorded by Nipponophone Co., Ltd., Kawasaki, Japan; Polydor, manufactured by Nippon Polydor, Chikwonki Co. Ltd., Tokyo, and Teichiku, Made in Japan Teikoku, Gramophone Co. Ltd, Nara. The Japanese woman behind the counter did not understand English and I did not understand Japanese. The few customers in the store stared at me while one of them offered to translate.
We were in Nagasaki for an extended period while our captain presided as a judge at the trial of a crew member accused of entering a Japanese home, raping a girl, and killing her father.
For something to do during that time, we boarded trucks for a tour of the valley where the bomb exploded in the industrial area where torpedoes and ammunition were manufactured. Our orders were, “Don’t tell anyone you saw it.”
I signed up for the duration of the war plus six months and helped to mothball the U.S.S. Mobile at the shipyards in Everett, Washington.
I received an Honorable Discharge 16 May 1946 as Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class from the USNB Personnel Separation Center in Bremerton, Washington.