On the fateful day on August 31, 1945, four sailors departed the USS Antietam CV-36 on a launch headed for the shores of Okinawa. The war was officially over, and all of them wanted to transfer back to the States. In the launch were Chief Petty Officer of Machinists, Ken Mead, Seaman First Class Robert Brown, Seaman First Class Lincoln Overland, and Seaman First Class Charles Smitty. The seas were calm that day as the launch headed into the docks at Haku Bay. Atop a flagpole beyond the beach, Old Glory was rippling in the wind. The stumps of hundreds of burned out palm trees were visible beyond the white beach sands. As they approached the beach, they saw battle debris everywhere including American plane parts, and a Jap wing with the red circle on it half sunk in the sand. Huge craters pockmarked the sand where bombs had hit and exploded.
Unbeknown to them this would become their home for over a month despite all their radio efforts calling to nearby ships. It would be a month from hell as two major typhoons hit the island causing massive damage. It would be a month from hell dodging Jap snipers. It would be a month of survival with limited food and water available, since the Navy no longer had a post on the island. All that was left was the Army, and hundreds of Okinawan civilians, and of course Jap snipers, who did not believe the war was over. Insects and disease were as much the enemy as were the Jap soldiers hiding in the limestone caves fighting to the death in honor of the Emperor. This is a story of survival in an unknown incident on the Island of Okinawa at the end of WWII.
Early on the morning of Aug. 30, 1945, I could see the Kerama islands with binoculars from the bridge of the USS Antietam CV-36 aircraft carrier. Captain James Tague had called me up to the bridge to give me my temporary transfer papers that would eventually allow me to be processed for discharge. The Captain handed me the binoculars and said, ”Look out there, Chief, those are the Kerama islands that are to the west of Okinawa.”
(USS Antietam CV-36 circa 1945)
“Thank you Captain,” I said and then took the binoculars and scanned the horizon to see many little green islands on the horizon. It was for me, a thrilling sight because now I knew I would be able to get off at Okinawa, and return to Hawaii and then home to Stamford, Connecticut. My mind drifted off for a while reflecting on all that I had seen and done in this terrible war.
I had enlisted in the Navy as a Naval Reservist on full time status on July 8, 1941 before the US entered the war. At first I was responsible for “Search and Rescue” in Jamaica bay on Long Island in a small rescue boat. We would retrieve flyers when they crashed in the Jamaica Bay or surrounding areas off Long Island’s south shore that were in the approach path to Floyd Bennett Field. When I wasn’t doing Search and Rescue, I spent time training as an aviation machinist’s mate while at Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island. I was six months too old to become a Navy flyer so I became an aviation mechanic. I always regretted not becoming a flyer but I did get to put in a lot of training hours flying at Floyd Bennett Field for search and rescue operations. This allowed me to at least get a pilot’s license that was important in testing out how some of the planes flew after they were repaired. My wife and son (born in June 1942) lived at home with my mother-in-law in Baisley Park, Queens, New York, and a borough of New York City.
It wasn’t until four years into the war (August 1944) that I got a transfer as Chief Petty Officer (E7) aboard the newly commissioned aircraft carrier Antietam CVS-36 (commissioned Jan. 28, 1945). I had put in a request to be transferred to the front in the Pacific to see some action rather than spend the remainder of the war state side-fishing pilots out of the water.
USS Antietam CV -36 at sea 1945
The Antietam was designed after the Essex class (long hull) fleet aircraft carrier. With a displacement of 27,100 tons and a length of 888 ft. she could reach 33 knots top speed. I was transferred in the summer of 1944 to go aboard when the Antietam was launched on August 20,1944. It was built in Philadelphia, and I had to take a train to the Philadelphia Naval yards to get there in time for the launching. I would be in charge of airplane mechanics that would take care of around 100 planes. I remember how shocked I was when I first saw how really huge the ship was while sitting in the Philadelphia Naval yard.
It was a day I will always remember. I was nervous with sweat and excited at the same time that I was finally getting to see some action.
After many shakedown cruises and repairs and crew training, the ship was finally commissioned on Jan. 28, 1945. Eventually, the entire crew aboard the Antietam would total around 3448 men.
As of now my enlistment was up, and the war was over as of August 15, 1945 when the Japanese surrendered. It was a great moment for me when Captain Tague thanked me for my service as Chief Petty Officer. I finally started to feel like I had accomplished something in this war.
The islands that surround the western coast of Okinawa dotted the horizon that day. Tokashiki-shima Island, a rather large island, was off to the left on the horizon, and Rukan-sho, a much smaller island was to the right as we approached from the south of Okinawa. The islands looked like small patches of green ovals, much like lilypads on a large pond. There were many other small islands on the horizon that I could not identify as the USS Antietam CV-36 steamed toward the captured island of Okinawa.
General Douglas McArthur signing the treaty Sept. 2, 1945
The treaty would be signed on Sept. 2, 1945 in Tokyo Harbor on the battleship USS Missouri, but the Antietam would not be going there for the signing because a mechanical problem back to Guam had forced us to drop out of the fleet that was headed toward Tokyo for the signing ceremony.
Right after the U.S. planes dropped the Atom bomb on Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945, the Russians took advantage of that opportunity and invaded Manchuria.
The situation was tense in the Yellow Sea off China and Manchuria. We were redirected to stand off the coast of China in the Yellow Sea after joining the Seventh Fleet at Okinawa, instead of going into Tokyo Harbor for the surrender signing.
When I learned of this at an officer’s briefing, I decided I did not want to leave my wife and son at home for another two or three years while I remained off the coast of China. I talked it over with some of my friends, and since the war was officially over my enlistment was also over so I could return to the States, and my family. It all sounded like a good plan.
That was all behind me now for my only thought was “Thank God it is over…the war that is.” Smitty, a sailor and good friend, a Mechanic’s Mate 1st Class was supposed to meet me at 11:00 hours to let me know if he was going ashore on Okinawa. Being a Chief Petty Officer was a big responsibility with roughly 1:00 airplanes to repair on the ship. I learned to take it in stride even when we got the “ninety day wonder fly boys” onboard who crashed the planes into the deck trying to land. Ninety days was definitely not enough time to learn how to fly, let alone land on an aircraft carrier. They were either crashing into the sea or crashing into the deck. I kept up my flight hours just in case we needed experienced pilots, instead of these rookies.
“Smitty” Charles Johnson Smith, had put in for a transfer to Guam, and wanted to get off at Okinawa to fly back to Guam. Beauvard Browne, “Brownie” another Seaman 1st class, was the first to make up his mind to “cash in his chips,” since his enlistment was also up. He wanted to be discharged from the Navy right away before the ship headed into the Yellow Sea for another tour of duty. Like myself he was an older guy in his late twenties. I was 28 at the time, and a few years older than most have the 18 and 19-year-old sailors on board. None of us wanted to stay on the USS Antietam patrolling the Yellow Sea because that duty would mean not getting back to the States for two or three years or more. It was either get out now, or stay onboard and risk becoming involved in a battle station situation that could go on for a long time off the China coast.
I went below to look for Smitty to see if he had news from the Executive Officer Alderman or Captain Tague about going ashore and leaving the Antietam forever. Smitty was a humorous guy I had got to know well since he was assigned to my crew. He was short, 5’6” and had a sun bleached crew cut with a short mustache. He was always being teased about his nose that had a small bulb on the end of it and it was always red. His Irish heritage showed in his temper and redness in his face when he got worked up over something. He was always cursing about something whether it was good or bad.
We were still steaming toward the western side of Okinawa where we would anchor in Haguchi Bay near the 9-mile long beaches that were so heavily bombed before the invasion. I found Smitty putting in some zzzzs in his hammock. The Executive Officer J.D. Blitch, said that he would know sometime today whether the Captain had given permission for me to go ashore with Smitty, and Brownie and another guy named Lincoln.
Smitty had been sleeping all morning after doing the night watch. He was eager to get home and so was I. “Chief, do you think we will be in Okinawa before dark?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Captain Tague had said he expected to drop anchor by 1430 hours. I’m not sure,” I told Smitty. “Maybe we have two hours left in port, somewhere around 1400 hours.”
“Did you pack up your duffel bag?” Smitty asked.
“Yeah but it was a son of a bitch getting all that junk in one bag. The Captain wouldn’t let us take our sea chests, you know,” I said.
“Yeah, all my tools are in my chest. I hope they can ship it back to the States someday.”
Just then, Brownie came down the ladder. “Chief, it looks like I am going to be joining you guys going ashore tomorrow.”
“That’s great,” I said.
We all began to slap one another on the back, for it seemed like a great moment. Little did we know what we were in for on Okinawa? Another sailor Lincoln Hallard was also going to be leaving with us. The Captain would be providing us with a launch to take us to the beach while the Antietam remained anchored in the bay.
The Antietam had survived the war, and fortunately arrived too late to do battle with the “divine wind,” the kamikaze Jap pilots who carried one big bomb, and flew their planes into our ships. We heard all about the battle of Okinawa from radio communications while we were in the Pacific.
Now we were approaching the end of August, and the typhoon season in Japan. So much had happened so fast over the past year on the Antietam that it seemed like years ago since I boarded. Who would have ever thought we had a bomb like the A-bomb? Who ever thought that we would actually use it against Japan? Strange, I thought, war was more than playing the chess pieces of life and death; it was a story of long waiting hours with little to do. It was a story of constant drills and training to turn a bunch of raw recruits into seasoned sailors. It was a story of accidents like a sailor walking into a plane propeller and having his body spewed all over the ship. It was a story of horror when some sailors misfired a round and blew themselves up. What did we need battles for? We could kill ourselves without the enemy’s help.
I often had nightmares of being attacked by a Jap kamikaze and having it dive right into the deck and sinking the Antietam. Sleep was a luxury that I learned never happened in a war, especially on an aircraft carrier where you had to constantly worry about being attacked by planes or submarines.
I had packed my sea bag packed already with all I could jam into it. My leather flight jacket and metal seaman’s chest would remain onboard to be transferred back to the States whenever possible after the Manchuria hostilities had ceased.
I said goodbye to some of my crew and some of the officers I got to know while I was stationed on the Antietam. The following day I would be leaving as their Chief and someone else would be taking over after a long year of sailing together. It would be a sad parting since we had grown very close during that time. We played poker all night the last night before I left. I won $355.
On August 30th at about 13:00 hours after a briefing by Captain Tague, Rear Admiral A.C. Davis took over and made the USS Antietam the flagship of the Task Force 72 including the Interpid and the Cabot. The USS Antietam was to support the allied occupation forces by a show of air power with planes over North Chin and Korea.
Later on I went back up to the command tower to see if Okinawa was in sight yet. I will never forget when I first saw Okinawa that dreaded afternoon. I was standing on the command tower searching the horizon for the island with my own personal pair of binoculars that I had bought in Hawaii. Yes indeed, it was lying there on the horizon a few miles off. It looked like a long green pea pond in a sea of blue and white water. Almost like a sparkling green paradise island. A fog was rolling in and a light misting rain had begun. The sun had ducked behind some clouds, making the day suddenly very dark. As the USS Antietam steamed closer I could see the beaches and palms trees. Well not really palm trees; rather burnt stumps that were once palm trees. A green ridge covered with heavy vegetation rose across the middle of the island like the backbone of a lizard. The island was only 60 miles long and two miles wide at some points and seven miles wide at its widest point.
As we approached anchorage in Hagushi Bay, which was north of the capital city of Nahu, we went to general quarters. The devastation of the 84-day battle of Okinawa back in the spring of 1945 was apparent with the beaches full of debris from Jap plane parts, boat parts, and bomb craters. I could see that the once pristine white beaches were now black like burnt toast. Bombed out buildings lay along the edge of the beach as a testament to the savage battle. An American flag waved in the wind and rain over an Army headquarters tent on the island back from the beach near a clump of burnt out palm trees stumps. A black cloud moved over the island as if to signal that this was a place of death. As the Antietam moved into the harbor area a stench of ammunition, burnt wood and an undefined acid smell pervaded the air. I couldn’t get over the complete look of devastation on the island from the sea. It was as if all the armies and navies of the war had dumped their garbage on the beach. What a mess!
It would not be until 11:00 the following morning on August 31st that Smitty, Brownie, Lincoln and I would be allowed to go ashore in a launch. I will never forget going down over the side 65 feet or more on a rope cargo net holding a 80-pound plus duffel bag. One of the ship’s boatswains sounded the boatswain’s pipe as an act of respect as we left the ship. It gave me a chill in my spine that I was leaving my floating home and preparing to return home. Dropping over the side of the ship from the elevator was like the drills they used to do in Navy training camp in 1941. The drop over the side was steep and my duffel bag strap was digging into my shoulder numbing my arm completely. Each step down the cargo net was painful, but I finally made it to the bottom into the waiting Launch with a small outboard engine. Smitty could not climb down with his bag, so he yelled, “Chief, catch my bag, it is too heavy.”
Like a fool I said “OK” and I reached out to receive a crushing force on my arms from a duffel bag, which must have weighed 200 pounds. “What do you have in this bag, stones,” I yelped. Just the four of us, Smitty, Brownie, Lincoln and myself went ashore that day. My crew was on the deck waving to me as we headed for the beach. I looked back and waved with a twinge of sadness to see my floating home fade behind us in the distance. We took an extra bag of mail for the Army and Navy guys on shore. Little did we know that the Navy had pulled out of Okinawa and was preparing for the surrender signing in Tokyo Harbor and rounding up any stray submarines who did not hear the war was over.