We are told good times remain in memory while the bad are forgotten. Recollection of my Navy days emphasizes the positive with the negatives from those times a faded background and past recall.
I'd been in the Navy since Feb. of 1944, identified by my serial number, V-6, U.S.N.R. enlisted three months shy of 18 in the Radio Technician training program after passing an aptitude test and going in as Seaman First Class for sixty-six dollars a month instead of fifty. After primary schools in Chicago and Stillwater, Oklahoma, I finished training at Treasure Island, site of the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair. At T.I. I was rated Radio Technician Third Class. Proud of that "crow", and so it would be sure to show, I pushed my left sleeve forward in any photos. School completed and after a thirty day leave, I reported at Camp Shoemaker for overseas assignment.
Waiting ended on April 5, 1945 and I was back at Treasure Island, in a draft with several hundred others, not for schooling but in a fenced compound pending shipping out. The confinement was meant to prevent any concerns over leaving for combat from being translated into a disappearing act.
After three days of letter writing, card games and just plain bull-sessions, we boarded a ferry for transport from Treasure Island to the San Francisco waterfront, the Embarcadero. The Matsonia, our magic carpet, waited at the Matson Line Pier. Seabags shouldered, we climbed the gangway as a Navy band, on the pier, sent us off with "Anchor's Aweigh". Their chore completed, the bandsmen left for San Francisco liberty. Not knowing how long it would be before I'd be ashore again in that great liberty city, I envied the band but that soon turned to anticipation and wondering what lay ahead. The Matsonia cast off and made for the Golden Gate. "The Golden Gate in Forty Eight" was the then prevailing slogan and as the ship sailed under that beautiful bridge, I wondered when or if I'd see it again.
The third day after sailing, all on the ship were stunned at the announcement that President Roosevelt was dead. Roosevelt had been President since I was six years old. I couldn't remember any President but him. None of us could. We asked each other about this Truman---he was from Missouri. That's about all we knew. Three and a half days later, we tied up at the Aloha Tower in Honolulu Harbor. From the Matson liner, I went to Crudespac, a Navy acronym for Commander Cruisers/Destroyers Pacific. That's where my next assignment would be decided.
I was hoping for destroyer duty. Sleek greyhounds of the sea and with crewmen of a special swagger manning the ships that sailed in harm's way, what eager nineteen year old wouldn't want to be a destroyerman? My destroyer hopes ended on May 10th, my nineteenth birthday, when I was assigned with two other Radio Technicians to the USS SALT LAKE CITY, CA25. She was a heavy cruiser, carrying a main battery of eight inch guns, distinguishing her from a light cruiser with a main batter of six inchers.
My odyssey began with those orders to the Salt Lake City.
With the two would-be shipmates, I boarded a cruiser at Pearl Harbor, the beginning of our pursuit of the Salt Lake city. We arrived at Guam on May 26 and tied up alongside the USS Missouri. The cruiser I'd thought was so huge was dwarfed by the monster battleship. At Guam, we three would-be argonauts were sent to a receiving station while those in charge of such matters tried to find out where the Salt Lake City was, or should be, and how to put us in the same place at the same time as the ship. Somebody's best guess was we and the ship would come together at Okinawa. Our next transportation was a flat bottomed landing ship, medium, an LSM in Navy talk. Passengers on LSM 61, we left Guam for Saipan, then a stop at Tinian and finally joined a convoy of small craft on a course for Okinawa.
There were other passengers on LSM 61 with we three Salt Lake City orphans. Left behind on a Saipan beach were two Coast Guard regulars playing the catch-up game too. One carried an M-1 Garand infantry rifle. I knew that weapon wasn't standard Coast Guard issue. Asked the source of the rifle, the owner explained he'd picked it up on the beach at Saipan and the previous owner "didn't need it any more." I realized this wasn't a war movie, with the good guys always winning, but we were in a real fight and good guys died too.
The two Coast Guard men were real sailors, capital S. Both had been aboard North Atlantic ice patrol cutters and on lightships off the Atlantic coast. One of them I give credit for my still being right handed. Back at Tinian, the LSM was coming alongside an LST. I was handling one of the fenders to keep the two ships from crashing together and had reached over the side to get a better grip on the fender line. Suddenly, I was flat on my back halfway across the deck as the two ships banged together where my arm had been. My Coast Guard benefactor allowed that reaching over the side was "a damn poor idea and pretty dumb too". That was a lesson I never forgot.
A few days after leaving Tinian for Okinawa, the bridge loudspeaker on the LSM blared that the convoy was in the path of a typhoon carrying winds strong enough to tear off the ship's conning tower. Waiting for the storm to hit, evening chow was a quiet affair.
The storm hit early that night and sleep was impossible. Clawing up the side of great waves until it hung suspended over the crests, the ship came crashing down into the trough between waves. The whole ship shook like a rat in a terrier's teeth. The climb up, hanging suspended and plummeting down lasted until dawn. I wondered if the ship would survive and me with it. That was my introduction to the might of an angry sea.
With daylight, I went on deck with others who had shared that wild night and found the storm moving on but leaving behind waves of masthead height. We couldn't see another ship. The convoy was scattered over miles of the Western Pacific. We later learned that all ships had survived and the convoy reformed.
The remaining trip was unremarkable and we arrived at Okinawa and anchored in Buckner Bay. That evening the LSM, like every other ship in the harbor, was at sunset general quarters. All hands were at battle stations and all guns manned. Passengers didn't have a battle station and with three others, I was sitting with my back against the shrapnel screen of the 40MM gun when the bridge ordered "commence firing, aircraft bearing 045." That brought us jumping into the well deck to avoid any stray firing. Poking our heads up for a look, we saw a lone Japanese plane the focus of fire from every ship in the harbor. He was quickly splashed without hitting any target.
A day later, we three nomads left the LSM and traveled by truck to the other side of the island. We boarded a receiving ship, the USS Crescent City, APA 21. I got a bonus on the Crescent City. Standing in line, I was grabbed from the chow line by a Master-at-Arms and put in the galley as a fry cook. That worked out pretty well---I ate a lot better than the others awaiting further assignment.
Late one afternoon, the three of us were sent ashore and spent the night among Army Air Force types on Yontan airfield, which was strewn with wrecked Japanese aircraft. When the air raid alarm went, we all ducked into a dugout roofed with the wing of a Japanese bomber. The alert was prompted, as I learned, by the nightly visit of a Japanese observation plane. Dubbed "Washing Machine Charley" after the odd sound of his engine, Charley usually dropped a bomb or two without noticeable results. The old hands in the dugout were sort of "ho-hum" about it all but I wasn't that calm.
Next morning we sailors seeking our ship were put on a C-46 transport plane, the largest twin engine aircraft in the Air Transport Command. The plane left Yonton airfield with us the only cargo and carrying the legend "Tokyo Trolley" on both sides of the fuselage. We climbed to cruising altitude. That being reached, the co-pilot motioned me forward to sit in the co-pilot's right hand seat. He explained we were heading for Clark Field, on Northern Luzon. The Salt Lake City sure wouldn't be on an airfield so I figured that more travel was ahead. Meantime the pilot handed me a camera and I spent most of the trip taking pictures of him in heroic poses as he flew the plane. That was the first time I'd flown and after some early apprehension, I enjoyed the trip.
Arriving at Clark Field, we idled a few days waiting for further transportation. It was late June now and I hadn't been paid since April and not much then. I was broke. Solution--sell something to the Filipinos living by the field. I parted with a pair of dungarees and a mattress cover for 30 pesos, about $15 US. If any of my buddies were ever in the area and saw a native wearing dungarees with a DLB stencil, they'd know I'd been around and was broke as usual. The sale put me in the chips again and I bought the usual necessities--cigarettes, toothpaste and snacks at the Clark Field P.X.
The next leg of the chase was again by Air Transport Command, an overloaded C-47 trip from Clark Field to Tacloban on Leyte Gulf. The C-47 boasted it was one of the "Jungle Skippers" and skip we did over water and jungle and finally landing at Tacloban on a noisy temporary airstrip of interlocking steel sections.
We left the C-47 and took a small boat trip into an anchorage crammed with ships. I hoped we hadn't missed connecting again. In a few minutes we saw the Salt Lake City and headed for the starboard landing and ladder. The stern carried the words "SALT LAKE CITY" in block letters. I wanted to be part of that ship's company, not a passenger anymore. I'd found my ship and was almost home.
I reported aboard June 27, 1945 assigned to "C" Division communications. My work station was in radio tower, site of the ship's main transmitting equipment. Radio Technicians were to keep all radio gear on the ship in working order and to set up transmitters on the frequency called for by the operators in main radio. The speed with which we could report a transmitter set up and ready to send was always a contest. A call would come from main radio and a pair of us would go to work, one on the frequency generator and the other at the transmitter, tuning for the peak output on the requested frequency.
I was named to service and calibrate the Loran equipment on the navigation bridge. Being fresh from Treasure Island R.T. school with an extra two week course in Loran gear, I was the alleged expert. Loran is another Navy acronym that stands for Long Range Navigation. I remember being busy calibrating the Loran set when a voice behind me asked, "What are you doing, son?" I turned to face the Captain--four stripes on his shoulder boards and eagles on his collar. An awesome encounter for a nineteen year old third class petty officer. I explained I was calibrating and tuning the gear and talked him through the complete routine. I thought I had performed with unusual brilliance and expected some word of praise, maybe even high praise. He snorted "I'd still rather have the sun and the stars." That brought me crashing back to reality.
For the first month I was aboard we patrolled in the East China Sea. Once the ship was within a hundred miles of Shanghai providing cover for a carrier strike. The planes returned with full ammunition belts and reported few targets of opportunity. It seemed a thorough job had been done by those who came before. That suited me just fine. I wasn't that anxious to encounter the enemy.
Leaving the East China Sea, we were at Okinawa when all ships were ordered to sea to avoid a typhoon headed for the island. All that night we sailed out of the typhoon's path making 27 knots. That was a thrill for me-- being part of a proud ship beating the elements and so different from that long night when the LSM battled the waves.
From Okinawa we proceeded to Saipan. There winter clothing was issued together with heavy weather gear. We sailed from Saipan for the Aleutians. A few minutes after anchoring in Adak Harbor, word was flashed the President Truman had announced the Japanese acceptance of our surrender terms. There were a few moments of wild cheering but shipboard routine was quickly resumed.
From Adak we sailed to Attu, still in the Aleutians and closer to Japan. At Attu, a landing force was organized. I filled one of two Radio Technician slots. With two Radio Operators, we took portable radio equipment ashore to permit communicating with the ship. We were issued sidearms to cope with any reluctance that might be met from any unwilling to surrender. From Attu, the Salt Lake City sortied for Japan
By September 7, 1945, we were off Northern Honshu and spent the day cruising in circles acting as cover for our minesweepers as they cleared the channel. Later, we waited for Japanese emissaries to arrive aboard the task group flagship to complete surrender arrangements. That done, the force sailed for Ominato, on the northernmost tip of Honshu. The assigned mission was to free prisoners of war and render inoperative any means of resistance.
Coming on deck the morning of the 8th, I saw the fleet was in the Tsugaru Strait, between the home islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. That afternoon, we entered Ominato anchorage and strained eyes to pierce the thick fog, which lay like a soft gray cover over the area. A few barn like warehouses were seen but that was all.
Formal surrender ceremonies took place the next Sunday, aboard Admiral Fletcher's flagship, the Panamint, anchored a thousand or so yards aft of the Salt Lake City. The next days were spent waiting for occupation forces to arrive. On September 24 we were underway to support occupation forces at Aomori, on the west coast of Hokkaido. There were no untoward incidents. Arrival of the occupying troops eliminated the need for any shore parties from the ship. The Aomori episode didn't vary our normal routine though we in radio too were kept busy setting up transmitters.
October 5 we were anchored at Otaru, also on Hokkaido. A message was received in main radio ordering the Salt Lake City to sail stateside and report to Astoria, Oregon for Navy Day celebrations. The word went through the ship with lightening speed and there was a lot of cheering. But not by those with less than nine months sea duty. We were to be transferred to ships staying in Japan to replace men eligible to return to the states. It was a low moment for me.
The Salt Lake City had been back at Ominato for only a day when I was reassigned to another ship, a fleet minesweeper this time, the USS Garland (AM238). On October 11, I watched the Salt Lake City sail from Oninato anchorage trailing it's homeward bound pennant from the mainmast. Navy lore has a star in that pennant for every officer aboard and a foot of pennant length for every crewman. The pennant trailed behind by at least two ship lengths. One length was 585 feet. As the day I boarded at Leyte was a high point, watching the Salt Lake City disappear from sight was a deep depression.
The Garland was a different world. There was even a ship's dog, named Judy, of course. The cruiser displaced 10,000 tons, the minesweeper a thousand. From a thousand plus men in the crew to a crew of 95, 585 foot length to 180 feet and twin diesel engines instead of steam driven, all this made for dramatic change. My role changed just as dramatically. Instead of being one of twenty Radio Technicians, I was the only Radio Technician, with full responsibility for all electronic gear aboard. The Garland left Ominato shortly after the Salt Lake City had sailed but we were not heading stateside. We took a southerly course, bound for Sasebo, on the west coast of Kyushu. Our assignment; sweep mines the B-29's had left behind.
Heavy weather and seas shared our trip to Sasebo. I had another experience with how a small ship reacts in rough waters, the first time being the LSM typhoon-marred trip. My new ship had an inclination to mightily rolling and that we did. We marked two or three thirty-two degree rolls and many in the twenty and twenty-five degree range. That was like being on a roller-coaster but no getting off when the novelty paled.
Liberty in Sasebo was granted a few days after we arrived. I went ashore with two others from the ship. No sooner had we landed than the dust began to rise. The flow of military traffic kept a dust cloud above the city as if there were smoldering fires in every block. That was great on dress blues. Walking toward the central part of the city, we passed blocks that had been leveled by B-29's. The bombers had created a widespread wasteland. The post office lacked windows. They had all been bombed out but souvenir stamp packets were for sale and I bought five. Whatever became of them I don't know.
From the central city, we walked to a residential area. Armed with candy bars, we knocked on the sliding panel of a Japanese home. The panel opened quickly and we were face to face with a young mother and two little girls. We managed to convey a harmless appearance and offered the girls and mother a handful of chocolate bars. With much bowing, mother spoke to the girls who disappeared and quickly returned with three small dolls in traditional Japanese dress, one for each of us. We went back to the ship with a different view of the former enemy.
Minesweeping chores completed, the Garland sailed for Pearl Harbor on November 20 and I was still aboard. There were a few anxious days when I'd wondered if transfer to a ship staying in Japan was to happen again. I lucked out. We had smooth sailing the whole trip, which included a fueling stop at Eniwetok Atoll.
The day before we arrived in Pearl Harbor, I was summoned to correct a radar malfunction at 0400 hours. All the checking I did failed to show a single problem and I reported that finding to the Officer of the Deck. I was ordered to the bridge where the O.D. pointed in a direction some 45 degrees off the starboard bow and asked why the radar wasn't picking up that land? There was land in the direction he pointed. I could see it clearly.
I returned to the radar set and went through all the checks again without finding anything amiss. The radar being near the navigator's table, I'd absorbed enough simple navigation to understand the charts and use parallel rulers and dividers. From our last dead reckoning position plotted on the chart, I calculated the land visible from the bridge was the peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the big island of Hawaii. They towered over 13,000 feet and I estimated they were distant some 145 to 150 miles. The extreme radar range was only 125 miles. My educated guess was reported to the O.D. with my prediction we would pick up peaks on radar in 75 to 90 minutes at the speed we were making.
My bunk stayed empty as I stayed at the radar console until I could report we were picking up echoes, on the right bearing, after another 70 to 80 minutes. I was vindicated and much relieved.
We arrived in Pearl Harbor on December 8. A week later the Garland sailed for San Diego and docked in the early evening after eight days at sea. In San Diego, I was promoted to Radio Technician Second Class, gaining another stripe for my left sleeve. The rating was later changed to Electronic Technician's Mate, which was more descriptive of our duties. I like to think I was promoted as the result of correctly identifying the reason the radar hadn't picked up the Hawaiian peaks but it might have been because I'd fixed the Captain's car radio while we were in San Diego.
The Garland was slated for decommissioning and mothballing. The only travel remaining for the crew was down the West coast of Mexico and Central America, through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean, into the Gulf of Mexico and finally, Galveston, Texas where the ship would be taken out of service. That's what we in the crew were waiting for too--we were ready to be out of our Navy service.
My odyssey had ended
David L. Buffington