10:04 | Robert James was propped up against a bulkhead, going in and out of consciousness. The kamikaze had destroyed the starboard gun mounts and there were many dead and wounded. He was grateful when someone gave him some morphine to ease the pain from multiple shrapnel wounds. This was the beginning of a painful journey to healing. Part 2 of 2.
Keywords : Robert James USS Keokuk (AKN-4) Kamikaze morphine hospital ship Attack Transport (APA) sword Pearl Harbor operation shrapnel
Robert James and his brother both had to drop out of school to support their single mother. The coming of war meant that they would be drafted and Robert was determined to get in the Navy. He had to convince his mother to sign for him at seventeen. Both brothers went to war and both sent money home.
The weather wasn't too bad when the train full of Navy recruits pulled out of Richmond and headed for Great Lakes Naval Station for boot camp. Robert James, along with the rest, didn't bring heavy clothing and, when he stepped off the train near Chicago, it was into snow up to his knees.
He had joined the Navy, but he still had to drill like the Army recruits. Robert James was at boot camp learning to be a sailor in the dead of winter outside Chicago. He attended classes where he was exposed to the naval weaponry he might use, as well as the planes and ships of the Japanese enemy.
Boot camp was over and it was time to learn your assignment. Robert James was put on a train for California, though he wasn't yet told where he was going. He was housed at Treasure Island for a while, where he got some of that great San Francisco liberty. Finally, he boarded his ship, the USS Keokuk.
The first stop was Pearl Harbor, where the ship was loaded with supplies. Next was a small island where Robert James remembers softball games and beers. When they put out to sea again, his duty was topside and, still, no word on where the ship was bound.
When the crew of the USS Keokuk arrived at their first invasion, they had no idea where they were. The ship was a net layer, spooling out huge submarine nets to protect the battleships and carriers. Robert James watched the action at the beach through his field glasses, where the water turned red with the blood of Marines. Finally, he learned the name of the island. It was Iwo Jima.
The invasion of Saipan and Tinian was easy for Robert James aboard ship. After the crew put in place its submarine nets, its part was done. He did not see the carnage he had witnessed at Iwo Jima. He did hear about some horrific suicidal acts by the Japanese civilians on Saipan.
Robert James got plenty of shore leave in Pearl Harbor when his ship was docked there for resupply between actions. Like many of the men, he had a great thirst for beer, which got him into trouble more than once, but he also had a great desire for something else he could get on shore, something he wanted more than beer.
Preparing for an invasion got to be somewhat routine for Robert James. Shipboard drills would increase. The ship would be fully loaded with the submarine nets it would lay. After the action on Peleliu, they had to head stateside because of problems with the boilers. When they returned to to the war zone, the Japanese had a new deadly tactic they would have to face.
Robert James was in the shower aboard ship when the alarm went off. He scrambled to his gun mount to man the 20 mm gun and then the threat became apparent. Kamikazes had broken through the air cover and were headed for the convoy. He heard some firing from another gun and turned around just in time to see a horrifying sight. Part 1 of 2.
As his ship headed for the invasion of Okinawa, Robert James was recuperating from multiple shrapnel wounds he had received in a kamikaze attack. During the action at Okinawa, the ship was very nearly hit again, this time from Japanese bombs.
Like Robert James, every serviceman in the Pacific was filled with dread over the prospect of invading Japan, but it was the only target left. Their fears were wiped away when Harry Truman made the decision to use the atomic bomb.
For some reason, the German guard in the the prison camp tower started shooting at an American fighter crossing overhead. Hank Johnson was a prisoner at that camp and when he saw the pilot bank and turn, he headed for the barracks. No way that guard was going to get away with that. It was a nice diversion for a lot of men with no hope of escape.
His field telephone switchboard was set up in an abandoned house which took a direct hit from a German artillery shell. The reinforced walls held together and Harry Scroggs lived to keep following Patton's army into Germany. In one small town, he looked into a warehouse and is still haunted to this day at what he saw.
He was already married with a child, but Richard Lewis enlisted because America was having a tough time of it in the early war. He passed the tests to go to flight school and progressed through them until he was a B-24 pilot heading to England. He flew both B-24's and B-17's for a total of 35 missions.
The POW's saw the town below the camp getting shelled, so they started thinking about liberation. The Germans started to move them out on the road, but a planned subterfuge thwarted them and the GI's were still there when an American tank crashed through the gate. Hank Johnson describes that joyous day, marred only by overindulgence in C-rations.
His boyhood hero was Lucky Lindy, Charles Lindbergh. When the boy was grown, there was a war to fight and George Keating enlisted in the Air Corps one step ahead of the draft board. They made an aircraft mechanic out of him.
Hank Freedman chose a hospital stay over an immediate return after he was liberated from a German prison camp. He was malnourished and weak and it took him a month to regain his strength. When he stepped off the plane and called home, there was much happiness and a little fainting.
Once the war in the Pacific was over and there was no threat of being shipped there, Fred Miller could enjoy England like a tourist. The English girls treated the Yanks like movie stars and this was great, until their boyfriends came home.
George Keating shipped out on the Queen Elizabeth. There was no escort fast enough to keep up with her, so they traveled alone to England where his B-17 was waiting for him. He was on the ground crew and was not destined to be on the front lines, but there was that one time a lone German plane slipped through.
Did he take it personally since he was Jewish? No, says Hank Freedman, he was just there to serve his country. The former POW reflects on his upbringing and the legacy of World War II veterans.
After the war, Fred Miller didn't have nearly enough points to return home, so he was put in a unit that ferried people around the continent. There were no airlines at that point, so it was a badly needed service. He found some time to travel to England and even attended the University of Aberdeen for a while.
Once, when the B-17 he was responsible for was heavily damaged, crew chief George Keating stayed with the plane for 72 hours until it was fixed. His job on the ground crew was tough, but he had a really good commander and a so-so assistant.
The 106th Infantry division was newly formed and inexperienced when they replaced another division on the front in the Ardennes Forest. No one thought there was any danger of an attack at that location, but Hank Freedman found out just how wrong that was. His unit faced the full fury of the German offensive at the Battle of the Bulge and found themselves surrounded.
In post war England, Fred Mills was a security officer trying to regulate air traffic between there and the continent. There was a big problem with black market money exchange and he came up with a good idea to fight it, but it made him unpopular with the pilots.
The B-17 could take some serious damage and still fly. Crew chief George Keating describes two miraculous returns after direct hits from the dreaded German 88. The plane was superb, yet the young pilots suffered from inexperience and there were mishaps.
The 106th Division was decimated. The German attack through the Ardennes broke and scattered the American line and thousands of GI's were captured. Among them was Hank Freedman. He describes the fierce battle and the confusion and chaos as the Germans surrounded and captured him.
B-17 navigator Fred Miller explains the variables he had to deal with while keeping the plane on course. It all happened so fast when you were on a mission that you had to be really sharp to do the job. He also had to toggle the bombs on certain missions without a bombardier.
He nearly missed the height requirement, but Raymond Mitchell became a Marine, a squad leader, in fact. He shipped out with the 1st Marine Division for the Pacific and saw action from Guadalcanal to Okinawa.
His buddy joined the Army, but Ralph Smith didn't want to do that. He wanted to fly and could already fly a Piper Cub. A hostile instructor almost washed him out in primary training, but he made it through, all the way to the big B-17.
Once the north end of Okinawa was secured, the Marines headed south, where they relieved an Army division. That unit had been reinforced by calling up engineers and Raymond Mitchell had to show them how to use their machine guns.
There was a new recreation hall at the air base in England, but Ralph Smith didn't drink, so he declined the to join the night's festivities. He was in his tent writing letters. Just after midnight, the radio came to life with some startling news.
After recuperating in Guam, Raymond Massey boarded a ship to return to his unit on Okinawa. The first atomic bomb had just been dropped and everyone was stunned. When news of the surrender came, the celebration turned a little dangerous. Before these Marines could go home, though, they had some duty in China, disarming Japanese soldiers.
It took a while for B-17 co-pilot Ralph Smith to get going once he got to Italy. His first pilot got shot down on a check flight and then they had to train up his replacement. Once they were ready, they had eight missions over Germany before the war ended.
There were so many Germans trying to surrender at the end of the war that it became an annoyance to Bill McCarthy while in North Italy. He narrowly avoided being shipped to China, but a slow boat there may have been preferable to his ride home in a Liberty Ship. (This interview is audio only.)
Keesler Field was not a desirable post to Bill Toombs. It was so bad, he volunteered for a school in Buffalo, where there was a couple of feet of snow. His second day there, they handed him a piece of paper to sign. What is it? It's so you can go to China and fly the hump. Ahh...no, not going to do that.
In the Philippines, Corwin Mokler's ship escorted LSTs and troop transports through the region. He remembers a lone aircraft at high altitude that was relaying a signal that identified it as a friendly. That turned out not to be the case. When the ship was reattached to its task force, they took part in a bombardment run on Japan.
It was a great post. The barracks were nice and the duty wasn't bad, training B-24 crews. But, flight engineer Bill Toombs recalls that some of those pilots would scare you. One particular flight nearly led to his demise and that's when he decided he'd had enough of flying.