"I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it…..
and I know to just get up…because there\’s no use."
Delbert, May 10th 2001
82 years old
speaking about World War II
Gunner\’s Mate on the ship USS Ottawa (AKA-101)
Months ago, probably last spring, I made a comment on this blog that I intended to photograph an older gentleman that I have known all my life. I made a comment that was something like "if we both make it till summer". Unfortunately, awhile back we heard he had fallen ill and soon found out he passed away. One should never put off having a conversation. He was a veteran and seemed genuinely interested in telling his story, one that he admitted was very difficult to talk about for most all of his life. He once told me that he couldn\’t watch television shows or movies about war, that he would usually just have to leave the room. This is a long entry, but I\’ll post a slightly edited version of my personal journal entry from about 11 years ago.
Taking you back to May 2011, it begins this way: On my way over to work on the boat today, I saw Delbert sitting behind his house and working on his garden tractor. While he worked on his Troybilt Pony garden tractor, we talked a little about World War II.
My interest in World War II is an offspring of my interest in history and genealogy. Within everyone lies a story, it seems, only they rarely write it down. My uncle was a World War II Marine veteran who died in the early 1980\’s, way before I became interested in history of any kind.
Over the last week, I asked several family members about my uncle’s military history. His sister said, "He didn\’t talk much about it….. He often said that he was sometimes the only man left standing." My mother thought he had served in Okinawa and "some of the big battles." His widow said, "He talked about a mountain a lot. He said that he was the only man left alive at two different times." I spoke to his daughter who had the same statements. Through all the vague comments, I now know that he served entirely in the South Pacific and probably fought in the bloody battle for Iwo Jima. In that battle, the Japanese had burrowed out caves in the mountain.
And this is what brought me to Delbert. I remembered his story noted earlier in my journals about running the landing craft during the invasion of the Philippines. Guam, and Okinawa. He was the "eyes" that might shed some light about what it was like for my uncle.
Delbert joined up voluntarily at the age of 25, even though he had to practically beg the panel to send him (he was employed at a defense plant that evidently had a severe labor shortage due to the war). He ended up at Charleston, South Carolina area for his basic training, then he was placed on the ship USS Ottawa II (AKA-101), which I guess is more accurately described as an attack cargo ship. I\’ve spent a little time researching on the ‘net and was able to unearth some information about the Ottawa, so much of the specifics of the ship didn\’t come from Delbert. It was a brand new ship when he was stationed on it, then it was decommissioned after the war, the time period being 2 years in between. It was used for a very short time after the war, but for our story, it will suffice to just think that Delbert served on the ship from its beginning to end. The final disposition of the ship is unknown.
The USS Ottawa was the second ship named Ottawa, the first being a Civil War battleship. Our Ottawa was launched on November 29th, 1944 and commissioned on February 8th, 1945. It was built by the Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington, NC. Lt. Comdr Jackson Mizell was in command, but Delbert just referred to him as "the old man". Delbert said he sailed from Charleston and they thought they were headed toward Europe "because they issued winter clothing to us all". Instead of sailing east, however, they went south through the Panama Canal and then up to California.
Now, the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships has the Ottawa going straight to Hawaii, but Delbert said their next stop was in California. The "old man" said it was too hectic there, so the men were given a short leave and told to live it up…but do it quickly. Delbert and his close buddy headed toward the bar and "tanked up on whiskey and beer, then headed through the town to see what they had. There was a fellow selling cotton candy and waving it in the air while shouting \’Cotton candy, want some cotton candy?\’ My buddy shouted \’horse shit!\’ and the fellow replied \’no…I don\’t have any of that to sell\’." Delbert laughed and laughed, mostly at the thought that this is what he remembers after 55 years.
They stopped at Pearl Harbor, where he and a buddy took advantage of a make-shift business that made photographs of Navy men and developed them while they waited. Delbert said that he still carried that little picture in his wallet, even after all these years. "He was a good friend of mine…a lot like family. Well, they all were like family and I thought a lot of \’em. We had to, in order to stay alive." This little fact goes a long way to describe a few pictures that I inherited of my uncle and some Marine buddies. They look a lot like those pictures that you get made in a mall or amusement park by an automated photo booth.
The Ottawa was involved in some large invasions, notably the Philippines, Guam, Saipan, and Okinawa. The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships doesn\’t use the word "fight" in describing the Ottawa, rather it had the job of loading, carrying, unloading, and transporting supplies from point to point. But, the final point often ended up being the shore of hostile territory during an armed invasion. Delbert remembered that the Marshall Islands was the staging area for large invasions. All the ships would gather there and get in a formation. He tried to explain some type of cable and float system that enabled them to judge the distance between ships, but it was difficult to understand. He said the weather was extremely hot and he would work at cleaning the guns while wearing long pants and no shirt as they waited for orders to proceed. The Philippines seemed to be the big invasion that stuck out in his mind.
Delbert on the Philippines: "They picked me out to run one of the landing crafts. I had an engineer in case the engine quit. It was a diesel engine. I had a mate and two mounted machine guns. I always said that I\’d run the craft into the beach so hard that they would have to use a half-track to push me off. You see, if you get breached, you\’d take on water and really be in trouble, except in Iwo Jima where they had to breach the craft so the guys would have some cover. Well….I ran that craft into the beach so hard they had to back up and push me off. Like\’d a ripped my arms off when that thing hit the coral and the steering wheel started spinning……..the machine guns were really ripping." "The beach was real nice…..but I\’ve never seen a beach that would make for a good invasion. You could run the LTV up real close, though. During some other invasions, the crafts couldn\’t get close so the guys had to run through the water with no cover."
On an earlier visit, he told this story about the Philippine invasion: "We were running the LTV back and forth to the shore. War changes you and makes you do things that you normally wouldn\’t do. There were bodies floating all around and on one run back to the ship, we came upon 3 or 4 of them floating together like logs. My mate threw a hook and rope into them and pulled them up to the boat and it was then that we noticed that one of them had a big diamond ring on his finger. Well, the mate took out his knife and grabbed the GI\’s hand and I said \’What do you think you\’re doing?\’ and he said \’I\’m going to get that ring.\’ I said \’No you\’re not!\’. We had a big argument and almost came to blows. He later apologized and said that he didn\’t know what got into him." Delbert went on to talk about how the stress of war and being under fire will change your personality. Being an older man, I could tell that a lot of the men had looked up to him for guidance during difficult times.
All during the story, Delbert would interject with comments like "old Jack Whitt from over on Long Street was there…that\’s where he lost an eye." It seems that everyone from Flatwoods, Kentucky was fighting somewhere in the South Pacific. He explained that during the Philippine invasion, like the others, they were protected by "layers" of support ships that would keep the enemy from mounting a rear attack on the invasion force. When explaining the Philippine battle, he said that his brother-in-law was also in the invasion, serving aboard a ship that protected them from the rear. A Japanese plane made it through to his ship and they shot it down. As it crashed, the Japanese pilot guided the plane down into the top of their ship, sinking it and killing everyone including his brother in law.
He said that Okinawa was a fierce battle, but one that they couldn\’t loose. "They started using the airstrip as soon as we had taken it". As the battle progressed and the Japanese were forced back into the island, he witnessed the Japanese women hurling their infants and children off high cliffs before jumping to their deaths themselves. "It was terrible", he said.
Delbert continued, "We were steamin\’ toward Japan when the old man came over the loud speaker and said that the war was over. You never heard such rejoicin\’ from the guys". I wonder if my uncle and Delbert were somehow connected. The Dictionary of Ships says, "….Ottawa loaded the Second Marines and equipment and departed Saipan 18 September for Nagasaki and the occupation of Japan."
Delbert again told me the story about sneaking up the hill which overlooked Nagasaki. "The valley was cleaned out with the trees burned at the top of the ridge. I could see some twisted metal was all." They stayed at port for a while, then was sent to another port to pick up US prisoners of war. A Japanese officer came out and went up with the “old man” to help guide them through the mine field. After loading up the GIs, they took a northern route home, since it was cooler and they weren\’t equipped to carry that many men below deck. They dropped the men off in Oregon and Delbert left the service when the Ottawa arrived in a California port. "They inspected each one of us closely. You had to be perfectly clean to get off the ship. One fellow had some dry paint on his hands from where he had been painting the showers and had to go back in and clean up again. I was glad it was over."
During this tale, Delbert alternated between smiling, laughing, and breaking down in sobs. "It\’s tragic….all those young people losing their lives.
Delbert went on to live a quiet life with much of his spare time spent fishing in a local lake where he became known across the state for catching the state record largemouth bass on two different occasions. His name was on the record list for decades.
"Don\’t forget this: You can\’t
turn time back. Enjoy your
family and have fun in life."
Delbert, 81 years old
22 October, 1999
(reflecting on the loss of his wife)