An Insider's Look at Life on a World War II Navy Ship
Welcome Aboard a Flagship Headed for the South Pacific
I'm sitting on the floor, flipping through photo albums, looking at photos of my father. I miss him. He passed away seven years ago at the age of 84.
My dad died of esophageal cancer, which was actually attributed, as were a number of health problems over the years, to the fact that he was an "atomic veteran." That is, he was exposed to radiation when he, along with a small group of other sailors from his naval ship, were sent ashore to see what they could see in Hiroshima not long after the atomic bomb had been dropped. My dad lived a long life, much longer than many of the others who'd gone ashore with him.
In the weeks preceding my father's death, he spoke often and at length about his time in the Navy. Mostly, he spoke about those times fondly, remembering the good times, the camaraderie, the practical jokes and laughs aboard the ship and ashore. Sometimes he spoke about the seasickness. And occasionally about the war itself. Days before he passed away, he grew more serious, remembering what he saw in Hiroshima and elsewhere in the South Pacific. He cried a few times as he spoke.
My dad shared many memories with me, telling me numerous stories over the years and often during his last weeks. And he even wrote some of it down.
I'd like to share a few of those stories with you about his life and times aboard that flagship, which I have here, written in his left-handed chicken scratchings -- pen on white, unlined paper. I'll transcribe some of what he wrote and some of what I remember, because I believe these stories are very worth sharing.
Photo Credits: The remaining photos on this page are family photos I have in my possession and permission to use. All rights reserved, so they may not be used elsewhere. Thank you.
Let Me Introduce You to my Dad
My dad was a sailor and signalman on the U.S. Flotilla Flagship 571.
He was born in Port Chester, New York, in 1924, an only child. At the age of 18, he enlisted in the military, first in the Army and later in the Navy.
After his honorable discharge following the war, my father went on to meet and marry my mom and have three kids. I came along 16 years after my next oldest brother.
In addition to being a sailor, my father was a police officer, a radio and television announcer and sportscaster, and later a recreation director in my hometown of North Kingstown, R.I.
In 2006, after my dad was diagnosed with cancer and given my mom's failing health, my parents moved here to Flagstaff, Arizona, where I spent several special months with my dad before he passed away on January 10, 2007.
My father was a great man, a gentle soul, and my biggest fan. I'll miss him always.
My dad, a U.S. Navy Sailor
A Bird's Eye View of the 571—The "Bird" Being My Father
This is a diagram of the ship my father was on, which he drew at the beginning of the story that follows.
In His Own Words....
The Journey Begins: Shakedown Cruises and Ship Conversion
We docked in New York City, and there ammunition and supplies were loaded and the rest of our crew came aboard. So, from our skeleton crew of 8, we now became 25 men and 4 officers. I was a signalman but doubled as a storekeeper and assisted with the supplies. We had a little store aboard where we sold candy, cigars, cigarettes, cookies, writing paper, etc. I got $5 a month extra for keeping the store open after meals, except of course during times we were at battle stations.
So, having completed our supply and crew additions, we set out to sea on our shakedown cruise.
Before we left, I did have an opportunity to take our Executive Officer, Clem, to a couple of night clubs in Greenwich Village. He was from Lubbock, Texas, where his family ran a milk business. He had such a good time that we went back the next night with the other officers and several crew members.
Once underway, it was necessary to train the rest of our crew in each man's regular duties, plus organize our gun crews. The Navy Air Force flew by, towing aerial targets so we could practice shooting at potential enemy aircraft. It was during these drills that we discovered our cook, Al, was the best gunner in the crew. I wasn't too bad, but my position was on the bridge with the Captain during battle stations.
Firing a 20mm AA gun ain't easy! You're strapped in so that the vibrations from these 8-inch shells that are rapid fire like a machine gun don't knock you off your feet. They were fairly effective against aircraft and could be fired at ground level against enemy emplacement during landing operations.
On the way back to the amphibious base on the Solomon Islands, our communications and supply officer stayed seasick the whole time and was totally useless. So, radioman Rogan and I took care of his duties.
We were ordered back to Maryland in order for us to train other crews in landing operations. We trained a lot of British crews too, sailing up and down Chesapeake Bay and landing on various beaches including Virginia Beach, which generally was defended by lots of ladies sunbathing as we hit the land. We did not fire on them.
On a more serious note, we were actually training crews for D Day; although we didn't know it at the time.
During the next few months, we took crews out for 10 days then back in port for 4 days off. Then 10 days out, 4 days off. During the days off, half the crew could go home or wherever. So that meant I could get back to Port Chester about twice a month. I would take a train out of Washington, D.C.
I remember one training cruise when I was on the bridge around 2am with an officer who was quite nervous. Our senior officer had gone below to get us some coffee and sandwiches when, suddenly, a low, black shape loomed up in front of us. A submarine. But not ours. The nervous officer started yelling, "What'll we do! What'll we do!"
"Ram it," I said. We won't sink because of the construction of our ship."
Our bow was reinforced because of our hitting the beach. But our officer returned, and we radioed in to shore for aircraft, which appeared in minutes and went after the sub. It was obviously German. I don't know if they got it or not. We were off the Carolina coast at the time.
One time, we were ordered to Annapolis to take out a group of midshipmen for a few days. They were so eager to learn that they were into everything, even wanting to get the recipes the cook used.
When we got back, it was on a Saturday. It so happened that Penn State was playing Navy that day at Annapolis, so the captain arranged for us to go to the game. Navy won, 55-14.
During our training cruises, we went as a group of 3 ships with a group commander in overall charge. As Christmas approached, we 3 ships were sailing up the Chesapeake to make some landing on a beach in the upper bay.
I was on the bridge when the commander said to our captain, "What the heck are we doing out here?" He paused. "Head for Baltimore. I know somebody."
When we got to the Baltimore Harbor, he radioed in to the harbor master to find docking for 3 ships. It also turned out that he was a personal friend of the Coast Guard officer who commanded the Baltimore area. As a result, we locked up the ships and the Coast Guard was told to get lost for 3 days. I knew my folks were going to be visiting my grandparents in Haddonfield for Christmas, so I headed for there. They were absolutely dumbfounded when I walked in the door.
When I got back to the ship, I took over the gangway watch at midnight, just in time to see the group commander come aboard with a very good-looking gal, who spent the night "inspecting the commander's cabin," which was located next to the gangway.
We left later than expected the next morning. We found out the naval radio center at Annapolis had been looking for our 3 ships for 3 days. They thought we might have been lost at sea or torpedoed or something. It seems that the 571 in particular was wanted back at the base. Flank speed ahead!
Upon returning to Solomon's Island base, the group commander was told to report to the Admiral and the 571 was told to immediately get itself to the naval shipyards in Norfolk for conversion to an LCFF (Landing Craft Flotilla Flagship). We never did see the group commander again.
I have the feeling he made out alright. The Admiral was known to be an understanding guy who knew our Captain. He even loaned us his personal sailboat, and the Captain took us for an all-day sail and picnic. It was a great time.
On our way to Norfolk, the Captain decided that our communications officer was a victim of chronic seasickness and should be transferred ashore. The young ensign felt very bad about this, but he was absolutely useless. The Captain would holler "cast off," and the guy would suddenly be deathly sick. I think it was recommended he be transferred to the Army. He was replaced by Ensign Epton of Kansas City.
When we arrived in Norfolk, our ship was overrun with workers. The troop quarters were changed over to a huge radio and communication room, with a transmitter that could reach halfway round the world -- 32 voice radios that could communicate with each of the 32 ships that would be under our command. New Commodore quarters and office space was constructed. The latest radar was installed and 3 radar men, 2 deckhands, and a deck and gunnery officer were added to the crew. They worked on our ship 24 hours a day. We were sent home for 6 days, which was to be my last time home until March of 1946.
From New York to San Diego
And so, on January 6, 1944, our little crew of 31 men and 5 officers set sail for San Diego to pick up our Commodore and his staff.
We were to go via the Panama Canal. I had thought we would go to Europe, but apparently our ship was destined for other things and all the landing craft crews had been readied for "D" Day.
The trip was quite an adventurous one. We had to put into Key West, Florida, Navy Base to make some engine repairs. Then we ran into a real heavy storm in the Caribbean Sea that really tested my sea legs. But I got through it okay. I was relieved, however, to stop in Panama at the city of Cristobal, Colon on the Atlantic side. We spent a few days there and that bears telling a few highlights.
[Insert note from me: Unfortunately the entertaining tales my father goes on to tell from here, peppered with colorful characters and some unclothed people, are not fit for a family-friendly website. So, sadly, I will skip ahead past those highlights.]
Needless to say, it was a very tired crew that sailed away through the Panama Canal on February 2, 1944. It had been a violent and active visit to one of the world's seediest but most interesting cities. Three of our crew, as I remember--the cook, the electrician, and a seaman--drank themselves into oblivion and missed the entire interesting trip through the canal.
The seaman, by the way, was a professional card shark who earned his living playing poker. He showed us how he could stack a deck while we watched. He was so fast, we couldn't follow his hands. He would then deal and tell us each what cards we had. To his credit, he never cheated any of the crew. One night, he won over $1,000 from our engineering officer.
On our trip to the west coast of Mexico, "The [omitted for family friendliness purposes]" was born. Jim Rogan and I decided that we needed a ship's newspaper, and we included news of each division of the ship and its individuals. We did commentary on ship activities, reports on liberty adventures, capsule biographies of the officers and the crew, and reports of world news that came over a special radio while at sea.
The paper was an immediate hit. It got so popular that the Captain provided us with a new typewriter. But we didn't have a name for our paper, so we called the "The [*sigh* omitted again, but it's the "b" word for an illegitimate child"]. We decided that a name contest would be held and the winner would get a 3-day pass when we hit San Diego. No one submitted an entry for a new name. Everyone liked "The B____" the best. So the Captain gave Jimmy and me 3-day passes.
One time, we ran out of white paper and had to use yellow paper, thereby changing the name to "The Yellow B___," which became more popular than the original. Often we were greeted by the question, "When are you two sons-of-b__ches gonna have another 'Yellow B____'?" It was heart-warming to know we were appreciated.
When at sea, we stood watches-4 hours on, 8 off. The Captain and I usually took the noon to 4pm then midnight to 4am watch. It was the toughest watch to have, and we got less sleep because we often were called upon during the 8am to noon and 4pm to 8pm times to do other things.
The Journey Continues West....
So, we left Cristobal, Colon after a few days and headed into the canal. On Lake Miraflores, we passed very close to an island that was owned by the Natural History Museum of New York. It was so breathtakingly beautiful, with thousands of flowers and beautiful flowering trees, that the Captain sailed around the entire island so that we could get a chance to see it. Even the cloddiest [no idea what that means] of our crew stopped work to stand along the railings just to view it. We could sail in real close. Large vessels could never get close.
Even though it was February, our passage through the canal was extremely hot. When passing through an area between two mountains, the heat was so oppressive that no one could stay in the engine room for more than a few minutes at a time. The steel decks became so hot that we actually were able to fry eggs on them. They said the engine room got up to 130 degrees.
We left the canal and sailed up the west coast of Mexico towards San Diego. I remember seeing sharks following us most of the way, waiting for us to throw garbage overboard. We passed thousands of huge turtles that must have been on their way to the Galapagos Islands. As far as the eye could see were turtles spaced a few yards apart.
We arrived at the San Diego Navy Base. There we were to stay for a couple of weeks for several reasons:
First: to receive aboard the Commodore and his staff. There was the Commodore (a full Captain), his Executive Officer, and his Communications Officer who was a former quarterback at the University of Illinois. This Communications Officer got us into trouble on one of the islands we stopped at by organizing a football game on the beach without our Captain's permission. When the Captain went looking for a work detail, he found almost all of the crew and a few officers playing football. Considering the fact that we all swam in to the shore from the ship or took the lifeboats and rowed in, leaving the ship under-manned, it was a miracle we didn't get hung from the yard arm or, worse yet, no steaks for Sunday dinner. There was also an additional signalman and 3 extra radio men, plus two more stewards' mates to help with the ward room meals and assist the cook. Since Noisy Porter, our electrician's mate, had been a baker in civilian life, he took extra pleasure in baking all kinds of tasty muffins, pies, cakes, etc.
Second: to install new gunsights that would add accuracy to our guns, which I told you vibrated so much that they were hard to fire with any great degree of hoping to hit the target. The new sights were much better and seemed to compensate for a lot of the vibration.
Third: it provided us a chance to liberty and to use the 3-day pass I won for the shipboard newspaper, to take a bus trip to Hollywood.
[I regret I must once again omit some of my father's funnier stories here. It involves some nudity and, while of a rather innocent -- just naughty -- nature in a sailor's good fun, I don't think it would quite pass for family friendly.]
A Patriotic Addition to the War Effort: The Mystery of the Mass Under the Tarp
We were scheduled to sail out of San Diego at 2:30 in the morning to rendezvous with our new flotilla of 32 ships in San Francisco, then head out for Pearl Harbor.
Before leaving, Ensign Epton and I got a Jeep from the motor pool to round up some additional supplies. It was about midnight when we returned to unload. After unloading, the ensign said, "I wish he had a Jeep on board. It would make things so much easier when we hit port."
"Mr. Epton," I replied, "Let us say no more. Why don't you go aboard and make sure all the supplies are accounted for and properly stored. Be sure it takes you about 30 minutes."
The guys who had unloaded the stuff were still around. I said to the Boson's mate, "Boats, I see an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the 571's war effort.
He said, "Coles, you have touched my patriotism to the core." He woke up a few more patriots, and we then actually picked up that Jeep, carried it aboard and covered it up on the well deck with a huge canvas. We made it look like a large crate was under the cover. Since it was now about 1am, we caught a few zzz's.
When we left the dock, it was so dark out you couldn't see the well deck from the bridge, and that dark mass on the deck went unnoticed.
We were so busy acclimating our flag staff (as the Commodore's group was called) that the Captain didn't even give it a thought until we got to San Francisco. As we were pulling into the Treasure Island Navy Base, the Captain and the Commodore were on the bridge, when the Captain suddenly turned to me and said, "Coles, what's that?"
"Where, sir?" I said.
"Under the tarp," said he.
"Under what tarp?"
"The one on the well deck."
"How about that," said I. "It must have come aboard at San Diego."
"What's under it, Coles?"
"Obviously, something must be there, sir."
"Would you care to enlighten me," said the Captain.
I was beginning to feel that something wasn't exactly as it should be with our small vessel. "Captain, could we postpone this conversation until after we sail tomorrow morning?"
"If you feel that's in the best interest of the ship," he replied.
The Commodore, being a man of great perception, suddenly asked me to please get him a few cigars from the ship's store. He suggested that he and the Captain take a quick peek while I had gone to get the cigars. When I returned, neither officer said anything. They just smiled.
It was decided that the officers would chip in and buy a bushel of shrimp, and the whole crew would have shrimp cocktail and steak for dinner.
When we got underway the next morning with our flotilla, the Captain said to me, "A notable contribution to our war efforts, Coles." He added, "If you ever find out who was responsible for stealing a Jeep from the San Diego motor pool, make out a written report and we'll take it up immediately after the war ends."
That Jeep did noble service in Hawaii, the Philippines, and in Japan.
Getting Down to the Business of War
Up till now, it's been mostly a tale of high or low comedy, some of which necessitate censoring by me, the youngest child of this World War II veteran. But upon leaving San Diego, Dad and his shipmates had to get "down to the business of war," as he wrote on August 30, 1994, on this handwritten page I'm reading. That's not to say there weren't lighter moments from there on out, but, for the most part, it was time to get serious as the flotilla headed for Pearl Harbor.
It took them 9 days to sail those 2,400 miles, because some of those ships couldn't make more than 10 knots per hour, which was about half the speed my father's ship could move.
His story continues....
As I remember, our trip was uneventful, but we spent a lot of hours practicing both visual and radio communications between ships. The big naval battles had been fought, so there was very little chance that any Japanese submarines would be able to operate east of Johnston Island or Midway. Their source of fuel and supplies had been severely diminished by our ships and aircraft.
We spent the early Spring in Hawaii. Jim May and I spent a good deal of time in Honolulu, watching major league baseball games played by players who were assigned to the various military installations on Oahu, but whose only real job was to play baseball.
[More fun stories from shore time, but in the interest of story time ... I'll skip ahead.]
We did spend quite a bit of time practicing landing operations on Kahulauii, one of the islands that was inhabited by only some wild goats but whose shorelines closely resembled Saipan and parts of the Japanese coast. These were full-scale operations in concert with the Battleship Mississippi, the Army, Marines, Air Force, and dozens of landing craft and other assault vessels.
I remember the first time we held one of these mock invasions. It was very early in the morning and we were awaiting orders. The Commodore hadn't arrived on the bridge yet. I think he was still having his breakfast. However, we all had cotton in our ears while we sat and waited.
Without warning, the Mississippi opened up with their 16-inch guns and all hell broke loose on the bridge when the Commodore came rushing up and grabbed the voice radio mic, which was connected to all command ships plus the Admiral, who was commanding the operation from the Mississippi. He hollers into the mic, "What the *&*$@! is going on here?"
Back comes a reply, "Who is on this radio? Name, rank, and serial number!"
It took only a few seconds, but it seemed like all day until it was established that the Commodore and the Admiral were old friends from Annapolis Naval Academy and that someone had forgotten to tell the Commodore what time they were going to open up. For that oversight, the Admiral sent his gig (boat) over that evening for the Commodore to have dinner with him. I wasn't invited. (I think I had other plans.)
But it was a very busy day with planes dive-bombing the shore, guns from the battleship and several destroyers pounding the hills, and lots of troops carrying out the landings while our flotilla brought ashore tanks, cannon, etc.
Of course, we didn't know at the time what we were practicing for. We would find out later.
New Orders ... and Off Course
One day in late May or early June, we were given orders to detach and head for Eniwetok Atoll to take over another flotilla there. We stopped at Johnston Island, a mere speck of land with an airstrip. I don't even know why we stopped there.
As we headed out for Eniwetok, we eventually ran into some bad weather and had to go by dead reckoning. Usually at night, the Captain would navigate by the stars. The two of us would be up on the bridge at midnight and he would say, "Coles, find me Betelgeuse ... Now find me Antares." And he would call out the readings and I would write them down, and we would plot them out on the charts to see exactly where we were. But for several days there were no stars, and it rained, and the winds blew and blew.
Then, early one morning, the skies cleared and there we were: in sight of an island we shouldn't have been at. Although we had been steering the correct course, the heavy seas had caused us to drift southwestward while we were on a westerly dead reckoning course.
The island was Kwajalein Atoll, still occupied by the Japanese, and there we were, only a couple of miles off the coast, right under their shore batteries. We cranked it up to flank speed and hoped they hadn't spotted us.
What we didn't know was that, every morning at sun-up, our bombers came over and plastered the Japanese on that island. So they were hiding underground and didn't see us.
Because of the storm, we were delayed in arriving at Eniwetok and, when we arrived, the battle was over. There wasn't a bush left standing. The Japanese had dug themselves down into the coral and rode out the veritable deluge of bombs, so the Marines had to burn them up with flame throwers and grenades. If I remember correctly, I don't think any of the Japanese survived on the main island. The rest surrendered on the small islands, and the native islanders had gone to some of their smaller islets. The atoll looked something like this.....
The smaller islands in the circle are coral islets sticking up out of a huge crater atop an undersea mountain....
Inside the atoll, hundreds of ships were getting ready to sail to Saipan and attack 70,000 Japanese.
There was nothing to see on the ashore except mounds of sand, the air strip, and burned out bushes and bomb craters. But the atoll was used as the staging area for the attacks on Guam, Saipan, and other Japanese installations.
Next Stop: Saipan and the Tinian Islands
I would like to digress here for a bit.
As I think back, I remember how awestruck I was at the vastness of the Pacific .. how we would sail for two weeks at a time and never be remotely near any land. No birds, no other ships, just huge rolling swells and depths that we knew by our charts were deeper than the tallest mountains on Earth were high.
When we traveled with our flotilla, of course, it was different. It was like having the family around, trailing after us. We traded movies back and forth, even while moving at sea. Ships would pull near others and send the films over by shooting a line onto the deck and then attaching the film boxes and sliding them across.
Since the Navy knew where our flotilla was, we actually had mail dropped from plant in waterproof floating sacks. This didn't happen often, but it did happen a few times.
Once, we passed a ship going the other way that had mail for us. Amazing. In the middle of this huge expanse of water, a lone ship had mail for us. The Japanese never had a chance to win that war.
The invasion of Saipan began around the middle of June, I think. There were 70,000 Japanese soldiers plus a large number of civilians (women and children) since Saipan had been occupied and considered by the Japanese as a permanent colony. There were native oceanic people there, too, who were more of less kept under strict control.
The battle lasted about 3 weeks, but there were hold-outs in the hills and caves that it took over a year to finally kill or capture.
We came up with additional equipment during the latter stages of the battle on land, so we were not involved when some 420 Japanese planes were shot down or destroyed on the ground at the Tinian Airfield. The two islands lie side by side with a narrow water passage between them. We were anchored in that passage as "S.O.P.A." This means Senior Officer Present Afloat. Our job was to oversee the anchorages and place the various naval units in their designated areas. We were also the communications center. We were probably the smallest vessel there, but "we was a big deal."
Recently, I talked with a local man I know who was in the Marines, fighting ashore, so I'm able to pass along some of the details of this operation.
We sustained about 3,000 killed and wounded. The Japanese, of course, lost most of their 70,000. Probably no more than 5,000 survived, if that. They kept up the fight until they were pushed onto a very rocky cliffside area overlooking a rocky beach below. Although we begged them to surrender, they threw their women and children off the cliffs and then jumped after them. We had small boats in the water offshore with Japanese prisoners on them, pleading through a loudspeaker system to surrender, but they wouldn't listen. The Japanese General committed Hari-kiri rather than jump.
Later on, we learned that they had been told that, in order to become an American Marine, you had to show proof that you had killed your mother and father. With that kind of mindset, it was impossible to get them to listen.
For a while, the Marines had a tough time finding fresh water. What water holes or wells that were located were generally fouled with dead bodies.
It was difficult to dig wells in the rocky, mountainous soil, so the Navy had to set up desalinization equipment and tanks, and the engineers trucked it to the men fighting. Food supply was no problem, but water supply was.
Even after the island was declared secure, there were still snipers who hid in trees and pits dug into the hillsides, who would fire on anyone they could find. Marine patrols were constantly out hunting and killing them.
At one point in time, the commanding General had to replace the Marines guarding the Japanese prisoners with Negro engineers, because the Marines were constantly taking out work parties and then coming back without the P.O.W.s. They would say the P.O.W.s tried to escape and shoot them. The Marine 1st Division took as few prisoners as possible because of Japanese atrocities.
It was part of my duties to go for mail and movies that were there for us. I usually took another man with me. We would go armed. I twas a trip of several miles up to the top of the mountain where headquarters was locatd along with the P.O.W. camp. One had to keep his eyes open and look for snipers. I never did see one, but I did hear some rifle fire in the woods near the road we took.
One time, the commanding General came along in his Jeep with a driver and saw us hitching for a ride in the rain. He stopped and picked us up, took us to the mountaintop for our mail, then gave us a ride down to the boat landing where we picked up transportation out the our ship, which was anchored about a half-mile off shore.
We also had a night problem with Japanese who would swim out with explosives tied around themselves. They would try to swim up to a ship or small boats, dive down underwater and blow themselves up. We had constant night patrols with search lights, cruising around the anchorage areas that were nearest the shore. I don't remember how much damage they caused.
It took a year to search out and kill or capture all those who held out by hiding in the jungle and caves around the island. Tinian was easier to secure because it was relatvely flat, small and had the air strip covering most of the land.
Now Play Ball!
We found some flat land on the shore and carved out a softball field, where we were able to play quite often. I remember one day, a ball was hit into a bomb crater and landed right up against an unexploded Japanese grenade. Since it was the only ball we had that day, we got a long stick and I was able to gently push it a few inches away, so we could retrieve the ball. We had to get some passing military police to fire at it and blow it up, so we could continue our game. We also made a more thorough examination of the area to be sure there weren't any other items lying around.
And that's where my father left off, saying he would continue. If he ever did so on paper, I've yet to find it. But I'll keep looking -- maybe one of my brothers has more -- because I would love to read and share it.
I hope you enjoyed this insight into life aboard a flotilla flagship during world war. What a mix of the light and the heavy. Somehow, I believe, based on some things my father told me shortly before he died, that there was much on the "heavy" side that he saw and possibly experienced but never wanted to talk about. He preferred, for most of his life, to remember the fun and funny times.
Read More Insider Stories from WWII
There are so many books out there about WWII, including many personal accounts written by those who served. Do you know of a good one you'd like to recommend? Please share the title in the guestbook below.
Here's just one of many focusing on personal accounts from men who served in the U.S. Navy during the war....
© 2013 Deb Kingsbury