Thousands of U.S. Navy sailors served without fanfare, delivering goods and equipment to the many far away islands in the western Pacific Ocean during World War II. Scores of LSTs (landing ship tanks) island-hopped across the Pacific in the waning days of the war and afterward, many of the ships battled high seas and strong storms as well as encountering enemy aircraft.
Serving at sea became a dream of James “Jungle” Dilts, who lived up in Randburg, Calif., a desert small town south of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center at Ridgecrest. Like so many teenagers of his time, the 90-year-old Dilts felt an obligation to enlist in 1944 and serve his country. Joining the Navy for Dilts, who now lives in Fallon, was much easier than avoiding his mother’s wrath when she learned his father took him to Los Angeles to enlist.
“I told my dad I wanted to go into the Navy, so I signed up in L.A.,” said Dilts, who was 17 years old at the time. “When we got home, my mother wanted to know where we were. So we told her, and she was mad at me and mad at my dad. She about left us.”
Dilts said he left high school without graduating, but he earned his GED (General Equivalency Diploma) after returning from sea duty. Although Dilts served 73 years ago, he still retains a sense of humor in retelling his story about enlisting in the military. His father, according to Dilts, had three monosyllabic words of advice before the California teen shipped off. “Be safe, kid.” Dilts quickly noted he wrote an occasional letter to his mother, so she wouldn’t raise “hell” when he got home.
Like many teenagers from his time, Dilts had an opportunity to enlist in one of the other services such as the Marines, but the idea of marching didn’t appeal to him.
“I wanted to ride, so I didn’t go into the Marines,” he said, chuckling.
The thought of marching and taking cover to avoid enemy fire didn’t appeal to Dilts, who has retained a sharp wit about him. On the other hand, the LST crew encountered high seas that caused the ship to roll from one side to another. LSTs were flat-bottom ships with no keel. Every time the crew encountered rough seas, Dilts said he was worried but not scared.
“Tanks and equipment were strapped down, and sometimes one of the straps broke loose,” Dilts explained. “The tanks needed to be strapped down (or chained) because if they broke loose, they would ram into the side walls.”
Dilts ironically had an interest in amphibious ships as a young boy growing up in the northern fringe of the Mohave Desert, so his first and only vessel was on LST 997, which served the majority of its time in the Pacific Theater. Launched in May 1944, LST 997 first saw action in Europe during the invasion of southern France in August and September. During the last year of the war, the LST served in the Pacific and also became part of the occupational forces after VJ Day, which President Harry S. Truman declared as Sept. 2, 1945.
“I didn’t see much action,” said Dilts, who spent time on a 20-mm caliber cannon. “We spent some time on a few islands and New Guinea. I can tell you about the mosquitos there.”
Dilts and his shipmates, though, persevered in order to do their jobs. He said LST 997 headed to the Philippines where it saw limited action. After the war, he said the LST took equipment and supplies to the northern part of Japan. Being on an LST compared to other ships appealed to Dilts because the ship did not draw as much attention from Japanese planes and suicide bombers.
“They wanted the big prizes like the aircraft carriers, battleships and cruisers,” he pointed out.
Dilts left the Navy after serving less than two years and headed home. From Randburg, he decided to see the country and work in the mines as a hard rock miner. He rode the freight trains and hitchhiked around the country – exploits that cause him to get the nickname of “Jungle” — but his travels returned him to the West where he worked at a mine in Butte, Montana, and later at a mine near Gilman Springs north of Austin, Nevada.