Every Veterans Day causes World War II sailor to reflect on service
The day before Veterans Day always weighs emotionally on 93-year-old Mound House resident Jerry Smith.
On that day in 1944, the USS Mount Hood exploded in Seeadler Harbor in northern Papua New Guinea killing all aboard but sparing a party of 18 men who departed the ship earlier for shore. As a 17-year-old sailor serving in the South Pacific, Smith said he will never forget the horror of that day when two earth-shaking explosions ripped the ship and left only debris floating in the harbor.
A DAY LIKE NO OTHER
Fate led to Smith experiencing the destruction. His skipper “loaned” him to the 99th Seabees, a naval construction battalion, on the other side of Manus Island where the explosion occurred.
“Hey, Smitty, go and give these guys a hand,” Smith remembers distinctly before that fateful morning rocked the harbor with an indescribable force of power more than 76 years ago.
Smith and the other sailors had finished breakfast and began walking down a temporary dock shortly before 9 a.m. In a split second, their focus quickly changed on that November day.
“It was as if the world had all the air sucked out of it,” Smith recalled. “We basically felt — rather than heard – the concussion when that old ship blew up. Then pieces started hitting the water around us like huge rain drops.”
Smoke from the explosion rose like a huge mushroom cloud thousands of feet into the sky and hid the Mount Hood and the other ships anchored within a half-mile radius of the ammunition ship. A second class carpenter’s mate told Smith and the other sailors they should commandeer a small boat and look for survivors. Smith said it became obvious something devastating happened, and of the damage surrounding them. Shrapnel pieces jettisoned from the Mount Hood ripped into the smaller ships and boats in the bay.
“We started looking for survivors and cruised around,” he remembers of their search and rescue mission.
Smith also remembers the USS Minanao rocked with shrapnel hitting it, killing 10 sailors on deck and wounding more. The sailors in the small boat continued to look for survivors. They cruised by the previous location of the Mount Hood but nothing remained of the ship. Finally, they found three bodies.
“It was like picking up sacks of wet potatoes,” Smith described. “Not a solid bone in any of their bodies.”
They returned to land, only to be met the officer of the day from the Seabee group. He quizzed the group why they were in the bay. He ordered Smith back to his ship three times, each time stressing his command. Once he returned, his skipper summoned Smith to the ward room.
“Are you OK?” the commander asked Smith who acknowledged the concern.
“Here are the rules, son,” his commander continued. “You have not been any place. You don’t know anything.”
Smith described the encounter as “his first real experience of secrecy.”
The Navy never determined the cause of the devasting explosion and closed the inquiry by the end of the year, striking the Mount Hood from the Naval Register.
“Every year about this time, I never forget it. I never forget picking up the three bodies,” Smith said. “It all comes back … it all comes back.”
Scores of men died that day and 371 from all the boats anchored in the harbor were injured. Smith said it’s difficult to share the story of such destruction, but he reckons that’s war.
“Every war has its stories, and every warrior has his story,” Smith said.
BOOT CAMP VENTURES
Smith’s stories on survival in the South Pacific began after he attended boot camp in San Diego in early 1944. He, like so many teenagers before him, lied about his age and entered the military as a 16 years old. To this day, the Louisiana native said fibbing about his age and serving for the rest of the war was “nice to get away with it.” Originally, Smith signed up expecting to play the French horn in a Navy band, but the military had different plans for him and another musician-sailor who grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, after they began their boot camp.
Smith and his musician friend, though, became platoon leaders, and they drilled the older Seabees at boot camp with precision. The Navy recognized Smith’s talent as a musician and former member of his high school’s marching band and how he could make the older sailors make crisp turns and stop on a dime.
“We were leading them,” Smith laughed. “We were telling these guys what to do and how to march.”
With a month remaining at basic training, their Navy careers, however, took another unexpected turn.
Because of their outstanding test scores, a man described by Smith as a Humphrey Bogart type interviewed him and a few others about a secret mission involving radar. Smith said radar was in its infancy in the Navy but their schooling now shifted to a radar school at Point Loma north of San Diego. Smith laughs about the training because nothing sophisticated existed in the 1940s. The sailors had to read about radar and learn more from other books and instruction about navigation and plotting.
“I didn’t see my first radar until I was sent out to sea,” Smith said.
FIRST SEA DUTY
Assigned to the USS Castor, a cargo or general stores issue ship, moored at a pier at the Alameda naval air station west of Oakland, Smith arrived on board before an antenna was fitted on the mast. Once the ship began sailing from Alameda to Pearl Harbor, the crew installed the gear and wired it from the antenna to the radar shack. From Hawaii, the USS Castor sailed to the Marshall Islands where the crew saw its first action of the war. Smith said he felt scared for the first time.
“We didn’t know what what’s going on,” he said when the Castor arrived in the Marshall Islands. “We’d off load the guys into boats and send them into the beach. It’s like being in a movie, but then you see the first bodies. Suddenly, you know you’re in a war. That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
“We did a little bit of mop-up from a bombardment, then we got out of there and made some runs. Then we went to the Marianas, Saipan, Tinium and Guam.”
As the months passed and the war dragged on, Smith and his crewmate witnessed the fiercest fighting they had seen at Okinawa in April 1945. Positioned about 500 miles from the southern tip of Japan, Okinawa held significant importance as a final staging area for the Allies invasion of Japan that never occurred after two atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, respectively. When the Castor reached Okinawa, Smith said the crew didn’t face any initial resistance.
“The Japanese let everyone get on a shore and set up before their attack hit us,” Smith recounted. “We had the kamikazes (suicide pilots) drop a bomb close to us. A bomb clipped our mast, (and) the explosion picked me up and hit me against the bulkhead.”
The Castor wasn’t the only ship damaged by Japanese planes. More kamikazes crashed their planes into allied ships causing 26 to plunge to the ocean’s floor. The enemy also damaged more than 160 ships during the wave of attacks. Smith said he learned it was the largest enemy air raid in history.
Because of Smith’s injury, he was later medically discharged from the Navy after the war but called back in 1947. He stayed another three years but left the Navy three months before the Korean War started. During the late 1940s, Smith had a number of assignments including taking a radar class at the Navy base on Treasure Island, and from there, he and other sailors put the USS John R. Pierce back into commission in 1949 two years after the destroyer was removed from service.
Once Smith left the Navy, he returned to his native state, enrolling at Louisiana State University. Once he earned his degree, he accepted employment with Sears Roebuck in California, married and began a family. He and his late wife of 65 years moved to Nevada in 2008.
Reflecting on his years with the Navy, the Louisiana native who grew up in the lumber town of Urania 248 miles northwest of New Orleans thinks about his service and the life lessons learned from that era.
“Most people don’t have a clue,” he said of what sailors, soldiers and Marines faced during the war. “It’s so easy for people to forget.”
Smith, who visited Washington, D.C. in 2015 on an Honor Flight Nevada trip for veterans, said it’s important to keep those memories of wartime service alive either with through trips to the nation’s capital to see the memorials or through stories told in books.
During the last segment of our hour-long interview, Smith revealed more about his family but more so about the man who guided him through life, his stepfather.
“I was raised by a World War I veteran, an infantry officer,” Smith said, his voice choking. “He taught me it was all right to cry when you lose somebody close to you. It’s OK. It’s OK.”
But his father said don’t be a crybaby. There’s a difference between heartfelt feelings and complaining.
During August 1945, Smith received leave to return to New Orleans where his parents now lived. His stepfather pleaded with his plant supervisor to grant time off for the stepdad to see his son.
“My boy’s home,” Smith’s father told his boss. “My boy’s home.”
The war kept Smith from visiting his family for more than three years.
A moment of silence overcame the Navy vet. After all these years, Smith was trying not to cry when remembering the influence his father had in his life. But it was OK to shed tears.
“He was my best friend. He died my best friend.”
The end of World War II in both Europe and the Pacific ended 75 years ago this year. As a project to honor as many heroes as possible, The Nevada Appeal, Lahontan Valley News and the Nevada News Group have published numerous articles on our local veterans who served during World War II.