Older veterans reflect on duty, overseas service
LVN Editor Emeritus
Navy electrician mate Jim Warren relived his front-row seat from two harrowing incidents that involved the USS Pittsburgh, a heavy cruiser with a 14,000-ton displacement, during the last year of World War II.
Warren, and his wife, Harriett, a former employee with the Lahontan Valley News in the 1970s and early 1980s, reflected on the crew’s heroic efforts to tow a damaged aircraft carrier out of harm’s way and within striking distance of the Japanese mainland. With the help of Harriet, Warrant thumbed through several scrapbooks containing photos and news articles from World War II. He recalled when Japanese pilots flying in two waves dropped bombs on the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Franklin, killing more than 800 sailors and severely damaging the ship nicknamed “Big Ben.”
At the time, Warren, who served from 1943-46, remembers the aircraft carrier had sailed to within 54 miles of Japan to launch an attack against Honsh and later a bombing mission against shipping in Kobe Harbor.
“We were in a Carrier Task Force when two Kamikazes hit us,” Warren said of the March 19 early morning attack on the Franklin. “They (Navy crewmen) were putting bombs and fuel in the planes. I saw it unfolding.”
Warren, who first served in the Atlantic theater, said he and a photographer saw the attack from their perch aboard the Pittsburgh. According to additional eye-witness accounts, a dive bomber flying low appeared from within the clouds and dropped two 550-pound semi-armor-piercing bombs. Warren said it appeared one bomb hit the Franklin’s hangar deck causing fire to erupt, and the second bomb ripped through two decks. The fire and billowing smoke shrouded the aircraft carrier as many sailors jumped overboard trying to escape the advancing flames spreading across the deck.
“We towed it out of the war zone even when Kamikazes were bombing it,” Warren said, “and it was sinking. We were even picking up survivors.”
Navy archives reveal that was the only time a U.S. warship pulled another out of a war zone. The vividness of the attacks on the towed aircraft carrier, however, still resonate for Warren, who moved to Nevada in 1959
The smaller Pittsburgh maneuvered into position after the aircraft carrier began listing to one side and drifting toward the mainland. The cruiser hooked up an 8-inch messenger line to the aircraft carrier’s inert capstan. Once crews attached a steel cable between the two ships, the Pittsburgh began towing Big Ben away from the war zone at 3 to 7 knots. Eventually, Warren said the cruiser pulled the Franklin more than 100 knots away from Japan until the aircraft carrier mustered enough power to reverse course and return to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
The carrier group then cruised toward Okinawa.
“We were the first task force ready for Japan,” Warren said. If Japan hadn’t surrendered after atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities, the United States and its allies were set to invade the mainland with thousands of troops, ships and planes.
But Mother Nature wrecked the task force’s plans.
Warren and his crewmates aboard the Pittsburgh encountered the strength of a powerful 130-mile per hour typhoon in early June that rocked the ship with 100-foot waves and tore off a large section of the bow.
“We had water shooting into the compartments,” Warren said, trying to remember the precautions the crew took or the ship would’ve sunk.
After a week of battling the typhoon and high seas, he said the Pittsburgh changed course and headed to Guam, but on June 24, the cruiser then left the island and sailed to the Puget Sound Naval Yard, arriving in mid-July.
Warren and 12 other veterans, all of them in their 80s or early 90s, met with fellow servicemen and women at a luncheon in Reno sponsored by the Mt. Rose Republican Women’s Club and Honor Flight Nevada. The veterans, who live in various cities and towns in western Nevada, have been unable to fly to Washington, D.C. to see the memorial and monuments constructed in their honor, had the opportunity to fellowship during lunch and tell their stories.
John Yuspa, executive director and founder of Honor Flight Nevada, said the veterans were treated to a complimentary lunch for their service and sacrifice during the time they wore the uniform.
Each veteran also received a quilt handstitched by volunteers with the Comstock Quilters, a gift bag and postcard. Other veterans who have been on an Honor Flight also attended the luncheon to tell of their experiences in visiting the memorials.
“What we try to do is take three days and condense it into three hours,” Yuspa said.
Originally from North Carolina, Wayne Paris served in the U.S. Army from 1971-73 as a Vietnam-era vet. He said the lessons learned have continued throughout his life.
“Well, service, it made me grow up,” he said. “My mom and dad couldn’t help me a lot, so you have to grow up. You had to depend on your buddies. It made me stronger in life in general.”
Paris spent the majority of his tour as a supply clerk at a NATO base in West Germany after going through basic and advanced training.
“When I got drafted, they (Army) sent me to the Miami induction center, and then sent me to Fort Jackson (South Carolina) for basic.”
When he learned the advanced training would also happen at Fort Jackson after basic, Paris was happy.
“I could go home on the weekends, “he said. “After that miserable basic training (due to the heat and humidity), I could go see my parents.”
To this day Paris said the weather during the South Carolina summer in Columbia was muggy and uncomfortable, calling Fort Jackson the hottest place any recruit will live for training.
Orville Meyer of Dayton recently traveled on an Honor Flight six months after his wife died and related his experiences with his fellow veterans.
“I was at a low,” the Korean War veteran said, his voice choking up, his hands trembling while holding the microphone.
A member of his church, Tracy Schroeder, volunteered to be his guardian to the nation’s capital on the Honor Flight and assisted Meyer by pushing his wheelchair at the monuments.
“He’s had an amazing life,” she said of the Navy veteran. Her thoughts then turned on those who have served in the military. “Thank you, veterans, you mean so much to me. You’re the best generation ever, and I want to learn more about you.”
The 85-year-old Meyer enlisted in the Navy and spent three years in Korea from 1950-53 but he remained at homeport in San Diego for his final year. He remembers the November 1950 amphibious invasion of Inchon 25 miles southwest of Seoul, the capital, and the problems with mud when the tide rolled out and left a long, wide swath of mud. The invasion’s success under the leadership of Army General Douglas McArthur, though, heavily depended on 75,000 soldiers and Marines and 261 naval vessels that reversed the war’s direction to repel the Chinese and North Korean armies and eventually led to the liberation of Seoul.
Like so many Korean veterans, Meyer, who was serving on the tender USS Piedmont, endured weather extremes on the peninsula, especially with brutal winter temperatures. The Piedmont’s homeport was Seventh Navy in Japan, but the ship was part of the occupational forces after World War II ended until June of 1946 when the ship returned to San Diego. During the Korean War, Meyer completed three tours in the Western Pacific aboard the ship: Sept. 4, 1950 to Oct. 27, 1950; Aug. 1, 1951 to Feb. 12, 1952; and Sept. 9, 1952 to March 9, 1953. After both warring sides signed an armistice, the Piedmont left for Japan.
As with many military personnel serving in the country, the frigid weather concerned them.
“The Korean winters are cold, horrible,” he said, noting temperatures would drop as low as 40-50 degrees below zero.
Lonnie Snyder also fought in Korea with the United States Marines where he saw action at Pusan and Inchon.
“I was all over,” he said of his deployment, but his reply also shifted to the brutal winter weather.
“It was colder than hell,” he said with a slight grin. “Fifty below zero.”
He said many soldiers from other units didn’t protect their feet, and as a result the feet were black and frozen. Although the Korean War occurred more than 60 years ago under the most undesirable conditions, Snyder would re-enlist in the military if not for his age.
“I would go into the Marine Corps again,” he blustered before receiving loud applause.
Minden resident Robert Thomas spent 13 months in Korea in an Army ordnance unit and later transferred to radar. Thomas boarded a converted Victory Ship, now a troop ship, which transported soldiers from Seattle via the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska and then to Tokyo.
Mikey Reed’s ship, the USS Everett, arrived in Korea from its homeport in Washington state. Reed, a frogman with the underwater demolition team, said on a July day when the frigate was on temporary duty performing mine sweeping, he headed to the showers because it was his assigned time.
Nevertheless, he remained vigilant.
“The general alarm went off, and I put on my skivvies and shoes and headed up deck to my battle station,” he said. “The shore batteries were shooting at us.”