U.S. Navy Journalist (Ret.)
"General quarters, general quarters! All hands man your battle stations. Go up and forward on your starboard side, down and aft on your port side. General quarters, general quarters," echoed across the decks of the amphibious personnel attack ship U.S.S. Bingham, APA-225, as a Japanese suicide kamikaze plane neared the ship in 1945. A loader on the 20mm antiaircraft gun, Peter Xanthos, a Grand Island resident and Navy veteran, along with other sailors scrambled to their battle stations to fend off the enemy air attack with antiaircraft fire and a camouflage of thick gray smoke. Deployed in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater since 1944, his ship was also part of the invasion of Okinawa in spring 1945 and other Pacific battles that lead up to the Japanese surrender and end of the second World War, 65 years ago this month.
"The kamikazes came every day, sometimes two to three times," said Xanthos. "We used to put up a cloud of thick gray smoke that completely covered the ship. There were times at our gun stations during GQ, that we couldn't see a damn thing. We constantly heard ‘Smoke boat, make smoke' and hoped another ship had a clear shot at the kamikaze.
"The Battle of Okinawa was one of the largest amphibious invasions of the Pacific campaign and last major battle of the Pacific War," said Xanthos. "Like on many island invasions, the Japanese would let us come in from the sea while hiding in the caves and then hit us hard. Some of the troops we put on Okinawa were green as can be, just kids right out of basic. I tried to calm one kid down, yet I was just as scared having barely turned 19." The bloody battle claimed 34 allied ships and crafts, sunk mostly by kamikazes, and almost 400 more were damaged. Casualties totaled more than 12,000 Americans killed and 38,000 wounded. Additionally, 107,000 Japanese and Okinawan troops were killed along with possibly 100,000 civilians. Yet, according to Xanthos, the numbers would have been worse with an invasion of Japan.
"After repairs to our ship, we were again sailing for Okinawa in August 1945 with a Navy Medical Group and heard about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender," said Xanthos. The American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, and three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
"We were so relieved that the war was over. After the surrender, our captain opened up sealed orders revealing our involvement in the planned invasion of Japan scheduled to begin in November," he said. "The invasion of Japan would have been a bloodbath -- Armageddon."
The Japanese still had 3 million troops, plus every man, woman and child was ready to fight for their homeland, even using wooden spears. Every beach was heavily fortified and 5,000 kamikaze planes were ready to attack the invasion force.
"Allied forces in the invasion of Japan would have involved millions, dwarfing the Allies' invasion of Europe in June 1944. Still, it was a sad end to a new peace," said Xanthos.
The sinking of the cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis, hidden from the public until after Japan's surrender, was also a sad end, especially to Xanthos and other sailors.
"After delivering the atomic bombs to the Marianas, she was torpedoed by a Japanese sub on July 30. The ship sank in 12 minutes before a radio message could be sent out, leaving survivors adrift for two days. Many were eaten by sharks. Only 316 men were rescued out of the crew of 1,200. It was the worst single disaster in time of war in U.S. history," added Xanthos.
Last week marked VJ Day and the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II when Japan formally surrendered to the Allied forces on the morning of Sept. 2, 1945, on board the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. In the ceremony alongside her second 16-inch gun turret, Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, "Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. ... The holy mission has been completed." Other remaining Japanese forces surrendered 65 year ago this week to Allied forces in the Philippines, Wake Island, Singapore, Korea and finally Burma on Sept. 13, 1945.
Luke Owens thought the Army had him during WWII, but he instead became one of the first U.S. Navy Seabees. He was attached to a construction battalion in the South Pacific near New Guinea.
"While we were lined up in ranks, I heard someone say: ‘I'll take him' and boom I was a Navy Seabee," he said, grinning. The official motto of the Seabees is "We Build, We Fight" or simply "Can Do" that appears on the Navy veteran's hat he proudly wears at the Grand Island Golden Age Center. Hearing the "Japanese surrender" news two years later in New Caledonia off Australia, Owens was doing what a lot other sailors do -- chipping paint. "I was chipping paint on an old water tank when everyone starting yelling ‘hooray' while jumping up and down. We then proceeded to drink lots of beer the rest of the day."
Fighting and building on six continents, on more than 300 islands mostly in the Pacific, the start of Seabee rating dates back to June 1942. They land soon after the Marines, building airstrips, bridges, roads and Quonset huts for hospitals and housing.
Another Golden Age Center member, John Kimmel, was a young Dutch man in West Java, Indonesian, during the war and forced to work in a Japanese camp to survive. "We cut down rubber trees by hand. We also took care of 2,000 pigs, apparently stolen from the Chinese to feed Japanese troops during special events," he said. When the Japanese official didn't show for work one morning in August 1945, word of mouth spread that Japan had surrendered.
"We couldn't believe that the Japanese had surrendered to the Americans. We thought they'd never give up," said Kimmel. He then walked 6 miles through the jungle to catch a bus home to Jakarta. "There my mother warned me that Indonesian terrorists were killing the Dutch people, so I went to the 12th Battalion Dutch Army Base in Jakarta." Later, Kimmel got a job on a tugboat, launching his lifelong Merchant Marine career.
Former B-24 bombardier Lt. Col. Torg Fadum was shot down over Europe during the war and put in a German POW camp. Returning home after VE Day when Germany surrendered, he was now being refitted for the possible invasion of Japan.
"When we heard the news of Japan's surrender, we were in a military-run hotel in Atlantic City on 60 days military leave," said the Grand Island resident. "As we were walking through the lobby, a sort of chatter of sound spread across the hotel passing the word that Japan had surrendered. This sent us straight to the bar to celebrate."
Bob Eldredge was another soldier in the European Theater. He was sailing on an Army troop transport heading for the states when the word was passed that Japan had surrendered.
"I was so happy. When we pulled into New York City, seeing the Statue of Liberty made me cry. I had finally made it home safe," said the Army veteran. He simply took the train to Buffalo and just walked home. "I didn't need a parade. I just did my duty and wanted to go home."
Grand Island resident, yet then a German citizen in 1945, Konrad Mertz, was in Hungry and sentenced to 10 years in Dachau, a German concentration camp, after refusing the draft into German SS in 1945. He represents the millions of citizens displaced by the war who then tried to rebuild their lives along with the rest of Europe. Fortunately the war ended in Europe a few months later and he traveled on foot, by truck and then by horse and buggy to get home to war-torn Hungry and eventually America.
Golden Age Club member Betty Ann Wilkie represents the many women and men that supported the home front while waiting for their loved ones to come home. She was waiting for her Navy sailor to return from the sea. "When I heard the president on the radio announce the Japanese surrender, I was so happy that he would soon becoming coming home safely," she said. They were later married and lived a good life on Grand Island, happily ever after.
Don Richard (pictured at left) served on the light aircraft carrier U.S.S. Langley and fought against many fierce Japanese kamikaze attacks in the Pacific. On Aug. 8, 1945, the ship pulled in to Pearl Harbor to support a possible upcoming invasion of Japan. Unknown to her crew, history was changing with the dropping of the two atomic bombs that week.
"We were extremely happy that the war was finally over. We heard about the 2,000 kamikaze planes waiting for us if we had to invade Japan," said the Grand Island resident. After Japan's surrender, the Langley joined other Allied ships in humanitarian missions worldwide to bring the troops home and return Axis prisoners to their homelands in Europe and the Pacific.
See more Navy Sea Stories, WWII and post-war stories in future issues of the Island Dispatch. And don't forget today and everyday to thank a vet for our freedom.