|EAST CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTION|
|ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW #153|
|Captain Willard W. DeVenter, USN|
|USNA Class of 194|
|August 27, 1996|
|Interview conducted in San Diego, California, by Donald R. Lennon|
Let's start with your background. I know you were born in Washington State on October 24, 1918, and a little about your background, your childhood, what led you to apply to the Naval Academy. Why you decided to go into the Navy as a career? Then, take it from there and tell us about some of your experiences at the Naval Academy, things you remember from your four years there, and then kind of walk through your career like that.
Well, my childhood was smattered by virtue of a divorce between my parents. I was age nine when my mother kidnapped me out of the state of Washington to California to Rolly Hills. Do you know where that is?
I'm not sure?
San Pedro. I ended up in two, or three, I guess it was, schools, the last of which is the only important one. It was called the Voorhis School for Boys, named after one Jerry Voorhis, who became a representative in Congress. I was pretty much one of his prize
boys, I guess. I got a whole bunch of As. That's the reason. In any event, I went to his school from 1927 through 1936. Then I graduated from high school and went promptly to Occidental College, which is in Eagle Rock, California--Los Angeles extended. Eagle Rock is half way between Los Angeles and Pasadena, right next to the Rose Bowl.
My people, and I don't know which one, heard that they were going to give examinations for the Naval Academy entrants, for appointments by congressmen. This wasn't the guy we're talking about, because he wasn't involved in my struggle to get into the Naval Academy. I solved that problem before he got wind of the fact, I guess. I got appointed by a different man. Anyway, I never thought that it would be necessary to get Jerry Voorhis to appoint me. I just didn't think it was necessary. So, I marched myself into San Pedro High School and there were eight hundred people in the room. They were giving exams for West Point, the Coast Guard, and the Navy. I took the exam and I stood one. It's as simple as that. So, I got appointed.
I arrived at the Naval Academy on July 9, 1937, and held up my hand and I've been a Naval officer ever since. My father was a Dutch citizen and my mother was a Canadian citizen, and I was born in the United States on an Indian Reservation, which made me a citizen. I was born there, because my mother had gotten off the train early at Toppenish, Washington, which is an Indian Reservation, so I was born a Federal Citizen, forth with. I didn't realize it, but that solved my major problems when I was a little fellow, age twenty-one or better. The fact that I was born on an Indian Reservation made me a U.S. citizen then and there and no one could argue about it. I had a federal birth certificate. That helps when you're trying to prove citizenship, which was not a big problem in 1918. They didn't think of it at all. Nobody ever gave a hoot whether or not
you were a citizen. Senator McCarthy did, I suppose. We're commemorating 1968 today, the Democrats are, and that's one the basic fights in that organization--the 1968 Convention. The reason for the fight was Senator McCarthy.
Anyway, I got into the Academy and the first year, I roomed by myself. The second year, I roomed with three others, and the four of us lived together for two years. We finally made an agreement to split up. So, it ended up with three of us.
How did you manage to get a room to yourself your plebe year, the first year?
That's the way the place is built, was built; they rebuilt it, you see. The reason I got a room by myself has to do with the fact that I had a first classman, who was my "Mother," and he had a room by himself and that's the way it worked. Anyway, I got in with these other three kids for two years, and then the senior year, it was just the three of us, total three. We all did, in fact, graduate. The other three are now all dead. The last one died two months ago. So, I'm the last of the four.
What do you remember specifically from the Academy as far as the regimentation or the nature of the coursework or any highlights?
I don't know how to answer the question, because I don't understand the question.
The Academy, like all military academies, is very regimented. Did you find it difficult adapting to that style of life?
Let me answer the question this way. In the academic subjects, except my senior year, I stood less than ten, higher than ten in every subject in the academic world. But I didn't do anything at all in aptitude for the service and conduct. They call it discipline or something. I was a 2.5 in aptitude for the service, and 2.5 for conduct.
Sounds like you had some episodes that you were involved in.
I had numerous ones.
I didn't have any particular struggles, but I had a pretty good reputation for not worrying too much. There were several other classmates who had a miserable record in both, also. Cliff Lenz did, for instance, who is one of my friends here in San Diego. I don't know. It isn't very important, what you do in conduct or aptitude for the service when you're struggling to go to MIT, which is what I was doing. When I got out of there, that's the first thing I did, get myself appointed to MIT or CalTech, either one, and get into the engineering business. I went with several guys; thirty-six of us started and six finished.
At what stage did you go to MIT?
Was this directly after your graduation?
This was after the war.
Yes, considerably. It was 1946 through 1949.
At the Academy, did you participate in athletics?
No. I didn't do any of that. I was a pretty good baseball player, but I didn't do it. It was a waste of time.
Bob Leasure, who turned out to be a Marine and ended up with diabetes and they sawed his leg off and finally it killed him, had the very bad sense one day, to ask me why sine was one over the cosec. I threw the book in his face and we didn't live with him
again. After all those years of studying mathematics, if he didn't know that, he didn't know nothing. Well, he didn't know nothing. That was how that turned out.
A lot of the class members have fond recollections of Uncle Beanie. Did you?
Well, everybody in the Class of 1941, crossed Beanie's path more than once. I certainly did, I know that. He must have gotten me for shoe-shine at least a half a dozen times; shoes not shined to his satisfaction. I swear, half of the times that he got me, they looked perfectly all right.
He took great delight in it and did it with a smile though, didn't he?
Yes, he did. Yeah, we enjoyed him. We had some incompetent professors. Maybe I shouldn't say that, but that's where they were.
Were these the career Naval officers or were these civilians?
These were careers. If you've got a civilian professor, in those days, he was usually competent, especially in the sciences. You could get plenty of English professors that didn't know what they were talking about and that didn't do anything. History; I never had a competent history prof, never.
It's one of those things. I don't think it made any difference, really.
Were the history professors primarily Naval officers?
They were a very good mix, half of each. The whole system was about half and half really.
Both the civilians and the Naval officers followed a pattern of rote memorization, didn't they?
There was a lot of memorization. There is no question about that, yes, a lot of it and I was good at it. If I had to read a book, I could read the whole book and quote every page, about.
That takes a special ability.
Yes, it does, no question about it. Anyway, I was unimpressed with the brilliance of any of the officers and a damn few of the civilians in that school. When you get to someplace like MIT or even the Naval Academy Post-Graduate School, which I attended also for a year, you get a decent set of professors that know what they're talking about.
The great strength of the Academy is engineering anyway, isn't it?
Yes, and you'd be amazed how many of those people don't know their engineering when they get out. That's quite a bit.
That's essential for a Naval officer, I would think.
I would think so. It does not prove out to be that way. For instance, I can speak now about Hutch Cooper, who was a classmate, who made vice admiral if you remember. To this day--he's now dead--he doesn't know any engineering. He also didn't know any engineering about the airplane he was flying, which I know something about.
Anyway, it was not important in 1937 to 1941 to show any expertise in the engineering business at that school. Why it was that way, I don't know, but it was that way. I did some time at Occidental College before I had gotten to the bloody place and I did some time afterwards at both Post-Graduate School at Annapolis and MIT. So, I can speak with some authority on the subject of whether or not the professors were incompetent, and they were, no question about it. They just didn't know what the hell they were talking about. You could go down the list of all the professors, having gone
through, I suppose, twenty a year, and it ends up at about eighty odd, o.k.? You might be able to count three guys who knew what they were talking about. At the most, three; no more than three. Four years worth, you get a total of twelve.
When we got out of that place and came back into it, back into of the Naval Academy, to the West End, which used to be the headquarters of the Post-Graduate School, there were some really competent guys at that place, the professors. They had a source right down the road. You'd look around and pick out the guy that was the smartest. That worked pretty good.
So, anyway, thirty-six guys started out for this guided missile guidance curriculum. It culminated at MIT--two years, a Masters Degree, and all that stuff. As I said, six finished. Half of the thirty-six went to The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I guess it is, Silver Springs really. They couldn't handle the MIT arithmetic in the first place, none of them. Of the eighteen who stayed at MIT, six finished, as I said. The six that did finish were damn good engineers.
When a Naval officer is sent into a program like that and they are unable to complete it, do they just go back to their regular assignment?
That doesn't look good on their record, I would think.
That doesn't look good at all, but that's not quite the way that it happens. They handle some guys like Jack Beardall, when he was at MIT and not doing too well, they just let him. . . . His father was an admiral and superintendent of the Naval Academy at that time, so they didn't throw him out of the Navy or even out of the PG schools. They
just put him in the category of “he's just around.” That's the end of that. If he got a Masters Degree in anything, I don't think so.
He completed his time there, but . . .
. . . not the academics.
Well, now, when you graduated from the Academy in February of 1941, what was your assignment at that point?
I went to a destroyer.
It was 348. It was the first of the new destroyers built by Roosevelt.
Where was it stationed?
It was at Pearl, so you went directly to Pearl Harbor.
Yes. There were a boatload of us; 140, I think, or so. We rode over there on the HENDERSON from Frisco. It took four or five days ,I guess, five days. Maybe more than that. I can't remember. So, we all marched around Pearl and sought out our ships and reported aboard. It was a university crew in the destroyer Navy, back then. The first move you made when you were an ensign was to get in your uniform and go get the "Deck." You became officer of the deck, then and there. When the ship got underway, you were "at the Conn.” That was the way they brought you up. Then you set about trying to qualify in engineering, in gunnery, and the supply management business--they called it storage officer in those days.
Were you appointed to the engineering department?
Yes. I was assistant engineer. There were some seven officers aboard and I was “George”. You know what “George” means, he's “George and everything else." I had a good time. I learned how to drive a destroyer, no question about that. I've been doing it all my life.
You were involved, primarily, in just maneuvers out in the Pearl area there for several months during the summer of 1941.
Well, you'd go out for roughly between three to six days a week, but usually four and a half. We'd come back in Friday night and spend Saturday and Sunday in port . . . like we did at Pearl, and let the bad guys shoot at us.
During the summer and early fall of 1941, was there a feeling that war was imminent?
No, not at all.
It was just a duty station.
That's right. No, there was nobody anticipating a war with Japan real soon. We thought we'd win it anyway, which we did, but we would have won it a damn sight quicker if we hadn't lost all those battleships. They had more carriers than we did, I guess. I can't remember the numbers, but it was close. Ours were better ships. We had a hell of a time that first couple of years.
I spent from February of 1941 until February of 1942, maybe March, I can't remember, in Pearl Harbor on that FERRIER, except when I was sick. I caught a disease called lymphocidiccoreomeningitis. It has to do with the quantity of white blood cells you have and it knocked me out. I got too many up here in my head and the thickness and
density of the fluids floating around in my brain was too high, and I collapsed when I had the deck.
When did this develop?
Oh, about February the first.
So this was after we were at war.
Yes. I was one sick boy. They flew over to Pearl some sixteen San Francisco surgeons and so forth to figure out what was wrong with this ensign. They found out and tapped my spinal fluid and I got better. Nobody ever died of it, a damn few. There are thirty cases a year, worldwide, and very few die.
You were very sick.
I was out of it. My head hurt so bad that I was out of it, non compos mentis.
Tell us about the attack, where you were and what. . . .
I was officer of the deck. I was in bed when the attack struck. I forgot who had the deck. I just don't remember. They rang the bell and that was the end of that problem. I went to the bridge and I had the "conn" and I did that right. The senior guy aboard was the chief engineer and he was down in the hold trying to keep the steam from leaking through the pipes. If the engine is too hot right away, the pipes don't seize on the gaskets between the two pieces. The end result is leaks. You can't stop the leaks until you stop the ship, so you don't do it. We finally got the thing back into port at the expiration of the battle, ten o'clock or so at night. We'd been chasing the Japanese cruisers all the way to the South Pole, and they were all at the North Pole. They went north; we went south.
When you were, of course, there at berth, at the time of the attack, did you have any difficulty other than the leaking pipes and getting up steam and getting out of the harbor?
No. We didn't have any difficulty at all. We started out, my ship was third in line going out. We had the ready duty, our division did. So, the first two ships got involved with a submarine, miniature, little fellow. That submarine shot two fish. They only had four. The total of two submarines had four torpedoes. Well, one of them went by me about fifteen feet away and one of them went fifteen feet right by somebody else. I rang the bell and off we went. We were then lead ship, because the other two were chasing the two submarines.
Now, the air attack was concentrating on the battleships. They were pretty much ignoring the destroyers, unless one happened to. . . .
They totally ignored the destroyers. They ignored the submarine tenders--of which there were two--the repair ships, the destroyer tenders, and the seaplane tenders--I guess there were two of those too. There were beef boats, AF's and AR's, I guess.
They were just targeting the big boys.
I didn't have any problems. I knew what I was doing and I did it. If I hadn't had to work so hard when I was an ensign here, I would have had difficulty, because the guy named Kaplan, who was conning the AYLWIN (355), didn't do too good. He hit the buoy with the propellers. They didn't pay you to do that. Those buoys were pretty big, you know. They're twenty feet across. They could ruin a propeller all day.
Was that lack of skill or just the excitement of the time, you know, the pressure of the first time you're under fire?
He didn't know what he was doing. It's as simple as that. He got a Navy Cross for it. That sort of p'd me off. The Navy Crosses that were issued that day, which you know of one for sure, Taussia, weren't distributed to guys that earned them at all. I was there.
Anyway, I got out of the hospital and caught an airplane to New York City and was assigned to another destroyer, a 488 called MCALLA. That guy McAlla was the discoverer of all kinds of crazy things in the world. He stuck his nose in the Guantanamo Naval Base in 1898.
Spanish-American War, yes.
It's a big harbor. Let's dig a few holes in it and make a passage. Anyway, that's who the ship was named after. After I reported aboard, an edict came down from on high in Washington: “Don't put anymore than four Naval Academy grads on any destroyer.” We had seven. I was one of them. I did something like five months on that ship before I got off. They threw me off because of this seven versus four.
They were trying to spread the graduates as thin as possible. They needed them.
That's right. I ended up at 90 Church Street, which is the fairy godmother of all naval officers in New York City, the headquarters. I suppose it still is, but I'm not even sure about that. When I reported into 90 Church Street, they looked at me and they said, “Are you qualified as officer of the deck?” I said, “Yeah.”
“Do you think you could drive a battleship?”
I said, “I've done it.” I got orders to the ARKANSAS then and there, officer of the deck. I went to Europe and back. It was three weeks over and three weeks back and a week over there.
Was this convoy duty?
Yes, convoy duty. I got off the ARKANSAS three and half years later when they started to bomb the ship at Bikini. They hung the atom on its keel essentially.
So you spent the rest of the war on the ARKANSAS?
On one ship. I reported as a lieutenant, junior grade, and left as a lieutenant commander and gunnery officer.
When you were on the MCALLA that five months, what was it involved in?
Shakedown and stuff like that?
We also had the very bad sense to hit the pier while I was driving the boat, because of some kid on the IC switchboard. Do you know what that is?
Well, it's the big switchboard for everything except electricity as such, IC-- Internal Communications. Anyway, some guy thought that the ship was stopped. It was tied up to the pier. It's what he thought, so he turned all the switches off on the IC switchboard. The first switch he threw was the engine order telegraph IC switch. Shortly thereafter, the communications systems go--sound powered telephones, PA system, you name it. I couldn't get the damn ship stopped, because I didn't know what was wrong with it.
Without a communications system, you couldn't.
Without a communications system, I couldn't find out. I finally got some power out of the 1MC, the public address system. I got the ship backing down, but we hit the
pier, which was solid concrete three thousand miles thick--From in New London to San Francisco-- and I hit that thing at about five knots. We lost four and a half feet of bow.
Did they have a Court of Inquiry or anything on it?
At time of war they didn't. . . .
They didn't do it. Let's put it this way; it was too obvious what caused the thing. The captain, the popes, and archbishops couldn't have done a damn thing about it. It took two days to fix it. I know, because I got a week off from New York to go to Baltimore, and I got married. That was a mistake, too. That was the first of three.
Were you supposed to be able to get married that early after coming out of the Academy?
There was a waiting period before you were. . . .
That's right, but that was repealed, essentially for me and others, because we were all. . . . We had been out at this point for a year and three months, so they waived the whole thing.
I progressed through the gunnery department of the ARKANSAS, essentially until such time that we got ourselves mixed up with Omaha Beach. That was a pretty exciting arrangement right there. I almost got my head blown off half a dozen times.
Can you give us some specifics about what happened to you at Omaha Beach? Any recollections of that?
The bullets the other guys were shooting were six-inch, essentially, sometimes six-and-a-half to eight. We were shooting twelve-, fourteen-, and fifteen-inch at them. It was kind of an uneven contest. We beat them up, badly.
Among other things that happened that I do remember something about was the ARKANSAS, which was at anchor. It was in irons, that is to say, it was stuck with the wind and the currents and it couldn't turn. We turned the engines over to turn the ship with the propellers and it didn't work. So, the enemy, the Germans, at that point, started shooting at us. We could not get the guns out of the point of the ship's bow. There is a result, when you shoot those great big buggers, it knocks the bow down. If you keep it up long enough, it will break the back of the ship. We didn't. The ship did not; the gun boss didn't do that. It was bent down a foot anyway.
We went over to South Hampton and got into dry-dock, which bent the ship back to where it was supposed to be. The ship's force and the Navy yard people, too, welded the ship back together as best as possible in about six days, I guess it was.
Well, now, your primary purpose was to protect the troops as they went ashore, was it not?
Well, yes. Your primary target would be the Germans, six' to eight-inch implanted in turrets on the beach, close to it anyway. Next there would be tanks, German tanks. The way you get those is you get the airplanes out. We had Spitfires spotting for us on the main battery. It's kind of hard to understand this. Our OS2U amphibious airplanes--little fellows with one wing, one engine, and two people--are what we used to use for spotting planes, but they didn't go fast enough to miss the anti-aircraft battery weapons that the Germans had, so we ended up flying Spitfires. One of my jobs turned
out to be to coach the airplanes, “Where the hell to we go to get out of the way of the Germans and vice versa?” You have to spot the targets and go on, so I had that job for a while. About six hours a day, I had that job. I had to keep the airplanes off my own back, because I was the air defense officer.
During such a mammoth invasion area effort as that, you've got a lot of different kinds of planes in the air as well as a channel full of ships there. The Spitfires, the ones that you were working with, were assigned specifically for support of the ARKANSAS?
Absolutely, and other battleships doing the same thing, which there were half a dozen. Well, right off hand, there were three French cruisers, six-inch cruisers, as I remember. Our battleship division was five ships. I don't know why it was five. It should have been four, but it wasn't. The British had their own deals off to the side, northwest of us. We were between the British on one side and the landing force at Utah Beach. I wasn't real sure who was running that thing over there. I don't remember. It's too far away, you know? I didn't have any difficulty with the airplane business except the day the Germans decided to poke holes in Willy. That can ruin your whole day when they start doing that. It can ruin your whole damn day!
So anyway, I got out of that, but we went to southern France and invaded the place, July 15, 1944. That's about right, when we invaded southern France. That was an interesting affair in my point of view, because I'm an air defense officer and thirty-six JU-88s came over the hill at about six hundred feet off the deck and dropped every kind of bomb they owned. Well, there was much smoke and fire around. They never hit a thing, never hit a thing. All they did was blow holes in the water. After that, the ARKANSAS was essentially through with European affairs.
We proceeded to the West Coast, specifically Long Beach, and got ready for the war here in the Pacific and we ended up at Ulithi. That's a pretty strange little place, very pretty. We got ready for the battle of Iwo Jima, about February 1, 1945. The ARKANSAS owned the northwest portion of the island of Iwo Jima, on the north side of Suribachi, and I got to watch the six Marines push up the flag.
Did you really?
They were right there. I could throw a potato at them. Anyway, that was interesting.
Were you primarily patrolling at this point or were you shore bombardment?
No. We had the pick over the side. The ARKANSAS always had the pick over the side. “Pick” means anchor. This concept of patrolling ain't right. That ain't the way invasions happen. They just don't work that way. You stop and throw over the pick and then you blow their heads off. If you don't stop and throw over the pick, you ain't going to hit anything. Boy, it takes a long time to teach battleship sailors that they can't hit anything.
Were you all facing much firing from the shore at Iwo?
Not enough to talk about. None, essentially. I don't even remember ever getting anything at all that scared me.
There was no threat from the Japanese Navy coming down?
No. They didn't have any Navy in those days to speak of.
They pretty much fled on back up toward the Japanese Sea.
Any Navy they had, they brought it all down to Okinawa and that's where I got my head almost blown off. That's the next battle after Iwo. We were prepared to . . .
I'm trying to figure out the name of that damn island; I can't do it. It starts with an L, Luzon. Is that right?
Luzon is in the Philippines.
Yeah. Well anyway, it's the eastmost middle island. We prepared there for the Okinawa thing, mostly to change positions on shore emplacements. The Japs had a line at something called Suri Castle. We got assigned to that damn fort and it was thick, forty and fifty feet thick at the base of the thing. We shot a twelve-inch bullet, armor-piercing. It went into the hill and the hill blew up for a week. It went right up a cave and hit an ammo dump, right in the middle of Suri Castle. You couldn't just send up the Marines to Suri Castle at that point. That didn't make any sense. Let the thing blow. So, anyway, it was kind of funny.
Kind of spectacular fireworks.
Oh, yeah, dead Japs everywhere. Well, maybe I should digress to say that I was assigned to walk across that damn Okinawa with some Marines to spot targets and call them up on the radio, etc., and I did all that. I almost got my head blown off half a dozen times doing that.
In what stage of the invasion was this, that you were sent ashore.
Oh, five or six days.
Was this after the island had been pretty much secured?
Yes indeed. They couldn't get the Suri Line taken. We couldn't get enough Marine bodies lined up to protect each other from the weaponry. You couldn't do it.
So you were actually sent ashore to direct the fire power as to where they needed to bombard.
That's right. That's what the hell they wanted me to do. Well, it was right after this that this famous bullet went right up the chimney of the fortifications and it blew for a week.
When you were ashore there, give me some details on that.
I think it was five Marine soldiers that walked around with me. The first thing that I remember was that I was damn cold all the time. It was April Fool's Day and it was cold. The second thing that I remember was a tree that we were trying to get up against, which had been dumped, that is to say, a bullet hit it and dumped it. It gave us some protection, the roots, what have you, especially from small arms. I never got there. I never made it. So many bullets, you know, you end up down on the ground and boy, you start digging.
So there was still a heavy fire throughout that area you were in.
Oh, yeah. That tree looked like a blessing to me.
You hadn't been trained for Marine duty, had you?
No, I would have flunked the course anyway. I got out of it alive and got back on the ship after this scouting expedition was over and we got on the southeast end of the island of Okinawa. The Japanese aircraft, kamikazes, flew between the TEXAS and ARKANSAS. We were shooting at them and they were down, and a bullet went right over the top of my right shoulder and crashed into a wall about as big as that and that thick--twenty-pound, STS, I guess. STS means stainless steel, which was a part of the superstructure in the front of the ARKANSAS. The purpose of the steel was to keep little bullets from rattling the cage of the radios and so forth that were inside. Anyway, the
thing went right over my shoulder. It went off, that far in back of me, right there. Well, I've got a hole here and my back looked like a hamburger.
Right, from shrapnel. I got a piece of it in me. It's about as big as that little fingernail there and about as thick as my thumb nail. It's sitting there between vertebrae six and seven. I'm not supposed to put two hands above my head, because I might. . . .
It's still there?
It's still there. I might screw up my spinal cord, so I didn't do it for about five years.
It was too close for them to remove?
That's right, too close, so it's still there. This one, you could lay two cigarettes right in there, right in that hole. I ran around for about ten years and couldn't move that thing.
I was going to say, an injury like that to the elbow would be very difficult to be able to manipulate it and maneuver.
I finally got over all the problems. It cut the tendon and that thing kept hanging on this hinge. You get like that and it would stick. I'd have to turn this to get it out of there. I got tired of that.
How long before you were declared fit for duty again after that?
Are you kidding me? "He's fit for duty the next day." I don't remember any other air defense officers around there to do the job. "Shut up and go out there and do your duty." In addition to which, I was standing either OD watch or another one, one or the other, all the time, with my arm all bandaged up and sometimes in a sling and sometimes
not. Anyway, that was my two wounding experiences out of three. The third one was that somebody shot a five-inch, thirty-eight and the base plug of it . . . if you don't know what that is, it's the bottom of the shell, the very bottom. It had been busted into about three or four pieces, I guess, and it came crashing down on top of my head and cold cocked me. I woke up and I'm looking around, “Where the hell did everybody go?”
This was at Okinawa, too?
Yes. Anyway, that was the end of that problem. They never gave me a Purple Heart for that either. I already had one for this and the one on my back. I don't know. It wasn't important anyway. You didn't get any money for it. I'm certainly not the only one that has self-inflicted, and when I say self-inflicted, I mean friendly fire hit me. Everything except this finger. . . .
So it was actually the TEXAS that gave you your major injuries.
Yes. This finger was a Japanese twenty-seven-millimeter.
That was at Pearl, you said.
When you were getting underway, trying to get out of the harbor?
Before, yes, we were still tied up. I didn't know I was really hurt. I had on my skivvies and I just went like this and I was deafer than a post, because this five-inch thirty-eight went off and there was my head, right there. I couldn't hear for a week. That gets kind of boring. You have to carry a slate around.
It's amazing that more of you didn't get permanent ear damage.
I did. I got 50 percent hearing loss in both ears. I don't wear a hearing aid, because I can't stand the damn things. I had a brand new one from this VA in 1969. I put
the thing on and left the house, went down to the brand spanking new Route 8 freeway from El Cajon to San Diego. They didn't have half the ramps finished yet. I'm driving up this, out of the box . . . that's what El Cajon means, the box . . . and the world's biggest truck camped on my starboard quarter and I didn't know what it was. It was a great big diesel truck, probably a Peterbilt. God, that thing scared me so bad. I didn't know what the hell it was. I couldn't conceive of anything making that much noise.
It was a shell from the TEXAS coming in.
I didn't know what the hell it was. When I woke up to the fact that it was that damn truck, I took that hearing aid off and I never put it back on, ever!
Did the kamikazes ever make a hit on the ARKANSAS?
No. It was my job to keep them off and I did, 100 percent perfect, and all of the other ships, too, it turns out. I learned early in life that one thing you can't do is open fire too soon. You just don't do that, because you run out of bullets or the people screw it up, loading the forty-millimeters, for instance, or the twenties, and you don't have any bullets to fire.
You aren't going to hit them at too far a range anyway.
You can't hit them. You wait until you can really see the whites of their eyes and then blow their heads off, all at once. It also doesn't do much good to coach the pointers and trainers, etc., this hand-driven stuff; to look over the side and figure out where to move the gun. It just doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. It's just better to get a lot of stuff out there quick, all at once. That will take them apart, I hoped. It's nice to have peace.
I went through some of it with the British, you know, in London when I was on that ARKANSAS thing. Boy, they were shooting 5.7-inch guns.
This is when the ARKANSAS was being repaired after Omaha Beach?
We were always, except for battles, repaired in the United States, mostly Norfolk, New York, or Boston. I guess that was all. After the ARKANSAS was blown up at Bikini, when it was blown up, I was on the MISSISSIPPI in Norfolk.
Let's finish World War II and then I do want you to comment on why the ARKANSAS was used at Bikini as one of the ships. What took place after Okinawa, for the ARKANSAS and for you?
The peace treaties struck. The atom bomb struck and that struck the peace.
You all hadn't been moved up toward the Japanese Sea for the pending invasion or something?
Yes. We were in Okinawa for that very purpose in the eastern bay, which is called . . . whatever the hell it is, I can't remember--the bay at Okinawa. The Japs threw a torpedo at us and missed. Heck, I think they threw two of them at us now that I think about it. Anyway, my job on the ARKANSAS, had we invaded the place, was to go to Nagasaki. The ARKANSAS held about three thousand people, roughly, and about twelve hundred people could get inside the conning tower, which is twenty inches thick on the top of it, with slots you could see out of. I guess you can see in the conning tower. Anyway, I was supposed to go up there and shoot the goddamn main battery at anything that moved when I got the ship aground up the river at Nagasaki. You run the ship aground and that's the end of the problem. Then you turn the volts and amperes on to the diesel generators. That's what we were supposed to do and that would have been
exciting, I'll guarantee you that. I never found out how I was supposed to get out of that boat and live through it.
I was going to say, if you ran the ship aground, what happens when you needed to get the ship back out to sea?
You hope that a guy puts up a white flag.
Talk about a kamikaze mission!
So, here you are, out there in the water, four miles to the beach. We didn't have to do that. I'm sure glad I didn't have to. I couldn't figure out how the hell we were going to beat those Japs on their own turf. That wasn't obvious to me at all, because when you get a bunch of Marines walking around on dirt, you ain't winning. You've got to do something. You've got to get them so that they aren't walking, they're hiding someplace. Then you can win. Well, I was pretty nervous about that exercise.
After the war, that I got myself mixed up with that the MISSISSIPPI as first lieutenant for six months in Norfolk. Then I reported to PG school and did a year there, exactly to the day. Then I went to MIT and I did pretty good, I guess. I graduated with honors, I know that.
It served you well in later years.
It sure as hell did. I spent so much time in the Bureau of Ordnance, you'd think I was born there. Every time that I would finish a BUORD assignment, I would go to sea and play out of this hole right here, well, mostly right here. I watched this town grow and I've been here thirty-five years, right here, since sixty-two. It beats working. If you've been in the Navy for five years and you haven't been into San Diego, you haven't lived yet, because what you've done is missed the best weather in the world. The only place
that I can think of that I might rather live would be Casablanca and it's got exactly the same weather. The wind is to the west and it cools it off every night.
I know. It's been very pleasant the past couple of days.
It's supposed to be hot today, ninety-one. Ninety-one here ain't ninety-one in Raleigh-Durham. What's the name of the town East Carolina is in?
I've been to Greenville, South Carolina. I got myself a cancer of my ear, so I go to the Navy hospital here. I got a Jewish doctor, the name, I forgot, but he's a captain. He thought I was a pretty interesting guy. I decided he's going to have to be my sweetheart until he takes care of my ear. I'm not confused with the facts.
Anyway, we went over to the various infirmaries they've got over there at the hospital and he introduced me as having fun a rocket scientist, from 1947 until 1969. I didn't know that I was a rocket scientist. He had to tell me that I was one. I used to pour that nitroglycerin in that booster and people would tell me, “You're going to blow your head off.” I'd said, “Okay.” I didn't worry about it too much. So, I just told them one day to add 15 percent more nitro. We use those boosters today. We use them once a week now, roughly, as targets. The missile is a target. We put together a hell of a lot of boosters. Adding 15 percent more nitro was the engineering that went into it. I didn't even pick up a piece of paper. I got the goddamn thing running fine.
Anyway, he called me a rocket scientist and I've been a rocket scientist ever since. We had a lot of laughs over that one. The dumb medics don't know what the hell they're talking about in the first place. We did have a good time.
One of the more interesting days of my life, was in 1958, when I canceled seventeen guided missile programs in one day. None of them would work. We were trying to recoup all the money we could. That's what we were doing. That's what I was doing. I didn't ask anybody for any authority or nothing. I just did it.
Were you stationed here?
No, I was in Washington.
I was going to say, it sounds like a decision that would have to come out of the Pentagon rather than. . . .
That's right. I called up a couple guys. I called Louie Stecker, Class of 1942, a nice guy. I think he is dead. He went to MIT with me, he and Rusty, Jack Beardall, who didn't graduate, Leonard Herb, Class of 1942, and Gid Boyd, who didn't graduate, Class of 1938. He was our leader, one of these adjunct professors or whatever. I think I told you about those guys. Anyway, we got through it, the six of us.
The missile programs that you canceled, did you have the authority to do that? What was your assignment at the time at the Pentagon?
To tell you the truth, I don't know. I thought that you would ask me that. I don't know. I just signed it. BUORD was operated by a system that they called “directive summaries.” You put on one piece of paper what you're talking about. If it takes two pieces of paper, you can't write one. The boss would kill you. I worked for a guy out of 1931 named Frank McKee. Boy, talk about being a son-of-a-bitch. He was a lovable old man, but goddamn it, he was a hard-nosed administrator. He taught me everything I know. Anyway, I wrote these pieces of paper--and I put them all out at once, that helps--and the Pentagon, they scatter BUORD paper around like you can't find it. You don't get
seventeen pieces of paper all at once at any one desk in the Pentagon. It doesn't work that way, especially if you trick them and code the papers so that they send it to the wrong place. I'm not that dumb, so I did. Anyway, these were little programs. None of them were very significant. METEOR was the biggest one. That was an air-driven missile flying on an airplane. MIT had something to do with it.
No one questioned your authority?
I got handshakes from admirals and they said, “Willie, you're a smart son-of-a-bitch. How did you ever get that out? We've been trying to do this for twenty years.”
I would have thought canceling a program like that would have taken a room full of admirals to make that kind of a decision.
It's much harder to get money for something than it is to take it away it when it's there, you see? I've got some experience in both. At least five billion dollars going both ways. That's a lot of money. Most of the time, I was a commander, I guess. Oh, I guess not. I can't say most.
So you finished out the remainder of your career in ordnance, particularly guided missiles and that type of thing.
Precisely. Everyday of my life since I got out of MIT, was in ordnance or driving holes through that water. In what, how many ships? Oh, six or seven. I think that's about right. What you do is don't run into anything. That's all you've got to remember. The ground is bad news. The worst thing in the world to get run into is the ground. I've never run into the ground as such. I hit that concrete awful hard at New London and I hit one with a pretty good lick in Norfolk. I cut the hell out of the pier. It didn't hurt my ship any, so I didn't admit it.
That's what you said when you were supposed to run the ARKANSAS aground there in Nagasaki, running it into the ground precludes the possibility of you sailing back away.
We didn't have enough crew to man the engines. That's the reason. We couldn't. We didn't want to kill anybody we didn't need to either. So, we operated the ship on a fire pump, sucking on fresh-water tanks. We didn't do this, you know, physically, but that's what we were supposed to do.
Why did they decide to use the ARKANSAS there at the Bikini experiment? It was an old battleship.
Gee, it was built in 1912.
I was thinking it was a World War I.
The WYOMING was older, but barely. It was the first, I think you might call them, drednought-type ships that the United States had, those two, the WYOMING and the ARKANSAS. They demilitarized the WYOMING, you know.
You were long gone from the ARKANSAS when the Bikini experiment took place.
Not long gone, but about three months, something like that. There wasn't anything to do. I didn't believe that this atom bomb was going to do the damage it did. I didn't think it was possible. I didn't believe the aviators when they dropped the bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima got the yield that they said they got. I didn't believe them. That isn't hard to do in that business. That's not hard to do at all. That's a beautiful sight though.
[End of Interview]
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