THE LAST DAYS

By May, 1945, life in Carrier Aircraft Service Unit 43 has become quite a bore. Things were going very well; we had lots of work to do but it was getting very repetitive. There was an operation at the south end of the strip called VRE-1, an Air Evacuation Unit of the Naval Aviation Transport Service or NATS for short. These fellows specialized in removing the wounded from the forward areas of the Pacific. They flew C54s which were reported to have required a great deal of maintenance. They also flew regular hops all the way to and from the mainland, carrying mail, cargo, and passengers as well as the wounded. Sounded to me like a good operation to be a part of, particularly with the end of the war in sight. It was after all, 6000 miles from Guam to the U.S.

After lobbying with the proper sources, I found that VRE-1 was trying to find a Radio-Radar Officer to help in the maintenance capability build-up for what was to come. My Skipper was good enough to let me go. I found myself trading a jeep and comfortable quarters for a noisy Quonset hut at VRE-1, right on the end of the runway. There were a number of bunks in addition to mine housing transient pilots that came and went at all hours. We were under the takeoff pattern in the new quarters with flights passing over at an average altitude of 100 feet, at least when every thing went OK.

The radio maintenance crew consisted of a handful of radio techs. With their help I had the radio shop in good order in a couple of weeks, spare parts inventory and all. As soon as I had hit the deck, I found myself assigned as Aircraft Maintenance Officer around the clock. It turned out that VRE-1 was short of Officer Personnel to manage the maintenance crews. Each Officer in Charge supervised the engine, structural, and the radio maintenance personnel on his shift. We were assigned duty of an eight hour shift followed by sixteen hours off. After five days we would rotate forward having only eight hours off until the start of the next shift. It got pretty rough.

My tour of duty with VRE-1 was an adventure even though it was hard work. I learned a great deal about the air transport business, in a short time.

The C54s would come in from Honolulu or from the Philippines with all kinds of problems. The C54 employed a hydraulic system to actuate the flaps and the wheels. The system operated with very high hydraulic pressure. It was always defective and sometimes failed completely. The wing of that aircraft was one big fuel tank. The compartments were treated with some kind of rubber that was supposed to make them leakproof. Our structures crew was forever working on those wing sections to restore their integrity as a fuel tank. It was a good thing that aircraft had four engines and were well built. They had a lot of ocean to fly over in their runs.

One day a C54 called in on approach reporting that he had a wheel warning light. In a flyby, sure enough the left wheel was still solidly tucked away up in the fuselage. He tried until his gas was about gone to shake the wheel down but without success.

In the meanwhile all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles were positioned near the center of the runway off the edge of the strip. When the pilot finally did land, he made a beautiful one wheel landing until his speed began to fall. As the left wing dropped, it caught the runway and started to veer to the left and headed straight for the group of emergency vehicles. Sailors were abandoning those vehicles with gusto.

The C54 rolled that big firetruck up into a neat ball, and came to rest about 100 yards beyond. There were only a few passengers aboard and no one was hurt. The belly of the C54 looked to be in good shape considering what the plane had just been through. Later inspection resulted in our scrapping out the entire plane, however. That unfortunate event considerably improved our supply of spare parts.

We were standing on the ramp one day watching one of our C54s undergoing a full RPM engine check. A couple of Marines in a jeep were driving across the restricted area when the driver abruptly changed his course and drove directly under the wing of the aircraft. He apparently did not see the spinning propeller. The driver was instantly decapitated, his passenger was not touched. It all happened so suddenly that one could hardly believe that it really happened.

The date was August 6th, 1945. The B29 Enola Gay was on her way to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. As soon as that news broke, the general moral went up 1000% because we knew that the war was about over. It took another A bomb on Nagasaki on August the 9th to convince the Japanese. By that action, we knew that there would probably be no invasion of Japan, and that upwards of at least a million U.S. casualties and who knows how many millions of Japanese lives would not have to be sacrificed..

The Japanese surrender was finally announced on August 15, 1945, Japanese time. It was evening on Guam when the word that everyone was waiting for, was passed. There followed an eruption of gunfire in celebration around over the island that could never again be rivaled.

VRE-1 had their planning pretty well done when the armistice was declared. We wanted to get the American P.O.W.s out of Japan and back to the States as fast as possible. In order to do that we had to have an operating base near a working airstrip, somewhere near Tokyo.

We would have to carry in, set up, and operate tower radio equipment, a low frequency radio beacon, and teletype gear to establish communications with the rest of our forces there. I was able to acquire the services of a Warrant Radio Electrician from one of the units on the field to go along with our crew to help us accomplish the installation and to provide operators.

We loaded our radio equipment on one of our C54s and flew the 1400 miles to Japan on the 18th of August, landing at the Japanese Naval Aviation Supply Depot Airfield at Kizarazu, just across the bay from Tokyo. We were one day behind the Army 11th Airborne Division who had landed the day before we got there. There was not a soul within miles of that air base. It was a weird feeling after all that we had been through to be standing on soil just twenty miles from Tokyo.

Upon arriving, we immediately stretched antennas, set up our portable power supply, and assembled the radio and teletype equipment that we had brought from Guam. We were on the air by late evening with the homing beacon and tower control equipment and were receiving teletype messages from our Naval forces near Kawasaki, on the other side of Tokyo bay. We set up the duty roster to monitor the traffic and equipment and were in business.

The next morning we got a chance to look around. The 11th airborne had come and gone and it was obvious. The base was definitely a Naval Supply Depot. The Japanese had left everything very neatly stacked and in inventory order. The 11th Airborne Division had rifled through everything that was of any good as a souvenir. There was a large supply of optical goods, 8 x 50 night binoculars and shipboard telescopes. Only the ones broken by our paratroopers remained. There was an extensive supply of aircraft radio transmitters and receivers outfitted with beautiful instrumentation. Their rifles were all stacked in layers of four each and about twelve deep as if they expected to be held accountable for each one. Everything there was new and first rate quality.

During the rigging of the antennas from the roof of one of the hangars the night before, we had spotted a motorcycle just inside the door. We had that going in a short while and used it to tour the area around the air base. The tour revealed a relative barren and frugal facility. They hadn't wasted much in their recent past. We found local newspapers full of colorful ads, but all in unreadable Japanese of course. The most interesting discovery was that of a small single engine biplane sitting all alone at tiedown on the far end of the runway area. It was painted a bright yellow, looked to be about 125 horsepower and was a taildragger. It must have belonged to one of the major officers. It was a beauty.

On the opposite end of the field from our setup we found the officer's quarters; we would call it the BOQ for Bachelor Officer Quarters. This was a two story building of recent construction. It resembled a big motel. In one end of the building was situated what looked to be a prayer room or perhaps a ward room. One wall contained a mural some forty feet long and ten feet high, of typical Japanese art, a very quiet, very detailed scene of branches and birds. The mural was set behind a wood and paper screen which was built in sections that slid along a rail to cover the whole mural. One had to pause to take it all in.

The unusual thing about this building to Westerners was the plumbing arrangement in the toilet areas. Instead of the American Standard stools that we are accustomed to, they had installed a number of simple porcelain fixtures the tops of which were flush with the surface of the floor. The workmanship throughout the building was impressively first rate, however.

We had yet to see a Japanese person. Our first glimpse of the natives came while we were on the second floor of this officer's quarters. This building overlooked Tokyo Bay. There was a long beach about a half mile wide between the building and the water, and the tide happened to be out. The beach was covered with people, mostly old people all looking for anything in the sand that could provide food. We didn't know whether this was a usual life style here or whether these people were desperately hungry. We suspected the latter.

Meanwhile back at the radio shack we had word that another C54 was due to land that afternoon. We were looking for the P.O.W.s to be arriving at the base for transportation back to Guam, and expected them to be weak, disease laden and in bad shape in general. When they would arrive, we would have to have a plane ready to go since we had no facilities on this base. The VRE planes all carried Navy Nurses as a part of the crew complement whenever they were transporting wounded, and they would be needed on these P.O.W. runs for certain. The incoming plane carried a complement of nurses for both returning flights since we had none with us on the first flight.

That afternoon the incoming plane landed without incident reporting that all our tower communication and radio beacon equipment was working well. Somehow a U.S. Military refueling truck appeared to refuel both aircraft. The next day, the first prisoners showed up aboard U.S. Military buses, in just about the condition that we expected. They were jubilant despite there gaunt frames, their dysentery problems, and their desperate physical condition. They were loaded onto the C54s without further delay and on their way to Guam and the States.

We were informed that the next prisoners were not expected for another couple of days so we had a short break. The Navy had set up an official mail run from the Occupational Headquarters at Kawasaki, which is now near the Tokyo International Airport. Mail was being flown in to our activity by a TBF torpedo bomber a couple of times a day. It wasn't long before I got well acquainted with the pilot assigned that duty, as a matter of fact on the third flight in, he invited me to make the rounds with him. This gave me a chance to get a first hand look at what our bombing had done to Tokyo. We had followed the pilot reports from the B29s on the two northwest strips on Guam, their initial heavy losses and how they observed the Japanese 'fireballs' at altitude, and their vivid descriptions of the firestorms in Tokyo caused by the heavy conventional bombing.

That flight over Tokyo was made at 1000 feet altitude on an overcast day. What I witnessed was literally square miles of what used to be a built up city but now was only a pattern of blank streets in a bleak grid. Where the houses and shops once stood, there were now just vacant lots covered with green grass and was punctuated now and then by a still standing chimney. The expanse of the destruction was truly awesome, and this was done by conventional bombing, not the A bomb. We had heard about the firestorm caused by the heavy bombing. No one could have fathomed the reality of it without seeing it in the raw. I didn't sleep much that night.

A few days later we found ourselves supplied with a jeep by the Occupational Forces there in Japan. Although it was used to get around the airfield, we took advantage of the transportation and made arrangements to tour a Japanese communication station that had been found in the hills nearby. It was located just a few miles south east of the air base. To get there we had to drive through villages constructed out of cardboard, shipping crates, tin roofing, paper and what have you. We saw no permanent homes. We had not seen a Japanese person since we landed, except for the clam diggers in Tokyo Bay. They were really staying out of sight. Who knows what they were told about us. It was an eerie feeling driving through those narrow streets knowing that your every move was being watched and feeling a degree of risk in just being on their ground.

The radio station was located at the end of a tunnel like cave about 500 feet into a hill. There was a vertical shaft leading up from the transmitters to the antennas on the surface of the hill. They had two 1000 watt transmitters and a number of receivers capable of handling command traffic all tucked away in that dripping wet environment. There were no walls other than the raw earth. This was yet more evidence of how terrible it would have been to have had to invade this country, and have to ferret out their defenders to the end.

The days passed rapidly. On September the 2nd, 1945 the USS Missouri stood into Tokyo harbor with Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur aboard. The historic signing of the Armistice with the Japanese Officials took place aboard the battleship that afternoon, and the war was officially over. I was not a member to that occasion.

It was a couple of days later when more P.O.W.s were brought in. They were reported to have been held in the back areas of Japan for most of the war. All of them were just a rack of bones that showed through their fresh issue of clothing. They were all sick and were bent over as they walked, truly a pitiful sight. I had arranged to take this flight back to Guam since all the radio equipment here was in good shape and under control. We loaded the P.O.W.s and took off uneventfully, leaving Japan behind.

I had a jump seat in the cockpit area with the rest of the crew. As we got along into the flight, I went back to see how the nurses and their patients were getting along. I was not prepared for what I experienced. A number of the P.O.W. were nauseated from the flying. Many had no control of their bowels due to their dysentery. The smell was absolutely unbearable. The nurses were doing a yeoman job in trying to keep up with their problems, God Bless them. That flight lasted almost eight hours. I spent the rest of the flight in the cockpit, thanking God I hadn't had to end up a P.O.W.

Back on Guam it was the same old routine, round the clock maintenance duty. As the days went by, the paramount issue was that of getting back to the States to be discharged. There was a system of points devised which supposedly gave priority to those that had been in the Navy the longest and had experienced the most combat. I recall that I had more points than most however, there was also the prerogative of a Skipper to not release personnel that were critical to the operation, which was reasonable. The calendar dragged by until mid November when finally I found myself on a plane for Hawaii and the States.

Looking back, the Navy did a pretty good job of getting people back to civilian life. I was regular Navy but had been on hold status from just before the war's beginning. My appointment to Commissioned Warrant was looked on as temporary. I had the option of staying in the Navy as an Ensign or being discharged. I strongly wanted the discharge in order to get back to civilian life. In spite of the four years of war, I had accomplished what I was after, that of getting a chance to fly, and of gaining some experience in Radio Communication. I had my Commercial Radio tickets and had finished up my engineering training with Capitol Radio Institute and I was ready to go to work.

With an overnight stay in Pearl behind us, we landed at the Oakland Airport completing the 33 hour total flying time trip from Guam. It was the greatest feeling in the world to be back on home soil with the war over and knowing that I would be seeing Betty and Dick soon permanently. It didn't take long after landing to get to a telephone and let Betty know that I had finally arrived in good ol' Oakland.


Betty and son Richard

Betty and Dick lost no time in getting the Plymouth headed toward California. She arranged for my uncle, Dean Curtis who lived there in Van Horne and worked for her Dad, to ride along for support. Dean made the trip including one scary night's stay in Wells, Nevada, where the natives were having a drunken shootout in the town streets during the wee hours of the morning. Dean left Oakland as soon as he arrived taking a Greyhound bus back to Iowa on the same day.

There was no where to stay in Oakland. The motels and hotels were overbooked, and nothing to rent. We imposed on the friendship of the Everett Bousfields who most graciously agreed that we could stay there for a little while. Their home was in El Cerrito north of Oakland proper.

My duty assignment at VR-12 placed me at the Oakland Airport during working hours. That made for a long drive to and from work but gave us a place to live for the moment. We continually called motels and hotels for a place to hang our hats but to no avail.

To make matters worse Betty had contracted some kind of chest infection which wouldn't let up. By late December, she had entered the Navy Hospital in San Leandro with a case of pneumonia. With Dick and myself staying at the Bousfields and Betty in hospital, things got pretty burdensome for all. Christmas that year was shared with Dick and the Bousfield children in El Cerrito and with Betty and the Navy Nurses in San Leandro.

Betty did improve by New Year's day and by that time I had been able to obtain a motel room down in San Leandro. When she was released from the hospital, we moved our few belongings and Dick to the Roosevelt Motel. It was dinner out every night, and many very boring days for Betty. There were other Military personnel and their wives there in the same situation that we found ourselves in. For some reason, I could not get orders to go back to Great Lakes where I was to be mustered out. I checked into VR-12 every day but had nothing to do. It was March 10th before I got released to drive back to Chicago.

The drive back to Van Horne was accomplished on the emotion of becoming a free man. We finally had to stay in a flea bag hotel in Oklahoma City late the second night on the road when we couldn't drive any farther. Somehow we arrived at Van Horne and left Betty and son Dick with Betty's folks, Elmer and Cora Woltersdorf.

I proceeded on to Great Lakes Naval Training Station, the same location where I had entered the Navy nine long years before. On that day, March 15, 1946, I received an honorable discharge. No bands, no 21 gun salutes, just out. Even so, it was a welcome finish to more adventure than I had ever hoped or bargained for when I signed up way back in the year 1937. At last I was a civilian again!

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