This entry could be subtitled “Bill’s War.” Returning veterans of WWII would ask one another, “How was your war?” Some men had “good wars” i.e. deployment to interesting places, just enough combat to feel part of the fight, but no injuries and certainly no nightmares. My father’s war, I have found, was more eventful and horrific than the family narrative remembered. It could be that he said very little when asked about his wartime experiences. Or, perhaps family members were instructed not to ask about his time overseas. The only thread of his story that was repeated to me 60 years later centered on the standard procedure of locking the compartments below deck when under attack. This is what Bill shared with his brother-in-law. Or, maybe this thread is all that Frank remembered. My uncle told me this story several months before he died. Frank also told me that he had failed to connect with my father when he was on Guam because Bill shipped out early “since he was sick.”
After tracing my father’s path to Okinawa and his demobilization voyage home, I think I have a picture of what happened during “Bill’s war.” It provides probable cause for my father’s post-war illness that was deemed “service-connected. The record states ulcerative colitis. The cause of death was a failed colonectomy followed by peritonitis. The underlying condition, called “neuropsychiatric case” (exhaustion or war neurosis), has been identified, since 1980, as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Let’s turn back to the minesweeper U.S.S. Hilarity. One writer described these ships as “belligerent looking yachts wearing grey paint.” 184′ long, the ship carried a crew of 104. The top speed was 15 knots. Minesweepers traveled at the head of a convoy. Their function was to search for mines and blow them up. Searching for mines resembled trawling for fish, except long poles and wire were used. When a mine was detected, the pole brought it to the surface. Then, a sharp-shooter would take it out. A large but harmless explosion followed. The Hilarity disarmed 78 mines. They also were equipped to find submarines and sink them. The ship sank 2 Japanese submarines. Once the Hilarity arrived at the Battle of Okinawa, in its 60th day, they were tasked with protecting transports and landing beaches, as well as radar picket duty. The ship was awarded two battle stars. They were given to those “who were engaged in specific battles in combat under circumstances involving grave danger of death or serious bodily harm from enemy action.” David Bruhn has published a book detailing the service of minesweepers, entitled “Wooden Ships and Iron Men.” These small vessels were constructed of wood so that they could approach mines without the danger of magnetism that would lure a metal-sided ship to destruction. Ships had various mottoes: “Where the Fleet goes, We’ve Been!” “No Sweeps, No Invasion.”
On Oct. 10, 2011 an article concerning the wartime service of Ensign George Michalos, age 92, appeared in a Canton, Ohio newspaper. These are his words.
“We arrived in Okinawa during the height of the Kamikazi suicide bomber attacks. We were used as minesweepers but also as smoke generators. We would lay a blanket of heavy smoke so the Japanese could not spot clear targets.”
The next entry will describe Kamikaze warfare. A naval historian recounts that “The first surprise of Okinawa was that the ships were more dangerous than the beaches.”