How the Battleship USS Nevada and I Survived World War II

July 7, 2017 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIBattleshipWar In The PacificD-Day

How the Battleship USS Nevada and I Survived World War II

A former sailor recalls his ship’s participation in one of the most momentous events of World War II, from Pearl Harbor, to Normandy, to Iwo Jima.

Every day at dusk, we left the ship by launch for the base facilities where we took hot, soapy showers to remove the grimy dirt and oil from our bodies and have a hot meal. We then were billeted in the Bloch Arena for a good night’s rest.

The Nevada left Pearl Harbor under its own power with me aboard and slowly proceeded across the Pacific to the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, arriving on May 1, 1942. The crew was granted a 10-day leave, so I left by train to go home to visit my parents, who were very happy, though shocked, to see me alive and well.

Upon my return to Bremerton, a profound change was occurring in the silhouette of the Nevada’s superstructure, foremast, and smokestack. The 10 casemated guns had been removed, and eight dual-purpose twin 5-inch gun mounts were being installed. These guns were more suitable for defense against incoming enemy planes and could still be used against surface craft using modern electronic fire-control systems and computerized range-finding equipment to provide rapid firing and movement.

I can’t recall the specific day in May 1942, but I was privileged—among hundreds of servicemen and naval yard workmen—to see President Roosevelt’s motorcade course through the navy yard. He had requested to see some of the damage caused by the Japanese naval assault at Pearl Harbor.

From May through June 1942, as the Nevada was being reconditioned, periodic bulletins gave the first indications how grave the situation had become for the Allied forces in the Pacific Theater. Week after week following the initial attack at Pearl Harbor, Japanese successes seemed to continue––Wake and Guam Islands, Singapore, Malaya, and the Philippines were conquered.

The loss of numerous U.S. warships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines just added more despair to the humiliation suffered at Pearl Harbor. These new, tragic events gave this 19-year-old crewman the horrible realization that we were engaged in a deadly game of war, and this thought sickened me emotionally.

During the second week of June 1942, a communiqué from CINCPAC (Commander-in-Chief, Pacific) gave us most welcome news that spread quickly throughout the U.S. fleet. Navy fliers had sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers in the Battle of Midway. What a morale booster!

Division officers aboard our ship gave encouraging impromptu talks about their respective views on the future. In summary, they emphasized that our naval forces would now have the opportunity to avenge the Pearl Harbor disaster by striking back at the Japanese with more sophisticated weapons of war, modern warships, and tons of military equipment, as the industrial might of America swung quickly to full-time war production.

Upon the completion of the Nevada’s modernization, involving almost eight months of overhaul, our crew of 450 including several Pearl Harbor survivors left Bremerton and set course toward Port Angeles located in the upper straits of Juan de Fuca between Washington State and Vancouver Island. Here gun crews and radar operators began testing their new, computerized equipment. I was instructed in the use of the FD radar unit, assigned to gun director Sky No. 1. Four gun-director mounts controlled the rapid movements and firing of the newly installed twin 5-inch antiaircraft gun mounts, all electronically operated.

In practice runs, a small surface craft would tow a target sled some distance behind it, and these objects would appear as two small, elevated blips on the green radar screen. Repeated practice runs enabled the radar operators to readily distinguish with accuracy between the towing vessel and the target. I also gained experienced as a 20mm gun operator when gunnery practice for all antiaircraft batteries—5-inch, 40mm, and 20mm—became the order of the day.

Operation Landcrab

Cruising southward along the western coast of the United States, the Nevada reached San Diego, then began gunnery exercises again, this time near San Clemente Island, a restricted U.S. Navy reservation some 25 miles offshore from San Diego.

In the first week of April 1943, the Nevada received its orders to accompany two other battleships—Pennsylvania (another resurrected Pearl Harbor casualty) and Idaho—along with several cruisers and destroyers to a chain of islands extending southwest from Alaska, the Aleutians.

As we approached the island chain, the weather began to change drastically from what we had experienced in Bremerton, San Diego, and Hawaii. Dense foggy areas, blustery winds, and snow flurries greeted us as the mountainous islands came into view. A solid overcast prevented any sunshine from breaking through. Winter must come here early, we thought, but in April?

“Air defense” and general quarters alarms often sounded as “bogies” (unidentified aircraft) appeared on the air-surface radar screens. Rough seas, persistent dense fog, driving rain, and sometimes blinding snowstorms postponed the landing at Attu—an island 60 miles long and 20 miles wide—several times and had made those landings difficult for the ground troops once the order was given.

Bombardment by the Nevada’s main (14-inch) and secondary (5-inch) batteries at Massacre Bay eliminated the threat of enemy concentrations massing for counterattacks. American bombers operating from a base at Adak Island were having frequent and dangerous skidding mishaps during takeoffs and landings across water-covered runways. Dense fog, wind-driven rain or sleet, and the constant backlash of propeller-driven fountains of water from the runways often impaired pilot vision. Temperatures often fell below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

The Nevada arrived at Adak on Saturday, April 17, 1943, and dropped anchor in its harbor. We refueled from a tanker before leaving on patrol with two prewar cruisers, the Detroit and the Richmond, and several destroyers. Our position was only a few hundred miles from a Japanese naval base in the Kuriles, so this group of ships was ordered to patrol with a distance of 35 miles between them. Enemy subs were a problem, but several were reported sunk.

My newly learned skill as a radar operator was soon to be tested many times. Bogies often appeared on the green screen. Our AA gun batteries were ready to commence firing if the bogies did not give the correct recognition signal. Our radar was constantly scanning the skies for enemy aircraft during preparation for the bombardment of Attu. The Nevada and the two cruisers opened fire on April 26 and raked the shore and interior highlands with intense fire.

Our fuel and vital stores were soon running low, and the captain set course for Cold Bay, where the auxiliary vessels lay anchored. Arriving there on Friday, April 30, all deck crews began handling the stores as the fueling continued in rough seas, though we were in a harbor. I believe it was here, handling stores on an open deck in sub-zero weather, that my fingers became frostbitten.

Two incidents remain vividly in my mind. First, a call came from Army command that the Japanese had set up a murderous crossfire in the mountain interior: “Can you help?” The Nevada responded with over 50 thunderous salvos that rocked our ship back and forth. This bombardment eliminated the Japanese crossfire and allowed our infantry to advance.

Second, tragically, a desperate, last-minute Banzai charge by a thousand Japanese soldiers on May 29 broke through the U.S. lines in a predawn attack, overran the medical station, and killed all personnel around it––doctors, nurses, patients, everyone. An American counterattack swiftly retook the area and captured some 25-30 prisoners.

Our 27-year-old lady had apparently developed engine trouble during the operation, for she started to groan and shudder; the captain announced that the Nevada had permission to go to Mare Island, near San Francisco, for repairs. We departed Attu on June 7, 1943.

After the repairs were completed, we received orders to steam south, pass through the Panama Canal, and proceed to Norfolk, Virginia, to prepare for Atlantic convoy duty escorting cargo ships, fuel tankers, and other auxiliary vessels to Belfast, Northern Ireland.

All of our numerous Atlantic crossings were successfully completed without a major mishap, but those frequent ocean storms, heavy seas, and the constant threat of German submarines kept all of us on full-time alert status. We soon learned that all of these crossings were bringing vital equipment and supplies for the upcoming invasion of Europe—Operation Overlord.

Operation Neptune

During Operation Neptune—the assault portion of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944—the USS Nevada was part of the huge naval armada that stood off the beaches and hammered German defensive positions.

Under the protective umbrella of the Nevada’s gunfire support, Neptune’s Naval Beach Battalion sailors coordinated ship-to-shore communications for the unloading of cargo vessels, the flow of men and supplies at the “Uncle” and “Victor” landing sectors of Utah Beach, controlling the beaching of LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) and smaller craft, and the dangerous removal of the Germans’ remaining lethal obstacles.

Nevada’s guns were prevented from always firing in a favorable support position, as the seas became congested with incoming cargo vessels and landing craft. Undetected enemy artillery and mortar fire continued until French partisans were able to provide their precise camouflaged locations to U.S. Army personnel, who then forwarded the information to the warships.