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.

Frequent attacks by British warships against German E-boats, patrol craft, and minelayers operating from Cherbourg and Le Havre also soon eliminated much of the German Navy surface threat.

After silencing the guns in the massive concrete casemates near La Madeleine and Les Dunes d’Varreville, Captain Powell Rhea, the Nevada’s skipper, gave the order for the Nevada to close in another 1,100 yards toward the landing beaches. Now the 5-inch twin gun mounts and the quadruple 40mm guns began to eliminate the harassing German fire coming from those mortar and machine-gun pillboxes along the coast.

Our gunnery crews remained at general quarters for over 80 hours, and this prolonged, intensive firing on enemy-held positions weakened the volume of German return fire, enabling U.S. infantry troops, mechanized vehicles, and additional replacements to advance farther in the Utah sector and to thrust southward into France’s hedgerow country.

After 12 days off the coast of Normandy, the Nevada returned to Weymouth, England. We replenished our ammunition, fuel, and critical supplies before setting course for Cherbourg, a heavily fortified harbor bristling with huge 15-inch guns, some mounted on railroad track beds. Although outranged by 10,000 yards, we silenced all.

German shellfire from Cherbourg’s coastal guns straddled our ship 27 times without even one hit. I could actually see and hear those large, whirling shells coming to the end of their trajectory. Several passed over the ship between the masts before they splashed into the waters just yards from us, sending up huge geysers that sprayed our main deck.

Operation Neptune also survived the onslaught of a fierce Atlantic storm, June 18-22, despite the loss of many sections of the artificial Mulberry harbors at Omaha Beach that were urgently needed to expedite the movement of supplies onto the beaches.

Neptune came to a close. It accomplished its objectives with the successful landing of Allied troops in Normandy and the liberation of France’s coastal harbors.

The war was not over. Nevada’s next assignment: southern France.

Operation Dragoon

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was right: “We must contain them on the beaches if we are to win this war!” He had realized that the Allies would have complete air supremacy over Normandy.

We had air supremacy for the invasion of southern France in August 1944, during Operation Dragoon. We also had command of the Mediterranean Sea and the landings of Allied troops on the shores of the Riviera went much more smoothly than the landings in Normandy.

The Nevada dueled with German 13.4-inch gun batteries defending the port of Toulon. These guns had been removed from French ships scuttled earlier in the war and emplaced in reinforced concrete bunkers. The efforts of the Nevada—which fired over 5,000 shells—and other ships made it possible for the troops of the French II Corps to seize Toulon.

Return to the States

From the Mediterranean, the Nevada was ordered to return to the United States for an overhaul, refitting, and further assignment. We learned that the navy yards along the Pacific coast would not be fully capable of solving Nevada’s serious gunnery problems––her fractured and protruding 14-inch barrel riflings and a damaged turret mount, resulting from Nevada’s firing of the 14-inch guns during the Normandy and southern France operations.

Consequently, Captain Rhea received orders to leave the area with his escort vessels by the same route that we had come, proceeding to the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia.

After a short stay in New York harbor to avoid a hurricane threat, the Nevada entered a drydock at Norfolk on September 18, 1944. The crew was given a 21-day leave while an interesting and unusual event took place. Our 14-inch guns were relined, and the guns in Turret 1 were replaced with tubes salvaged from—of all ships—the Arizona and Oklahoma, both stricken at Pearl Harbor.

The Nevada left Norfolk on November 21, 1944, and sailed south, proceeding through the Panama Canal. After a brief stop at Long Beach, California, we sailed on to Pearl Harbor, where we tied up to Quay Fox 8—the same site where the Nevada had been moored on December 7, 1941.

Off to Ulithi

After two days of loading ammunition of all calibers, the Nevada set course for the Ulithi Atoll, a major naval staging area in the Caroline Islands. We passed through the Mugal Channel and dropped anchor off an island with an unusual name: Mog Mog.

Mog Mog gave us weary sailors a reprieve from the cruise. We enjoyed unrestricted liberty, drank beer, played acey-ducey, drank beer, played poker, drank beer, and had a scuttlebutt session with a final toast of the stateside suds.

Several task forces were formed at Ulithi. We were part of Task Force 54, the gunfire and covering force, which consisted of six battleships (Arkansas, New York, Texas, Idaho, Tennessee, and Nevada), five cruisers (Pensacola, Salt Lake City, Chester, Tuscaloosa, and Vicksburg), and dozens of destroyers and other support ships.

Those of us on topside watched for almost two hours as ships cleared the Ulithi harbor to begin their rampant raids on enemy shipping lanes and the Japanese home islands. This event left an almost empty area in the harbor for our own Fifth Fleet and auxiliary vessels. In contrast to other streamlined battleships, the Nevada, with her grimy, time-flaked gray paint mottled over her hull, had the appearance of an old, tired scrubwoman at the end of her working day.

Officers of the Nevada met for a briefing session on our next assignment: Operation Detachment—the invasion of Iwo Jima. Our ship refueled at Kerama Retto, and we took on 14-inch and 5-inch shells and powder and thousands of 40mm and 20mm rounds.

On February 10, 1945, the task force set sail to a small island none of us had ever heard of—Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima

Although Iwo Jima was a tiny, obscure island in the Pacific, the United States needed its airfields to be available for crippled B-29s returning from their bombing missions over Japan. The Nevada and other major warships had the responsibility of giving gunfire support to the landing troops who would secure the airfields.

Rear Admiral Bertram J. Rodgers, commander of Task Force 54, made the Nevada his flagship. Rear Admiral William Blandy, aboard the USS Estes, an amphibious force command ship, supervised Task Force 52, which comprised the amphibian support and cover force for the Marines (the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions) that would be going ashore.

The combined task forces arrived off Iwo Jima at 6 am, February 16. My shipmate, Bill Brinkley, was one of the bridge communication talkers who would be monitoring and relaying all confidential messages between the two admirals.

Each battleship had been assigned its time of fire, number of shells, and target areas. Nevada and New York were assigned blockhouses, pillboxes, and any suspicious-looking, sand-covered mounds seen along the beaches. Other warships would fire upon any visible gun battery in the high cliff areas around Mount Suribachi. Priorities were artillery emplacements, blockhouses, pillboxes, and ammunition and fuel dumps.

The preinvasion bombardment was scheduled to last three days (although the Marines had requested more––much more). Personnel aboard Blandy’s ship would record all hits of known targets that the Nevada and other warships counted as having been demolished.

At 9 am, Friday morning, February 16, 1945, we, along with the battleships Idaho and Tennessee, came within a mile and a half of the island and opened fire on the Mount Suribachi cliffs. The Nevada’s role in the invasion was to furnish the main gunfire support for the 5th Marine Division along the “Purple” and “Brown” sectors on the western side of the island near the base of Mount Suribachi.

My general quarters battle station was as gun captain at a 20mm antiaircraft gun mount. On Condition II, I served as an alternate range finder operator during the day and as a radar operator at night.

We pounded the little sulfurous island, five miles long and less than two miles wide but heavily fortified. We destroyed everything on Iwo’s surface but, hell, all of the Japanese were protected by underground, linking tunnels—safe from naval shelling and bombing.

Final reports from the first two days of shelling indicated that the bombardment had scarcely damaged or even reduced the Japanese firepower from the Suribachi batteries. A firm belief by many Navy and Marine personnel at that time was that if Admiral Chester Nimitz had been allowed the original 10 days of prelanding bombardment by the original number of battleships, cruisers, and planes from 12 carriers (taken away from us by General Douglas MacArthur for his sacred Philippines campaign), there would have been considerable reduction in the enemy’s island defenses and, more importantly, a marked reduction in the loss of American lives.

Hours before the initial assault on the beaches began on February 19, a group of LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) gunboats containing UDTs (Underwater Demolition Teams) came under vicious enemy gunfire. The badly damaged LCI 441 came alongside the port side of the Nevada requesting emergency medical assistance for its personnel. I climbed aboard the 441 with several other sailors and immediately began to transfer the wounded to the Nevada and then returned to remove the dead from its slippery, bloodied decks. It was a horrible sight.