Another letter from my father, describing some of his experiences at the end of WWII in the Pacific, when he was a crewman on the USS Bolster, an auxiliary repair ship:
At the end of WWII the USS Bolster was on its way to Ulithi Atoll to join the assembled fleet poised for the invasion of Japan. By the time we got to Ulithi, the war was over. For reasons I don’t recall, the Bolster was directed to Okinawa. Enroute to Okinawa the Bolster rode out a terrible typhoon. Upon arrival at Red Beach, Okinawa, we saw a lot of devastation; both from the war and the typhoon, seagoing vessels were swept several hundred yards on shore.
From Okinawa the Bolster was directed to Japan. Enroute to Japan another typhoon struck, this one was as bad as the other. Luckily, we rode both of them at sea instead of in harbor. The mission of the Bolster while in Yokosuka (a major naval base about 14 miles south of Yokohama or 25 miles south of Tokyo) was to clear the harbor. Several Japanese vessels were scuttled and sunk in the harbor. We raised them, towed them out to sea, and sunk them again.
The scuttled ships in Yokosuka Harbor were fairly easy to raise. First of all it took some manpower to attach steadying cables to the sunken ships. Manpower was easy to come by. There was an abundance of uniformed Japanese soldiers just wandering the streets. When we needed manpower we rounded up a batch of ex-soldiers and put them to work. We did not pay money to these laborers – instead we paid them in garbage. Our cooks dumped all the edible garbage into 5-gallon tins – everything scraped from our dining trays was mixed together, pork chop bones, mashed potatoes and gravy, uneaten veggies, etc. The Japanese soldiers were glad to receive this slop.
Japan does not have enough arable land on which to grow all the food required to feed their people. They had to import a lot of the food they needed as well as harvest fish from the sea. Toward the end of the war, almost the whole of their merchant fleet had been sunk so they couldn’t import anything. Lots of their fishing boats were also sunk. As a result, the Japanese were getting close to starvation. They ate dogs, cats, rats, mice, seaweed, and anything else they could get their hands on. Many Japanese rowed their little boats amongst the American naval vessels in the harbor collecting whatever had been thrown overboard – I’ve seen them pick up orange peels and that sort of thing. I believe, if it weren’t for the public sentiment to end the war as soon as possible, we wouldn’t have needed to drop the A-bomb, invade, or do anything but maintain a naval blockade of the Japanese islands. In a year or two they would have been starved into submission.
Invasion of Japan would have been horrible. At Yokosuka, a major naval base, the Japs had assembled hundreds of little kamikaze speedboats armed with explosives, which they intended to smash into our invading fleet. Not only that, at Yokosuka there were dozens of midget one-, two-, and three-man submarines on dollies ready for launching. Yes, our invasion fleet would have suffered a lot.
On the way to Ulithi Atoll, the assembly point for the invasion fleet, a crew of professional fire fighters was flown out from the United States to join our crew. We picked them up in the Marshall Islands. Our ship had as one of its assignments fighting fires aboard the capital ships of the invasion fleet had we invaded. Actually, most of the Bolster’s regular crew (me included) had attended an accelerated fire fighting class before we set sail. Then the A-bombs were dropped, ending the war and saving at least a million American lives and maybe 20 or 30 million Japanese lives if we had invaded. I am convinced that the A-bomb spared my life. But I am digressing.
We used the Japanese soldiers to bury anchors (seized from the Japs) ashore and then ran cables from the anchors to the scuttled ships. These cables steadied the scuttled ships. Then our hard hat divers went below, and by feel, patched all the holes and sealed the open seacocks. When the scuttled ships were sealed, holes were cut in the deck and cofferdams were welded in place. Think of a cofferdam as sort of a chimney running from the deck of the ship upwards above the water line. Then we pumped the water out of the sunken ship, causing it to rise to the surface. The raised ship was then towed out to sea and sunk again by gunfire.
The United States government learned that the Japanese government had taken their hoards of gold and silver ingots and dumped them in the harbor. When the Japs learned that the US did not intend to confiscate their gold and silver, they told the Americans where they had dumped it. While I was still with the Bolster, our divers recovered a large quantity of Japanese silver. Later, after I was gone, the divers recovered some gold too. A barge was towed and anchored over the silver and our divers recovered the silver and gave it back to the Japs.
Of course our divers diverted some of that silver to themselves. At the time silver was only worth about 35 cents an ounce. The way our divers stole the silver was that they fastened lengths of rope to the underside of the barge. While recovering silver ingots, they would tie an ingot to the dangling line. After dark when the day’s work was done, they would pull up the ingots and take two or three back to the Bolster. These ingots were about the size of a loaf of bread, too large and heavy to mail back home. Therefore the divers would put the ingots in one of our power hacksaws and cut off slabs of silver like slices of bread. Towels were placed under the ingots in order to catch all the silver filings. You could then mail home a few slices of silver at a time. Silver was offered to me because I was part of the gang. Trouble is, I was too chicken to take any of the silver. Further, silver wasn’t all that expensive. Looking back on that adventure, I could have taken lots of silver, the odds were overwhelming that I wouldn’t get caught. I’m glad that I didn’t take any silver nonetheless. I guess you are glad too. Who wants a criminal for a father?
By now, most of us have seen Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, The War, so even if we haven’t read much history, we’re familiar with the arguments for and against using the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan. No doubt, as my Dad notes, invading Japan would have exacted a horrific toll in American and Japanese lives. But how long could the Japanese have held out had we simply besieged them with a naval blockade? I suspect my Dad was right: Japan depended (and still depends) on the importation of raw materials and food, and by 1945 we had destroyed their lines of communication, their navy, and most of their merchant fleet - did they really have the will to starve to death rather than sue for peace?
And they were starving, as Dad’s letter makes clear. Daily life in a defeated and devastated country must be hell on earth. Several years after the war Dad joined the US Air Force, and in 1954 we moved to Germany for a three-year tour. I vividly remember how bad life was for the Germans. Even as an eight- or nine-year-old kid, I was aware that there were hardly any German men. They’d been killed in the war, leaving a nation of women, the very old, and children. All the US military families had German maids, the only employment available to those women – my Dad was an officer, and we had two! I remember seeing lots of German kids hobbling around on twisted legs. Rickets, brought on by the scarcity of milk, was a common childhood disease in post-war Germany. Walls in downtown Kaiserslautern were riddled with bullet holes, and there were still blocks of bombed-out buildings. If I’d been older, I’d probably have been aware of the extensive black market in base exchange coffee and cigarettes – I’m certain my Dad was.
And that was Germany, nine years after the defeat of the Nazis. I can’t even imagine what life in Japan was like, mere weeks after their surrender. Dad’s letter offers a glimpse. Hell on earth, indeed.
© 2007, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.