Once I Was Young and There Was a War: Part IV

Bob Butler, 1944-45

By Bob Butler
Following the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945, we move back to the west side of the island. The kamikaze attacks are harassing us every evening. To put it more bluntly, they are causing serious damage to our ships. A kamikaze pilot will aim for a large ship, but if he overshoots his mark, he will attempt to hit any ship within reach. We had one such experience. The pilot missed his target. His plane was damaged and while falling he aimed for us. He crashed nearby.
Don Hawkins, the ranking U.S. Navy officer on our landing craft infantry gunboat, ordered the crew to break open the small arms cabinet that was on deck. Members of the crew rushed for a weapon. I saw two guys actually fighting one another for possession of one of the guns, or to put it another way, fighting for the opportunity to kill another human being. I have yet to assimilate this experience. The Japanese pilot was not going anywhere and if not already dead from injury or suicide, someone in the crew who already had a gun would kill him. I guess one doesn’t think rationally amid all the excitement. I know, we are in a war and we are to kill as many of the enemy as we can. Otherwise, they will damn well kill us or something along that line.
I have complained about our overcrowded conditions and could have gone on with a description of a typical meal. But honestly, I think my assignment was just the right one for me. The lack of rank among us enhanced our sense of freedom. However, this was not always for the best. Hawkins — who’d been the target of an assassination plot before the Okinawa invasion — was now beyond the pale. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I have forgotten my complaints as well as those of others. But I do remember going to get my gun one night to shoot him. I got three steps down the stairs before I came to my senses. (He had accused me of cheating at cards but that couldn’t have been the main reason for my anger. I must have had strong lingering resentment toward him.) If only this ship had been large enough to accommodate a ping pong table, life would have been more tolerable.
To return to my story: We, three deck officers and the engineering officer, were in agreement that Hawkins should be relieved of his duties. How or where could we get help? The presumed leader of our entire group — 36 LCI(G)s, 12 in each of three groups, was a no-show. I had never met him nor had anyone else on our ship. He was an Annapolis grad who had been inactive for years. In fact, to fit him back into the system they had to resuscitate the title of “commodore.” (And I had thought “commodore” was only used at yacht clubs.)

After Japan’s surrender, Bob Butler took over command of landing craft infantry gunboat 81.

I thought someone with “real rank” might provide “seasoned” suggestions. One day an aircraft carrier was anchored nearby. Another officer and I went aboard to search for someone who might help us. We strolled about the carrier. It was SO huge and we were SO small that I never felt SO belittled in my entire life. WHAT WERE WE THINKING? We were on a ship whose planes were making devastating attacks on Japan’s cities. An analysis of the results may have been going on at that very moment and here come two ensigns looking for someone to help them with personnel problems. The whole idea was insane and we returned to our ship convinced that this was where we belonged.
One day while carrying out some kind of chore, we came upon a severely damaged ship. It was a wonder that the ship was still afloat. The Eng.O., when seeing the wreck, completely fell apart. We took him to the Hospital Ship. I don’t know what ever happened to him. Another bit of background: The Eng.O., a big 6-foot Texan, and I shared the two-tier iron bed — I slept on the lower mat and he slept on the upper. From time to time I would hear him sobbing during the night. I didn’t tell anyone. Now I wish I had for we might have gotten him help much sooner.
We were ordered to return to Pearl Harbor for a general overhaul and installation of 50-caliber machine guns. The invasion of the Japanese mainland was, I think, planned for Nov. 30, 1945. We believed that every man, woman and child would fight to the end. The 50-cal. machine guns would provide much needed close-up fire power.
The B29 bombing raids were obliterating Japanese cities and two atomic bombs demonstrated our awesome power. Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945. “Oh my God, it’s over!” The bands played “California, here I come” throughout the night.
Hawkins and the executive officer returned to the States for discharge. I took over command. About two weeks later, I requested permission from the port master to exit the harbor. I took the ship several miles out to sea and then had the crew throw every single one of our rockets overboard. “SO LONG WORLD WAR II.”
I received orders to take the LCI(G)81 to San Diego. I estimated that it would take us 10 days to make the trip. I must have had celestial charts of the stars available to mark our estimated locations as we headed toward the States. But I never used them. Day after day, night after night, the sky was overcast. But what the hell. The war was over and we were bound to hit North America if we kept heading eastward. From there we could figure out whether to turn left or right. Sure enough, on the 10th day I spotted a small fishing craft. I maneuvered our ship over closer and yelled to the skipper, “Which way to San Diego?” He pointed to the northeast and must have wondered how we ever won the war. After a while we arrived at our goal.
The final step in 81’s life was her decommissioning. She was given a place in a line of ships to be retired from service. I don’t recall the list of jobs that had to be completed, but I do know that I had a lot of bookwork to do. At the designated date for decommissioning, naval officials inspected our ship. Had they judged that the condition of a ship failed to meet their requirements, it would have been placed at the end of the line for the next inspection date. This threat certainly motivated us and we passed.
Not long after my arrival in San Diego, I met a woman in one of the popular bars, Paul’s Passion Pit. Despite the name, I remember the place as a semi-upscale bar. She was with a girlfriend. She told me that she was from Indiana and was working in San Diego as a long-distance telephone operator. In time I got to know her quite well. She was a fine young woman a couple of years older than I. It became apparent, however, that she was ready for marriage. And why not? She was young, unencumbered, and perhaps a little lonely. I enjoyed her company, but I clearly was not thinking marriage.
She must have known that. Then one day I received an order to go to Charleston, S.C. I told her I would not be returning. Words by the poet Robert Frost encapsulated my feelings at the time in such a wondrous way that I can’t resist repeating them here:

The woods are lovely dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

About that trip to Charleston: The story begins when I was appointed C.O. of another LCI(G). That was fine, but I was in San Diego and my new ship was in China. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go to China to get it. The current C.O. brought it back. It takes at least 30 days to cross the Pacific in an LCI. During this time, all I had to do was to call some Naval office and report my presence. Hence, I was able to spend time in Hollywood and L.A. where I heard great jazz.
Shortly after I took command of my new ship, I was notified to report again to Naval Headquarters. In a room where every man was top heavy with brass, I was told that I would be in charge of a flotilla of four or five LCI(G)’s (I forget how many); I was to take them to Charleston, S.C., for decommissioning. I was excited and certain I could do the job.
The journey from San Diego to the Panama Canal was uneventful. We merely hugged the coast. When doing this, you don’t want to get too intimate with the coast or you’ll end up on it or against it. At night we used a radar device that showed us our location vis-a-vis land.
It was when we reached the canal that we ran into a problem. After the end of the war, a large part of our fleet was returning to the East Coast. Each lock in the canal has only space for a limited number of ships, depending on their size. My LCI(G)’s positioned themselves so they could enter the lock as a unit. On several occasions during the day, we were called off from entering the lock because a larger ship had arrived on the scene. We, with the flat bottoms and wind-catching superstructures, worked continually to keep in position for entry. At the very end of the day we were admitted. After leaving the lock, we went only a relatively short distance before pulling up for the night. My fellow officers and I went to the local officers’ club for drinks and dinner. This happened to be Saturday night. As I was nursing my drink, I glanced into the adjacent room and saw gentlemen in their white uniforms and ladies in their evening gowns actually dancing. “My God, whose navy do these people belong to?” It had been quite a while since I had seen normal social life in action. At first blush, it seemed out of place.
From the Panama Canal we headed toward Miami. We used maps and radar when transversing the Caribbean Sea. Once again after we reached Florida, we hugged the coast — this time the East Coast. From the Canal Zone I had called my mother in Miami to tell her that I thought we would be passing by 71st Street Beach (I don’t know what it is called now) on the afternoon of such and such a day. It turned out that I was correct and my mother, sister and brother were at the beach when we appeared. I guided the line of ships so that they were clearly in view. The last time the family had been together was when we dined at the Waldorf-Astoria and now we were together again. WHAT DRAMA! Or was it sheer grandstanding?
Whatever. We got to Charleston and decommissioned the ships. I then went to Jacksonville, Fla., for my discharge. Earlier I had planned to pay a short visit to the Baltimore mother who had lost her son, but I didn’t do so. I wanted to get back home. I had recently turned 23 and MY mother was waiting for me.

Bob Butler, 95, raised beef cattle in Iowa County for almost 25 years after retiring as a highly regarded professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. He lives on his family’s farm near Dodgeville with his wife, Caroline. Parts I-III of this series can be found at www.voiceoftherivervalley.com.