The World War II generation is fast slipping away. Veterans are held in veneration due to the decreasing numbers of those who served in the last “great” war. My father, Erwin E. Towne, now 88 years of age, took the advice of his parents to enter trade school in order to master a skill that would enable him to choose his branch of service during the war. He was drafted in 1943. As a metal smith, he chose the Navy, to follow in his father’s footsteps, and the aircraft unit, to follow an interest in flying. Erwin spent his stint on the islands of Guam and Saipan in the South Pacific. Advanced metal smiths repaired the bombers used in the assault on the Japanese mainland and in the South Pacific theater of the war.
I have a poignant reminder of his trade–a steel bracelet that looks very much like those worn by Wonder Woman. But mine was created from scrap metal salvaged from a P-51 bomber and inscribed with the date, source of the metal, and my father’s name. He made several bracelets for his buddies to send home to their wives, mothers and sweethearts, as well as bands for wrist watches. The tropical climate and salt water ate away the cloth and leather bands the men wore. Only steel bands of his own design survived–and my father wears his to this day, although the watch has been replaced countless times. Erwin sent so much spare change home from his metal designs and puka shell jewelry that his father wrote warning him to “quit gambling, Erwin!”
The most serendipitous component of his war years is the journal Erwin kept from boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago, Illinois, to Saipan. He records brief accounts of “boot” experience, advanced training in Norman, Oklahoma, to Norfolk, Virginia, to San Diego then Santa Monica, California waiting for orders. While in California, he heard Tommy Dorsey at the U.S.O. Club and danced with the L.A. girls.
After receiving draft orders to ship out, he took ship for his ultimate destination, which included an eye-opening stop-off at Pearl Harbor before shipping out to the South Pacific. At Pearl, the men were ordered below decks, probably to preserve morale in the midst of the devastation. They anchored at the far end of Ford Island and were allowed some time off-ship at a recreation park before heading back out to sea.
On the islands, he records close encounters with Japanese snipers separated from their units and still living in the jungles on Guam. In another account, a damaged bomber crashed into the hangar where his crew worked, killing the pilot and causing extensive burns to ten men as the fuel exploded. He was not on duty at the time. The undamaged planes landed on the main strip, but damaged planes were routed to their short strip and some exploded on landing.
My father’s creativity also created interesting consequences. He was asked to forge the five-star insignia for Admiral Nimitz’s jeep. Nimitz was Chief of Naval Operations. Erwin also salvaged a gun camera from a defunct bomber and used it to take 16mm movies of life on Saipan. There are brief shots of men in shorts hanging out near the barracks and on the beach, Erwin with the company dog, sweeping pans of cruisers and destroyers in the harbor, and especially touching moments as the men headed home–first in the transport, then the ship, then finally under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The closing shots are of a Frisco park where he took mundane shots of strolling people, ducks in a pond, flowers, and city streets. These glimpses of normal home life were not mundane to a veteran just returned home. A U.S. park looked pretty good after two years over-seas on a sweltering jungle island in the midst of war.
I am sharing the journal and movie footage, now converted to a modern DVD, with the Washington Historical Society on February 27, 7 p.m., meeting at the Presbyterian Church in Washington, IL. It is open to the public and free of charge.
Especially interesting are the entries Erwin made on the dates of the dropping of the Atomic bombs on Japan. August 6, 1945, when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Erwin was watching the Charles Ruggles Show at a sea plane base called Tanapeg. He, along with 7,000 other men, enjoyed a show featuring three fellows and four girls, unaware that history-changing events were taking place. On August 9, 1945, the men had become better-informed: “Russia is now in the war with us. She is already fighting and doing very well. The second Atomic bomb was dropped on Japan [Nagasaki]. No reports yet.” His entry is compelling for its brevity. The full impact would not hit the troops until peace was actually declared and the troops could come home. They waited anxiously for news of peace talks. September 2, 1945: “Today is a big day out here. For one it’s V.J. Day and a lot of things are going on. This morning we all heard the surrender coming over short wave then later the President talked and McArthur and Nimitz said a few words. The fleet is sitting in Tokyo Bay now putting our troops on the Jap homeland. Things are going according to plan.”
It would be some months before the boys could go home. His last entry is December 17, 1945: “Went up for a two-hour hop today in a P.V. There were four of us from the metal shop along. We flew most of our time over Tinian and the last 15 minutes over Saipan.” One of his last views of his W.W.II base was from the air. But the sight of the Golden Gate, U.S.A., was the picture he captured on film.