By Dr. E. Bruce Heilman, Chancellor University of Richmond
I suppose everybody remembers from WWII their ride on a troop ship. It was common to us all except those who were aviators, pilots themselves, who flew planes abroad as they moved into position for the bombing runs and all the rest.
Mine was more typical as I moved aboard the troop ship Lorraine in San Diego with 1,500 Marines headed for where we did not know but finally discovered we were landing on the island of Okinawa, the last Japanese bastion of power outside of the homeland.
It was not uncommon, I’m sure, for troop ships to be encountered but I had a very clear experience of that happening as it was also recorded in the book of specifics for the Lorraine. I discovered that on a recent trip back to the South Pacific with 17 other veterans of WWII, one of them being a member of the crew of that transport troop ship. I didn’t know him and 70 years after I was on that ship, I met him and he confirmed for me what happened on our journey as I remembered it.
Somewhere out there in the vast ocean, at a time when there happened to be a sub chaser and some other ships, a battle ship, a cruiser, maybe an aircraft carrier, as it changed from day to day, we had a Japanese submarine encounter our troop convoy. I remember standing on the fan tail watching that sub chaser throw the barrels over seeking to sink that submarine before he sank our ship and 1500 Marines. We did survive and moved on only to have an encounter with suicide planes which also was recorded in the book of actions on the part of the ship. Here again, we were not destined to be hit directly and therefore moved on to the next encounter. That was over the side, down the rope ladder, onto a landing craft and onto the beach.
By this time, we had survived two prospective encounters with death and now we were facing the reality of the risk as we landed on the beach and went ashore and did our duties for the next weeks. In the meantime, we were preparing to land on the main island of Japan, just six weeks away, when the bombs dropped. We had expected to die for our country on that landing on Japan so when we heard the war was over, we literally went out of our minds and shot every weapon into the air, killing either 4 or 6, I don’t remember, in the celebration of peace. That simply clarifies how emotionally drained we were from being at one moment destined to land on the beach of Japan and perhaps not survive and then the next moment to know, or believe, we were going to live to come back home to live our lives as to be blessed with having survived the battles of WWII.
PS: In the meantime, I have lived 70 years of a good life with the only distress being that a number of my fellow Marines have been denied that privilege by virtue of having lost their lives in the Pacific battles.
South Pacific opens this evening at the November Theatre.