35. World Again at Peace

"…that a better world will emerge… a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice."

The arrival of the USS Altamaha in San Diego meant the end of a long and close association for the pilots and crew of Torpedo Four. Some of us had been together since February, 1943--much of the time confined to the Ready Room or to limited ships quarters. We had become as close as members of the same family.

New orders for all hands were issued before we dispersed from San Diego. After a 30-day leave, Bob Ruth, Will Souza, Felix Ward, and I were to report to the Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, Texas, as flight instructors. We were glad to stay together, but we would have preferred a west coast assignment.

The authorized 30-day leave--the longest I had received since joining the Navy--was filled with exciting events. The war was obviously winding down. This gave everyone a feeling of elation--a sense of buoyancy. In addition, as returning service men, we were welcomed everywhere as heroes.

I was anxious to get back to Idaho and Montana to see my parents and relatives. But, of much more importance, I wanted to follow-up on the occasional correspondence I had received in the Pacific from a beautiful young schoolteacher named Jean Ellis. She was originally from a ranch in Clark County and was now teaching grade school in Pocatello, Idaho.

While on the Essex, I had fantasized that my periodic correspondence with Jean might lead to a deeper relationship. So I called her up as soon as I reached Idaho. We dated in Pocatello and went on horseback rides in the hills above Lidy Hot Springs. Before my 30-day leave was up, we were engaged to be married. I was now flying high--and not even in the cockpit of my trusty Avenger.

We encountered one serious problem with our marriage plans. Jean had joined the WAVES and was awaiting orders. I couldn't stand a forced separation, so we contacted everyone we could think of in the Navy with an outline of the situation. The higher echelons of the Navy knew that the war was about over and, unbelievably, they authorized an Honorable Discharge for Jean "without any active duty."

I was still on leave when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, died. The date was April 12, 1945. This announcement sent shock waves through our military establishment. For nearly four years in the Navy, I had felt secure in knowing that America was in the good hands of a knowledgeable Commander-in-Chief. The deep sense of loss was not mitigated as a relative unknown, Vice President Harry S. Truman, took over our supreme command. Fortunately, American military momentum did not falter, and Truman was prepared to face some difficult decisions, including the use of the atomic bomb and the future of the Japanese Empire.

I reported for duty at NAS, Corpus Christi, on schedule and was back in the cockpit of an SNJ on May 17. I was preoccupied with my upcoming marriage, but I still tried to keep abreast of the blur of changes sweeping through both theaters of war. (1)

News hit the States on April 18 that Ernie Pyle, American war correspondent, was killed by a sniper on Okinawa. Everyone seemed to know and respect Ernie for his courageous reporting of the war. Two more deaths of famous people soon followed.

The German High Command surrendered unconditionally seven days after Hitler's death. Churchill and Truman proclaimed May 8, 1945, as VE-Day. There was a great celebration all over the Allied world. I was in Corpus Christi and was not caught up in the mass excitement that was reported in most American cities. And, fresh from the Pacific, I knew that the world was still not at peace.

Another important event took place in June--Jean and I set June 2 as our wedding date. I was so excited I could hardly keep track of the "Flight" of French cadets assigned to my care at the Naval Air Base. These "frogs," as they were called, were carefree but dangerous flyers. I worried about getting my wings or tail chewed up by their props as we flew haphazard close formation. And the inverted-spin check-outs for the cadets left me in a daze for several hours after the ride. The only plane that we had on the base that could take the rigors of the inverted-spin check was the old N2S biplane. This Stearman, with the open cockpit, was really a joy to fly--particularly for aerobatics.

Between flights, I made arrangements for our wedding ceremony at the Naval Air Station Chapel. My worst problem was finding a place to live. The housing situation in Corpus was critical--and most of the empty apartments were filthy and roach infested. I rented one, found another a little better, rented it, and finally rented a third--the top floor of a small house. No money back on the first two rentals. I became so well acquainted with the lady real estate agent that she set up a reception for us following the wedding ceremony.

In a letter home dated May 20, I stated my frustration with the Navy because they would not allow time-off for my wedding, "Here is the sad news. I've been to see every big shot on the base with this result. It is impossible for me to get over one day off to get married regardless of the circumstances. I've checked every possibility. That settles that matter." It was obvious that the Naval aviation program was still under pressure from the Pacific war.

My mother and Jean drove my 1938 Nash from Idaho to Corpus Christi for the wedding. The tires on the car were retreads, but rationing prevented the purchase of new ones. Consequently, it wasn't long before the tires started throwing rubber and more old retreads had to be located. Add a few mechanical problems and the trip to Corpus took 5 days. Jean called periodically to report the circumstances slowing progress toward our reunion. The wedding date was still firm for June 2.

Jean's sister, Lois, came over from Louisiana for the ceremony. My Navy buddies filled in the other slots to complete the wedding party. Jean asked Felix Ward to go down the isle with her to "give her away." Bob Ruth served as Best Man. Other pilots provided moral support.

With so much help from the Navy at the ceremony, I knew it would be wise to leave town after the reception. We chose the most unlikely town close to Corpus Christi. No one would expect anyone to go to Beeville for a 1-day honeymoon--and sure enough we were not followed. I picked out the only hotel in downtown Beeville--small, old, rundown, no bridal suite, and without air conditioning. The Texas heat--and the overhead fan--really made an impression on my new bride.

I reported back to the flight line on schedule a day after our honeymoon in Beeville. Only now, I was a married man, and consequently, a more cautious pilot.

My log book shows 2 - 4 hops every day except Sunday through June, July, and August. We heard nothing about the experimental explosion of the first atomic bomb at the test facility near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16. Then the big news came on August 6!

"A 9000-pound atomic bomb with destructive power previously unimagined was dropped by the US B-29 Enola Gay on Hiroshima at 8:15 A.M. It seared the center of the city for a fraction of a second with a heat of 300,000° centigrade. It is still not clear how many people died. Official US estimates of the dead were placed as high as 78,000. Japanese sources place the figure as high as 240,000 (about half the people in Hiroshima at the time)." (1)

The second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. Casualties from this explosion were estimated at 35,000.

Those of us fresh from the Pacific War--and, probably those still in the Pacific--applauded President Truman's decision to release these two bombs. We wanted the war to end without a costly invasion of the Japanese homeland. The tens of thousands of casualties produced by the atom bombs in these two Japanese cities could not compare with the estimates that, "There will be more than a million casualties if an invasion of Japan becomes necessary." At the time of the first atom bomb drop, only a few scientists and military leaders had any concept of the more indirect and more lasting implications of this unprecedented use of an atomic weapon. The threat of a "nuclear holocaust" did not emerge until the world was well into the Cold War.

My pleasure with the recent turn of events in Japan is reflected in a letter to my parents.

"US Naval Air Station"
"Corpus Christi, Texas"
"August 13, 1945"

"Dear Mother and Dad,"
"I find it hard to concentrate with the radio full on, but Jean and I do not wish to miss the first flash of the impending Japanese surrender. Golly, this last week has been eventful from the war standpoint. It is hard for me to realize that the war may soon be over. I am so happy about the latest developments that I can hardly control my emotions. I sincerely hope that today may be VJ day."
"With the end of the war in sight we begin to wonder what will happen to those of us in the service. The Navy has given us no hint as to what may become of Naval aviators. However, I believe that the majority of us will stay on active duty for about a year. Whether I will be held in Corpus Christi as an instructor I do not know. I may be called on to serve another period of overseas duty during the period of occupation but I rather think some of these fellows who have had continuous state-side duty will go first. In any event I'm looking forward to returning to college for further Forestry work…."
"We are still enjoying married life. Wouldn't be surprised if we tried another two months."
"Gerald and Jean"

VJ-Day was proclaimed by the Allied powers on August 15, 1945. While there had been wild celebrations as the European war ended, this was the big day for those of us who had experienced a touch of the Pacific. Corpus Christi was jubilant. Church bells rang, horns blared, and people took to the streets. I was out at the Naval Base, and Jean was taking a course at the beauty school when we heard the news. All duty was cancelled. We called Bob and Clara Mae Ruth and joined them in a big celebration--Unconditional surrender by the Japanese! The world was again at peace!

World War II had cost the lives of 14,904,000 men in battle and 38,573,000 civilians. In addition 25,218,000 individuals had been wounded--many now unable to return to a productive post-war occupation. Surely, the cost of this war, and the lessons learned, would always remain with mankind to guide our future interrelationships.

The official signing of the surrender documents took place aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. Among the dignitaries present were three of our previous commanders: Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, and Admiral William F. Halsey. General Douglas MacArthur signed for the Allied Powers. In his concluding remarks, General MacArthur stated: (1)

"It is my earnest hope--indeed the hope of all mankind--that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance, and justice."

Photo: Headlines - Japanese Surrender.

Photo: Headlines - Japanese Sign Surrender.

Photo: Admiral Nimitz Signs Surrender Documents.

(1) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.
(2) Pawlowski, Gareth L. 1971. Flat Tops and Fledgings: A History of American Aircraft Carriers. Castle Books, New York.

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Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas