Wesley Schmidt was our neighbor when I was growing up. He and his wife were our substitute grandparents since they lived right across the street. I remember spending many evening at their house. I don’t know how or why I ended up learning about his experience during World War 2, but I’m so happy I still have it today. Here is a portion of his story.
When World War 2 broke out, when the Japanese’s bombed Pearl Harbor, I was about 15. I lived close to the airport. That summer I rode down to the airfield to see what activity was going on. I only saw bombers coming here and there not much activity. And I wondered what this war thing was all about.
I didn’t go back for his senior year, there was a shortage of labor so I worked on my family’s farm. In March of 1944, I joined the Navy. I was 17, about a month away from turning 18. My parents signed for me and I was able to join the Navy. I spent 3.5 weeks in San Diego at the Naval Training Center. An abbreviated induction into the Navy, normally boot camp is 12 weeks, but things were beginning to build up in the Pacific and they wanted to get as many people ready as possible.
I took a few tests while I was at the training center. My hearing was better than my ability to do other things so they assigned me to Sonar School which was right across the street from the Training Center in San Diego. I spent 3 months there training on sonar equipment. Sonar is a machine that sends a beam under water to see if there are any objects around you. It is anti-submarine warfare. If you received a solid contact whatever distance from your ship an echo would come back to you. It is called echo ranging. In the Sonar School you learned how to conduct an attack on submarines, you learned how to use your sonar equipment to perfection. It was not an exact science, but it was effective enough. A lot of submarines were sunk using sonar detection.
I graduated from Sonar school around the same time my classmates from Sanger High graduated. After graduation I went to San Pedro, Terminal Island.
The Navy uses Sonar gear on various ships. The largest ship to have Sonar would be a Destroyer. Destroyers are the backbone of the fleet. They have torpedoes and a lot of other armament. I really would have liked to be aboard a Destroyer.
Joined the Mine Sweeper Crew
I would watch the ships come in waiting to be picked up on a crew. I waited for what felt like a while and got tired of waiting. Since I was a young, waiting was difficult. I decided to volunteer to board a Mine Sweeper.
I was on an Admirable-Class Mine Sweeper the length of the ship was 180 feet the width was 30 ft. It was not a big ship, but it was destined to do things at certain at certain times and they could do with the equipment on the ship. Aboard this ship were 100 men and officers. It was pretty crowded. The living conditions were crowded, everything was crowded, but we got along and we did what had to be done.
The crew was a mix of true Navy soldiers and then a mix of farmers, machinist, etc. with minimal training. Some days it was super boring, other days there was too much action happening. They destroyed about 140 mines while out to sea. Disabling mines and making the water safe for ships was their primary job, but his adventures were a little more elaborate than that. They went over to the Philippines from Oahu (Pearl Harbor).
Joining the World War 2 Battle
By the time, they got to the Philippines the Navy Battle between the US and Japan was over. The US had defeated the Japanese’s Navy to the point that they couldn’t fight back. But that didn’t mean the war was over and that there wasn’t danger.
The headed to a small island close to Okinawa called IE Shima. Their job was to sweep the mines so that the troops could head ashore and take the Island. After the American troops came ashore and took the island of IE Shima, they found a bunch suicide boats. Pleasure boats, small fishing boats, etc, set back in caves ready to launch out to sea. They were packed up with explosives in the front. They would try to sink as many ships as possible using these suicide boats, but it didn’t work because we were able to get their first. We destroyed all the suicide boats and began to prepare to invade the main island of Okinawa.
It was a major island with quite a few fortifications. It was only 250 miles from Okinawa to the Japanese main land. At this point we were getting very close. The routine was to sweep mines from where the landing team was going to be. They would go in under the fire of the larger ships that were standing off some ways, lobbing shells overhead into the beach and fortifications. It was pretty difficult because you would hear the whistle overhead, but couldn’t see it. They would clear the beach and then the landing craft would come in and take over. We invaded Okinawa on April 1st, 1945, Easter Sunday.
We would patrol at night then during the day we would go in and sweep mines or serve on a picket line (going back in forth in a short area) surrounding Buckner Bay (where all the Navy ships were) to protect the Navy fleet from suicide aircraft.
Japanese Tactics of Suicide Air Craft
As we gained more and more ground on Okinawa the Japanese would send more suicide aircraft. It became routine to watch for suicide aircrafts. The planes would start around dusk. When the sun was low, the planes would come out of the sun. And then they would try and find a ship to sink. They didn’t normally go after their ship because they were pretty small, but they would attack Destroyers regularly.
One evening about the middle of the time that they were at Okinawa a torpedo plane came out the sun and he looked at his ship and they started shooting at him. He made a lazy turn and started toward them low on the water, he was so low he could see his face as he turned up over the end of the ship. He let loose a torpedo. Some people swore it went under the ship, some said it went behind. Wherever it went, it didn’t hit his ship. A torpedo that size would have destroyed the ship. That was probably one of the closest encounters to death. There were other encounters where mines caused close calls. They were very tricky and they got lucky more than one time.
One time a mine was caught in the equipment. They saw it dangling on the wedge in the back of the ship. They re-put their equipment in the water and did various trails and turns to get the mine unhooked from the equipment. The mine would go off if one of the horns was hit. Eventually, they were able to get it to come loose and dispose of it safely.
Another Close Call
He enjoyed being on a ship. He was a young guy. Living that close to each other things can get a little tight at times, but he had a good crew. In 1994, they got together to celebrate their 50th anniversary. They started meeting up every other year after that, but now (2001) they were meeting yearly. They know their time is short, each year there are a few more men who don’t come because they are no longer with us. He was one of the youngest aboard ship.
I feel so lucky to have Wes’s story recorded on tape and now a portion of it is written down. Wes died in 2006 and without his cassette tape I wouldn’t have been able to share his story. Thanks for reading and remembering the sacrifice of those who served during World War 2.
This is Day 28 of 31 Days of Deployment Stories.
If you missed a day you can see the whole series here. Yesterday I shared my Uncle Ray’s experience at Pearl Harbor. Tomorrow I will share a story from an Air Battle Manager who deployed to UAE. Don’t miss a post. Sign up for my weekly email list here.