Veteran of the Month

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 4, 2006

From farm living to foreign war

By: James G. Smith, Legionnaire

Special to the Selma Times-Journal

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Writer’s Note: June Veteran of the Month for The American Legion Post 20

In times past, living on a farm in Alabama was all about row crops, pastures and livestock. Back breaking work from before sun-up to after sundown occupied your daily existence. Children of farmers had precious little idle time for baseball or swinging on a vine over the favorite swimming hole, let alone the important things like school. It was no different for Wallace D. McVay whose roots ran deep in the soils of Lawrence County.

In addition to keeping up all the farm chores, he managed to complete high school in the Class of ’43. For draft eligible men during the war, it was only a matter of time before Uncle Sam crooked his finger and declared “I Want You.”

When the draft notice came in 1944, McVay chose the Navy although having his feet planted on solid ground was all he had ever known. There was just something about ships and the sea that drew him as metal to a magnet.

It is interesting to contemplate why so many farm boys, raised with earth under their toe nails, would choose serving in the Navy. Unexplainably, there is an allure for some to explore the high seas with only steel beneath their feet.

McVay was transported to Camp Peary, Va., to draw clothing and to endure basic training. Camp Peary was home to the Navy Seabee’s Combat Training Center and

McVay, along with other regular Navy recruits, were meshed in with the Seebee’s training.

After completing the rigorous Seabee training regiment, orders were cut for Norfolk Naval Station, Va. Aptitude assessments were made and assignments for military occupation schools passed out to the new recruits. McVay scored well on the guidance simulators and drew helmsman school at Norfolk.

Helmsman training was challenging, but McVay soon became proficient at steering the large vessels and keeping a steady heading. After graduation at Norfolk, a crew was assembled at Boston, Mass., to take control of the newly launched USS Lewis (DE-535).

The USS Lewis was a destroyer escort armed with two-inch to five-inch guns and multiple 40 and 20mm anti-aircraft guns in addition to its depth charge capabilities for defending against submarines. After commissioning on Sept. 5, 1944, the USS Lewis with McVay as the helmsman departed for a shakedown cruise to Bermuda. Upon returning to Boston, final adjustments and modifications were made to the ship. Ship stores were replenished and final preparations made for the long voyage to the Pacific war zone.

Departure date from Boston was Nov. 10, 1944, with an itinerary of Pearl Harbor by way of the Panama Canal. Christmas dinner 1944 was served at Pearl Harbor. The Lewis received instructions to provide anti-submarine escort duties for four battle ships en route to Ulithi in the Caroline Islands. The USS Texas, USS Arkansas, USS Mississippi and the USS Missouri were directed to Ulithi for further deployment.

Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands is about 370 miles southwest of Guam and 370 miles northeast of Peleliu. Ulithi became a fleet anchorage and logistic support base for 15 battleships, 29 carriers, 23 cruisers, and 106 destroyers by March 1945. It was the largest and most active naval base in the world during this period of time.

In addition to Ulithi, there were several other islands in the chain of importance. Mogmog served as the fleet recreational area with a 1200 seat theater and accommodations for 8000 enlisted and 1000 officers. Falalop Island had a 3,500-foot renovated former Japanese runway with a seaplane ramp built by the Seebee’s at the end of it. Other islands had housing, theaters, a chapel, and a headquarters building.

Ulithi became home base for the USS Lewis.

On the night McVay arrived at Ulithi, a Japanese submarine penetrated the harbors defenses and torpedoed a nearby ship. A mad scramble ensued trying to locate and eliminate the intruder. It proved to be an exercise in futility as the Japanese sub slipped the noose as easily as it had entered. The incident was very unnerving for those sailors experiencing their first real action against the elusive Japanese. They soon would all become case hardened to fear and the uncertainty of tomorrow.

The USS Lewis provided anti-submarine escort service for convoys operating out of Ulithi. Task Group 50-8 during the Iwo Jima campaign depended on the Lewis among others for protection against submarine and Kamikaze attacks.

The Marines began landing on Iwo Jima at 8:59 a.m. on Feb. 19, 1945. Navy carrier based planes had Iwo Jima on their bombing runs for about 10 weeks prior to the invasion force. In addition, Navy ships moved in and pounded the Japanese positions for three days before troop deployment. Marines had asked for 13 days of pre-landing bombardment, they received only three due to Mac Arthur’s commitment to Luzon.

The Marines came under heavy fire on the beach from a well entrenched enemy picking off exposed marines at will. Navy and Marine pilots flew support missions chewing up the volcanic ash with volleys of machine gun fire on positions very near advancing marines. Destroyers and cruisers were brought in as close to the shoreline as possible to lay down fire over the pinned down marines. It was an epic struggle requiring all the will and determination of Marine and Naval units.

While the Marines were being picked off one by one and gains measured in yards, McVay and other naval personnel were desperately trying to fend off waves of Kamikaze attacks against naval support units. The carrier Bismarck Sea (CVE-95) was sunk (318 men lost) and the carrier Saratoga (CV-3) heavily damaged in the attacks.

On March 16, after 26 days of bitter fighting, Iwo Jima was cleared of Japanese. It came at a very high price with 6,821 killed, 19,217 wounded and 2,648 combat fatigued. Of the estimated 22-27,000 Japanese defending the island only 1,083 POWs were taken alive. The fighting had been so intense it prompted Admiral Nimitz to remark, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

There was little time for the weary naval crews to rest or prepare for the next objective. Okinawa, back door to Japan, lay in the gun sights and the armada was already gathering. McVay and the USS Lewis were once again assigned to the invasion fleet. The Navy assembled 1,300 ships in and around Okinawa for the offensive. The number of troops, ships and tonnage of supplies at Okinawa even surpassed the Normandy invasion.

The battle for Okinawa began on Sunday, April 1, 1945. The landings were virtually unopposed, but the Japanese were there in well fortified bunkers and caves on the high grounds waiting. It didn’t take long to realize the Japanese would fight to the last man. They had abandoned their suicidal banzai attacks and dug deep into the treacherous terrain. Flamethrowers were used to clear the crevasses, holes and caves.

Meanwhile, McVay and fellow crewmen of the USS Lewis were on radar picket duty trying desperately to swat the Kamikazes from the sky before they could inflict major damage to the fleet. It was a valiant effort, but even at best some got through. The Navy lost 36 ships and another 368 damaged during the engagement. It was the largest loss of ships in Navy history.

Okinawa would prove to be the most significant battle of the Pacific in terms of loss of life and ships. Civilian deaths during the 82 days of fighting were second only to Stalingrad in Russia. Roughly 100,000 Japanese soldiers died or took their life rather than surrender.

The Navy suffered its worst loss of life in a single battle with almost 5,000 killed and as many wounded. The United States Tenth Army suffered its worse loss against the Japanese with 7,613 deaths and another 30,000 wounded to some degree. The number of combat fatigue casualties were staggering.

Okinawa was the last great battle of the Pacific. Because of it and the civilian and military casualties, the decision to end the war with the A-bombs were made.

The USS Lewis collected three battle stars for its participation in helping defeat the Japanese.

McVay survived the war and two really strong typhoons out in the Pacific. He considered himself one lucky man and eagerly rejoined the ranks of the land lovers.

When asked if he would consider it again, he said, “I’d do the same thing over again. It was rough, but it had to be done.”