WWII Navy vet recalls wartime duty on Okinawa
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal | .
published: August 30, 2016
LUBBOCK, Texas (Tribune News Service) — When Tommy Wright joined the Navy in 1944, he was too tall for pilot training and too claustrophobic for submarines.
But he was 18, and knew his own mind. After 12 weeks of basic training and a visit home to his parents at Sudan, he knew what he had to do.
"So, when I got back to San Diego, I asked for a transfer to the Seabees," he said of the Navy's Construction Battalion.
He was obliged and sent to Okinawa for the invasion and last big battle of the Pacific in World War II.
Wright tells his story with a touch of humor in a setting of danger accompanied by the reality of war.
The initial invasion of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945, and was in a northern part of the island, according to Wright.
He remembers his unit followed three or four days later in the southeastern portion of Okinawa.
"We got to Okinawa and anchored about 3 a.m., scared to death, 10,000 miles away from home, 18 years old. Didn't figure we would ever come home."
Infantry soldiers went in at approximately 4 a.m.
"We immediately followed them. Followed them right in, and set up a dynamo and a string of bulbs ever once in a while so we could see to unload the barges and equipment."
He remembers they had been warned about the hazards awaiting them onshore.
"Our commander said, 'There are Japanese on this island — lots of 'em. There are liable to be hand grenades.' "
He remembers it was cool and misting rain.
"They had said, 'If you hear a thud in the sand, hit the deck because a hand grenade will blow every direction. If you're down, you've got a better chance of surviving.'
Warning was prophetic
"We got everything unloaded, but we had to hit the deck several times. One kid — about two people from me — one landed right close to him, and he said, 'Hit the deck!' And about the time he said that, it blew up and got his leg."
That severe wound, and a sailor who was killed by a grenade, were the memorable casualties among Wright's crew as they went ashore.
They were on land near an area they knew as Buckner Bay.
"Buckner Bay was probably more than a block long. It's natural, but it went back into a bunch of rocks and to a cliff that is 600 feet high. The road over there — if you could call it a road — wound around up that hill.
"We built our temporary camp about 100 yards from the cliff's edge. It was just pup tents at the beginning."
Wright was assigned guard duty at night.
"Our camp was approximately 300 yards from the main road that came up from Buckner Bay, and we had to position a guard on that road that goes up to our camp.
"I thought I had been scared in my life, but I found out that I hadn't really been scared before."
He recalls, "You've got this rifle, and you're walking back and forth across this road, but you can't hardly see where you're walking. It's just pitch black, and what's going through your head, you know:
"We had heard of different places where the Japanese would sneak up on somebody and grab them and cut their throat. That goes through your mind on an eight-hour shift in a long night.
"Eight hours seemed like a week."
Wright was leaning against a tree waiting for his shift to begin at 6 one evening.
"It was at dusk, the sun had gone down. I sat down in front of this tree for a few minutes before I was supposed to go on guard duty. I was lying up against this tree talking to this other guard, not paying much attention. My steel helmet was tipped up against that little old tree. All of a sudden, a light just blinded me — a streak — and I felt that tree shake.
"The bullet was about 2 inches above my helmet, and it just split that tree. It was a tracer bullet. We found out later it was an accident over at the Army camp."
He also recalled guard duty in the middle of the day when two sailors approached.
"They came up and we were talking, you know. I don't even remember what we were talking about. One was just looking around, just walking around.
"I said, 'You can walk around and go up to that cave, but don't go in it. Don't go in the cave, because we don't know what's in there.' He said 'OK.'
"Well, me and this other kid were just talking, and all of a sudden we didn't see the other guy. His buddy hollered at him, hollered his name, and he didn't answer. In a little bit, we heard a scream.
"We found out there was a Japanese in that lower level of the cave. He had a ladder that he could use to climb up.
"He had killed the sailor with a knife."
The military went into the cave and found that the Japanese had shot himself. They brought the sailor back for burial.
Wright eventually moved on to the heavy equipment work done by the Seabees. And he remembers there were dangers even in construction.
"They were running blades and smoothing off the ground for a permanent camp. And this pharmacists mate was the only one that we know about that was asleep in the camp at that time of day. He was the only doctor we had in our battalion. Wonderful guy. I think about it real often, how could something like this happen?
"The blade hit a land mine, and it blew a rock. The rock hit the pharmacists mate in the head and killed him. He was the only one in camp. How in the world could something like that happen?"
Wright was learning to use the heavy equipment that he had a familiarity with before military service. "After you get used to it, it's fine," he said.
There were memories that stay with him, such as the time when Big Red from Tulia used his bucket loader to keep a Caterpillar from toppling down a cliff, saving the life of a young operator.
"Little things like that, you remember always."
And unpleasant duty at Suicide Cliff, where they covered up Japanese soldiers who had killed themselves by jumping to the rocks below.
Natural disasters, Wright found, could be as serious as combat.
He had been working at night, hauling coral to build roads.
"I got off work at 7 or 8 in the morning. I just got in my tent and pulled my shirt off, and pulled my shoes off — and had rubber boots sitting right by my bunk — and lay down and went to sleep.
"About 11:30, a buddy said, 'Get up, there's a typhoon coming, we've got to get out of here!' I could hear the wind flapping the tent. I jumped up, and it looked like the tent was going to go at any time. I couldn't find my shoes, so I put on the rubber boots and a shirt, and grabbed by light jacket and ran out.
"The wind was blowing so hard you could almost see it. There were a bunch of us holding the tent ropes to try to save our tent."
The tents were anchored to crossties, but it wasn't enough.
"We were holding on to those ropes, and all of a sudden one of the ropes broke, and it threw a guy across two rows of tents. He got up and said, 'Let's go.'
"Out west of our camp there was a sloping hill. There were five of us, don't know where the rest of the guys went. Five of us were there and we were lying down to keep the wind from getting under us. It got to blowing so hard it scared us."
He remembers, "We had built a beautiful little church, kind of up on a hill, and had a rock walk going up to it. A bunch of guys had decorated it. It had flowers put out, and it was a pretty church. It wasn't real big, but it was big enough that you could go in and pray, and we were proud of it.
"I said to a buddy of mine, 'Look at the church — it's just sitting there and nothing is happening to it.' Then, all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, it was gone. It was like it just vanished. The wind just blew it up and scattered it all over."
He said, "Our camp ... you wouldn't believe it. All that was left were the four posts for each tent. Even the floor itself and everything else was gone. It took up our chow hall, completely gone, all that equipment scattered everywhere.
"By noon, we were lying over there on the side of that hill. We laid there until 5:30.
About 5 o'clock, this friend had said, 'I believe I can get up.' I said, 'I don't think you can.' He got up on his hands and knees and was fixing to stand up, and all of a sudden that wind got him and threw him about 30 feet down the side of the hill. He rolled quite a ways. It took 30 minutes for him to crawl back, all skinned up."
The aftermath showed the scope of the disaster.
"There were sailors ... death was just everywhere .. people killed all over that place. Later, we were working on the buildings, and a body would come up in the water two weeks after the typhoon."
The war ended with the atomic bomb strikes upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"We were watching some old movie — some of the guys had put us up a screen outdoors. They announced that the war with Japan had ended. Then guns started going off, everybody in camp was shooting.
"I said, 'We're 200 yards from our tents, do you think we could make it back up there without getting shot?'
"We crawled back to camp."
When Wright could leave Okinawa, and after a subsequent assignment to Manus Island, he and his friends came back to California. After months of military rations, they had come home to America, a land flowing with milk and hamburgers.
It's one of his vivid memories, still:
"We were back to the United States. We were going to get us some milk and a hamburger."