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Interview on experiences in World War II

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WWII Oral History Project Barber County Kansas


Melvin L. Conrad


James Johnston, Interviewer and Cameraman


in history class at South Barber High School, about 1999


Transcribed by Melvin L. Conrad


(First part of interview is missing on the DVD) The first part is added by Melvin:

I enlisted in the USNR on March 6, 1945 while still a senior at Kiowa High School in Kiowa, Kansas. On April 16, 1945,1 was called for active duty and took basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago, Illinois. A new company called the Navy Bluejacket Choir was being formed, and I was accepted to be part of this company of 140 men. We sang on Meet Your Navy Radio Programs each Saturday Night. In early May we sang in a special memorial service for President Franklin D. Roosevelt who had died early in his fourth term.

Upon completion of basic training I traveled by train to Seattle, Washington, then by boat to the navy yard across the bay to Bremerton. I was assigned to a destroyer that had just come from the Pacific into dry dock for repairs. Part of the time was spent in training to handle ammunition and fire 40 mm antiaircraft and five inch guns like those on the destroyer. In early August, 1945, the war with Japan came to an abrupt end when the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Begin interview on the DVD Melvin is speaking:

They dropped those atomic bombs and completely obliterated those two cities. Well, because the war was over in Japan, then they changed our orders. We were just about ready to leave. They held us back there, and I ended up going on the destroyer in a convey as most ships did, that's in groups, or convoy. They sent us down the west coast to San Diego, actually across the bay at Long Beach where we pulled in and spent the night there.

We went around through the Panama Canal (pointing on a map). We started up here in Washington State, entered here at Long Beach which was near San Diego right across the bay. Then we came all the way down along the west coast and stopped at Panama City. By that time when we were coming down here, I guess they, I don't know why it was, I happened to be talking to one of the guys that worked on one of the turrets up on top of the ship. That was like a gun turret but didn't have a gun. They trained on exactly where the target was and that is what controlled the position the guns would point. And they had what was called Fire Control, which in those days was a computer about 3 feet high and 3 feet square and had all kind of cranks on it. And then you would communicate from up there down into the central part of the ship, for instance the range or elevation, and the radar people would call in the distance where the target was from our ship to another ship. We cranked in all those individual things. It wasn't automatic like the computers are now-a days. There were an awful lot of manual things. And so they put me up there on that. And then they had me put on what was called the steering watch. I got to steer the destroyer up there at the wheel. I was on four hours at a time. So, by the time we got down here (pointing to Panama City on the map) I had learned how to do that. When we were going through the canal, we stopped at Panama City overnight. The next day we went through the locks on the Pacific side. There was a big Gatun Lake there in the middle of

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the isthmus, and I got to steer the destroyer across that. It was about four hours just to cross the lake. It took us all day to go through the canal itself. Then got over to Balboa which was on the other side. I don't know if you're aware of it, or not, we're going to get a little geography lesson here. Panama Canal, the Pacific side of the Panama Canal is east of the Atlantic side. Notice the position of the canal here. The canal goes from the Pacific side to the Atlantic side in this direction (points on map toward the northwest), so actually we were farther west when we got to the Atlantic side than when we were where we entered on the Pacific side. And we stopped there overnight. Then we sailed on across the Caribbean up through there (indicates between Cuba and Haiti on the map) on up to New York City. Now there is another thing that you can see on the map pretty well, that most of South America is east of the United States. I remember when I was steering across the Caribbean, it was 4 degrees north to east, almost straight north, not quite, to get up to New York City. This was the middle of October. Now when we got up to New York City, President Truman was to review the fleet at the end of the war. They had a big celebration, because the war was over and I was on the USS Welles. It was a destroyer. There were four destroyers and a cruse ship that went around through the canal up to New York on a convoy. Another ship, the USS Renshaw, was the ship that President Truman rode on up the Hudson River before ours to review the entire fleet, and the Welles was the press ship. That means, they took the guns off the turrets to give room for 300 newsmen with cameras, like you guys back there, to document this auspicious occasion. And I remember standing there almost at attention for four hours- That was the most tiring thing I had done for quite a while, because we had to return the salute of every one of those ships. It sounded like a war zone because every ship had a 21 gun salute to the President and we were returning it, so we were just firing continuously. They were blanks. We didn't have to put shells. It was a colorful thing, because people were hanging out every window along the river, and confetti was coming out of all the windows. We couldn't hear them, because there was all kind of noise from the guns all around us. But we reviewed everything from submarines to battleships to aircraft carriers. So that was at the end of the war. While we were there, I just thought of this, our ship had a fire on it. We were tied up, 3 ships side by side, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and I happened to be out on leave that night in the city. And when I got back, I smell ed something rather strange. It was smoke or something, and I realized it was my ship that had been on fire. They had been showing some movies down in the mess hall that was right above the fuel tanks. They had just filled them up that day. The fire started from the film in the movie projector. They got the guys off. Unfortunately, the fire hydrants that we had on the ship apparently some of them malfunctioned. They had to call the fire department from the Brooklyn Navy yard to go over there and finally put it out. It did quite a lot of damage in the mess hall. That is where all the cables for all the guns were, and the fire control system was right there near that, the central system, so we spent an extra week there while they repaired that before we left. Then we sailed down to Charleston, South Carolina and went into the navy yard there; and that's where they took me off the ship, and I learned later that by the end of November they had decommissioned the ship. They took it out of service.

I came home, and I remember I shipped my sea bag with all my belongings by express on the train to Kiowa and I hitchhiked home. Well, they had given us enough money to have spending money when I got home. It took three days. Well, I hitchhiked in the day time, but then in Atlanta, I recall, I got on a bus and rode during the night on a bus, so I wasn't losing any time. The next day there was a army man and myself, and a marine. We all got together along

the road and put our thumbs up. Back then most people stopped for service men and picked them up. So one guy said, "Let's spread out." This one fellow who had just got out of the service had a trunk. When he got in he said, "My friends are just up the road. Have you got room for them, too?" So we helped each other out. All three of us got to ride in the same car. And so I got up as far as, I believe it was Enid, Oklahoma, by hitchhiking. Then I don't remember how I got back up to Kiowa, actually. I caught a bus or something to Wichita and then came back down to Kiowa. I spent about two weeks here, then I shipped out to Seattle, no, to San Francisco, Treasure Island, and can recall going by train out to the Treasure Island, and rode halfway across the Brooklyn Bay (correctly Oakland) Bridge to the island halfway across the bridge. And then, from there, I went on a troop ship over to Japan. It was early December. So I did spend over 6 or 7 months over in Japan at the end of the war as part of the occupation forces in the Tokyo Bay area. I was assigned to an LST, a Landing Ship Target. That is one with the big doors that opened up on the front when they had an island invasion and tanks would roll out on to the beach. So they put me on one of those, and we stayed in the Tokyo Bay for most of that time. We left those ships over in Japan and never did bring them back to the United States. During the war we destroyed most of the merchant fleet of the Japanese, as well as their navy. Since they are a serious of islands the United States was real generous to them, I thought, after the war. We actually turned some of these over, we took all the guns off, to them so they could have transportation among the islands where some of their supplies and food could go on.

Eventually, they transferred me on to a naval base there at the entrance to Tokyo Bay at Yokosuka. That was the headquarters of the Japanese Navy during the war. I spent some time there. And at that time they had some of us guarding a warehouse for supplies, and I remember carrying an M-l rifle so we learned how to use those, too, on four hour shifts, to prevent service men as well as some of the Japanese from getting into these warehouses where food and other supplies were stored. So that was my experience over there.

By 1946 in May we learned that I had received enough points at the end of the service at the end of the war. They weren't needing personnel now, the war was over, so they were sending us home and I didn't question it. While I was over there, while I was on leave part of the time, the 8* Army headquarters had engineers. They were training in Math, I guess. They had a trigonometry course. I liked math in High School. Some of you may like math and some of you may not, but I had Algebra and geometry, so when I found out they were having that trigonometry course, I enrolled for it. Well I got about a third of he way through, and I found it was time to come home. I didn't want to stay to finish that class and I came on home. Oh, it was rather interesting, that one time I was supposed to go in, but we were restricted to the ship one night. Some of the guys had got into some problems, and I missed the class. And so they didn't want to let anybody off the ship. I didn't think anything about it, but about a couple of days later the captain got a letter from this headquarters school and it said this so and so Conrad didn't attend class today. In other words, they communicated to the captain of the ship that I didn't show up. I didn't realize at the time that it made any difference, but apparently it did. And so the captain called me and said, "What's all this about?" He didn't even know I had been going to the class. So I explained to him what it was, so he said, "I'll see that you get in there." Twice after that I was the only one who went in on a small boat leave, and my number was mud for a while, because the rest of the guys couldn't go in. I was the only one and they couldn't figure out why. Well I told them, but that didn't help the situation any. They didn't like that. And, anyway, I went on in and got a certificate for completing part of the course. But I came on home.

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The day we were ready to leave on a troop carrier, ready to leave Tokyo Bay, and we had to wait there for another ship coming up from China, that was bringing about 2000 marines. They were transferred to our ship. They were heading home also, but when that ship pulled up along side, I noticed the name. I don't remember the name of it at the moment, but at that time I recognized it was the name I remember that my parents were getting from my uncle when he was in the navy, you know, on the letters. And so I called over there and said, "Is Lieutenant Murphy on that ship?" And they said, " Yes, he's up there helping a detail put a gangplank across to transport marines over to your ship." I left him a message about who I was so after he got that gangplank put across, he came over and for about 10 minutes before I came back to the states, I got to visit with my uncle who had been in the navy before the war even. That was the first time we had seen each other in the Navy during the war. I could hardly believe it. We were so far away from home and to see my uncle right there..

I came on home and I was glad for the experience. I don't know if I'd want to repeat it or not, because we did have some rather interesting situations. When we were coming north out of the Panama Canal we had taken on some 5-gallon buckets of paint, they were rusty colored paint for undercoating and then the gray paint we used on the ship. We were beginning to paint some of the camouflage on the ship. We hadn't quite stowed all of it down below deck yet, there were five of these 5-gallon buckets up on deck in front of the front gun turret. I was steering the ship at the time and didn't realize it until later, but here was one of these fellows. Waves there in the Caribbean can be very high. In fact they were high enough, if you were going into the swells like this, we actually dipped into one of the swells and all that sea water came right over the top of the ship. And one of those buckets of paint of that undercoating broke open and one the the fellows that was right there. He almost got washed overboard, he grabbed the railing like this and held on or he would have been washed overboard. When he was hit he cut a gash right over the top of his eye like this (pointing above the eyebrow). Well, when he came down there to the sick bay we called it where the medical doctor was, here was all that paint all over his head. The paint started up here and when the water came down it just coated him with all that paint and all that blood streaking down through it. We didn't know what in the world was wrong with him. It took a while to get all that cleaned up so they would know how to doctor him up. They put a few stitches across there (pointed above the brow), but he turned out to be all right.

Going across the ocean it took us two weeks to go across the Pacific from San Francisco to Japan; and we hit a big storm about two days before we got there. These weren't battles, but I mean they were almost like a battle. All kind of things can happen out there in the middle of the ocean, especially a storm. We had about 5000 men on board and I remember I was on watch at the time. A big room about this size from here on back to there (indicated about 30 feet). It was the office of the ship. They had just made up all the pay rolls for the guys before we landed. Four guys were making up payroll and they were playing cards, and I was inside, because it was really bad out there. And the ship was beginning to roll like this (at about 45 degrees) and shake on the side, then it rolled back to the other side. We didn't know if we were going to roll over or not. And one of those times all of a sudden all four of those guys came rushing out of that door and like what had happened was a big 3 ton safe that they had put the money in had been welded to the deck and had come loose and every time the ship rolled it would start rolling like this and scooting across there. There were 12 metal desks in there also welded to the deck, and every time the safe scooted it ripped the desks off and started mashing them against the wall. Then it would roll to the other side it would slide over there like that. Well, those guys got out of there.

Finally they got a fellow with some rope and clevis. When it rolled over to this side he put the clevis on a beam and put the rope through it. And when the safe came back to this side, he flipped it like this and lassoed it and pulled the rope to tie it down so it wouldn't keep on sliding around like that; because it could have gone right on through. They didn't want to lose our money. Well, the thing is that the captain came down pretty soon and those desks were terrible. I mean they had typewriters in them. Here were all those desks with typewriter keys and ribbons scattered all over the floor and everything, and the captain looked at his chief and said, "Can't you keep better house than this?" I was standing right there and looked at him. The chief didn't know what to say. Well, he kind of mumbled and sputtered and didn't know what to say. The captain said, "Take inventory and throw all these pieces overboard, and we'll take care of it when we get back. I think 8 of the 12 desks were all just completely ruined. But we did get paid just the day before we got in.

Well, that's my story of being in the navy. We didn't have any battles; but we did have a lot of strange experiences, and I was very fortunate that I didn't get into any. I might mention one other thing. When we were going across the Pacific, this was about 4 or 3 months after the war was over we still had to keep watch for mines, you know these things with points sticking out over them, if anything hits them they would explode. So we had to keep watch day and night. We did see one out there about 2 days out of Japan. It was loose and floating. They had these mines all over there. They were all around us, and they shot it and exploded it. We all stayed awake at night watching for those things.

Mr. Johnston: What was it like? What did the Japanese think of it over there at the end of the war about the occupation army in Japan? What was it like? How did the Japanese react to that occupation force?

Melvin: I think they were very permissive when we went in; because the two bombs had hit, and they were afraid we were going to come in and just kill all of them. That was the reaction at first. But then they realized we weren't going to shoot and kill all of them, and so they were very submissive. The general population didn't want to fight. They had had enough of war after four years. A lot of their relatives did not come back just like in our country. They were glad it was over. I did see the destruction of war where the napalm bombs had destroyed most of the factories there at Yokohama, and it was just all torn up. I mean just parts of walls of buildings were there where they had been burned out. So I saw what the result of war was like in their country. I didn't get down where the two big bombs had hit, but they had dropped napalm bombs on the factories all over the place.

Mr. Johnston: Were these mostly factories that were bombed out? I mean was this a residential area?

Melvin: Oh, they tried not to hit a residential area. They were trying to get rid of the factories. In that area of Yokosuka, even in, I think it was about March or April in 1946 about 8 or 9 months after the war was over, we flushed out some people from way back in one of the tunnels. They had a lot of their factories back in tunnels. And we flushed them out and they didn't even know the war was over. That was several months after it was over. They were back in there just holed up.

Mr. Johnston: Did they have any Japanese officers, former officers come and say, "Hey the war is over or --"?

Melvin: I wasn't involved, I just read about it. I hadn't heard about it. Later on, I'm

sure, once they got out they realized somebody told them. I don't know if you're aware of this, but there was a report a few years ago, 20 years after the war, they found some fellow on one of the islands that existed, somehow, all by himself. 20 years after the war he wasn't aware the war was over.

Melvin turned to Carl Eckert seated nearby and asked: Do you know about that Carl? Carl: No, but you know, the natives over there, they never cooked any of their meals. They lived off the land. They would catch a fish and ate that fish live. They would catch a bird by the neck in a tree, remove the feathers

Melvin: There on the island?

Carl: "Right".

Melvin: That's not the kind of life we're accustomed to, is it? It was really primitive. But I had a chance, it was in the Spring after things had settled down, I actually visited with a Japanese family. I had a chance to get acquainted and to see their home. They had three small children, and I remember as we went in we had to take our shoes off as we went in the door, That was right at the edge. We went in and they did'nt have chairs to sit on around the table, so they crossed their legs. They had a table that was just this high (indicated about 1 foot tall) off the floor. He had his children sing some songs to me in Japanese. I didn't know much Japanese at the time, I still don't for that matter. But it was interesting that he was using gestures and we could communicate a little bit. Then they served, I think it was bread, a little bit. They probably didn't have much food anyway. But did get acquainted with that one family that one time. I didn't communicate with them afterward.

Johnston: Anybody else?

Melvin: I've got a few pictures here. I don't know if I have time or not. (Opened an album) Here is a copy I made of those articles out of the newspaper I made - - when I was in

training up at the Great Lakes and then they    
. I couldn't find pictures of the destroyer I

served on, but this was of the USS troop carrier that went across the pacific with about 5000 troops on that ship. Then here is a certificate we got when we crossed the International Date Line halfway across the Pacific. On most ships now a days they have special initiations, but we didn't have an initiation when we crossed the date line. Here are some pictures when I was over in Japan, just snapshots. Lloyd Jacobs was here Wednesday, I believe. Here we happened to find each other. Here is a picture of me and Lloyd Jacobs over there in Yokohama. He was in the 8th Army and I was in the Navy. Joe Frieden from down at Burlington was over there at the same time. There were four of us. We went out on leave together twice. Lloyd and I went up to Tokyo one day, the only time I had ever been to Tokyo, nor since. Here we have some Japanese money, and then here was some silk of the Japanese flag, and a silk handkerchief, hand embroidered. I brought those back. Here is a page of a Japanese newspaper. Here is some Japanese art. The Japanese are very fine artists. It's rather interesting, at the Red Cross Center there, let's see if I can find it, I went in there one day and there was an artist, a man that was sitting and making sketches there. So I sat down there and in about 15 minutes he made a sketch of me. I didn't realize it was in here until last night. I was looking through this stuff. I had forgotten all about it. OK, well that'sail of my (story). (It stopped here).



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