Monday, October 11, 2010

WWII Veterans Interviews: Norman Rowe

Greenville’s American Legion FDR Post 186 has been conducting interviews at Camp Cecil Perkerson of our World War II veterans for the Library of Congress’ Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans’ History Project. Norman K. Rowe of Luthersville was interviewed February 25, 2010 and the following interview is in his words.
Norman Rowe
I was born September 1926, six miles from where I live now. It’s about six miles from Luthersville in the Wooster Community (it was not called that then). The house I was born in had been there until ten years ago.
   My parents farmed. We had crops and I plowed an old mule. We raised cotton and corn. The corn was for the farm and family and what was leftover you sold. We had milk cows and as I got grown got we went into the beef business. The farm was 60-80 acres 60 now, then it was 80.  My brother took one side of road and I took other.  The side I took had the house I live in which was already built when the family moved into it. It was built in 1833.
   I have lived in this house where I am now since 1931. I graduated from Luthersville
High School in 1943. It was a class of ten with five girls and five boys. Most boys
enlisted a few months after graduation-two went with me to Macon. We went to the post
office to join up. I chose the Navy because I didn’t want to be walking on my feet in the
army! I thought I would like the Navy and tried it.  I enlisted in the Navy in Macon
in1944. I was first in the Naval Reserves then joined the regular Navy and served from
1943 to ’53. I changed from the Navy to the Air Force because those fellows were riding
in airplanes everywhere and they got to come home more often! I was in the Air Force
from 1953-73 when I retired.
   I made several trips around world in the Navy. I was sent to the Great Lakes for basic training and finished in six weeks.  We had to fall out every morning for roll call and the 3rd time we fell out I was assigned to a ship-glad to go because there were so many of us and it was very confining.
  We left the Great Lakes and went on a cattle car-I’ll never forget they had freight cars and cattle cars and they stuffed us in them to go to San Francisco.  The food wasn’t too bad. We cooked right there in the cattle cars in pots on stoves and served. We were all issued a mess kit plate made of metal that folded and had a cup and knife, fork, and spoon and you kept that through your tour and always carried it because that was the only thing you had to eat out off. It had U.S. Navy on the handle. I’ve still got it and use it occasionally.
   We were issued a hammock, a mattress about two inches thick, and clothes. You carried that with you and if you lost it, you had no place to sleep. The ship had no bunks or beds but an open space with chains on the walls and you hooked your canvas mattress on those chains. We stacked them three people high. I slept on the top bunk. I still have the canvas mattress at the barn. I made sure I didn’t lose it! We stayed in San Francisco several weeks before we were assigned to a ship.
   There was a staging area for 60-100 men and I was in one group.  This fellow came and talked to us and it was the first fellow I had seen with a star on his shoulder. It was General MacArthur and he explained to us what we were going to do. He wanted us to take all these islands back from Japan. I thought it was real nice that he explained what we were going to do and how to do it and he said, “I’ll see you on the beach.”  He was inspiring; he gave us a pep talk and it helped.
   We had two large boats and two small boats and my job was to drive one of the small boats with men to the shore; the large boats took tanks, jeeps, and big equipment. We got the boats off the ship using a hydraulic crane or by letting the big ship take on water and tilt so we could let the boats down in ocean. I was out at sea when I learned how the big ship unloaded. We never trained on anything like that during basics; it was train and learn as we’d go.
   There was usually mass confusion because there were so many people there and you didn’t know what was what. The ship could carry 6000 men at a time and would come within two miles of the shore and we fellows with small boats had to bring the men in safely to the island.  They came off the side of the ship on rope ladders and into our small boats-there were many accidents just getting from the ship into the boat. They all stood in the boats, 60-100 standing up, and when we got to the beach, I’d let the ramp down and they’d try to get to shore.
   It was tough-time and time again when I went to the beach not a single man had made it. You saw your friends go in the water. I don’t know how many we lost but I read later one of the toughest places was Iwo Jima and that Americans lost 10,000 men and the Japanese lost 30,000 in the three days we were there. I remember carrying seamen into shore and between the dead Japs and dead Americans I couldn’t get through the water-there were too many dead men floating in the water. But we got the soldiers to shore and we got the job done. For a period after the war I had nightmares from what I saw, but I got over it, blocked it out.
   I still get information from the Navy Department and get magazines and they tell stories about different battles. All I can say is the Lord was with me. I was sitting right up there, in front, under fire. One of the men gave me a steel plate, and I remember holding in front of me to protect me and it helped.
   Throughout 1944 we went to islands like Saipan and Marshall. We would go in a group of 50-60 ships that left and went from island to island. I found my ship was a replacement from the Normandy invasion.  I was not in Europe but talked to fellows who called us “the replacements.”
   We knew the Japanese were on all these islands. “Mass confusion” best describes the scene: the air was full of helicopters and blimps flying around the islands in such a large operation. You had to keep in your mind what you were supposed to do and get the job done. Today communication is better but back then we didn’t have so much. We got aboard the ship and the captain would get on the loud speaker and maybe it worked, but if it didn’t, he hollered and you hoped you heard it all.
   When we went into the island we carried rifles and flame throwers. Flame throwers were a big thing because the Japanese were in caves and were shooting at us from them. We’d discharge the flame thrower in the cave opening and you could hear them holler ’cause it got everybody in there.
   We would leave as many men on the islands to hold them as we could spare. We survived the best we could. Some had mattresses to throw on the ground some didn’t. If you were wounded you were sent to the medics on the beach and treated and if you survived, you were sent back to the hospital ship. We normally had a hospital ship close by. Lots of times I would take a bunch to the beach and bring wounded back to ship to drop them off-it was a fast turn around. Most of the time they were loaded and unloaded with rope ladders or we’d drop a basket down for the wounded and pull them up by hand.
   The men knew the job that had to be done.  Storming a beach they would fall in and do it. There were some that lost their mind and went berserk and your buddy had to hold you down because you couldn’t stop or you wouldn’t get into beach. It was do or die. And you knew you had to do it. 
   The water depth varied sometimes we’d pull up to beach and drop the ramp on dry ground, next time in five feet of water and they had to wade-you went in as close in as you could go. I’d say “get out” and they jump out and then you’d backup. The coral was rough. Sometimes it was sandy, sometimes muddy, but coral could cut the boat or cut your feet to pieces. I have seen it too rough to go in so we’d back up and go 100 yards down the beach to where it was perfectly smooth.
   When the war ended I was in Guadalcanal. We had gone there and invaded it and took it over and we were loading ships with supplies to invade Tokyo and we were told we’d take over Japan so we had to take supplies with us.  We always left from the port after midnight so no one could see you or know when we were leaving.
   When we heard that the war was over we were excited. We threw the trucks, bulldozers, and all heavy equipment overboard when they said you fellows can head home. We opened the side and dropped everything over in a few hours. There are a lot of 2 ton trucks, tanks, and bulldozers at bottom of ocean.  We carried some stuff with us but we had to make room for men and we wanted to come home.
   I got home six months later. I was transferred to another ship that carried the wounded to San Francisco. Then they moved me by troop train from San Fran to JacksonvilleFlorida to get discharged in 1946. I was in the active reserves and stayed in that for several years but I guess I couldn’t stay still long so I joined the Air Force.
   Last few years I have lost contact with many. Most have passed on. I went to reunions at first but haven’t for the last ten years.
   I got married in 1948 to one of those five girls that was in my graduating class-Georgina Martin lived right up the road from where I lived.  We wrote letters while I was in service. She did more corresponding than I did because she could write better than I could. We married 12 December 1948 and lived in Atlanta for about a year then came back to Luthersville and the homeplace.  She had family in the Air Force and one in the army and one was a pilot.  Between getting out of Navy and joining the Air Force I got into politics and was a county commissioner for four years and worked at several other jobs. I had a friend who was working for Holiday Inn and said if I came to Birmingham I could be the food service manager. Hotel management was a good job and I enjoyed it but it didn’t suit me so I moved on and joined the Air Force first with food service then as club manager of the NCO officers club. I went to the Philippines and moved about every two years: TampaFlorida, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and more. I flew into Korea twice taking equipment but didn’t stay. 
   After the Air Force, I came back to Luthersville and was county commissioner again. I went to UGA for a short period of time under the GI Bill. I did not finish my degree in personnel management.
     Shore leave did not happen much. I was a young fellow and in San Francisco or Treasure Island we were at liberty for 2-3 days.  I visited San Diego, went to the zoo and to MexicoTijuana-that was a knock down, drag out place!
   Pranks went on all time as you had to do something for amusement. We had these bunks that hung from the ceiling bulkhead and they’d get in there and short sheet us. You’d jump in at night tired, or they’d put in a balloon full of water and it would burst.  Typical GI harassment and pranks.  Or you’d fold the sheet back and they’d used a bottle of ketchup and you’d see the red on your hand and think you’d cut yourself. Showers and toilet pranks- you name it, GIs would think about it and do it.
   The black market was something I didn’t involved in it except to get silk hose stockings or we always managed to get a case of beer here and there and trade it for this or that or cigarettes or food or entertainment. I went to USO shows. I remember meeting Bob Hope and got his picture signed and he handed it to me. USO shows had well known entertainers and when I ran the club in the Philippines we had contracts with some to come there-it was always a big deal when they came.