Memorial Day is a time for remembering the service of veterans who have passed away and for honoring the service of living veterans. I think of my dad who died in 1996. He was a B-24 pilot in the 15th Air Force during World War II. I honor two South County veterans who also served during World War II.
Arlen Johnson was a Quartermaster First Class in the United States Navy. He served on the U.S.S. Tilefish, a Balao class fleet submarine, and went on six war patrols during World War II. The second of these was the one of which he is most proud. Tilefish was part of a “wolf pack”, three submarines with a very specific mission.
The Imperial Japanese Navy had several technological advantages over the U.S. Navy during World War II. Their torpedoes far out performed U.S. torpedoes and they developed super large, long distance submarines. One such was the IJN 29.
Under Commander Kinashi Takakazu, this submarine began a top secret “Yanagi” voyage from Singapore to German occupied France in late 1943. It carried rubber, tungsten, tin and technology to further Nazi Germany’s war effort. It arrived in Lorient on March 11, 1944.
Loaded with radar technology, jet engines, and a V-1 “buzz” bomb, it departed for home on April 16, 1944. Also aboard were scientists and an unspecified quantity of yellow cake uranium intended for weapons research. American code breakers were aware of the submarine’s ominous cargo. Orders came from the highest level to sink the I-29. Several attempts to intercept her failed. Commander Takakazu was a most competent submariner. One chance remained to kill I-29. The wolf pack, of which Tilefish was a member, was given the job.
Code breakers provided the American subs with a detailed itinerary for the I-29. She was to navigate the Balintang Channel of the Luzon Strait on July 26, 1944. The wolf pack deployed and waited. Arlen told me that the U.S.S. Sawfish was to fire her torpedoes first and force the I-29 to turn into the path of a second salvo to be fired by the Tilefish. The Sawfish’s aim was so good, however, that three torpedoes out of four struck the I-29 despite her turn. The huge, heavily laden sub blew up and sank immediately. There was one survivor.
Arlen is convinced, and I agree with him, that this one mission changed the course of the war.
Dr. Duane Hyde of King City served in the 70th infantry division of the United States Army, the Trailblazers. The 70th entered combat precipitously on Christmas Day of 1944. Duane especially remembers the nonstop three-day trip in boxcars from southern France to the firing line. He said, “We were green as grass. We had no artillery and our CO was still in the U.S.” Why the hurry?
Nothing is certain in war. It was never inevitable that we would win World War II, even at the end of 1944. The 70th was rushed into action to help win the Battle of the Bulge and stop Hitler’s last (and lesser known) offensive in the West, Northwind. The Northwind fighting started on New Year’s Day and took place in deep snow and bitter cold. The 70th advanced through the Alsace region of France against SS troops and panzers. It crossed the river Saar and liberated two hundred cities, towns and villages.
Duane recently participated in a reunion visit to the scene of his service. Speaking of the welcome the French people gave him and his comrades from the 70th, he said, “It was like we liberated them yesterday.” The French honored our vets with dinners, tours, ceremonies and perhaps a few too many speeches. Appreciation for their sacrifices, however, is strong and sincere.
Duane was greatly affected, unexpectedly so, when he returned to the foxhole where he last saw many of the men in his division. He rose from behind his light machine gun to get chow and was struck down by one of the war’s deadliest weapons, the German 88 millimeter gun. This cannon was like a giant high-powered rifle and was frighteningly accurate over distances of 3,000 meters. Duane and two others fell when a shell exploded out of nowhere.
At first, Duane thought his wounds were minor, “just lacerations”. They were more serious. His war was over and he endured the wrenching experience of being violently and permanently torn from his unit.
Speaking of his welcome by the Alsatians, he said, “They treated us like heroes. I’m not a hero.” I disagree, my friend. The French got it right. You’re a hero. Both you and Arlen are heroes.