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Charlie Young: ‘You could hear the shells and you could see the splashes’

The oldest of our nation’s veterans are now those who served in World War II, either in the European Theater, Pacific Theater, or stateside, preparing to join their fellow soldiers abroad.

SUN staff is in the process of sitting down with some of our community’s WWII veterans to hear their stories, memories, lessons and more.

Today, Thursday, is Pagosa Springs resident Charlie Young’s 86th birthday.

In his 86 years, Young has seen and experienced a lot — much of which occurred in a short span of time in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

“I was a sky lookout. I saw World War Two from up there,” Young says, adding, “I saw all the action in the Pacific, you might say.”

Young, a Seaman First Class, joined the U.S. Navy on June 29, 1943, after scoping out the various facets of the military by talking to recruiters in Fort Worth.

Young joined with a friend (who is still his friend, he notes), when that friend wanted to quit his job, but had few options.

Because the men were 17 at the time, however, they had to have their parents sign to allow them to join the Navy — something Young said his dad had no problem doing.

A prior burn injury that compromised Young’s ability to stand at attention for long periods of time was more of a threat to Young’s attempt to serve than the age requirements, but his desire to join landed him on a train for Basic Training in San Diego.

After eight weeks of Basic Training, Young said the pair rethought their choice.

“We said, ‘Man, we made a mistake.’” Young says.

After Basic Training, Young and his friend parted ways, with Young sent across the bay, then aboard the U.S.S. Kadashan Bay (CVE-76) — the smallest type of aircraft carrier made.

The carrier took a load of replacement planes to Hawaii, but, following that mission, it was decided that more carriers were needed in combat.

The carrier went back to Hawaii for training, with training for gun crews, as well as for pilots practicing landings on the small carrier.

For a comparison, the Kadashan Bay had a deck that measured 80 feet wide and 480 feet long, Young explains, versus larger flight decks on carriers such as the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan (which also took the number 76) that measures around four-and-a-half acres.

Young recalls some pilots landed their planes in the drink a few times before making a successful landing on the carrier.

“You had to be a good pilot to hit that deck,” Young says.

After training, the carrier headed to Palau, where she saw her first action as part of an invasion maneuver to gain control of an air base.

“We were just patrolling off of the island a mile or two, out of range of any gunfire and we were there for about twenty days or something like that,” Young says, adding, “that thing was full of Japs, they killed ten thousand Marines that landed on there and wounded a couple of thousand.”

Young recalls that it took about 30 days to secure the island and that, in the process, the U.S. controlled one end of the air strip, while the Japanese controlled the other end, making for interesting maneuvers.

In securing the full airstrip, the U.S. bombers would pick up bombs on the secure end, then drop them on the end held by the Japanese, Young explains.

Young saw the action from the bridge of the Kadashan Bay, where he served as a lookout.

From there, the carrier went to Manus, its home base during the Philippine operation.

While that battle was its first, it was certainly not the last or most adventurous for the ship, and Young recalls several other battles in the Pacific, including the battle in the Leyte Gulf.

Before becoming part of the scrapple, Young said his ship was one of the many that escorted General MacArthur from New Guinea to Leyte — a task that also gave him a chance to check in on his brother, who served in the Coast Guard.

Young knew his brother should be on one of the ships coming from Australia, serving as a gunner’s mate, first class. So, Young asked his captain if they could find out if his brother was aboard the LST-168.

Within five minutes, Young had an answer.

After shooting down a bomber before alarms could sound, Clifford Young had been decorated and sent back to the U.S. the day before Young was able to ask about him.

Then came Leyte — and the Japanese.

Young remembers the Japanese coming from three different directions, firing on the carriers in the gulf.

The Japanese succeeded in sinking two carriers and firing at the U.S.S. Kadashan Bay, but missed her.

“But I heard them big shells go overhead,” Young recalls.

The attack took place before the Japanese began using kamikaze pilots, Young notes.

Young was not on lookout at the time of the attack, but was standing on the deck with the captain, nevertheless, and recalls hearing yells to get down.

“Everybody was scared to death, at least I was,” Young says, adding, “You could hear the shells and you could see the splashes, and they would get damn close.”

Young still feels lucky that his carrier was not hit during the attack, adding that the battle was one of the largest sea battles in the history of the United States, with 623 American ships in the “tango.”

Following the battle, Young’s carrier again made her way to Manus to regroup, around Christmas of 1944.

While on board the ship near Manus, Young recalls suddenly being knocked over from an explosion and seeing a mushroom cloud that peaked at about 8,000 feet — the result of an ammunition ship being hit about five miles from where Young stood.

Young remembers the explosion “blew the destroyer out of the water,” along with about 350 men. At that point, all available plasma and doctors were sent to the ship where men were killed or injured.

“That was a disaster, right there,’ Young says.

After regrouping, Young recalls the next mission — raiding Minandao.

Young remembers going in with six battlewagons, six cruisers and between 20 and 25 destroyers to “shell the beaches” and “loosen up” the Japanese forces before a larger American attack.

The Japanese counterattack, however, involved the vast majority of the Japanese Air Force.

Japanese planes would fly over the mountains, dive toward the water, and fly low at the ships, making the planes, as Young remembers, both hard to hit, and hard to miss.

He remembers seeing about 100 fighter planes shot down.

“It was the scardest I’ve ever been in my life,” Young says.

Young said he never left the deck of the ship during the four-day battle, with food brought up to those serving on the deck.

“I didn’t really need a pair of binoculars,” Young says of spotting the incoming planes as a look out, adding, “But we came out of it and I didn’t think we could.”

After Young’s carrier was run out into the China Sea, the larger American invasion took place over the next couple days.

“They tore us up pretty good,” Young remembers.

From there, Young and company made their way back to Manus, but not without meeting a Japanese ship in the dark of night and firing on it.

The next mission, Young explains, was to Luzon, near Manila.

Young’s carrier, along with about 1,200 other ships, moved into the area, met by the remainder of the Japanese Air Force, he says.

At any given time, Young recollects, ships could be seen going down.

The American ships in the maneuver carried American aircraft that formed two circles of fighter planes — the force aiming to stop nearly 25 Japanese fighter planes.

Young says the enemy planes were picked up on radar while about 40 miles away, but more than 20 were able to reach the circles of American fighter planes.

Five enemy aircraft made it through the American fighting circles.

In the January battle, however, the Kadishan Bay learned firsthand how Japanese kamikaze pilots worked.

The fighter plane hit the ship below the deck, splitting the outer wall that surrounded the fuel tank and blowing up the carrier’s aviation elevator, causing water to flood up to the engine room, as well as into the officers’ quarters, pilot quarters, another housing quarter that accommodated about 350 men, and supply rooms of food and items such as toilet paper.

Young recalls that, when the plane hit the ship, the crew knew one bomb had exploded, but the plane’s second bomb was never found.

A gunner on the ship, however, helped lessen the danger to the crew by hitting its wing and causing it to spin and avoid hitting the carrier’s bridge.

Fifty years later at a reunion, Young says he discovered the identity of that gunner, who reported that, after seeing the kamikaze pilot flying toward the ship, he believed the pilot died before his plane ever hit the carrier.

One pilot aboard the ship was washed out to sea through a hole in the ship, Young remembers, adding that the man was in the water for about 72 hours before being helped ashore by a Filipino guerilla out fishing.

That Filipino, Young explains, took the pilot to the guerilla camp and stayed with the pilot for 18 days, when the pilot was loaded aboard a small Navy ship that delivered supplies to the guerillas in the middle of the night.

The pilot caught back up with the crew later at Manus.

After work to stabilize the ship, the other carriers absorbed the aircraft and pilots, while the Kadishan Bay became part of a “cripple convoy” back to the Leyte harbor.

“We traded pilots for toilet paper,” Young says.

After making it back to port, a Naval band played, “California, Here I Come,” as the men left the ship.

There, the ship was tilted out of the water and patched to make the journey back to California, with a brief stop in Maui to pick up 600 passengers.

The timing coincided with the end of the war, Young says.

Despite all the action she saw, the Kadashan Bay never lost a man in battle, Young says, though three were wounded and the ship crossed the equator 16 times.

“I think we was very fortunate,” Young says.

But, after the war was over, Young received a nomination to stay aboard the ship an additional six months after its overhaul, and off to China he went, where he recalls more adventures with rickshaw drivers, turning the carrier around in the water, and more.

While in China, the carrier picked up about 2,000 pilots and crew that had been overseas for about five years.

Young described the ship on the way home as a “casino,” with the men gambling and letting loose.

After returning to the U.S. again, the ship loaded up with planes and traveled through the Panama Canal and to Jacksonville, Fla. — something that was an adventure in itself, with the crew having to dismantle parts of the ship’s shields in order to fit through the canal.

Then the ship made its way to Boston, where Young spent some of his final days in the Navy.

In total during his service, Young was aboard the ship 23 months, three days and 10 hours, he recalls, beginning on Jan. 18,1944.

In the process of exiting the Navy, Young made his way from Boston to Texas with a group of fellow service members (ask him for entertaining stories of the trip home), were he was discharged.

Young’s stories of war, going on leave following the kamikaze attack, surviving a typhoon at sea, and his trek back to Texas prior to his discharge are plentiful, just as the number of battles he was in and witnessed are.

But, despite those battles, Young recalls the most difficult part of his military time was breaking away from home for the first time and learning to like life outside of home (except for the battles, he notes).

“If you take it all together, it’s a wonderful experience that you lived through it and didn’t get wounded or anything like it,” Young says.

Years later, Young and his daughter, Debbie Mackey, were fortunate enough to be able to fly to Washington, D.C. for the dedication of the WWII memorial — a trip he fondly remembers and would like to repeat.

After being discharged, Young took a couple months off before starting a successful boat company that he, along with his business partners, sold 20 years later.

He then worked to make fiberglass and was married in 1957.

He also dabbled in flight school for a time, he says.

He now lives in Pagosa Springs with Mackey and her family.

If you are a WWII veteran with stories to share, please contact Randi Pierce at 264-2100 or randi@pagosasun.com.

randi@pagosasun.com

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