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.
“Cease offensive operations against the enemy.”
The announcement was made at 9 a.m. on Aug. 15, 1945, by the captain of the U.S.S. North Carolina (also known as The Showboat).
The ship’s men, among them Bob Tillerson, went silent — heads bowed in silent prayer and, undoubtedly, in surprise at the announcement that World War II was drawing to an end.
The Japanese had just surrendered aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.
Tillerson, now 85, recalls the silence of the moment — so quiet a pin drop could have been heard.
“The strange thing about that was when he said that, there was a time, I don’t know how long ... it was absolutely quiet,” Tillerson recalls.
Then, Tillerson remembers, someone let out a yell, inciting all the men to scream, holler and clap.
At the time of the surrender, the North Carolina, a battleship, was part of a large armada whose work was an ongoing bombardment of the shores of Japan’s mainland for an invasion.
The North Carolina joined the effort against the Japanese mainland in March 1945, retiring on the operation’s 46th day to Pearl Harbor for repairs, hit by a torpedo.
It was during those repairs that Tillerson, an Electrician’s Mate Third Class, joined the crew of The Showboat, nicknamed such after her many trips in and out of the New York Harbor in her early years.
After she was repaired, the North Carolina again left the Port of Embarkation in Hawaii in May 1945, rejoining U.S. forces off of Japan in late June.
There, they continued the bombardment of Japan, even attacking the Hitachi Industrial Works — located just 60 miles from Tokyo.
Tillerson recalls that, by that point in the battle, more than half of kamikaze flights were shot down before reaching their target.
Because of the North Carolina’s position in the interior of the U.S. armada, many suicide planes were shot down before nearing The Showboat, but Tillerson remembers that there were a few close calls.
“Basically, the Japs were really beginning to hurt by this time in the war,” Tillerson says, adding that the bombardment not only hurt Japanese infrastructure, but also demoralized the people of Japan, who had, up to that point, been told Japan was winning the war.
Action was suspended twice during August as the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.
Then, on Aug. 15, all U.S. operations against Japan were recalled due to the surrender aboard the Missouri.
Shortly before the announcement, Tillerson recalls an announcement for the crew members to man their battle stations and an indication that an important announcement would soon be made.
The announcement also came before a contingent of Marines (2,000 of which were aboard the North Carolina) were set to invade the Japanese mainland — no doubt saving the lives of many, Tillerson’s wife, Patty, points out.
By the time Tillerson joined the Navy, WWII was nothing new.
WWII was in full swing throughout Tillerson’s high school years, driving his thoughts about future careers. His top three choices, he recalls, were to either make a career out of the Navy, be an executive for Boy Scouts of America, or be a forest ranger.
When he graduated high school at age 16, however, he began attending Hardin Junior College, taking general studies and pre-engineering courses.
All the while, the Navy was on his mind, but his father refused to give him permission to join while Bob was younger than 18.
The following summer, at age 17, Tillerson’s father relented when Tillerson suggested he could lie about his age and enlist.
That summer was spent working at a Boy Scout summer camp, waiting to be called up to serve in the Navy.
It was at that Boy Scout camp, interestingly, that Tillerson met his future wife.
Tillerson recalls first seeing Patty while he was in the swimming pool and she was walking just within sight.
Patty, along with her parents, visited the camp during a family weekend and later invited Tillerson, who had no family present, to their Friday night picnic.
“I don’t remember being really impressed with you at the picnic,” Patty says to her husband, adding it was watching Tillerson lead singing at a campfire that drew her to him.
When camp ended, Tillerson had just five days before leaving for Boot Camp, and each of those evenings was spent with Patty.
Tillerson left for Boot Camp on Aug. 1, 1944, a full six weeks before his 18th birthday. After Boot Camp, he was sent to Gulfport, Miss., where he attended Electrician’s School before being sent to Hawaii.
From there, he was assigned to the North Carolina — the nation’s newest battleship, which was at Pearl Harbor for repairs following the torpedo hit.
Tillerson still remembers the excitement of being assigned to The Showboat — a 44,000-ton vessel carrying a wartime complement of 2,000, including a contingent of Marines.
The Marines aboard manned 40 mm antiaircraft guns.
Also housed aboard the ship were three turrets of 16-inch guns, Tillerson recalls — two turrets forward, and one back. He added that the guns had to be fired at the same time in order to balance out the recoil.
Aboard the ship was a small town, Tillerson notes, with living quarters, mess quarters, laundry, control rooms, medical, dental, a barber shop and more.
Due to the censorship of the time, Tillerson was not able to write anything about the ship to Patty or his family.
Tillerson apparently had enough to talk about, though, as he kept a romance with Patty alive throughout his time in the Pacific — receiving letters in bunches during mail drops.
While on the ship, when not reading, Tillerson’s duty was to man his battle station, which was the repair station aft.
Each repair station on the ship, Tillerson explains, was made up of six men, each man having a specialty. The men were on call to repair the ship, should she be hit. Tillerson recalls that hits would damage electric and water resources.
“Our job during the bombardment was just to sit there,” Tillerson says, “but our purpose was, if we got a hit anywhere in that area of the ship, we had a team ready to get right on it.”
But, Tillerson notes, the job was not always action-packed.
“You have to stand watch when there’s nothing to watch. Somebody has to be in our electric shop twenty-four hours a day,” he says, adding, “There was two of us, so I don’t know how many different guys I taught to play cribbage, but that was my past time.”
The trip was also not all playing cribbage and reading letters, though.
In addition to generating and running all the electricity for the ship, including the guns aboard the ship, the ship served as a refuel center for other, smaller ships, which made for some interesting times, Tillerson recalls.
One time, while Tillerson was helping to hold the hoses (complete with 40-60 pounds of pressure) that, using a pulley system, refueled ships, a line broke, causing the hose to whip around like a giant snake, Tillerson remembers, and causing oil to go everywhere.
Another time, the North Carolina refueled a British ship.
Tillerson laughs, recalling that the ships were able to get close enough to each other for the men to talk, but, with the varying accents of the men, the two groups were unable to communicate with each other.
The ship also housed two catapults that would launch pontoon planes, by that time in the war used for searches and rescues.
One time, Tillerson says, one of the pontoon planes returned from a mission, landing on the water near the boat. While coming in to the ship, a wave knocked the pontoon off of one of the plane’s wings, causing it to spin upside-down in the water.
Soon, Tillerson recalls, the plane’s pilot bobbed up beside the plane and crawled on top of it to be rescued.
After the Japanese surrendered, however, the ship’s crew’s main focus was to polish the ship during the trip home to Boston, with the men arriving shortly before Christmas.
Following Christmas leave, Tillerson was assigned to a destroyer, the U.S.S. Fall River, where he served until his Naval tenure ended in May 1946.
After his discharge, Tillerson returned to Hardin, then worked in sales and served as scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 10 in Wichita Falls, Texas.
From there, he was approached by a professional scouter and later went to the BSA National Training Center in New Jersey, after which he served as a district executive in Vernon, Texas, Stillwater, Okla., Huntsville, Texas, and served as director of camping and director events and activities for the Sam Houston Area Council.
After retiring from scouting in 1986, Tillerson, along with his wife, moved to Pagosa Springs, where he became a U.S. Forest Service volunteer, working with the hut system, Chimney Rock Visitor Center, cleaning trails and more for about 20 years.
Now, as Tillerson says, he’s taking it easy, but is still active in the local Noon Rotary Club.
If you are a WWII veteran with stories to share, please contact Randi Pierce at 264-2100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.