OKEECHOBEE -- Veteran Thomas Monteith made $60 a month during boot camp but said it went “way” up to $72 a month after he got his first ship, the USS Wadsworth DD516. “They pay you a lot more for someone to shoot at you,” he said.
Mr. Monteith grew up in East Cleveland, Ohio, and joined the Navy on May 19, 1944. He joined when he was 17 years old and had to quit the 10th grade to do it, he said. His parents had to sign for him to join, but he didn’t have any trouble convincing them to sign. He chose the Navy because he was always a water baby, he said. “I spent my summers in Sandusky, Ohio. Where Cedar Point is.”
The trip to boot camp was memorable because they were transported to Camp Shoemaker on freight locomotives because the trains were so long. It took about six days to cross the U.S., he said. He remembers all the little Salvation Army lassies who would come out to greet the train and give them coffee and donuts as they traveled through.
After boot camp, which was spent in Great Lakes, Ill., he was shipped to a camp east of San Francisco and then straight to Pearl Harbor. He got his first ship on Aug. 7, 1944, and he was a Firemen First Class. It was his job to fire the boilers. “The ship wouldn’t move without me,” he said. His regular work station was the boiler room where the temperatures got up to 130 degrees! You couldn’t wear any metal on your body, and no sweat came off your body at all. You had to take salt pills, he explained. “You get used to it though,” he said. There were two boilers in there, and the pressure was roughly 600 pounds. That steam temperature could get up to 1000 degrees! “We could move at about 36 knots with a clean bottom,” he said. “But,” he explained, “as we traveled and gathered barnacles, they slowed us down.”
His ship was damaged by a Betty Bomber which struck them under the fantail, and shrapnel killed several shipmates. Because of the damage, they served as a mother ship for a group of wooden mine sweepers off the Palo Islands. It was there they sank a large Japanese troop barge, he said.
They went to Mare Island Navy Base for repairs and then were able to spend Thanksgiving at home on leave in 1944, but by Christmas, they were back out at Pearl Harbor. Their 1st officer was a Jewish man, but he dressed up as Santa and passed out small gifts.
There were so many small islands out there, he said – Midway, Guam, Eniwetok, Marshall Islands, Gilbert Islands, Philippines, Saipan, Guadalcanal and Tinian are just some that he remembers. They went to Guam to rendezvous for the invasion of Iwo Jima. During the battles, he had a battle station, he explained. He was not in the fire room. He was on the starboard side of the bridge, wearing a great big helmet and headphones so he could communicate with the fire room. “They couldn’t make smoke. I had to warn them if I saw any smoke. We had to keep those stacks clean!” he said. “I was sniper bait,” he said. “Iwo Jima had probably 200 ships surrounding it, all firing big guns. Inside that ring were the battleships, and then the cruisers, and then there was us. I was at zero elevation, pouring fire at Iwo Jima, and all those other ships were firing over my head,” he said.
All of a sudden, he said, the firing stopped. All of it. Then steam whistles started blowing. Claxon horns started blaring. Fog horns were blasting. “Why, we wondered? What happened? Then suddenly, over the PA system, we heard an announcement telling us to look at the top of Mount Suribachi and see the flag, our flag. You are looking at a man who saw that flag raised. Then the firing started again,” he said.
During this time was when Japanese suicide bombers started — Kamikazes.
“Our ship was almost hit by one, but our captain saw it in the nick of time and managed to turn just enough so that it threw that pilot off and he went upside down between the smoke stacks just barely missing the forward torpedo bank. It took a lot of radio antennas with it too,” he said. “I was a trainer on a Bofor’s twin 40mm AA gun. I controlled on the horizontal, and my buddy was a pointer. I remember the plane coming right at me. I was not scared. I’m no hero. I knew I was going to die, no question about it. I watched that plane coming. It had a barber pole painted on the prop spinner. I threw my arm up, and I wondered how they would tell my folks I had died in battle. Then the plane crashed on the starboard side and only damaged the ship a little bit.”
Afterward, they returned to Guam and rendezvoused with a large group of ships on their way to Okinawa. “We were one of the lead Picket ships,” he said. They were there for about two and a half months. One night, a plane came across the bow at night, flying very low. The left wing hit his gun tub a glancing blow. “No one was killed, but that wing came within four feet of me going 300 mph,” he said. “The rest of him piled into the captain’s gig, hanging on the davit.”
After the war ended, his ship was used to transport American prisoners of war home — Operation Magic Carpet — and then they were given the opportunity to visit the site where the bomb had dropped. Although, they were warned not to get out of their vehicles unless they wanted to glow in the dark like their childhood Mickey Mouse watches.
On May 19, 1946, Mr. Monteith was discharged from the Navy. He moved to Florida in 1947 and worked for Florida Power and Light from 1948 until his retirement in 1989. He and his late wife Agnes were married for 63 years until she passed away 10 years ago. He is a private pilot.