Memories of World War II From Men Who Fought in the Pacific

This is the second installment in a two-part series. Read part one here.

Recognizing Enemy Planes

The fast acting Captain who turned the Missouri and saved Joe's life could not have done so if there hadn't been an officer on board who could recognize at an instant that the planes coming fast and low belonged to the enemy. One of the men trained to recognize aircraft in the heat of battle lives just up the road from Joe.

Herbert "Bud" Mearig received his commission in the U.S. Navy in November of 1942. Ten years older than Joe, Bud had been overlooked by the draft board because of a "trick knee." A graduate of Franklin & Marshall College with a pre-law degree in political science, Bud was one of the few young men who was not serving his country in some branch of the military. Bud said, "Everyone else was going, so I didn't feel right."

Prior to becoming a commissioned officer Bud had to have a navy doctor examine him. The physician asked him if he'd ever had trouble with his knee. Bud said, "No." The doc responded, "I think you're a damned liar, but good luck, you're in!"

Bud got shipped off first to Princeton University for training as a line officer and then to Ohio State to learn how to recognize planes. Bud learned to identify German, Russian, Japanese and U.S. planes while they were still just dots on the horizon. His first assignment was as lookout officer on the U.S.S. St. Louis. In addition to watching for planes, Bud trained shipmates to do the same.

When Bud was ordered to his ship he appeared a little confused because there were so many to choose from. An officer asked him, "What's your billet." Bud responded that he was the new lookout officer on the St. Louis and the officer replied, "Christ, you're the lookout and you don't recognize your own ship."

Bud didn't know quite what he was thinking when he signed up but somehow he hadn't planned on sea duty. Shortly after getting on board he went to the doctor and explained that all the ship's ladders were tough on his leg. The ship's doctor grabbed hold of his arm and said, "Your body's warm and you're staying on this ship as long as I am."

Not long before Bud joined the crew, the St. Louis had earned the nickname the Lucky Lou by being the first ship out of Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. With Bud on board the Lou would stay lucky although at times it didn't feel that way. The St. Louis was torpedoed and Kamikazed - and even as Bud played a pivotal role in saving the lives on his ship - he never felt the calm that Joe felt operating his 20 mm.

Bud tells that "Coolness and efficiency under fire are in keeping with the intent of the Navy, but I was scared as hell."

Bud explained that the phosphorescent waters of the Pacific had a particularly eerie way of being disturbed when a torpedo moved underneath them. And though not all torpedoes exploded on impact - whether it was a dud or a hit - "My heart was in my mouth."

The St. Louis was a cruiser, not a destroyer like Joe's ship. The benefit of being a cruiser was that you could drop depth charges that would cripple enemy submarines. The upside of being on a destroyer was that there was heavy armor exterior to better ward off a torpedo's deadly blow.

On November 27, 1943 Bud recalls participating in what he called, "the first Kamikazi attack of WWII."

The radar used by U.S. ships reacted to U.S. planes and notified the ships that the plane on the horizon was friendly. At some point before this attack, the Japanese had broken the code for these radar messages and "11 Japanese Zeroes were coming in making our radar thing they were our own planes."

Attached to the belly of each Kamikaze was a 500lb armor piercing bomb.

Joe looked out at the planes and instantly told the Captain that they were not U.S. planes. "They believed me. And we opened fire. The Captain said, 'Well, you're supposed to know what you're talking about.'"

"A suicide pilot drove right between our stacks and I could see his face like I can see your face," Joe continued with the look and voice of a 95 year old man but the energy of the 26 year old he was at the time. Bud said his only reaction - other than to do his job - "was fear."

"We had witnessed a new type of warfare. We were used to us all trying to sink each other but not to resorting to suicide to do it. We sure as hell didn't know the way that they flew when they flew into our ship. They would all come at once and then peel off to come at you from different directions. So you couldn't fire into them all - one would get through even if you got the others. It was a new type of warfare."

Joe mused, "If they had started that warfare a few years earlier the war might have ended differently."

Joe was sent back state side to work a desk in early 1945. He was, "deliriously happy." The only thing he remembers about getting off the ship was "catching the fastest cab I could to get out of there." He hadn't felt qualified for sea duty, but admits that he "got qualified, pretty damned quick."

Bud came away from his time on the Lucky Lou with a few very strong impressions. As for being an officer while folks like Joe were enlisted he said, "You shouldn't attach to much importance to yourself because you're always leaning on someone below you. As a naval officer I relied primarily on the chiefs to get the answers."

Bud also appreciated his ability to rely on the men around him because, "On the high seas you're terribly isolated. There are no islands and there's a hell of a lot of water underneath you."

And when asked how he felt about the turmoil going on in Japan today he explained, "Hating them [the enemy] was self-survival. If I take the war personally I feel one way. But they had their families too." As for what the Japanese people are experiencing now, "I'm no expert on earthquakes but I can imagine their fear."

Finally, when asked about all the fuss made about him because he's survived well into the 21st century Bud replied, "I feel very humble. I'm the lucky one. I've seen too many men die. My type of battle was remote... standing issuing orders for guns to go at a distance. I'm now 90 some years old. My wife's gone. I had a son: gone. I don't know why the lord has kept me around this long."

Perhaps the time has come for Joe and Bud to meet.