War stories

Farm Forum

In 1943, at age seventeen, Dad joined the Navy. He spent the next couple of years aboard a battleship that routinely traded gunfire with the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Imperial Japanese Air Service.

Dad served on the Washington, one of our nation’s premier battlewagons. As kids, my siblings and I would pester him into sharing a few of his war experiences but often found his stories hard to swallow. A ship with decks that were made of 16 inches of solid steel! Guns that could hurl one-ton projectiles 25 miles! Waves that towered as high as our windmill! Did he really expect us to believe any of that?

Dad passed away 20 years ago, so the stories about his time aboard the Washington are lost forever. Or so I thought.

Some random connections recently put me in touch with Al Colton, who was a friend of Dad’s and one of his shipmates. Al turned 90 in June. He and his wife, Loretta, have been married for 67 years.

I asked Al about his time aboard the Washington.

“I was in the Navy Reserve when Pearl Harbor happened and joined the regular Navy as soon as war was declared. I spent the entire duration of the war on the Washington. At first we were assigned to convoy protection in the North Atlantic, but then we were sent over to the Pacific.”

How did you meet Dad?

“When Leonard came aboard, he was this skinny little farm kid from out in the sticks. There were some older sailors who liked to pick on guys like him, so three other old salts and I took him under our wing. Leonard was a wonderful guy. The four of us became the best of friends.”

Were the storms as bad as he described?

“Nope, they were worse. Sometimes the waves would be so high, they would break over the bow of the ship and flood the deck with three or four feet of water. A guy could easily get washed overboard.”

Dad had a souvenir bullet that was the size of a bratwurst. What could you tell me about that?

“Your dad was a forward gunner in Battery Four. He operated a 20 mm automatic cannon, which was the smallest gun on the ship. I was Gunner’s Mate Third Class and was in charge of his battery. The 20 mm cannons were antiaircraft weapons that opened up whenever an enemy plane got to within a mile or so of the ship.”

Was the Washington ever attacked by a kamikaze?

“Not really. Our battleships were so well armored, the kamikazes pretty much left us alone. They went after our aircraft carriers and it was our job to protect the carriers.”

Dad said he once saw a Japanese plane fly by so close, you could have hit him with a potato.

“I remember that! The plane flew past just off our starboard beam and maybe ten feet above the water. As he went by, the pilot turned his head and looked at us and grinned so big you could count his teeth. Seconds later the plane got hit by a shell and turned into a fireball and tumbled into the sea.”

What was it like when they touched off those humungous 16 inch guns?

“We weren’t allowed to be topside when they did that, it was simply too dangerous. The muzzle blast was tremendous. It shook the whole ship.”

What is your most memorable experience from your time on the Washington?

“That would be the battle of Guadalcanal. Most of the battle took place at night, so we had to depend on our radar. Japanese naval forces had sunk a couple of our destroyers and damaged several other of our ships. We snuck around and got a bead on the Japanese battleship Kirishima and raked her with our big guns. The Kirishima went to the bottom a few hours later. They say the outcome of that battle changed the course of the entire war.”

It must have been awfully scary with all that shooting going on.

“I was too young to be fearful. I think that was true for a lot of us, including your dad.”

What can you tell me about the anchor tattoo Dad had on his left forearm?

“I had nothing to do with it! All four of us ended up with similar tattoos. Let’s just say that we liked to have fun when we got shore leave.”

I deeply appreciated the opportunity to speak with Al. I thanked him for his service and for bringing history – and in a small way, my father – back to life.

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