Al Smith: Last man standing
Ontonagon County's last remaining veteran of WWII
Part 1 of 2
By Bruce Johanson
Note: As Smith told his story, we tried to follow the order of events. Whenever we can, we use his actual words or close paraphrasing.
Alfred Smith was quite willing to relate his story as an enlisted man in the US Navy. Al was born and raised on the family farm on Greenland Road. His parents, Gus and May Smith ran the small dairy farm and Al attended school in Ontonagon until the 10th grade. At the age of 17, in his own words, “being tired of farm life and looking to see the world,” he enlisted in the US Navy. This was in August of 1944.
We asked Al just where he served in the war. Which theatre of the war? In reply, he said that he went to Chicago for training and was then sent to California to report to his ship, the USS Burleigh, APA-95, a Bayfield Class attack transport that carried troops and landing craft to the Pacific combat zone.
“We were the flagship of the 18th Amphibious Squadron,” Smith said, with some pride.
The Burleigh made numerous trips over the Pacific to carry troops and equipment, the first of which was to Hawaii, then to Guam, Saipan, and nearly all of the Marianas Islands. The ship was involved in combat once, for which it received a Battle Star award. During the first three years of his enlistment, Smith remained with this ship, for the most part. In the last year of his enlistment period, when the war had ended, he worked on three different ships as different vessels were being decommissioned after the Japanese surrender.
Smith recalled, “After the war was over we hauled troops back to the states, making at least half a dozen trips. There were Army and Marines as well as US Navy personnel. We were shorthanded aboard the ship all the time. We went from 40 men in our division to only four. Our watch hours were four hours per shift, round the clock which didn’t provide much time for uninterrupted sleep. My enlistment ended in 1948. I had been gone for 3 years without a leave…”
Smith continued; “We returned to the states via the Panama Canal and I was discharged at Norfolk. I had served on three different ships in the last year.”
Now we asked Al what his actual duty with the Navy was. He explained: “I had my own boat to run around and deliver troops. My boat was hanging outboard on the starboard side (of the Burleigh).”
Al related that in crossing through a passageway from starboard to port he saw some fellows working in a compartment in the middle of the ship. He paused, out of curiosity, to look and watch and soon learned that the men were operating radar equipment.
Radar was quite new to the US Navy, first being used in 1943-44. This was strictly high technology.
Al went on: “Inquiring about the radar department, I was invited to transfer to this department. I was only a 10th-grade dropout and I didn’t think my transfer would be approved but it was! There was a program to earn different ratings based on hours of schooling. I had basically 40 people in the radar department answering my questions and helping me with my training. The vacuum tubes were the size of quart jars.”
This was how Smith became a specialist.
“I became a radar operator and eventually got to be in charge of the ship’s radar,” he said.
He explained that a part of his job was correcting navigation charts.
“This is very detailed information such as the color of buoy lights and flash intervals, and landmarks. I only had to take care of where we were going to be in our area, but a lot of the islands didn’t have any harbors so there were buoys to guide, and torpedo barriers (nets) to protect the ships.”
Al mentioned one historical event: “We were there when the USS Indianapolis (a Portland Class heavy cruiser) delivered the atomic bomb that was to be dropped on Japan. This ship disappeared on its way home… nobody knew where it was. It turned out that it was sunk by a Japanese submarine.”
The loss of the Indianapolis was especially stressful. Reportedly 150 of the crewmen were attacked and eaten by sharks as they struggled in the water.
“When we left there they had found a few survivors...we had passed within 50 miles of where the Indianapolis was hit.” (In relating this incident, Mr. Smith became emotional with the memory.)
We asked Al about collisions with other vessels.
“I was in three collisions….. the first was when we were entering Saipan and a big LST drifted over and we side-swiped it,” he said, sharing there was minimal damage.
The second collision; “There are rules for the road like on a street. As we entered a harbor this other ship was supposed to do the signaling and maneuvering because we were coming in from the high seas. I was on the flying bridge at the time. We hit them amid-ships and put a big gouge on the starboard side….it started to take a lot of water. They patched us up temporarily; there was a big gash on the bow, so we could get back to the states for permanent repairs. While there we heard the bomb had been dropped on Japan.”