My scariest WWII experience in the Navy occurred when we were on our way to Seoul, Korea, through the China Sea, which had been heavily mined by the Japanese. The Navy had minesweepers in the area cutting mines loose and exploding each one as it was found. They were not visible from above the water despite their huge size, sometimes 10 feet across. They were laid so deep that you couldn’t see them until they bobbed to the surface. I’d pictured them in my mind as lying on top of the water, like in the movies. When the first one came to the surface I was amazed to see how large it was. No wonder one could blow apart a huge naval vessel. Very scary! Fortunately, we never hit one.
— Wayne Bolitho
I was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, in an area called the Iron Range. I had one sibling, a sister, Jane, who has passed away. The name Bolitho is Cornish and all the men in our family had been miners. In 1926, when I was 3 years old, my family and I moved to Ely, Minnesota, a small town where the mine was underground rather than an open pit.
It was 14 miles from the Canadian border as the crow flies, but the road didn’t go past Ely. To cross the Canadian border, you had to go another 150 miles northeast. Ely had a population of about four to five thousand people, and most of the men worked for the mine. My dad was a mining engineer and land surveyor, and among all the things he taught me as a teenager was how to survey.
The Ely education system was wonderful in part, because the tax structure provided plenty of money for schools. We always lived within a mile of the local school. Living in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” every child knew how to swim because lessons were mandatory starting in sixth grade. Every school had an indoor swimming pool and I worked to earn Red Cross Life Guard status, which played a part later on in my military activities.
I was fortunate to have wonderful parents, both Mom and Dad. I hunted and fished with Dad, and shot my first deer at age 13. He was an elder in the church and one of the pillars of the community. My mom stayed at home and was active in the P.T.A. and other civic organizations.
After High School
After my high school graduation in 1941 at age 18, I enrolled in Ely Junior College, which was on the same campus as my high school. That’s where I was on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There were 32 boys in the college and in January of 1942, we all boarded a Greyhound bus to Minneapolis to enlist. All 32 enlisted in one or the other of the armed forces.
I enlisted in the U. S. Naval Reserve, partly because I knew I’d have a “bunk and kitchen” with me all the time. The Navy then instructed me to stay in college until I was called up, so I never went to boot camp.
I finished that year at Ely Junior College in June 1942, and enrolled in the Missouri School of Mines for the 1942-’43 school year. My major was Mining and my minor was Civil Engineering. In November of 1942, the Navy assigned me to attend the University of Illinois under the V-12 Program, a plan to grant bachelor degrees to future officers. My rank was Seaman and my major was changed to Civil Engineering, but I continued to take as many mining classes as possible. I was sure at this time I was destined for the Seabees.
Our days at the University of Illinois V-12 Program started at 5:30 a.m. with breakfast and exercise, and then engineering classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. After that, and on Saturdays, we had Navy training, with time off on Sunday. I attended the university with no breaks for holidays or summer.
My records indicated that I could swim and had a lifeguard certificate, so my duty was often as a swimming instructor. The recruits had to know how to jump off a high board, swim, and make water wings out of their trousers, as well as other water skills. To keep them in shape, the squads frequently participated in a variety of swimming competitions.
On the Fourth of July, 1944 the Navy put on a water show for the community at a local park and pool in Urbana, Illinois. In the evening all the pool lights were turned off, and I stood on the high diving board in a sweat suit soaked in Energine lighter fluid. (I was “volunteered” for this duty because of my swimming experience.) My suit was torched and there were a few gasps as I dove off into the pool. After that, more oil was poured on top of the pool water, and sailors jumped into the burning pool and swam to the side, demonstrating how to escape from a burning ship. In my unit I was called the “Human Torch.”
In the U. S. Navy
By February 1945, the war in the Pacific was growing more widespread, and the Navy needed men to crew its newly built ships. Eight hundred men from the V-12 Program across the country were called up and sent to attend Midshipmen School at Columbia University in New York City.
I became an Ensign DL in the U.S. Naval Reserve. That meant that I wore the star and could command, but hadn’t had enough experience to be on the bridge of a ship. My next assignment was to Amphibious Training School in Coronado, near San Diego, California. I had “delayed” orders, so I went home for a week and then on to Omaha, Nebraska, where I took the train to San Diego.
On the train the Shore Patrol informed me that I was the Senior Line Officer on the train, which made me the Commanding Officer. This turned out to be a maturing experience. My task was to monitor 150 Seabees who had been overseas, come home for leave and were returning to duty.
I was a green Ensign with a star and braid, 20 years old and put in charge of these rough and ready construction men, most of them old enough to be my father. They were prepared to have a good time, with plenty of booze, and consequently a number of fights broke out. The Shore Patrol kept coming to me to go back and settle things with these men. They took time to train me on what I should and shouldn’t do, and I learned just how important that star and braid were, to establish me as an authority figure. The only reason those men didn’t throw me off the train was that I had those two symbols. This was my first experience with command, and it helped me to grow up in a hurry.
During the 120-day training in San Diego, my childhood experience with boats gave me an edge for understanding what to expect from the small naval vessels. We were learning to maneuver the Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) and Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) which had a landing ramp on the bow of the boat. We practiced beaching and retracting the boats. I had to know how to do this because, though not a driver, I would be supervising the landing crews. I completed this training in March of 1945.
On the U.S.S. Hanover
On May 29, 1945 I joined my ship, the APA116, U.S.S. Hanover, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as a Small Boat Officer. It was a 500-foot transport vessel which carried 29 landing craft, 1,400 Army personnel and their equipment, and a crew of 500.
The captain had been in the merchant marine before the war, and he ran the ship in an entirely different manner than a regular Navy officer would. One thing he did was to make sure that everyone knew their job and was well trained in it. He didn’t look to create more work, but he expected everyone to be ready for action. He was an expert in loading supplies onto the ship. We carried ammunition and other commodities, along with 55-gallon drums filled with gasoline. He taught us how to unload barges and store cargo properly, to keep it from moving or exploding.
My assignment changed again when I reported aboard this ship. The ship was short two officers, and I was picked to serve as one of them. I became a Third Division Officer on the ship rather than a Small Boat Officer. I had about 50 men under me in the After Division, meaning the area that was located behind the superstructure of the ship and including the gun turrets at the stern.
We had a three-tier hold filled with gasoline, weapons, and other material. On the deck both LCMs and LCVPs were in cradles, and behind that was a 5-inch gun, two 40-mm (pom pom) and four 20-mm guns. The aft gun turret was my battle station when we were under attack.
The Hanover remained docked in Pearl Harbor through early June, as we unloaded and loaded troops and supplies until we could do it in a satisfactory time period. We took part in “underway training operations” in Hawaiian waters. This involved practice to crane all 29 landing craft and troops over the edge of the ship and into the water, while keeping everything else organized. We then made many practice landings from the calm waters off Hawaii onto the beaches.
In mid-July of 1945 we sailed from Pearl Harbor fully loaded with troops and supplies, in the company of other transports. We headed for Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific, which was now under American control.
We arrived at Eniwetok and joined a convoy which then zigzagged across the Pacific toward Okinawa. Our captain had enough rank that we generally got in the center column of the convoy. This was a challenge because we had to learn how to control our speed to keep enough distance between the ship we were following and the ships beside us. I was a Junior Office under this very experienced officer, who spent time training me how to handle traveling in a convoy, especially at night when there were no lights or communication. Our radar wasn’t what it is today. Once we even went to battle stations because of a whale.
Next stop was Okinawa harbor, where we unloaded the replacement troops and their equipment onto the battle-scarred island. It was so completely destroyed that I could see only one standing building. Some of the ships, including ours, took wounded men aboard, as well as some of the troops who had participated in the invasion. Part of our ships’ complement was a surgeon and a general practitioner, along with five corpsmen who treated the injured.
Shortly afterwards we sailed for the U. S. West Coast, where we picked up another full load of troops in Portland and headed back to Okinawa.
As the battles in the South Pacific continued, the Japanese Kamikazes arrived at Okinawa harbor every dawn and again at dusk, so the ships set out smoke pots to give them some cover. The Hanover was never hit but some of the ships around us were.
The American troops were getting worried about possibly having to invade the Japanese Islands, expecting to suffer a huge amount of casualties. About two weeks prior to the Japanese surrender there was a “false peace,” and when the troops found out it was false, morale really dropped. Eventually, after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in late August, the war ended on Sept. 2, 1945.
If those terrible bombs had not been dropped, I would not be here today. There were at least a thousand ships ready to invade Japan. Instead of the invasion, we expected to head back to the States, but I guess General MacArthur had other ideas.
The Hanover sailed from Okinawa on September 5 for Seoul, Korea, where we unloaded American troops to aid in the conflict with the Communist element in North Korea. When we arrived back at Buckner Bay in Okinawa, we were forced to stay outside the harbor to ride out the great typhoon of September 1945. Our ship’s bridge was 54 feet above the water line, and I was on the bridge at times when I looked up at water – the waves were sometimes 100 feet high.
The water would break over the bow and from there to the bridge it was 280 feet. The ship’s booms broke the waves up a little, but standing on the bridge felt like I was inside of a kettle drum. To move through a typhoon, you have to keep the wind and waves off your port (left) bow, and maintain enough speed to keep the bow headed into the storm. By doing so we kept moving, away from the center of the typhoon.
The Hanover was a single screw ship with three blades. Each blade was probably eight to 10 feet long. The captain had trained us how to handle a single screw ship compared to other ships with two or three screws. In two or three days, the typhoon subsided, but during the storm we were strictly on our own, not a part of the convoy, riding it out.
I admit to doing some foolish things during my Navy career. One was during this typhoon when the “hog line” broke. This is a cable used to keep the small boats close to the ship when they return from shore. It was getting frayed by the ship’s propellers, and could have gotten wrapped around the screw.
The captain said we needed to secure that line, so I tied myself to the boat boom, shimmied out on the boom, and over the side of the ship. When the ship rolled, so that the hog line was close to the top of the water, I used a triangular hook to try to grab it and hoist it aboard. It took half a dozen tries, but I finally hooked the cable. It was a very risky procedure but, fortunately for me, I survived it.
When I finally got back on the deck the boatswain’s mate said, “Mr. Bolitho, you are the whitest white person I’ve ever seen.” This was a terrifying experience but, little did I know, another storm was headed our way.
After the War, Still in the Pacific
Before we left Okinawa for Seoul, Korea again, the officer I had served with on the bridge was discharged from the Navy to go back to his merchant ship. He recommended that the captain have me stand on the bridge, even though there were other junior officers that outranked me. Five of the 54 officers aboard qualified to stand top watch on the bridge. It was a big step, which came with huge responsibilities. Even the captain can’t change your assignment unless he relieves you.
One time I was to relieve an officer on the bridge, but he had made so many mistakes that I decided not to relieve him. He had changed speed and direction many times, which had affected the whole convoy, and when he was eventually relieved he never stood watch on the bridge again.
My scariest WWII experience in the Navy occurred when we were on our way to Seoul, Korea, through the China Sea, which had been heavily mined by the Japanese. The Navy had mine sweepers in the area cutting loose and exploding each mine as it was found. These mines were not visible from above the water, despite their huge size, sometimes 10 feet across. They were laid so deeply that you couldn’t see them until they bobbed to the surface. I’d pictured them in my mind as laying on top of the water, as in the movies. When the first one came to the surface I was amazed to see how large it was. No wonder one could blow apart a huge naval vessel. Very scary! Fortunately, we never hit one.
The five ships that were sent to Seoul found that the harbor there had such huge tide changes that they needed to anchor in the middle of the harbor. We had to transport the troops to shore in the small boats, but we spent most of the time trying to keep our ship off the mud flats during low tide.
Okinawa, Oct. 14, 1945
When the troops were off-loaded, we headed back through the China Sea, where we hit another typhoon. We had to turn around and go back to get out of it. This one was much more severe than the first one, with winds measuring 175 mph, and with no troops aboard we were riding high. My assignment was as an officer on the bridge, and it was exciting to be in charge.
Our speed was such that the ship started getting into the troughs between the waves. I was trying hard to keep it level. Once we took a roll that was 45 degrees one way and 37 degrees the other, so I used the wheel on the rudder to stop the swing. We were capable of taking a 90-degree roll (45 each way) without foundering, but that was not a move to be taken lightly.
Eventually we broke out of the typhoon, and were able to make our way again to Okinawa. There we found huge destruction from the typhoon. At least 130 ships had been driven onto the beaches, and 50 percent of the 8th Air Force planes, having been blown all over the island, needed major repairs before they could fly again. The food situation was desperate, and ships and B-29s loaded with rations were being rushed in.
In October of 1945, I experienced another change in my life. We got orders to go to Manila in the Philippines to pick up supplies, but when we arrived, all the piers had been destroyed during the earlier bombing attacks. Manila has a huge harbor that I think could hold practically the whole U.S. Navy. Now the supplies onshore had to be loaded onto barges, and from there onto the ship.
The weather was scorching hot, and because of the heat I had removed my shirt to help transfer the supplies from the barges to the ship. Suddenly a messenger arrived with the news that a big shot was arriving, wearing a white shirt, tie and complete dress blues. I ran to my quarters and changed into a fresh shirt, but when he saw me, he did not see a “spit and polish” officer and looked at me with disgust. He asked to be shown to the captain’s quarters, where he relieved the current captain.
The new captain claimed I was a disgrace to the Navy for how I had been dressed. From that time on all the officers had to wear ties and insignias whenever they were on duty. This captain was an Annapolis graduate who came from the Bureau of Ordnance, had never had a command position, and knew nothing about a single-screw ship. On his command, we fired more guns after the war than we ever did during the war. He kept the crew at general quarters most of the time.
After Manila, we headed south to Hong Kong to pick up Chang Kai-Shek’s Chinese Nationalist troops there. Our task was to take about 2,000 of them to Tsingtao, in Northern China, to fight the Communists. They had marched for 70 days in searing hot, humid weather, from Burma to Hong Kong. They had broken ankles and feet, their joints were damaged, and they were both internally and externally sick.
We took them aboard and tried to treat them, for about six days. They were underfed and starving, weak and exhausted. Some had worms crawling in their wounds. As they came aboard ship, our corpsmen examined them, and would not let certain ones on because they were too ill. Occasionally there were women traveling with the troops, and they were not allowed on board either. I’d never seen people in such bad shape, and we began to worry about our crew getting amoebic dysentery.
We only had one interpreter for those 2,000 people, and the Chinese troops had only one gun for every four soldiers. It was their key to survival, and if they put it down for even a moment, it was gone, stolen by another soldier. They were all exceptionally seasick before we even cast off the lines. Life apparently meant nothing to them, so occasionally there’d be a fight, and someone would go overboard. Others were so sick, they just died.
When we dropped them off at Tsingtao, we had far fewer that we had taken aboard. When we finished the transfer, we had to completely disinfect the parts of the ship where they had been.
After we delivered the troops, we returned to Hong Kong to pick up another load of Chinese soldiers and take them to Tanku Bar. When we arrived in Tanku Bar we were tied up port side to the pier. I had the bridge as we prepared to leave. For some reason, our inexperienced captain took the bridge, and as he started to back the ship off, it slapped against the pier.
This happened again, and on the third try – and I remember this very clearly – he “poured the coal to it” and we totally destroyed about 50 feet of the pier. Timber was flying everywhere, so we closed the port scuppers, openings cut through the bulwarks of the ship that let water from the restrooms and deck flow overboard. Consequently no one could use the restrooms on that side of the ship all the way to Pearl Harbor, where the Hanover was repaired. I’m sure it cost the United States a fortune to repair that smashed pier.
Early December found us in Okinawa once again. We were to pick up approximately 1,000 Air Force members to return to the U. S. for discharge. They were impatient to get home, and had always traveled on C-47 airplanes, but now they were aboard a ship going 14-16 knots per hour. This slow speed aggravated the already anxious troops.
During the war we never used the running lights at night, to avoid detection, but once peace was declared, we went back to using running lights. Some nights this captain would turn off a few of the lights, and go to the bridge to see how long it would take a lookout to report that a light was out.
One night I was on the bridge behind the helmsman, and I saw the captain come in, and the “squawk box” light go off. I stepped back into the CIC (Combat Information Center), the nerve center of the ship, to report that the captain had turned off the box, so if anything happened they’d have to send a messenger to me with the news. When I returned to the bridge, the captain asked how everything was going and I said fine. He asked how I knew this since the box was turned off, and I said that I’d gone to CIC myself, to tell them to send a messenger to me personally if anything was wrong.
Within a week he put me in charge of the 1st Division, the largest one, instead of the 3rd (I replaced two other officers). I took this as a compliment, because he knew I was “on top of everything.” He was always playing games like that, and it was a huge change from the former captain, who was all business, keeping us well prepared but not playing games with the officers. Other than this man, I was very fortunate to have excellent commanding officers all during my Navy career.
There were seven ships in this homeward bound convoy, and when we got about 150 miles west of Tacoma, Washington, the fog was so thick we had to travel completely by radar. The captain’s quarters were one flight below the bridge, but instead of staying there, he had a bunk installed on the flying bridge so that he could keep better track of things.
I had the command, and when we could see the fog, I sent a messenger to let the captain know I was going to start the fog whistle. This is a very loud sound that would startle you completely if you weren’t expecting it. After about five minutes, I threw the handle to start it and the captain came running in his skivvies and read me “the riot act.”
Apparently he’d given orders that he was not to be disturbed, so my messenger had been arguing with his staff about getting access to him with my message when the whistle blew.
Decommissioning a Ship
We were given charge of an old cargo ship, U.S.S. Venus, AK135, that was going to be decommissioned. It was being moved to Pearl Harbor to prepare for the Bikini atom bomb tests in the South Pacific. We had only a skeleton crew, and on the way to Pearl Harbor, we fired all the ammunition aboard ship. When we arrived in Hawaii, the captain went to the hospital for an operation and put me in charge of decommissioning the ship. I had no idea how to do this, so I went to an office in Pearl Harbor where instructions for all these types of procedures were filed. What a surprise it was when I discovered a friend who had been my roommate in Midshipman’s school working in this office. He assigned a young lady from the office to lead me through the whole complicated procedure.
She led me through all the steps efficiently and everything went very smoothly. One of the steps was especially interesting. The medications left aboard ship had to be counted and, because most of them were drugs, we needed to check the records to be sure all the pills dispensed had been correctly noted.
A Navy corpsman and I worked together, and then took all these records to the hospital where everything was rechecked. I was pleasantly surprised to see how careful they were with these drugs. Strangely enough I met this same corpsman again years later when he was a mortician in Palo Alto.
The other interesting thing this process taught me was about Navy “red tape.” There was a kind of red tape that was used to wrap personnel records when a ship was decommissioned. We had to learn the procedures for doing this properly. I had always thought “red tape” was slang used to describe complicated bureaucratic measures. I was surprised to learn that there actually was a red tape that was used to wrap up Naval records.
When I was released from active duty on June 12, 1946, I had the choice of being released at either the base in San Diego, or Great Lakes in Chicago, Illinois. Of course, Illinois is closer to home, so I chose that base. I became an inactive member of the Naval Reserve, where I continued to serve until my honorable discharge on Feb. 17, 1955.
After my active release, I went back to the University of Minnesota to finish my education, and graduated with my degree in mining on March 18, 1948. I was hired by Calumet Minnesota Mining Company. I was Assistant Chief Engineer in the Hill Annex Mine, which was the sixth largest producer in Minnesota, producing 63 million tons of iron ore a year.
A Love Story
In February 1949 I met Lois Clark, a junior college student who worked in her hometown public library. I was an active Mason, and her dad was the Master of the Lodge as well as the mining contact person for the Minnesota Power Company. He and I had to work together closely, so once every week or so we’d sit around at the coffee shop and make plans for the electrical changes needed at the mine. Little did I know he had a beautiful daughter who would come into my life that year.
One Saturday night the Masons were having a dinner dance, and I went as a bachelor, after several friends recommended that I try to meet this certain “young lady.” Lois’ mother had asked her to pick up the spinster librarian, who didn’t drive, and take her to the dinner dance, which she was happy to do. As they started to leave the dinner, the librarian said, “Let’s just look in on the dancing.” So they went upstairs to the huge dance hall to peek in on the event. As she walked in, a friend saw her and brought me over to meet her.
I talked her into dancing just once, but then she had to take the librarian home. I wanted to get to know her better, but waited a week before I called and invited her to a basketball game. That sounded like fun to her, and she agreed to go. We continued to date, fell in love, and six months later we were married, on Sept. 3, 1949. Over the years we had five children – two boys and three girls. Now we have seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
My post-war career started with mining companies, but moved on to architecture and civil engineering when I took a position in San Francisco. I helped design and plan many of the high- rise buildings and other projects in the Bay Area, and acted as a troubleshooter, keeping projects moving along.
I enjoyed my job so much that I worked beyond the normal retirement time. When that time came in 2001, we decided to move to Sonora, close enough for family in the Bay Area to visit easily, and greatly downsized our residence to eliminate the need for constant maintenance.
My military experience taught me how to handle people, and to build a team of people to accomplish a goal. Because my career in the Navy kept changing, training for one thing and then getting a different assignment and training for it, only to repeat the process, I learned how to adapt and to be flexible.
As a troubleshooter in my civilian career, I worked with a wide variety of people and managed many projects simultaneously. I made a point of being totally honest, never working “under the table,” and built a reputation for being a “straight shooter.”
The Bolitho family has a strong military background, from great-grandfathers in the Civil War to a son retiring from the Marine Corps as a Lieutenant Colonel after 30 years. We also have three current family members who have graduated from U.S. military academies. I am very proud of these young men, who have carried on the family tradition of service to our country.
I am fortunate to have a loving family and good health, along with living in a beautiful place. I continue to play golf with friends and enjoy life.