I recently dived into a mound of old family photos—over a century of faces, places and events—in an attempt to cull the best and digitize those celluloid slices of the moment onto a medium with longer longevity. For me it was a trip back in time—immigrant images from Hungary and Ireland, the first generation Americans seeking the mythical American dream, and two successive generations of kids after that, boomers and Generation Something—you pick the letter. It was a visual journey that started in sepia tone and concluded in Kodachrome.
One of the last envelopes that I opened was simply marked “WWII”. These were my dad’s war photographs, all black & white save for one, a colored photo of him and his fellow warriors on a transport ship steaming toward the Pacific front. My dad was a member of the 88th Battalion of the Navy Sea Bees. This group would immediately follow the Marines on island invasions and begin building loading docks, roads, infrastrcuture and, most importantly, airstrips—at times under enemy fire. The quicker the airstrip was built, the faster the Allied troops could secure the island and start attacking the next. It was a long, bloody slog that culminated with the dropping of the atomic bombs and the surrender of Japan on the decks of the battleship, the USS Missouri.
But my father’s photos mostly mirror his small, myopic role in this grand historic event. They show young men working, frolicking, and sometimes pensive in a place that none of them would have ever imagined being. But my father also pointed his lens outward to the world around him. Some scenes would make James Michener drool, photos of a South Pacific Shangra-La that is mostly gone now. What follows are visual islands notes that my father and his buddies made with their cameras. They reveal war and peace, wonder and death.
This is my father during the winter of 1942-43 in Providence, Rhode Island. It was one of fierce ice, snow and wind. I find it ironic that the Navy chose this misfit climate to train troops to fight in the tropical Pacific, but many things in war defy logic. This was just one of them. Upon completion, the 88thBattalion of the Navy Sea Bees was sent to balmy San Diego. It was a staging area for transporting troops to the Pacific front. My father describes the ship that transferred his battalion as “a banana boat”. Apparently, the Navy in those early days was sending any ship that would float. It was desperate measures for desperate times. Dad recalls that it took them two months to reach the islands north of Australia by Spring 1943.
My father photographed this ship, the Kinugawa Maru on Guadalcanal. The Kinugawa Maru was a Japanese transport that had beached near the Bonegi River at 4 am on Nov 15, 1942 during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Aircraft from Henderson Field and the USS Meade bombed and shelled the ship. Approximately 2,000 Japanese troops with 260 cases of ammunition and 1,500 bags of rice made it ashore. Most of their ammunition and food supplies were lost during the fierce attack. The ship was heavily photographed by Allied personnel during 1943-1944. It is now a scuba wreck destination in 17 meters of water.
My dad also had a photo of the Patient Kitten, a B-26 bomber. Many planes during the war had individualized paintings on their fuselages, often a point of pride for the crew. Researching records, my father most likely took this photo in 1944 on Leyte, the Philippines. It was probably not soon after that the Patient Kitten went on a bombing run on April 15, 1944, over Tainan, Formosa (now Taiwan). The plane received a direct hit in the bomb bay by anti aircraft fire and exploded, killing the entire crew of ten. Only the body of tail gunner Sgt. Kasimer A. Kleinot, Jr was found. It was sent to Doylestown, PA from Formosa through Hawaii.
As a Sea Bee, my father learned many things; how to drive a 10-ton dump truck, maneuver a massive Caterpillar bulldozer, and help unload a supply ship in the shadow of night to avoid Japanese air attacks. The Sea Bees would often work 16-20 hours straight when the threat of attack was near, only interrupted by Japanese bombing raids. My dad, and many others like him, did what he had to do to get the job done as the Americans leap frogged from Sterling Island to Mono to Bouganville to Guadalcanal during 1943.
As the war grinded on, more Sea Bee replacements followed. By the time the 88th had reached Ulithi Atoll, my father had become a refrigeration specialist. He described Ulithi as “the largest anchorage known to man in the history of planet Earth”. Located in the southern Pacific of the Carolina Islands, this massive, protected lagoon at its height held nearly 700 ships and became the staging area for the US Navy’s western Pacific operations. Ulithi warped into a floating naval base. Six thousand ship fitters, artificers, welders, carpenters, and electricians arrived aboard repair ships, destroyer tenders, and floating dry docks. The Seabees completed a fleet recreation center at Mogmog Island, one of the four inhabited island of Ulithi, which could accommodate 8,000 men and 1,000 officers daily. A 1,200-seat theatre, including a 25-by-40-foot stage with a Quonset hut roof was completed in 20 days.
And this is where my father stepped in. His squad was responsible for maintaining the coolers for the food and supplies of this enormous work force. There were massive coolers that kept the enlisted men’s beer and other coolers that housed the fine foods, whiskeys and cordials for the officers. These facilities were, not surprisingly, heavily guarded. My dad’s group would perform periodic maintenance on the coolers, and were checked by guards going in and out. But as time went on, they devised tool chests that would conceal whiskey bottles in secret compartments. The Sea Bee squad regularly raided the officers’ coolers whisking away expensive whiskey, cognac and Scotch, which garnered top dollar on the enlisted men’s black market. His description of the scam had hints of the M.A.S.H. follies that I have watched on TV.
Toward war’s end, my dad was posted in Leyte Gulf in the central Philippines. He developed a fast and close friendship with a young local there named Sonny. Their bond was so close that Sonny asked my father to be his best man in his wedding. Somehow, my father and his Navy buddy, Pat Bouch, had their squad mates cover for them for days. They took off with Sonny in his outrigger canoe and went deep into the jungle to Sonny’s home for the ceremony. The two Sea Bees only had .45 caliber pistols with them and Sonny’s village was considered in enemy territory, under the control of the Japanese. But the wedding went off without a hitch other than the day that Pat Bouch drank too much rice wine and started firing his pistol indiscriminately. Pat was a massive man, easily a head taller than my dad, but somehow my father got the pistol away from his drunken buddy and order was restored. The two returned to base the next day and were never missed during their absence.
There are many other stories that my father has shared with me about his time in the Pacific. Most of them were told in the last ten years as his clock shortens. He will be 92 in February. But I would rather let his photos and those of his friends speak for themselves. These are not the photos from LIFE, Stars & Stripes, or seasoned war photographers. They are simply images from young men caught up in a massive, historic event. But I find them revealing, unique and sometimes shocking. They are views undoubtedly familiar to the common soldier or sailor. They are also photos that most at home probably never saw.