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Another World War Two veteran died last week

I believe that every veteran has a unique, personal story and each veteran is a chapter in the story of keeping our country strong and its people free. Ira Dale Watson died Friday, July 7, at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg at the age of 82. Dale and I were the last two members of our family of origin.

Dale was born on a cattle ranch in Texas although our ranch was in the Oklahoma Panhandle. I was a small boy but I remember that our Mother disappeared for a couple of days. She had gone to a neighboring ranch across the state line into Texas for Dale’s birth. You might say he was a native born Texan.

Dale and I and our older brother, Bob, were raised in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years in the 1930’s. The nation was in deep depression and our Dad was experiencing poor health. His grocery store failed and our family joined what today is known as migratory workers.

By the time we reached young adulthood our Dad had entered the ministry and was serving the Lone Grove Baptist Church in Oklahoma. Like most families, we three boys went our separate ways. At the age of 17 Dale joined the United States Navy only a matter of weeks before the United States was drawn into WW II.

Dale talked about his wartime experiences with me on the few times he was given a leave of absence. He viewed what he was doing as pretty much what a lot of other Americans were doing to serve the nation in wartime.

After he retired and moved to Pearl River County I convinced him to write about the four years he spent during WW II. The six typewritten pages he wrote represent the four years he spent fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.

His career began when he was ordered to San Diego. From the life of a high school student in a country town to serving as a sailor in the Navy of the United States was quite a shock. He was one of the few chosen to attend a four month Radio Operator course. He wrote:

“After the class graduation we were sent to Pearl Harbor on a cargo ship, Coming into Pearl Harbor was a most beautiful sight, we passed the Aloha Tower and saw all the ships in the harbor. It was really impressive, until we saw Battleship Row. Ships were burning, some were partially sunk, and others blown apart. There were bodies in the water and complete confusion from the attack which happened just a couple of days before. Thank God the enemy didn’t attack with a landing force. They could have taken Pearl Harbor with very little effort.”

“The next morning I went to the base to see what my assignment was to be. I was lost until I asked a couple of sailors who I could talk to about getting an assignment. They told me to go into a door in a nearby building and the officer would give me my orders. I thanked them and went to the door and knocked and a voice told me to come in. I entered and found a large office with only one desk and a man in uniform sitting behind it. I came to attention and saluted. When I was asked my business I explained that I was looking for a special assignment and that I’d been told he could help me. I also stated I had seen the Motor Torpedo boats in the harbor and I would like to be assigned to them. At that point he told me he was the Admiral of the base.”

“‘What cargo ship did you came in on?’ he asked, then called someone, spoke briefly, hung up the phone, and told me to go to the base office and wait. When I got back to the base I heard my name being paged and ordered to respond ASAP. I went to the office where I was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron #1.”

“In May of 1942 our squadron was sent to Midway Island. The Japanese attacked on the morning of June 4, 1942 at about 6:30 am. The planes arrived in formation. They came in high and, at a given point, broke formation and attacked in groups. They bombed and strafed en mass. The battle was fast and furious as planes filled the sky in every direction. I saw planes fall leaving trails of smoke. All clear was sounded at 7:15 am. The fight lasted 45 minutes but it seemed a lifetime. The P T Boats were ordered to find and rescue downed pilots. We rescued 27 pilots that day. We had only one battle injury on our P.T. boat in spite of the fact that we counted nearly 150 holes from the enemy planes. Our one injured sailor was treated on the spot with no complications.”

“After Midway we returned to Pearl Harbor and were ordered aboard merchant ships along with our PT boats. We sailed to Seattle Washington where we were unloaded, took on provisions and started up the Inland Passage for Alaska.”

“We left the passage at the border of Alaska and Canada and headed for the Aleutian Islands by way of Alaska’s mainland when suddenly we were caught in a strong arctic storm. The temperature dropped below zero and the waves washed over the deck creating an ice slick that soon became hazardous. The wind and waves were bouncing the boats around like toys when a huge wave picked one of the boats up and rammed it into my boat at midship. Our conning tower and rudder were gone. We secured our broken vessel to another boat, and were towed into a small inlet.”

“Our map showed a fishing village within a few miles called Cole Bay. In the village we found a fish cannery that had dry docks for ocean going fishing boats. The workers were in process of shutting down so we settled in to wait out the winter. When spring came we went on up the Alaskan Chain to Kiska and Attu very near to Russia.

We were part of a small force that was sent to Adak to keep the enemy pinned down in the Aleutians. We patrolled the shores looking for resistance but the Japanese had deserted the place, leaving only a few snipers to harass us. The Islands were secured in a few days and we were ordered back home.”

“We arrived in Melville, Rhode Island where we took over new boats and crew members. It appears that I was now a seasoned veteran at the age of 18. I carried the experience of Pearl Harbor, Midway, and Alaska.

When I took charge of my assigned group I understood their skepticism. How could I tell a man, twice my age, what to do when he is facing a large ship or being attacked by a Japanese Zero? I reminded him that they would be riding on an 80 ft. plywood boat on which the largest gun was a 50 caliber machine gun. I told him that, after one fight on Midway, we counted over one hundred holes in our boat put there by the Japanese Zero planes – but we still won the day.”

“We had a few days left before shipping overseas again when we were told that orders had been changed and we were going to Florida to assist in a John Wayne movie titled “We were expendable”. However, because we were considered the most experienced of all the PT squadrons, our orders were changed again and we were ordered to the lower Philippines.

“Instead of being in the movies in Florida we were on the beach in the Philippines to greet him when Gen. McArthur returned. You will remember that, when he was beaten and forced to leave the Philippines he had promised, ‘I shall return.’ He made it a firm statement of fact not a braggart’s statement when he stepped on the beach and declared, ‘I have returned’.”

“In the Philippines our P.T. boats generally attacked the small villages in the coves as well as barges filled with soldiers, but sometimes we were sent out to attack large naval vessels such as battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers.”

If you are familiar with the battles of WW II you might remember that the Solomon Islands were the scene of the Pacific war’s longest and most bitterly fought naval campaign. More than a dozen battles were fought in those waters. Most of them were night surface battles, where the weapons and tactics of the Japanese Navy were at their best. However, the Japanese were faced with a United States Navy determined to stay the course and win.

Dale remained in the Philippines until the end of WW ll when the Japanese surrendered. He earned five battle stars and three campaign ribbons but, to the best of my knowledge, never chose to wear them.

In his last will and testament Dale stipulated that, when he died, he wanted his body to be cremated because: “My life with this body will be completed and this will leave a good and final separation until we meet again. The body that I will receive from God will be a heavenly body and a far better one than the one cremated.”

I closed his memorial service with this prayer: “Our Heavenly Father, we know that you gave us our lives and we have been given assurance that you will receive us when we die. Thank you for your presence and for the amazing grace you have provided for us in Jesus Christ.”