Castleberry remembers the Lexington, WWII

Published 8:52 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2007

While cleaning out some boxes recently Dick Castleberry came across a unique document from his past that his wife Alma had never known he received.

Looking at the 61-year-old Presidential Unit Citation, Castleberry prepared to put the document back in the dustbin of history until Alma learned what it was. Despite his reluctance, she urged him to keep those memories of his military service alive.

Richard “Dick” Castleberry was a Fire Control Operator who manned machinery which controlled guns on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington No. Two (CV-16) during that vessel’s participation in the Pacific campaigns of World War II.

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As a result of the significance of the “Lady Lex” and her crew to hastening of the war’s end the Lexington was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation “for extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces in the air, ashore and afloat in the Pacific War Area from 18 September 1943 to August 1945.”

Castleberry said he joined the service in late 1942 and after finishing basic and specialty training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Chicago, was assigned to the USS Lexington in March of 1943. Part of the crew included many of the sailors who had survived the sinking of the first Lexington at the Coral Sea engagement, he said. That first W.W.II Lexington suffered heavy damage during the engagement and had to be scuttled at sea.

Starting in the Revolutionary War, there actually have been five naval ships to bear the name Lexington. The W.W.II vessels actually were numbers four and five of the naval vessels to bear the name, according to information on the USS Lexington CV-16 website taken from the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, published by the Naval Historical Center. Castleberry said his discharge papers read the Lexington No. Two.

USS Lexington No. Two, launched in September 1942, was commissioned in February 1943 and took part in the string of naval victories that led up to the defeat of Japan.

Although Castleberry says his memories of that time are rusty (he said he had to sit and think awhile before coming for the interview), some of them are more vivid.

He remembers the many drills the crew had prior to getting to the war zone.

In those training drills he said a plane would tow a target for gunners to get used to firing at a moving target. For the sailors, drills often would start with a call to battle stations and it didn’t matter where you were — in your bunk or at meals, Castleberry said, “everybody would drop what they were doing and head to the battle station.”

He said the drills took a lot longer in the beginning because of getting 2,800 sailors in position. “… and you’ve got many, many battle stations and you’re not always close to your battle station,” noting for instance that living quarters were two or three levels down, leaving you four flights of stairs to go up, he said.

Still, he said drills couldn’t really prepare you emotionally for the real thing.

“I saw a lot of our planes get shot down; I saw a lot of our planes … would try to take off from the flight deck and didn’t have enough power and they’d nosedive right down into the water.”

He said it was upsetting but after awhile you realized there wasn’t anything you could do about it.

The first action he was involved in was at the island of Tarawa where the ship took two torpedoes. Then, in later action, the ship also took two Kamikaze hits.

One of those that stood out was a Kamikaze attack during the operations supporting the landings at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines that damaged the Lady Lex, or the Blue Ghost as one source said the Japanese called her.

“It was probably the biggest battle we had,” he said. “That’s where we really got a hold and started annihilating ’em.”

During the engagement, “A Kamikaze plane hit our tower just above where I was …,” Castleberry said. “They were fanatical. The one (Kamikaze) that came in that I saw, he was grinning like a Cheshire cat when he was zeroed in on our ship.”

“I didn’t get hurt real bad, a lot of lacerations, little bit of shrapnel, lost an ear drum. (After) we got hit by a Kamikaze, so they put me down in the radar control room … they wouldn’t let me stay topside because of the noise.”

He said he was allowed 10 days off duty afterwards because of his injuries and his duty station was moved to the radar control room.

Fire control started out topside where personnel could actually see incoming targets, he said. That was changed later and a topside spotter would see an incoming plane, relay the plane’s coordinates, and then we would use our radar equipment to manually aim the 5 inch guns, the ships largest, on the incoming plane, Castleberry said.

The personnel manning operation of the guns were two trainers, each with one set of controls to direct aim of the guns from side to side and up and down. When radar notified of an approaching plane the trainers would take control of the guns to direct their fire, Castleberry said.

After each engagement listed in the citation, he said the Lexington’s group would “stand down” for a period of time to take on supplies and other refitting chores. He said ship’s personnel would take that time to have day “shore leave” on whatever island that was nearby, but they never left duty on the ship until the last campaign which ended the war with the signing of the surrender.

“The day that they surrendered we were within 20 or 25 miles of the coast of Japan,” Castleberry said. “All of our planes were completely loaded and we getting ready to go bomb ’em, the whole fleet.”

Instead, the Japanese announced they were surrendering. Castleberry said when the surrender papers were signed on the flagship USS Missouri, he was in the fleet anchored in Tokyo Bay.

“So, I got to see the surrender,” Castleberry said. “(I got to see) This old man, the Japanese man stand up and salute MacArthur and pull his saber out of his scabbard and hold it by the tip and present it to him (MacArthur).”

After the surrender Castleberry said didn’t actually get out of the navy until Christmas day, 1945. He thinks of the Lexington group he remembers, there are two that may still be around and he thinks they were in the original crew of the first W.W.II Lexington.

Castleberry said when the war started he was living in Baldwin in north Mississippi just above Tupelo and had just finished the 11th grade.

“I wanted to get in on that thing — all the other boys did, too — so I didn’t enroll for my 12th grade. I left that summer (1942) and went into the navy.”

He says of course his mother was not happy with his decision.

A year after he got out of the navy, he moved down to Poplarville. He said he’d planned to go to Mississippi State, but he was told there would be a year and a half wait because of the many ex-servicemen in the same situation. He found the same situation at Ol’ Miss. His brother Hubert suggested he come with them to Poplarville and Pearl River Junior College.

He ended up getting a scholarship at PRC for two years. Then, along with five of his friends, he got an invitation to be guests of the University of Wyoming football coach at the Sugar Bowl game. The six were Cotton Beach, Dudly Miller, Fred Henley, Darryl Whitfield and Cecil Lott and all were promised scholarship, Castleberry said. When they got there for tryouts there was three feet of snow on the field and the tryout was held in the fieldhouse.

He didn’t take the football scholarship, he said, but decided to stay there for school. His degree was in agriculture but he ended up working 30 years with General Motors in the insurance division. When he left GM and moved back to Pearl River County he was in the real estate industry for 17 years.

Castleberry said he was one of several local veterans who took part in an earlier project at the high school which filmed veterans telling of their wartime experiences.