Elliott recalls time aboard U.S.S. California during WWII

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Elliott enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 19 and served as a first loader of a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun on the battleship U.S.S. California.

U.S. Navy veteran Jack Elliott, who lives in Marquette, served in the South Pacific, on the battleship the U.S.S. California, during the final years of WWII. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

A lifejacket and a tin hat. As a first loader of a 40mm anti-aircraft gun, serving on a battleship in the South Pacific during the final years of World War II, they were the only protection for U.S. Navy veteran Jack Elliott. They might seem like paltry defense against screaming Japanese planes, but the key, he said, was not to get hit in the first place.

“There were several times I was pretty scared. We shot at hundreds of airplanes,” Jack recalled. “If you didn’t hit them first, you were going to get hit.”

Now a Marquette resident, Jack graduated from high school in Blue River, Wis., in 1942. The next year, in March 1943, at the age of 19, he enlisted in the Navy.

His first stop was Milwaukee, then on to Farragut, Idaho, a naval training station 40 miles east of Spokane, Wash., created after the onset of the war.

The trek out west was an adventure, Jack said, as the region remained in the grip of winter weather.

“We got into the Dakotas and got stuck in snow,” he said. “The houses out there, the snow was blown over the top of them. We had to wait a day for the snow plow to get there.”

 After reaching Farragut, delays continued, as there was an outbreak of spinal meningitis, he noted.

In Sept. 1943, now in Washington, Jack was transferred to the battleship U.S.S. California, which was stationed at Bremerton. Sunk at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the battleship was raised, drained and gutted, then taken to Washington to be rebuilt, Jack said.

“It had all new guns and the best radar they had in those days,” he said.

It took four months until she was sea-ready. The ship, with Jack aboard, set sail in Jan. 1944 for a four-month shake down, meaning they went out into the Pacific and fired the guns, making sure everything worked, Jack explained.

In May 1944, the U.S.S. California returned to Pearl Harbor, this time to take on food, fuel and ammunition. From there, the outfit headed to the Marianas Islands, in the South Pacific, which were still occupied by the Japanese.

“Our war started at Saipan on June 14,” Jack said. “We were hit by shore battery two hours after starting bombardment of the shore targets. That morning, there were already a couple of casualties.”

The goal, he said, was to soften up the Japanese-occupied beaches.

At that time, Jack said, the battleship was the largest ship in the fleet. It wasn’t until after WWII that the carrier became more prominent.

Bombardment of Saipan continued for one week. 

“We did the same at Tinian and Guam,” Jack said.

On Aug. 23, disaster struck, not in the form of the enemy, but a fellow ship.

“We were rammed on the port side by our sister ship, the Tennessee, which had lost steering,” Jack explained. “It was two in the morning. We thought we were hit by a torpedo. It did quite a bit of damage.”

The U.S.S. California spent three weeks at dry dock getting repaired before returning to the fleet. 

During that time, Jack recalled watching movies on the beach of the island Espiritu Santos, the largest island in the nation of Vanuatu. The chief of the island always sat in the front row, he said.

The ship’s first stop after repairs was Leyte Gulf, near the Philippines.

“We softened up the beach for General MacArthur. That’s where he waded to shore,” said Jack, referencing an iconic photo, taken in late 1944, whose likeness was later brought to life in a memorial.

The next stop was the Surigao Strait.

“We heard the Japanese were coming down a narrow strait and we figured we could cut them off. That’s called ‘crossing the T,’” Jack explained. “That was the last major sea battle with battleships. It was just like the Fourth of July; the big guns were there. It lasted less than a half-hour. We got credit for sinking a battleship. We sunk just about everything they had there.”

Following that battle, the U.S.S. California had some R&R before heading to Lingayen Gulf, in the northern part of the Philippines, in early 1945. There, the battleship faced another setback.

“We were hit by a suicide kamikaze plane,” Jack said. “I lost about 10 good buddies.”

Many others were injured, but Jack said he was not among them.

“I never got a mark, not one scratch,” he said, noting that, as the first loader, he was fairly well protected. “Everything was high around me.”

The repairs the U.S.S. California needed were more extensive following this incident, and the ship returned to Bremerton for three months.

The battleship later returned to action, at Okinawa, but Jack said the worst part of the war was over at that point.

“We patrolled the waters around Japan and were getting ready to strike Japan,” he said, “but along came the big bomb.”

On Sept. 23, 1945, they landed in Japan. Beginning Oct. 3, they spent three to four days anchored in Tokyo Bay, near the wreckage of the Japanese battleship Negato.

“Then our war was over,” Jack said. “We headed home by way of Singapore, Colombo and Cape Town, then ended up in the Philadelphia Navy yard on Dec. 7, four years to the day the war started.”

Jack arrived back in Wisconsin on Jan. 20, 1946. It took a bit to get re-situated, he said, despite receiving letters from home—including some from his future wife Pat—during his deployment. 

“People were different,” he said, especially those his age, who had gotten married and begun having children.

Reflecting on his service, Jack said, “I was glad I had the opportunity to help out.”

Jack maintained strong relationships with some of his Navy buddies from around the country and he and Pat also visited several. He attended a few U.S.S. California reunions, as well.

He also has a strong connection with the American Legion, having been part of  several posts in the communities in which he’s lived, most recently Marquette. Marquette’s Post #305 is a friendly group, he noted.

“It’s just a bunch of guys who are easy to get along with,” he said with a smile.

When Post 305 holds its annual banquet later this month, Jack will be honored for 66 years in the Legion.

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