On Sept. 9, in company with the Montpelier, Lunga Point, Sanctuary and Consolation, we started the journey for the occupational landings at Wakanoura Bay, Honshu, Japan. That night, for the first time in Pacific waters, the ship sailed with lights on. It was a strange feeling.
The final 30 miles to anchorage on Sept. 11 was a slow, tense, grueling journey as the ships proceeded single file through dangerous waters. The Nipponese harbor pilot aboard our ship spoke English fluently but had scant knowledge of mine field locations, particularly those laid from U.S. B-29 bombers.
A short trip that started at high noon wasn’t concluded until dusk. Binoculars were at a premium as everyone wanted to check out the Japanese lining the beach who were checking out their conquerors. That night, and for the rest of this stay, four armed guards patrolled the deck and two with machine guns circled the ship in a boat all through the hours of darkness.
The next morning, the Cabildo’s boat pool shoved into high gear, furnishing transportation for all ships as personnel and equipment was landed in preparation for taking on men who had been prisoners of war for over three years.
Non-official visits to the beach were discouraged but, in the usual American can-do tradition, Navy personnel showed considerable ingenuity in declaring selves "official."
Once ashore, it was a mob scene, although a controlled mob scene. Whenever the hundreds of curious citizens edged too close to where Japanese Red Cross nurses tended to the weakest of the POWs, city policemen strolled toward the crowd, twirling what appeared a heavy rope with a knot at the end. The crowd would quickly retreat, then edge back again.
Because of the language barrier and atmosphere of fear, there was little communication with Japanese adults. Children are children everywhere, though, and Yanks who made the beach that day were often surrounded by youngsters wanting to see, touch, and enthusiastically beg candy and cigarettes from strangers not acting like devils.
Hundreds of healthier POWs were also milling about, mostly Dutch and Australian with a lesser number of Yanks and Javanese.
The English-speaking men, eager to visit, were starved for news of their homelands and what had actually transpired to bring such a sudden end to a long, long war.
One told Lt. Maury White the surrender had never been announced at his camp, with word arriving by leaflets dropped from a U.S. plane. Another’s group was informed the war was temporarily suspended, but not to get the idea it was over.
At all camps, however, work details had been discontinued, food and treatment upgraded, and several men spoke of getting going-away presents from their former guards. Enlisted men had generally been better fed than officers, the officers not being assigned to heavy work duties.
All POWs were brought to a nearby hotel for delousing, debriefing, and the best food they’d had since prior to capture. During their trek on the beach, posing as official Navy photographers, Lt. White and Lt. Rude Osolnik encountered the Cabildo’s barber.
Upon returning to the ship, they got the news a LCM ramp had crashed down on this young man. He was taken to a hospital ship in critical condition and the Cabildo sailed before learning of his fate.
As 248 Dutch, Aussie and Javanese POWs had been assigned to the Cabildo, the well deck bristled with tents containing cots.
The early arrivals, all of whom had been confined at least three years, ate heartily, then enjoyed a movie. One of the Aussies anxiously inquired: "Is Shirley Temple married yet?"
The following morning, Dr. Ted Berry, Gordon Dewart, Harry Dick, Larry Blanchard and Maury White started interviewing POWs for their history and medical records. It was tricky as many of the Dutch enlisted had little or no English. Officers from the Dutch East Indies served as interpreters, teaching us a few basic words, which we pronounced poorly.
One of the interpreters laughed, insisting in Java they speak Dutch, English, German, French and whatever native tongues needed so, when attending school, the Javanese are so busy learning how to talk they don’t have time to play sports.
Lt. Otten, of the Dutch air force, was a particularly good source of information. Most prisoners spoke of the suffering the worst atrocities after capture and before being brought to Japan, where beating were the main and frequent punishment. Otten recalled experiencing a two-hour lacing with a bamboo cane, then being forced to kneel for 19 hours while under guard.
Americans for the most part being lazy about learning other languages, it made a great impression when Otten and another Dutch officer told of having learned to read Japanese papers by listening to their captors speak of the news of the day, then connecting oft-heard words to oft-used headlines to slowly gain knowledge of the written language.
With the questioning done, and as part of a small convoy, we set sail for Okinawa on the morning of Sept. 15 and soon experienced the Navy at its grandest. A task group was entering the harbor as we departed. As we passed by the USS New Jersey, battleship sailors manned the rails in dress uniforms and the band played stirring music to honor our newly-acquired human cargo.
Shortly thereafter, when alerted we were heading into a typhoon, the convoy altered course and proceeded at full speed for about 4 hours. Unfortunately, the typhoon also altered course and commenced belting the ships with winds of 65 knots, gusting to about 125. Lt. Dick recalls a message from an admiral dispersing the convoy and saying it was every ship for itself.
At that moment, and for the next several days, it was a blessing having our ship under the command of Cdr. Holdorff, who had guided many merchant ships through troubled waters. Giving way when necessary, charging on when possible, that wise old sailor somehow helped keep us afloat, intact, and out of the eye of what we are led to believe is still considered the Big Daddy of typhoons in that area.
For the first time, most of us experienced waves seemingly as tall as the Empire State building, towering over an crashing across the highest part of the ship. On an even keel the conning tower is 60 feet above the waterline. With a constant roll of 25 degrees and as much as 42 degrees, those sleeping in swing-and-sway hammocks got some rest. Those of us in bunks tried tiedowns using light lines, as it’s impossible to relax if clutching a mattress with muscles tensed and one eye open to fend off careening furniture.
There couldn’t possibly have been any satisfactory solution for those poor ex-POWs on cots. One of the most vivid memories concerns 248 men coming off a three-year starvation diet suddenly being offered all the food they wanted under conditions when at least 80 percent of the Cabildo’s crew became sea sick. Time after time, you would see a passenger load a tray, stuff extra biscuits in his pockets, eat until it was necessary to rush to the rail and throw up, then calmly cram down another biscuit.
It was a horrible trip, especially when this relatively flat-bottomed vessel would take a particularly enthusiastic roll, then stay tilted for what seemed an eternity, causing hundreds of men to say silent prayers, requesting there be a roll back.
Few of the veteran sailors had seen anything like this angry sea, except in movies featuring Moby Dick or Blackbeard the pirate. Several reserves contemplating staying on in the regular Navy quickly changed their minds.
Okinawa finally loomed in the distance on Sept. 19. Our passengers, who may have been thinking the ride has been worse than the prison camps, were no more grateful at journey’s end than members of the crew.
Once close to shore, a very large ship, either Liberty or Victory, could be seen high and dry on the beach, tossed there by the horrendous power nature can unleash.
The only good thing about that typhoon is dozens and dozens of ships in a 300-mile area now were able to write off just about any missing gear or equipment as having gone with the wind.
Our passengers left us at Okinawa, then moved toward home in stages. A few weeks later, Otten and several other officers were encountered on the streets of Manila. All resembled pregnant women in the mid-section, with arms and legs not yet fleshed out from enjoying lots and lots of food.
USS Cabildo (LSD-16) Association Website - Last Revision April 1, 2006
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