Monday, April 7, 2014

A Gut Wrenching Experience - Kamikazes at Okinawa

I had the opportunity to interview a World War II US Navy veteran for another project recently.  I thought I would share here also.  All photos are courtesy of Zane Geier.

Zane Geier
US Navy 1944 – 1946

Interview by Mark Hubbs


 Someone who does not know Zane Geier would have trouble realizing he is 88 years old and a veteran of World War II.  He is easy to smile; an active man with an engaging sense of humor.  He is as sharp now as he has ever  been.  I have known Zane for over ten years, but really only learned the story of his early life and war time experiences as a result of this interview.

Zane was born in May 1926 in the little village of Weaver, Alabama, just north of Anniston.  His first up close experience related to the War were the many soldiers from Fort McClellan who tramped by his community on road marches and field maneuvers when he was in high school.  When soldiers stopped to draw water from his family well, he realized they represented an entrepreneurial opportunity.  He followed the marching columns on his bicycle and cornered the market on Baby Ruths and Milky Ways each time they stopped for a rest break.    
Zane Geier just out of boot camp
Zane’s father took a job with the Department of the Navy before the War began and the family moved several times from 1936 to 1944.  Zane did very well in school despite the fact that he attended four different high schools in Alabama, South Carolina, California and Florida.  With his graduation in May 1944 from Pensacola High School, he followed the path of millions of young men and answered his country’s call.  The Navy was the obvious choice due to his father’s career in Navy shipyards.
Boot camp was at Camp Perry, Virginia, near Williamsburg, and then on to radar training at the Fleet Training School at Virginia Beach, Virginia.  The training at the Fleet Training School was fast and intense as the Navy struggled to provide the new sailors and new ships needed for the final push in the Pacific theater. 
The Navy wasted no time in getting Seaman Geier to sea.  He was sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and assigned to a brand new destroyer escort, the USS Cross.  Almost all of the sailors were newer than the ship.  One hundred and ten men were assigned to the Cross.  Ninety five of them were brand new sailors just out of boot camp and “A” school.  A cadre of only fifteen “old salts” had to train and blend this group of youngsters into an effective fighting crew.  Zane was on board the ship when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt broke a bottle of champagne on the bow of the USS Cross during its commissioning ceremony.
The USS Cross as she was outfitted for the Pacific theater
Although Zane was a radarman during normal operations of the ship, his battle station “was on a 4 barrel, 40 millimeter gun mount on the starboard side, forward.  I sat on the right hand side and turned the crank that made the gun move laterally.” 
Zane's 40mm gun firing during training exercises.  Zane is the seated man on the front left of the gun tub

Zane at his Battle Station
After a shakedown cruise to Bermuda and convoy duty in the Atlantic, the USS Cross was slated for duty with the Third Fleet in the Pacific.  The Cross rendezvoused with the fleet at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Island, and from there island hopped to Ulithi and the Northern Marianas.   The Navy and Army were gearing up for what would become the largest, most intense, campaign of the Pacific war – the Battle of Okinawa. 
As the battle raged on the island of Okinawa, the US Navy protected the landing sites from the Japanese Navy and air forces.  This is where the Japanese first used Kamikazes on a gigantic scale.  Over 1,600 allied ships ringed the island and each became targets for Japanese suicide flyers.  Destroyers and destroyer escorts, such as the USS Cross, formed the outer ring of the fleet defenses.  They provided early warning radar and fire support against Japanese planes that attempted to break this perimeter to get at the aircraft carriers, battleships and cruisers.  As a result these smaller ships often became primary targets when the Japanese flyers realized they could not break through.  Almost 5,000 American sailors were killed in Kamikaze attacks during the course of the Okinawa Campaign. 
Zane recalls, “many occasions when the Cross and sister ships were engaged in pumping out a wall of bullets at incoming Kamikaze.  It was a gut wrenching experience to see a plane coming towards us, low on the water, getting closer and closer . . . and a feeling of relief to see the plane explode . . . sometimes only 100 yards or so away . . .and feel the shock and hear a sharp scraping sound as flying debris struck the ship.”
As the Battle of Okinawa wound down in late June 1945, the US Third Fleet moved its area of operations off the island of Honshu in preparation of the invasion of the Japanese homeland.  However, the destruction of the Japanese cites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American atomic bombs sealed the fate of Japan.   They formally surrendered on August 25, 1945.
A sailor is transferred from the battleship USS West Virginia to the USS Cross
The USS Cross was damaged during a massive typhoon in October 1945.  The ship was towed back to the US for repair, but not before its crew was scattered and reassigned to other ships.  Zane found a new assignment aboard the USS Hornet, one of the most famous aircraft carriers of World War II.  The Hornet participated in Operation “Magic Carpet” when it ferried several thousand US soldiers back to the United States.  Zane was discharged from the Navy on June 4, 1946.
On the flight deck of the USS Hornet
Zane Geier served as a shore patrolman in the months before his discharge in 1946
Zane became an auditor for the US General Accounting Office after the war, and even continued his nautical career in the Navy Reserves in the late 1940s.  He received a degree in accounting from the University of Alabama in 1949, and attended Harvard University, Graduate School of Business Administration, and completed the Program for Management Development in 1963.
Zane is proud of his service during World War II.  He also celebrated the sacrifice and heroism of veterans of other wars by participating in Civil War and War of 1812 living history and reenactment programs for many years.  However, he understands the futility of war and abhors it as a political means.  He says:
“I am opposed to war and favor peaceful coexistence instead.  Although I fought in a big war, and have observed the United States’ involvement in a long succession of others, I am convinced it is all for naught.  In the long run, most wars, even the Crusades, have accomplished little.  The pain and suffering and loss of life and property caused by war have been immense.”
Zane Geier in 2012