John Callahan , of Punta Gorda Isles, Fla., was the coxswain of a Higgins Boat, a plywood and steel landing craft built in the New Orleans area. He and his wooden boat played a part in the Battle of Okinawa, the biggest battle in the Pacific during the Second World War.
His father had served in the First World War aboard the battleship USS Massachusetts, and his younger brother, Sam, was wounded at Guadalcanal while serving aboard an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry).
“I got into the war late because I was getting deferments because I worked for the Bridgeport Brass Company, a defense contractor that made bullets and artillery shells. I’d go in a restaurant with my wife and it was very embarrassing. People thought I had to be a conscientious objector or 4-F,” the 89-year-old former sailor from Punta Gorda recalled.
When he finally had enough, he signed up for the Navy in 1944 and was sent to boot camp in Sampson, N.Y., for six weeks.
“We got a group of guys from New York City, including a 17-year-old named Don Rickles, the comedian. He was funny then and he knew he was going to go places,” Callahan said. “We had picnic tables in our barracks to write letters home on. At night, Rickles would get up on one of these tables and do his impersonation of Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle and Al Jolson. He would even do Eleanor and Franklin. FDR was taking Eleanor to bed.”
Callahan knew the war was getting serious when his training company shipped out for California aboard a slow-moving troop train.
“We were out around Iowa taking the northern route to California when we were sidetracked. We had to pull over and let a more important train go by. About an hour later here came this train loaded with pigs and cows. It had priority over us,” he said with a chuckle.
Once Callahan and his buddies reached San Diego, they began their amphibious training in Higgins Boats.
“A Higgins Boat was made of plywood. Over the plywood was steel plating where the troops were. The ramp (that dropped down in the bow to allow the troops to exit) was steel, too,” he explained. “Back in the stern, where the fuel tanks were, it was only wood. The coxswain, who drove the boat, stood up on a little podium so he could look over the ramp. It had a crew of four: two deck hands, a motor mac and a coxswain. Fully loaded, it could carry 36 Marines and their equipment.”
Callahan ‘s Higgins Boat was attached to an attack transport ship, APA-126 the USS St. Mary’s. The APA carried more than 20 Higgins boats, together with two LCMs that carried the tanks ashore.
On the dining room table at his home recently, Callahan displayed two chrome .50 caliber machine-gun bullets. Carved on each shiny shell casing are the lists of the island battles he took part in during World War II — The Admiralty Islands, Hollandia, New Guinea, Ulysses, Guam, Philippines, St. Bernadine Straights, Okinawa and Tokyo Bay were all listed on his special bullets.
“I know these bullets were made from tools made in our shop. On the base of each .50 caliber is a little diamond-shaped mark with a capital B that stands for the Bridgeport Brass Co. I got the shell casings off Okinawa after they were shot at kamikazes that were attacking our ship. I chromed them for posterity,” Callahan said.
“We had been practicing landings at Subic Bay, Philippines, when Iwo Jima took place. After that battle we were told we were going to take part in the Battle of Okinawa, but nobody knew where it was,” he said.
“The night before we hit the beach at Okinawa, our APA was in a 13-ship convoy. About 6 p.m., the lead ship, APA-92, was hit by a kamikaze that blew up its superstructure and killed a two-star admiral aboard,” Callahan recalled. “A swarm of Japanese Betty bombers attacked our convoy out of the fog. Kamikazes were coming at us from all directions, but our ship wasn’t hit that night.
“On Easter Sunday morning, April 1, 1945 I was coxswain of a Higgins Boat in the first wave that attacked the beach at Okinawa. I was standing up on my platform steering my Higgins Boat and bullets were whizzing by my ears,” he said. “We brought the 77th Infantry Division ashore — Gen. Buckner’s division. He was killed at Okinawa and they named the bay, ‘Buckner Bay’ after him.
“After the first day’s battle our group was sent to Ishima Island. It was a tiny island 25 miles west of Okinawa. We made the landing there and on my return trip I brought an Army doctor out,” Callahan recalled. “He was sitting on the engine cover as I pulled off the beach. I took him back to a hospital ship offshore.”
“‘A great little guy was killed back there,'” the doctor said.
“‘Who’s that,'” Callahan inquired.
“‘Ernie Pyle,'” the doctor said.
“‘Who’s that?'” Callahan said he asked again. “I was in the Navy and wasn’t getting much news. Until recently, Pyle had been writing for the European Theatre, not the Pacific. When I got home I bought his book and found out more about him.”
Pyle was Scripps-Howard’s leading war correspondent. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his gripping stories from the front. His articles appeared in 300 papers throughout the United States during the war.
It wasn’t long afterwards that the USS St. Mary’s and its gaggle of Higgins Boats arrived at Tokyo Bay. It was Sept. 2, 1945, the day the Japanese signed the unconditional surrender ending World War II. Callahan ‘s APA was bringing the 1st Infantry Division ashore to be part of the occupation troops.
Callahan also sailed for home aboard the St. Mary’s. When his ship reached San Francisco Bay, he was one point short of having enough for discharge. He had to sail back to Japan aboard the St. Mary’s and didn’t get discharged until 1946.
He returned to the Bridgeport Brass Company and his old job, a position he held for years until he began his own company. In 1979, Callahan and his wife, Addie, moved to Punta Gorda Isles.
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, June 24, 2010 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Callahan’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
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