Radio Technician, USN
Rozell: Okay, it is my privilege now to introduce Mr. Gene Fellers.
Gene’s a retired teacher from Glens Falls, who was a Navy radio
technician. Gene, would you like to
come up here (to the podium) because that's what we teachers like to do.
Gene Fellers: (walks to podium) First of all I would like to thank Mr. Rozell for his kind invitation, and I would like to acknowledge another one of your teachers, Mr. Niesz, whom I have known since he was this big. (Levels his hand 2 feet off the ground)
I am very happy to come and tell you a story of the last great battle of the war and the suicide planes, which play a big role in it as your teacher has told you. I have for starters a statement here from Admiral Morrison’s book. He was a naval historian, a great historian, wrote many, many books concerning the sea. He said this, “Although your historian himself has been under kamikaze attack and witnessed the hideous forms of death, and torture inflicted by that weapon, words failed him to do justice to the sailors who had it so. Courageously, men on radar picket station to survive, not only had to strike down the flaming terror of the kamikazes, and they were under constant strain and intense discomfort for days, and even nights, on end. The crew had to stand general quarters. Men had to keep the readiness for the instant reaction and split timing to riddle a plane bent on sacrificial death.”
The capture of Okinawa cost the U.S. Navy 4,900 men and over 4,800 wounded. The Marines and the Army on shore had also very heavy casualties. This was not an easy battle; this was a tough one. These killed and wounded were from 34 ships sunk, and 368 ships damaged, many of them beyond repair. Keep in mind, these kamikazes began this at the Philippines in February and March and our ship didn’t arrive over there until the end of April. Okinawa was invaded in the first of April and it looked like a piece of cake. The Japanese strategy was to let our men land, and then let them advance beyond the range of the battleships, who are out there supporting. Then they would strike, that was their strategy. So when we talk about the Okinawa (pointing at the map) we are talking about the offensive program. We had 30 miles out, a string of ships, around the island. I think the island was about 100 miles long but I have forgotten now just how long it is. A very rugged island, lots of coves and that sort of thing. 100 miles out - we had ships out there to warn the approach of the kamikazes. That was called the radar picket line, and ships who were sent out there found themselves some times out there 100 miles all by themselves. If the kamikazes came in any numbers it was almost certain that that ship was going to get hit because the kamikazes might come at them from different directions all at the same time.
Now if you are dealing with a single one that is one thing, but when they are coming at different directions that is a totally different thing. Some of the big guns were worthless. You talk about these battleships with 16-inch guns or 14-inch guns, does that mean anything to you? That means the shell is about that big around (show width of shell with hands) and about this long. (Shows length of shell with hands) The cruisers, like Barney here, was on, (points at Barney) had eight-inch guns that had big shells too, but these guns are not equipped for this kind of fighting. The Navy was not prepared for this at all. We never thought that any nation would send out their men to a certain death. I suppose that if the United States were down on its knees, hard for me to imagine, there would be some very heroic things done to save our country. I can’t quite imagine the American men being asked to commit suicide, and that is what the Japanese asked. It made for a lot of excitement, to put it lightly, a lot of excitement.
The beginning I will very briefly tell you I went into the Navy, I was a college boy at the time. I was offered a free flying course. I got my license as a flyer and that is really all I could think about. I lost all interest in philosophy and history and all the things in my classes. I really wanted to go into the Navy and fly as the Judge did. (Acknowledges Judge Leary) It did not work out that way. I went down to the Air Force, the Army at that time, and I didn’t pass the physical. I had strained my eyes and I had high blood pressure, which I still have today. I was amazed that they turned me down; they couldn’t have cared less that I could fly an airplane. They really wished that I couldn’t because I would have to unlearn a lot of bad habits.
So what am I going to do now? I dropped out of college. I don’t want to go into the steel mill. At that time, LIFE magazine came out dedicated to the U.S. Navy, and all these interesting ports of call and all these pretty girls. Sailors were supposed to have a girl at every port and this is an interesting life. This is what I think I want. (Smiles jokingly) Anyhow I lost my father at an early age, and I did not know how to do anything practical. I did not know how to fix the screen door and I did not know how to drive a nail, even. Well, I thought I could learn trade in there. I could actually do something with my life, so I signed up. The usual four-year enlistment had been changed into six years, which made me hesitant. (Thought to himself out loud: six years, that’s a long time, six years) I was 21 at that time. Oh well, I told my mother and I would go in there and stay in the Navy for 20 years and I will have my retirement. Not a very practical idea at all but that’s what I talked myself into.
I went to Cleveland, Ohio held up my hand and I was in. Down to Norfolk, Virginia, picking up cigarette butts around the barracks at 6 o’clock in the morning. With a fence about 12 feet high with barbed wire on it, I thought to myself, "my God, this is a prison". Well, what the hell am I doing here? After six weeks of that we went through boot camp. Of course these Marines here can tell you real stories about boot camp (acknowledges the Marines) and what it was like. It was a gentleman's game in the Navy, compared to what they went through. So I picked radio school and they sent me to Jacksonville, Florida. This is aviation radio, and we spent a very hot summer, I hated Florida. No fans, no air conditioning in those days. All these barracks were built alike, no matter if they were in Minnesota or Florida. Little windows, no air, no ventilation, your sitting in there with 40 guys taking the code (does impression of code), I still know the code to this day. Well, I thought I would be assigned now to a squadron because we were radio gunners. We were supposed to fly backwards in the seat and fight them off if we were attacked from the rear. That is my idea of what I was going to be doing. Unfortunately, it did not work, or should I say, fortunately, it did not work.
They took seven of us from the top of the class and sent us to the main station, where they were building a tower and they had the transfer station out five miles in the swamp. Sent us up to Canada to find out about it. Now I was a third class radio operator and I knew almost nothing about what makes a radio work. They showed us the bottom and said "that’s a condenser, that’s a resistor and this is a coil". Well it didn’t amount to any thing. So we were sent up there, went to New York, transferred, took a train to Clinton, Ontario. We went to school surrounded with barbed wire and locked up your notebooks in a safe every night and you were not to talk to any one about this. Radar was saving England over there, you know. What we saw was a little tub (shows the width of the tub) and you could see the water tank in Clinton through that tub. When we went on liberty the girls in Clinton were very cute and very friendly. They used to tease us a bit. And they would say, “What are you doing here?” And we would say, “We were studying radio.” And they said “you mean, radar, don’t you” and we thought they were not supposed to know that word. They said, “Don’t worry, we know that word and we know what it can do.” And that was that. It turned out that the Japanese and the Germans both had radar but we had more of it and betters of it. So back I go to Florida and that was a curse because I could not get out of the state that I hated most. The heat, the bugs, the humidity, even today I still hate that place. I go down there every winter and it is not too bad in the middle of winter but the summers in those days were really hell. I just could not get out of there. They said, “No you could not leave because there is something coming for you.” When it came in it was an army radar station. It had an antenna longer then this room mounted on a building and it could search for planes. They trained fighter pilots and they gave them information to find incoming enemy planes and shoot them down. That is what saved England and that is what it is all about. But my God what I had seen in Canada was little bitsy stuff and this stuff I had no idea. It had a tube this big (shows the size) and I had no idea what made it work and when the army installed it they turned it over to me. What a joke, and my assistant Moon Mullins who by the way got drunk one night and got married, I said “Moon, come we have to get a truck and get down to the transmitting station.” He was holding his head and he said oh my God and he stuttered as well, and he said, “The trouble is I got married last night.” And I said, “ Moon you don’t have a girlfriend do you?” Well there were girls, who would marry three or four sailors for this 10,000 dollar insurance policy there and if they got killed then they would collect and maybe one would even be the wife if you married three or four of them, so this is what he ran into. Well, we went down and we started up the diesel engines. Moon was my energy man and they had generators on there which supplied the power and I went in and I boldly turned on some switches of this thing and it started making funny noises (imitates noises) and smoke came rolling out of it. Then I shouted, “ Moon, shut her down shut her down!” He pulled all those big switches and shut down all these engines then we called the Army and they came and fixed it. Then I said, “Well, you know if I ever get a chance to study radar, radio radar, I am sick of this and I am going to jump on it.” Sure enough shortly after that I got a chance to go to a radar school in Chicago. This was in 1943 I took two years of high school algebra in six weeks. We had lots of math and that sort of thing. Then we went to a primary school in downtown Chicago, up five floors. Then we went from there, we built our own radio receiver and then from there we went to Treasure Island, California in San Francisco Bay. We studied all of the major radars and underwater sound equipment and all that stuff and after we graduated from there we were pronounced technicians. Right away I was assigned the first ship on the list, I should have been suspicious because it had a strange number. It said APA70. Well APA is a troop ship, that’s a pretty nice duty. You take troops over and then you come back to San Francisco and have a good time, then you bring another load over. But I didn’t get an APA they made a mistake it was APD. Well, what does that mean? Well, that means it is a destroyer. D is for Destroyer, who is a small ship and P is for personnel and A for auxiliary. This is something new, we have never heard of a ship like this. Well, the strategy was in the Pacific that many of the Japanese were to hold up on islands around the Philippines especially and south of there. These people and these islands were starving so these ships were designed to bombard the islands and send in troops on what they called “Higgins Boats.” You have seen pictures of the boats where the ramp goes down in the front and they go ashore. (Tells marines they know about that) They put four of them on there. Here is my painting of the Havoc’s. (Walks to the painting he brought with him on the wall and walks around the room with it) This is what an APD looked like.
It looked like a tram steamer, it really does not look like a fighting ship. There is one five-inch gun on there. Now, a destroyer escort would have three five-inch guns on it, but they took two of them off and this funny thing here in the middle of the ship is a Davit (sp)to lower those four boats, two on each side into the water. Now where is the firepower? Well, that we do not have. We sacrificed it. We have once five-inch gun and three twin 40’s. This ship is a hybrid. I was terribly disappointed when I drive down to Orange, Texas where they built it and asked, “Where is my ship?” And they pointed to a rusty haul over there. It took them three months to build it. Ladies did most of it. Lady welders, and you know they are good welders. We were in a typhoon off of Okinawa and with all the top weight on that ship we did a 54-degree roll. (Shows a 45 degree angle with arms and tells us to imagine 9 more degrees) you can see how close we were to capsizing. With all that weight up there, but she did it, and we thought of those lady welders. They were good. They also had pretty girls on there doing electrical work, but if they spoke to us they could be fired, for even speaking to us. Young people being young (laughs) what else? You know? We thought we could have a little fun, a few jokes and what not. But no, they weren’t allowed to do it, risk their job.
So after three months of that away we went down the river down tto he gulf of Mexico, it was like going through a field because it was like a canal with all these rice fields, which I didn’t see because of where I was standing. It looked like we were traveling through the country. We go down there, and much of this crew was green. Now, I have never been to the sea before and most of these guys never had. Some of them did not really know their job very well because the main bearing that drives a huge round shaft about that size (Shows size of the bearing with his hands) out to drive the propeller has the oil in it. If the oil gets too low the siren goes off, and it went off. They all stood and looked at each other down there. A couple of them had experience. I don’t know why they couldn’t find the valve. Burned out the main bearing and this was our first day out. Our captain was fit to be tied; he was in his cabin chewing on the rug. He wanted to make advancements, as everyone did in the Navy and this is no way to do it. Now back we go to Galveston in to get a little main shaft, and from there we go down to Florida, Cuba, out the Atlantic to Bermuda, for a shake down cruise.
Now on that cruise you learn how the guns fire, you learn how to take on oil from a tanker at sea and we spilled, and wouldn’t you know it went down in my compartment? For at least half of the cruise I was sleeping in a compartment that smells like oil. I was glad to move out of there. We chased a captured Italian submarine, for practice. Fired the guns, one thing or another, for a month. Every morning we would say, “ set the special sea detail,” I think that is when my seasickness began with those words. For thirty days I was sick every single day. A big breakfast, a few crackers at noon and then back into it, and after a couple hours you begin to feel fairly normal. “What do we have for supper?” “Well pork chops”, ”Well I'll give them a try”. Up we go and have a try. For thirty days we did that, thirty days of vomiting over the side. So we went then to Norfolk and trained with Marines for landings. Then from there we went down to Panama Canal and withdrew. From there we went up to San Diego, and there we worked with the Marines again. Then off to Hawaii and there we did exercises at Maui (looks at Marines and asked them if they remembered Maui). We would go there and do a couple bursts with machine guns, and you were qualified. From there we go to the South Pacific, not below the equator but close to it, Majuro (sp). It was right close to the South of the Philippines. (Points at map). A little atoll there, little islands, if you want to call them islands, they were very small.
Every sailor was handed two cans of
beer, which had been sealed in a compartment by welders. Opened only on great
occasions. So we each got two cans of beer, and that island had thousands of
sailors over there, with all these ships, there were all kinds of ships in that
anchorage. The ground over there was kind of soggy and it had not rained. Well,
you can figure out why it was soggy. Anyhow,
back on the ship, and now we are going to go to Okinawa. Now these little ships
can do anything a destroyer can do but fight. Now we had depth charges,
underwater sound gear, surface radar, air radar but we had no radar control in
the five-inch gun. The other sets of guns that amounted to anything were 40
millimeters, that shell was about that big around and that long (shows size with
hands). It’s excellent for what we had to do which was to shoot down the
kamikaze. A 20-millimeter was much too small. If they are coming at you at 400
miles per hour and it’s almost dark, and he is coming at you at a dive, you
might hit him with a 40, with a 20 it’s too late. You might hit but he is
still coming and he is on fire. He is still coming and he has a 500-pound bomb
at the other end of the plane.
interview originally recorded on 5/11/01
transcribed by Erica and Melissa '03
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