Shooks Men in the Military - P. John Shooks's Story

Uncle Sam didn't wait long after my 18th birthday on June 8th, 1942 before he sent me greetings. But my dad appealed to the draft board, because three of his sons had already been called, and he needed help with the store, especially through summer and fall. So they postponed my call-up until April 1943.

I was in charge of a group of draftees taking the train from Bellaire (Michigan) to Ft. Custer for induction. Marvin Wynsma, my brother-in-law’s nephew, and Lou Essenberg were in the group.

Upon our arrival at Ft. Custer, we were inducted and had the usual medical shots, then outfitted with uniforms and lots of clothes and gear that none of us knew what to do with. After three days of orientation, in the early evening I boarded a troop train, not knowing where I was going. I fell asleep in my bunk and woke up somewhere in the Kentucky hills. It was a frosty morning, and as we traveled through the valleys, smoke from mountain homes was going straight up. I started a diary, but I never could find it after the war.

On the third morning when I awoke I knew I was in Florida, because I saw palm trees outside the train window. I was feeling pretty good about the scenery, but I still didn’t know where the end of the line was. The train stopped outside of St. Petersburg, Florida, at a place called “Tent City.” We disembarked, and I was assigned a tent with three young men from Chicago. They were nice fellows.

On the way to our first mess, some soldiers who were in basic training alerted us not to eat the food at the mess tent. They said there had been an outbreak of spinal meningitis. I wondered if this was some kind of Army ruse. But it turned out to be true, as a Grand Rapids soldier and one of the founders of Amway, Jay Vanandel, was stricken, along with many others. Tent City was on a golf course, and with all the basic training and marching around, sand and dust were everywhere. Instead of eating at the mess tent, I and three others bought wrapped sandwiches, milk, and pop from the PX.

After two days of sandwiches, our group was marched to downtown St. Petersburg, to the ten-storey Princess Martha hotel, where I was placed on the 10th floor. There were four of us in a room. Basic training was taken in the baseball park down by the harbor, where the New York Yankees had just finished spring training. Like every soldier, we learned close order drill, took tests of every kind, and went on bivouac in the Florida back country. We had big parades with other trainees, who were housed in hotels and apartment complexes all over the city.

After six weeks of training, I was put on a train destined for Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI), in Blacksburg, VA, alone. There I was housed in a campus building used for the cadet program, and I attended college classes in the morning and had lots of recreation in the afternoon. I discovered I was in the ASTP, the Army Special Training Program. I didn’t know what the result would be, but I knew I wasn’t ready for a year of chemistry in three months, since I didn’t have it in high school. In class I sat with a solider who’d had two years of it at MIT. After a month, I requested and was granted a transfer back to the Air Force.

I shipped out in June of 1943 to Mitchell Air Force Base in Hempstead, Long Island, New York for reassignment. I was at First Air Force headquarters, which controls air space over the east coast. Eventually I was transferred to Hillsboro AFB in Providence, RI, where I was part of a small detachment running a message center of phones, FM radios, teletypes, and cryptography work. We were part of a retraining program for pilots coming back from Europe to learn the intricate aspects of the P-47 fighter plane. It was well-armed and had lots of fire power and range. The Germans hated the plane, because it was difficult to shoot down. I enjoyed my time in the east from July 1943 to September 1944.

Early in October of 1944 I and others in our group were shipped out to Seymour AFB in Goldsboro, NC, to form a P-47 fighter wing. I was assigned to the 1st Fighter Squadron of the 413th Fighter Group to train for overseas duty. For lack of facilities and room, we were transferred to Bluethenthal AFB in Wilmington on November 9, 1944. The other squadrons in the 413th were the 21st and the 34th. We remained at Bluethenthal AFB until April 7, 1945. During that period we received extensive training, readying us for overseas duty. We worked 14-16 hours a day on ground activities and orientation in combat activities. On orders from higher headquarters the three squadrons departed Bluethenthal Field on April 7, 1945 and arrived at Ft. Lawton, Seattle, WA, on April 12, 1945 for processing. I enjoyed the six days required to cross the country and seeing the South, Midwest, the plains and mountains. Considering the distance to be covered, we traveled in comparative comfort. 35 men were assigned to each car, which gave us plenty of leg room and comfortable sleeping arrangements. We stopped frequently along the way to get some fresh air and exercise our tired muscles.

Our equipment was checked, and then several lectures completed our processing at Ft. Lawton. On April 17th our helmets were marked with chalk to indicate the numbers of the ships’ directories. We embarked on the “USAT Kata Inten,” a Dutch ship converted to a troop ship, with a crew of men from Dutch Indonesia. We departed at 1800 hours (6 p.m.) into Puget Sound and then the Pacific Ocean. Some of the troops were seasick before we left Puget Sound. Little did they know they were going to be on this ship for 31 days. I had my first meal aboard a troop ship. It was terrible. Everything was steam-cooked. When my Sergeant told me they wanted volunteers for the officer’s mess, I volunteered and spent the rest of the trip eating and drinking well. Best deal I ever had on K-P.

On the 25th of April we arrived at Hawaii. We had newspapers to read, for a change, and dancing girls came to the dock to perform for us, but we had no shore time. Our pilots had been to Hawaii three weeks earlier on the aircraft carrier, “Kwajalian,” with our P-47s aboard. They were being assembled for delivery to Guam, where they would be flown to our destination, which was still unknown. We left Pearl Harbor on April 28th in a convoy of six merchant ships and three destroyer escorts. It was hot, and we were traveling in dangerous waters. We had standby alerts frequently.

At night we had boxing events on the poop deck. We also had Sunday services on deck, at which I played an Army-issue pump organ. We often slept on the deck because of the heat.

On May 6th we stopped at Eniwetok, a small atoll in the Marshall Islands. Then, on May 12th, we stopped at Ulithi, a large atoll lagoon that could hold more than 350 ships. While there we dove off the rails into water for a swim, until we noticed toilet paper floating by. That ended our swimming. I saw part of the 5th Naval fleet come into the lagoon with considerable damage to their decks and gun turrets from the Japanese kamikaze planes off the coast of Okinawa. Little did I know we were going to go to the same area.

We came into Ie Shima, a 3-by-5 mile island off the west coast of mid-Okinawa on May 19th, right on the heels of the invasion forces that took the island. We gathered our gear and went over the side into an L.S.M (Landing Ship Medium), which took us to the beach and onto terra firma after thirty-one days at sea.

The difficult job of unloading the equipment then began and continued for the next five days. It was made difficult by the constant rain, lack of transportation, and frequent air raids. Although we were subjected to constant bombing attacks, no large-scale force capable of doing extensive damage reached the island. However, conditions were bad and getting worse; it continued raining for the next ten days and made our living area untenable. We worked, slept, and ate in the mud. Through it all, we set up our permanent area, uncrated and sorted the equipment, and established our various departments. My message center was located by operational headquarters. In our limited spare time we played softball until a quick, tropical shower would run us off the field.

Our fighter group flew 1,037 sorties, 54 missions, destroying 12 planes in the air and 5 on the ground. Along with damage to airfields, we hit shipping and manufacturing centers. Our P-47s were the first aircrafts equipped with wing tanks to fly over the main Japanese island of Honshu. One of our pilots was shot down over Shanghai and picked up in the harbor by the Chinese, who took him to a submarine. He showed up safe and sound a month later wearing a coolie hat and Chinese clothes.

In the fall we were ordered to pack our gear for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. That was not good news. However, the Lord had other ideas. The atomic bomb came into the picture in August, 1945, and on August 12th, the Japanese accepted the terms of unconditional surrender. The terms called for a contingent of Japanese to fly down to the Philippines to General MacArthur’s headquarters. The group flew into our airfield on Ie Shima, in a plane painted white with a green cross on the fuselage. They were then transferred to a C-48 Constellation for the meeting in the Philippines. The Japanese accepted the surrender terms on August 15, 1945.

When the war ended, everyone was adding up the points needed to go home. Meanwhile, I and four others got a pass to go to Tokyo. We hitchhiked on C-46 planes and rode first to Kyushu Island, where we were stuck for two days, because of the weather. Then we went on to Tokyo for four days. The people were exceedingly friendly, considering that everywhere I looked, fire bombing had caused complete destruction for miles. We stayed at the Maranouchi Hotel, across from the Imperial Palace, which remained undamaged. We ate seven-course meals and drank good sake beer. The street cars were working. We saw MacArthur and his big entourage come out of his headquarters in the Dia Achi building. The Japanese all bowed when he passed by. It was a great experience for a kid from Ellsworth, Michigan.

We hitchhiked our way back to Ie Shima, and then we were transferred over to central Okinawa, to Kadena AFB, to a Seabee encampment. Boy, did those guys have it good! I got on K-P and ate ice cream every time I could. They must have hauled that machine all the way from the states.

Before our discharge, we toured the island to the south, where the heavy fighting had occurred. Our troops’ casualties were very heavy. You could see all the cemeteries built into the hillsides, where they were well protected. One of our generals, General Bruckner, was killed at the very end of the war. For me, as a young, un-traveled kid, this whole experience was very educational. Being young, it seemed we never completely recognized the danger that was always around us. We had over 70 bombing runs at night against our little island. They always hit something, because the island was loaded with aircraft. I dug an air shelter trench, but when I was told the snakes liked to live in them, I gave it up. When an air raid came, I jumped out of my cot, hit the deck, and prayed and hoped for the best.

On December 29, 1945, I climbed the ropes up into a troopship for the trip home. No submarines or bombers to worry about. I arrived in the port o fSan Pedro, which serves Los Angeles, on January 13, 1946, Upon landing, we were served a wonderful steak dinner with all the trimmings and ice cream by German prisoners of war. They all smiled and were friendly to us. I guess they were also glad that the war was over. Obviously, they were treated far better than the Japanese had treated our prisoners.

After a night’s sleep—in a bed for a change—we boarded a troop train for the trip to Ft. Sheridan, IL, for discharge. We stopped in Albuquerque, and at the train station many Indian folk displayed their good on beautiful Navajo blankets. No money, no buy.

I was discharged at Ft. Sheridan, IL, on February 14, 1946. I received $19.35 travel pay, $100.00 mustering out pay, and a few dollars of back pay. I declined a strong pitch to stay in the service.

It was quite an experience. I thank the Lord for my safe return. God bless the United States. I was proud to serve.