Sunday, December 15, 2013
BRIDGEPORT A local World War II veteran hasn’t seen military action since 1945, but without official discharge papers from the U.S. Navy he’s still considered an enlisted man.
Walt Peckham, 87, laughed about that fact on Dec. 7 when he and other members of American Legion Posts 218 and 97, in Bridgeport and Brewster respectively, hosted a memorial and flag retirement ceremony to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Peckham, a Pateros native, was 16 years old when the
Imperial Japanese Navy bombed the naval base in 1941, prompting the United States’ entry into the war.
When he turned 18 in June of 1943, he signed up with the Navy and was shipped to the South Pacific – a trip that took about a month.
“I thought maybe the Navy had a little better living quarters,” Peckham said, chuckling, when asked why he chose the Navy.
He was a gunner in the Naval Armed Guard Service, serving the Maritime Commission, he said.
On a cargo ship called the S.S. Lavacco, stationed in a small harbor on the east coast of New Guinea, he learned how to shoot a 5-inch, 38-caliber gun.
One shell weighed between 53 and 55 pounds, and loading the ammunition and shooting the gun was a job for five men.
The crew of about 24 didn’t see too many skirmishes, Peckham said. The harbor was very narrow and well-guarded.
The ship endured only one attack in two years. It happened early one morning, “not too long after daylight,” Peckham said.
The torpedo hit above the engine room and ricocheted off for about 50 yards before finally exploding. No one was hurt.
“That will get you out of bed in a hurry,” he said with a laugh. Another torpedo missed its mark and hit the nearby beach.
“We never knew who it was,” Peckham said of the attackers. “The Navy told us later it was a Japanese suicide torpedo.”
They were called “suicide torpedoes” or “suicide missiles” because, much like kamikaze pilots, Japanese soldiers were strapped in to either thrive or perish in an attack.
Sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference between friend and foe.
On one occasion, Peckham recalled a low-flying plane that alarmed everyone on board. By the time they could see the blinking light in the plane’s windshield, sailors already had the gun trained on it.
“The guy said, ‘You better hold up. That’s American,’” he said.
Patrol planes tried to keep the air space clear over the ship “before we started blowing them out of the air,” Peckham said.
Because it took so much effort and time to reload the gun, “You’d think, ‘How long until I get him?’” he said.
The time Peckham spent in the service wasn’t all bad.
“Most of it was pretty good,” he said.
Sailors on the S.S. Lavacco found fun where they could. They fished off the side of the ship, at one time catching a large tuna. They delivered the killing blow with a wrench and the chef instructed the men to cut open the fish and clean it out.
“That’s the first fresh tuna I’d ever ate in my life, and it was good,” Peckham said.
He carries fond memories of the chef, who baked doughnuts and cooked “regular meals” to be served on plates, rather than the trays and combat rations that were common in other factions of the military.
After two years, the war ended and he went back home to Pateros. The Armed Guard didn’t provide discharge papers, he said, which is why he’s still technically considered to be on active duty.
But when asked if he had served in any other wars or conflicts, Peckham said, “No, that was enough. A long enough vacation.”