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Ship plays key part in sailor's story


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000

As the heavy cruiser USS Wichita sailed into Nagasaki Harbor in Japan on Sept. ll, l945, Bob Alexander breathed a sigh of relief that this time, his ship would not be fired upon, torpedoed or bombed.

The war was over.

After all the battles this gallant ship's crew had survived, it seemed like a miracle that members were now on a mission to evacuate more than 9,000 prisoners of war released from Japanese prison camps in the area. But the crew could not take their eyes off the devastation wreaked by the second atomic bomb that ended World War II.

"It was only a month before, on Aug. 9, l945, that the bomb was dropped, and when I saw the destruction, I could hardly believe one bomb could do so much," said Alexander, who now lives in Spring Hill. "It was out of reality.

"I had a chance to walk through the city, and almost every building in the center of the city was . . . destroyed," he said. The giant Mitsubishi Iron Works was a mass of tangled steel. Ironically, Nagasaki was the city where the specially modified torpedoes for the attack on Pearl Harbor were produced.

Alexander said he didn't know much about radiation at the time, but he never had any bad effects from that walk through the city. The Wichita's medical officers made exhaustive tests of the bombed area, and personnel were assured it was safe.

One of the souvenirs Alexander kept was the Orders of the Day for the crew when it sailed into the harbor. The men were warned: "Relations with the conquered populace must be dignified and impersonal. . . . Officers will wear sidearms."

As trainloads of prisoners began arriving in Nagasaki, one can only imagine the emotions of the prisoners when they heard the Navy band. For some, it was the first real music they had heard in three years.

"A lot of these people were in bad shape," Alexander said. A few had gained a little weight as planes constantly flew over the camps dropping food before their evacuation.

"Those who were still very sick were sent to the hospital ship Haven moored in the harbor. A transport ship took prisoners well enough to go home immediately; it was called The Magic Carpet.

Alexander was still a very young sailor when all this was happening, no matter how salty he was after experiencing so much time at sea. He enlisted Dec. 13, l941, six days after Pearl Harbor when he was 16 years old.

"I lied about my age," he said. After basic training, he served as bugler at Arlington National Cemetery for almost a year. It was a tame beginning compared to the rest of his duty. When he was assigned to the USS Wichita in November 1942, little did he know what action he would see before the war was over.

"We headed for the Solomon Islands," Alexander said. While protecting supply lines to Guadalcanal, the Wichita came under attack from Japanese planes and was hit by a torpedo that turned out to be a dud. More than a few "thank you's" were sent heavenward.

The next destination was the Aleutians, and the crew was glad to escape to Alaska's cool weather for a while. Their job was to protect American troops landing on Attu and to proceed to the bombarding of Kiska, which was occupied by the Japanese, to soften up the enemy for the next attack by the Americans. The huge guns of the Wichita were sometimes so hot from the constant firing, they could not be touched for hours.

When Kiska and Attu fell to the Americans, the ship's crew set out for the Central and South Pacific, joining aircraft carrier task forces, protecting troop landings, rescuing downed pilots, acting as minesweepers, and carrying out continuous shelling of islands prior to allied landings. The Wichita became the flagship for Cruiser Divisions in the Pacific. The aircraft carriers and heavy cruisers participated in the battles for the Solomons, the Marianas, the Marshall Islands, Rennell Islands, the Philippine Sea, and Leyte Gulf. In the battle for Okinawa, the Wichita guns were fired for 67 days and crew members received ll Purple Hearts and commendations when the battle was over. The Wichita was hit several times. When a Japanese torpedo was sighted as it approached the ship off Okinawa, the ship made an emergency right turn, causing the torpedo to prepare to cross the bow about 30 feet ahead of the ship. The torpedo then took a sharp left and followed down the entire port side of the ship. It took a while for hearts to stop pounding when it passed.

The cruiser survived Kamikaze planes as well as suicide boats. One of the crew's most hazardous assignments was to assist the heavy Australian cruiser, Canberra, dead in the water from a direct torpedo hit off the coast of Formosa. In heavy seas, in enemy waters, with 200 Japanese planes in the vicinity, the Wichita towed the Canberra 80 miles off the coast and 175 miles from battle. It took 40 hours. At one point, Japanese planes spotted them and sent up flares to alert other ships and planes. It is no wonder that Alexander marvels at their safe passage through those perilous waters.

The Wichita was a gallant ship, and when it sailed into San Francisco harbor after its duty in the Pacific was over, Bob Alexander had to be one of the happiest sailors aboard. His ship had become their Magic Carpet, not only for the crew but for their passengers of 788 enlisted men and 141 officers.

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