Action from the Signal Bridge from the "Weather" Side by Aerographers Mate 3/C Charles Prazenica
I boarded the West Virginia in San Pedro, CA on August 26, 1944, and we headed for Hawaii. On the way we practiced AA firing and big 16 inch gun firing. I had never seen or heard 16 inch guns firing; they rattled my whole body.
We stopped in San Diego then headed west quickly. All new hands like me had to get ourselves "squared away" and get down to business. I was assigned an office/cabin (probably the only enlisted sailor with his own private quarters). It was great and pretty well stocked with almost all the weather reporting equipment and materials I would need. I was quite surprised that they would pick me for the fleet and ship weather person, as I had no schooling on this subject except what I learned in my science class. However, my time aboard the cruiser US S Richmond on duty in the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska, between Russia and Japan, was a good learning area for me. The first class aerographer, Fred Noyes, being my teacher, was great. He had a lot of knowledge and books for me to read. He made me draw up weather maps and decode weather reports from our "subs" and secret stations on various islands. The weather was terrible, snow, wet, cold winds blowing, and rough seas.
To begin my first day aboard the WeeVee I met the "navigator", Commander Sugarman. What a nice man. He was so helpful and understanding. I needed the many blank weather maps that he got for me to plot the weather systems and gave me a free pass to go ashore at any base the "WeeVee" docked or anchored. I got what supplies I thought I may need to do my job. This was great as I could smuggle aboard "booze". He liked bourbon -- any kind! I also checked out the canteens for fresh goodies like ice cream, maple bars, and bacon and fried egg sandwiches. I also looked for anything special at the ship stores (canteen) that some of the more friendly "mates" or officers wanted. We all got acquainted in each group we belonged to. We checked into our "muster station" location (to make sure you were still on board or if you just decided to jump overboard and die -- which a few did) everyday at a certain time except during any general quarters and you were checked there.
I met the ships photographer first class Simon Manzler and became his assistant "Photog" during any air defense or general quarters. He gave me a still camera and movie camera to use. He was a great friend and I have been still trying to find him for years. He processed a lot of pictures of the "WeeVee's" life after Pearl Harbor.
We stopped in Hawaii for a few days of "liberty". Then headed for western stops. We crossed the international dateline and had our crossing the equator "Polywog" ceremonies getting all our hair cut off or messed "cut-up" (plenty of bald heads with sore bottoms running around the ship). The ship stopped in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for this great tradition and crazy sailors were allowed swimming (the marines patrolled the area for sharks -- just in case one was hungry). The ship kept up its gunnery drill, shooting at air targets towed by the army or navy patrolling the seas.
I finally had to get my weather reports out as we no longer depended on info from Hawaii, so I had to do all the weather reporting and plotting. I had to have the "secret" code books along with the books I had to decode weather reports, as I would plot them on my blank weather maps which were approximately 36" x 48". First of all I had access to the radio shack and had the radio operator pick up and type out all the info sent out by one of the radio stations -- Army/Navy/Marine bases -- at a certain time. These would come out in five number sequences (31792, for example). I would have the key numbers to decode what they meant -- for instance, latitude and longitude, time of report, wind speed, clouds, temperature, sea condition, etc. However, my first encounter was with the Communications Officer, as he would not release the code books or let me have the radio messages. He told me to get lost! Anyway I went to Commander Sugarman and advised him of my problem and what the Communications Officer said. He really got hot under the collar then gave Comm. Officer "what for". After that I got anything I asked for and the Comm. Officer apologized. He was more friendly later. I got to be an expert at decoding those reports. Even if they came garbled up, I could still figure out what info was sent, to make up my forecast for the next two-three days and still have a good weather synopsis ready for the "Nav" Commander Sugarman and the Captain, H. V. Wiley (nicknamed "High Velocity" Wiley). Wiley was a wonderful gentleman, kind and understanding. He knew a lot about the weather and caught me in some errors -- but he was caring and understanding, as he was involved in airships (blimps) and survived several crashes and still suffered some pain from them. He would look over the map drawings and my synopsis and agree/disagree on what was happening weather-wise. We had the admiral and his staff aboard and I had to answer to them, also. My predictions ran usually 90 to 100% accurate which the Captain said was very good, since the ship was constantly changing course and sometimes I had to guess where we would be 24 hours later. We encountered squalls and some water spouts on the way to Manus Island in the Admiralties during which time we lost one of our scout planes. For some reason something went wrong and it never returned -- a mystery still. He was the only pilot who was always interested in the weather. The plane flew out a 100 miles angle search pattern and may have been surprised by the Jap fighters in the area and could not get a message out.
On October 12, 1944, the fleet assembled and met up with many ships, cargo, LST, destroyer, carriers, you name it, as we headed for the invasion of the Philippines, Leyte Gulf. However, a giant storm was developing in the area and was in our way. According to the slim weather information and secret code breakdown the fleet may be in deep trouble. I stayed up 24 hours working on the weather maps and my prognosis showed that a bad storm was going to cross our path. But the info I received was old and very garbled. I used my gut feeling and filed my report after talking to Commander Sugarman on what info I could plot, as ships were under no radio contact whatsoever. All silence and use flags and signal lights at a minimum. The wind and clouds started to get stronger and darker and the barometer started to fall rapidly, indicating a storm was coming. I told Commander Sugarman that winds to 75 knots are shown and could possibly be stronger and we should do an emergency storm protection, just in case. However, this did not happen soon enough because by 4:00 A.M. the wind was blowing so hard and raining buckets, the waves and swells were gigantic almost like the "end was coming". We lost our two search planes, as they were torn off of the catapults. When I saw this I thought I was going to be hung from the yard arm. Gusts of winds were peaking 100 knots. Some of the smaller ships were taking on water and running out of fuel. I mentioned to Commander Sugarman about the weather for fueling and the destroyers may have problems with no fuel in their tanks.
The storm would last for two days in the direction we were headed and on a zigzag course. Comm. Sugarman said the lighter ships would have to use sea water for ballast. I showed Sugarman my skimpy reports and told him I could not get the radio shack to get my weather data, as the comm. officer said he was too busy. This teed off Sugarman and he read the riot act to him about this, as it may have caused conflicting reports and possibly plenty of damage to all ships. Captain Wiley was on my case about this and Comm. Sugarman explained the problem with data. This attitude changed with Communications. Now I was on the communications officer's crap list, but this changed quickly after I told Comm. Sugarman of his attitude toward me. I mentioned to Sugarman that I did not need another war to get my job done. Anyway he was transferred to another ship, thank goodness. The new communications officer was super. After the storm, the Admirals Staff appreciated my reports more as I was also doing sea conditions and wave reports for landings of troops.
In Leyte Gulf I was on deck watching us blast the Japs with 16 inch guns and the shocks from the guns would almost knock you down. The "Wee Vee" blasted a Jap Battleship and we could see it explode. The "Wee Vee" suffered a few near hits but no major damage. I was afraid we were going to get nailed. The Lord was watching out for us. Early in the morning junk and bodies were floating everywhere. The smell was sickening. The Jap kamikazes kept coming and kept hitting the Australian Cruiser "Australia" also. The battleship "California" and "New Mexico" were hit on also. "Wee Vee" was lucky as they came close but missed us.
The Admiral and staff (Rear Admiral Ruddock) came back aboard, and we headed for the Palaus Islands, Sulu Sea and the island of Mindoro to cover troop landings. We then spent Christmas at Kollol Roads (1944). On New Year's Day Rear Admiral Sowell took command of this force (TG77.2).
A twin engine Kamikaze hit the carrier "Ommaney Bay". She was burning badly and abandon ship they did. We picked up some survivors and then our destroyers sank her quickly. The Kamikazes had good aim this time as many ships were being hit. Leyte Gulf, Sulu Sea, Surigao Straits, Lingayen Gulf, all important places. The Jap battleships "Fuso" and "Yamasihro" both blew up and headed for Davey Jones Lockers Deep Six. "WeeVee" nailed the Yamasihro good. While doing bombardment the "WeeVee" hit ground and messed up her propellers (screws). The flag left and I stayed on. We headed for Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. A floating drydock, big enough for a battleship, was housed here. The propellers (screws) were repaired and some parts of the ship were repainted, and the ship was resupplied after a few days. The "WeeVee" headed for Manus Island, then to the Philippines, and Leyte Gulf, for more war duty. On November 25, again the Kamikazes came and the "WeeVee" shot some down. However, our ships were lucky, none were hit.
On completing bombardment and air defense of the Gulf, the "WeeVee" headed for Ulithi (Beer Island). It was rushed into refueling and was resupplied with food and ammo. The "WeeVee" rushed to Iwo Jima (the Admiral Chester W. Nimitz sent "WeeVee" as "well done"). On February 19 "WeeVee" approached Iwo Jima and prepared to bombard her. The 16-inch guns really gave the Japs something to hide from. I could see the blasts on the island and Mount Suribachi. Later we could see the flag the Marines put on top of the mountain. This was really a site. The Kamikaze were at it again and many were shot down, although some of our ships were hit also.
On March 4 we went back to Ulithi Island for supplies and ammo. On March 21 we headed for Okinawa to cover landings and gun support. The Kamikaze were furious this time. They came in many groups. The danger of mines were also a problem as a few of our ships found out. The sky was black with gun bursts and some of the flak was falling on the "WeeVee". Simon Manzler, the ship photographer, was getting plenty of film on this episode -- as I was with still shots. We had a large explosion near our fantail. A suicide bomber (baca bomb), a sort of jet Kamikaze, luckily missed his mark or "WeeVee" would have had it for sure.
On April 1 we were at it again and so were the Kamikazes, dozens of them weaving through the ships looking for a target. This time we were not so lucky. One looped into the superstructure deck near the secondary fire director tower, killing four men and wounding many others. I helped fight the fire as the guns had to keep firing. We were lucky the bomb broke loose and did not explode, and the dead Kamikaze pilot ended up in the mess hall soup pot. Simon and I had photos of the dead pilot's head in the pot which was almost cut in half. He and all the junk from the plane were dumped overboard along with the disarmed bomb. As a result, my weather office on the outside had scratchings on it from the Kamikaze and the deck was a little buckled. I was knocked down from the blast of the crash and quickly joined Rescue and Firefighting (as we all had been trained for). The day continued and lunch was tomato juice and spam sandwiches. But the next few days the meals were back to normal and the damaged areas were repaired quickly.
The Kamikazes kept coming and ships and carriers were getting hit badly and blowing up and sinking -- a sickening feeling, all those sailors getting killed instantly. It was hard to concentrate on doing my job and seeing ships on fire and exploding. As days went on the Kamikazes stopped coming in groups. It seemed like the Japs were just putting anything together that could fly.
On June 16 one of our ship's spotter planes was shot down and the pilot and gunner were presumed dead or killed by the Japs. On July 1 new replacements came aboard (one being mine). "WeeVee" headed for Okinawa on August 3, then on August 6 the "A" bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and three days later on Nagasaki. By this time I was relieved of duty in U.S.A., as the point system was being used for duty time and I had enough points to be transferred home. On August 10 the "WeeVee" received messages that the Japs wanted to surrender. However, on August 12 the BB38 Pennsylvania was torpedoed but able to continue. The war ended on August 15, 1945. President Truman declared September 2, 1945 "VJ Day" as the Japanese surrender was signed aboard USS Missouri. I was put on the battleship New York heading for California and discharge, December 21, 1945.
On August 24, 1959 USS West Virginia was sold to the scrap yard for junk. A sad day for a great ship that died (at Pearl Harbor) and came to live again and serve her country proudly with great honor and dignity. I was proud to be a part of this history. I will never forget.
To sum it all up, I was a 17-year old kid, still wet behind the ears. I felt I would soon be drafted. I was graduated early for trade school studying engineering. Until my 17th birthday in July of 1942, I continued to manage a gasoline service station while the owner was drafted into the army. He was wounded in late 1942 and discharged.
I joined the navy in September of 1942, spent 30 days in boot camp at Great Lakes (Chicago), sent home on 7 days leave, then to San Francisco (Treasure Island), then sent to Panama Canal zone to board the USS Richmond (CL9) -- a light cruiser. We patrolled south to Peru and Chile coastal waters. I saw German ships scuttled in the harbor in Lima, Peru and Chile. We had some shore leave and went by the German (Nazi), Italian and Jap embassies. This was my first look at the enemies, a scary sight.
The Richmond was later dispatched to the Aleutian Islands to patrol and protect the Islands and Alaska. My first encounter with the Japs was a recon plane that tried to bomb us off of Dutch Harbor. Luckily, he missed us almost -- some bomb fragments hit the ship. He was driven away by A/A gunfire. It was a scary day for me watching from the bridge. The Richmond had other engagements with the Jap Navy in the Aleutians area.
As for me, I was in training for aerographer's mate (weather) and with Admiral Baker's staff for a year or so and then transferred to USS West Virginia. I had to mature and learn fast in the training and I was glad I did ? an 18?year?old sailor with some battle experiences , weather experiences and working with the Admiral's staff. When I boarded the "WeeVee" (BB48), I was surprised to have my own cabin/quarters. This gave me many privileges -- such as first in the chow line any time, first in the barber shop, first to go ashore at almost any base that had weather item supplies. It was a great life. I did my best to satisfy the captain and navigator. It was an experience. I can never forget the things that happened: the battles; the bombardment; shooting down Jap Kamikazes; the Kamikaze hit on the "WeeVee"; the dead and wounded shipmates; the fire burning on the ship; the wounded frogmen taken aboard with legs and arms missing; the rescue of sailors (from sinking ships) who were covered with black oil (fuel) and blood.
The "Weevee" helped rescue American war prisoners from Manila Stadium upon seeing how battered, bruised and starved they were. Some had fingers, arms, hands, and backs broken from being tortured by the Japs. This was a sickening sight. We had a few good days when USO gangs came to entertain us. Jackie Cooper came to play the drums with a group called "Clyde Thornhills' Raiders". He did a good show. Then on the way to Iwo and Okinawa, we stopped to bombard a few islands. The Jap Navy was being destroyed and the "A" bombs were dropped.
The Navy had a point system for combat action and these counted for sailors being sent back to "good ole US of A" for discharge. I was one of those with a lot of points and sent to Hawaii for patrol duty until all my papers were in order. Captain Wiley gave me a recommendation for V-12 Officers Training School. This was great, but for some reason, like getting married, I changed my mind. I settled in Southern California and went to school under the "GI Bill" and got a job with Pan American Airways as mechanic and trip supervisor flying around "you guessed it" the South Pacific.
I spent a total of thirteen years in the Navy and Reserves at Los Alamitos Air Station near Long Beach doing weather instruction. I was very fortunate and lucky to survive. I would do it again for my country, anytime! The "WeeVee" traveled over 60,000 nautical miles to get even after being raised from the dead in Pearl Harbor. The "WeeVee" and crew did better than just get even -- we won a great battle. My prayers and thoughts are for my shipmates that gave their lives and those wounded who still suffer.
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