Wineka column: Veteran looks back on key WWII invasions

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 10, 2011

SALISBURY — From his observation post on the USS LST-809, anchored off the beach at Iwo Jima, Walter Meyers saw the Japanese kamikaze plane coming right toward him.
But luckily so did the men on the guns of his landing ship. They peppered the suicide plane enough for it to strike the ship a glancing blow, spin down and hit the water.
“Thank goodness, or I wouldn’t be here right now,” the 89-year-old Meyers says.
Early this morning, while it’s still dark, friend Dale Wooten was to pick up Meyers at his home in Rowan County and travel to the Greensboro airport for the Veterans Day Flight of Honor to Washington, D.C.
The charter flight takes area World War II veterans to see their war’s memorial, which is between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
Other stops for the veterans will include Arlington Cemetery and, near the cemetery, the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, which depicts the Marines’ famous raising of the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi Feb. 23, 1945.
From the deck of his ship, more than 66 years ago, Meyers saw the flag go up.
But other images also have stayed with him from Iwo Jima.
He speaks of the bodies of Marines, floating in the water around his ship.
He remembers Japanese snipers entrenched in the nooks and crannies of Suribachi, taking potshots at the LSTs lined up along the beach.
He sees the huge bow doors of his ship opening and the Marines pouring onto the shore. Later came the vehicles, oil barrels, ammunition, lumber and other supplies.
The black volcanic sand of Iwo Jima made every step by the Marines more difficult.
At night and during bad weather, the U.S. ships would head for protective coves, and Meyers, as radar technician, helped to guide them into place.
When he wasn’t at his radar post, Meyers was on deck with binoculars looking for the suicide attack planes. An airfield on Iwo Jima, which was 4 miles long and only 8 square miles in size, served as the takeoff ground for kamikaze missions.
The U.S. Marines meant to capture the island to stop the attacks, while also giving them a base from which the Japanese mainland could be reached by B-29s.
Meyers had a front-row seat to some of the horrific fighting — lasting from Feb. 19-March 25, 1945 — that saw 6,800 American servicemen killed.
A third of all the U.S. Marine casualties during World War II happened at Iwo Jima. Historians say every inch of the island was a battleground, with an enemy entrenched in complex defense positions — spider holes, caves, crevices and warrens — that made the terrain a Japanese ally.
Some 70,000 Americans took on 23,000 Japanese defenders at Iwo Jima, considered one of the bloodiest fights of the war.
Meyers remembers his LST circling the island and that enormous rock that was Mount Suribachi for four days before finally making its landing.
After participating in the successful assault and occupation of Iwo Jima, Meyers’ LST-809 had a similar mission at Okinawa Gunto from April through June 1945. After the war — the Japanese surrender was signed Sept. 2, 1945 — Meyers’ ship performed occupation duty in the Far East until March 1946.
Meyers says much of the post-war duty involved going island to island and transporting uprooted Japanese families back home.
Meyers grew up in Great Lakes, Ill., and went to technical school in St. Louis after high school to become a machinist. That work led him to Fort Belvoir, Va., where he worked as a civilian in engineer research.
He enlisted in the Navy in May 1944, went to boot camp back in Great Lakes, took radar training and was on the maiden voyage of the LST-809 after it was built in Evansville, Ind., by the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co.
Launched Sept. 19, 1944, the ship traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and on to the Panama Canal and through to its missions in the Asiatic-Pacific theater.
Meyers recalls being part of convoys that zig-zagged over the Pacific Ocean — routine maneuvering to make them harder targets for suicide planes and submarine torpedoes.
His LST spent time in Hawaii, Guam and what became its home base of Saipan, after it was captured.
Beyond the fighting, little things bubble to the surface of a veteran’s recollections, especially on holidays such as this. Meyers was one of the few Navy men allowed to grow a beard after his face broke out in a serious rash when he tried to shave with laundry soap.
It hurt so much, Meyers says, he couldn’t put his face on the pillow when he tried to sleep at night.
He recalls another time when everyone on the ship, including officers, became terribly sick from eating moldy bread.
After the war, Meyers returned to his civilian job at Fort Belvoir, although he was upset that his previous position wasn’t held for him, meaning he had to repeat two years as an apprentice machinist.
He stayed at Fort Belvoir (outside of Washington, D.C.) for the rest of his working days, retiring in 1979. He made things such as night vision equipment, land mines and the outer skin to the first television camera.
Along the way, Meyers married Emma, who had grown up in Belgium and had lost a brother and sister in the war. They never had children.
At Fort Belvoir, Walter Meyers worked with a man named Guy Moose, who had been born and raised in Rockwell. On a visit to North Carolina to see Moose, Meyers decided on the spot to relocate.
“I said, ‘Man alive, I like this place better than Washington, D.C.,’ ” Meyers says.
The couple sold their home in Fairfax, Va., and moved to a cheaper, slower and safer way of life in Beaver’s Acres, he says.
Emma died three years ago at the Autumn Care nursing home.
Sharon Wooten, Dale’s wife and a music teacher at Corriher-Lipe Middle School, helped Meyers with his application for today’s Triad Flight of Honor, which is sponsored by Rotary District 7690.
Dale Wooten is going along as his guardian. On a recent Saturday, they had their pre-flight meeting and a great meal at Calvary Church in Greensboro.
As for today, Meyers was looking forward to every aspect of the trip, except one — the early wake-up call.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@