Clayton Helgeson served with the Army in Europe during World War II.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The United States had not yet been drawn into the second world war, but American soldiers and sailors were already busy preparing for what seemed the inevitable.
In an age before the word “sonar” had come into common usage, Kenai veteran Sam Huddleston recalls being aboard the four-stack destroyer USS Breckenridge, testing “sound gear” off Key West, Fla., and actually sinking a German U-boat.
Clayton Helgeson, an Army veteran who lives in Soldotna, was involved in secret testing in a California desert, hoping to “turn night into day” with an experimental Army tank whose most powerful “gizmo” was a system of 13,000 candle-watt lights designed to blind the enemy.
Earl Jones, who now resides at the Vintage Pointe Manor senior housing center in Kenai, entered the Navy after the United States was already involved in the war. He was at home with his wife and two children in Minneapolis in 1944 when he received his draft notice.
The three men, now all in their 80s, vividly recall details of their military service during the war that ended 60 years ago, and the three have one common thought they never want to do it again.
The Battle of Santa Cruz
Huddleston had always dreamed of seeing the ocean. He had always wanted to be in the Navy.
In 1939, two years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dragged the United States into World War II, he signed up in Texarkana, Ark., went to boot camp in Norfolk, Va., and was trained as an electrician.
His first duty assignment was aboard an old World War I destroyer, doing neutrality patrol from Nantucket Light to Block Island off New England.
Still maintaining a neutral position, the United States then sent the USS Breckenridge to Panama, where the patrols continued.
Not much happened during the next two years other than losing some depth charges at sea during a heavy storm, and almost running into a foreign freighter that was running without lights to avoid being detected by German patrol boats.
The Breckenridge was then sent to Key West to take on some sound gear, according to Huddleston.
“We spent some time fooling around with one of our subs,” he said.
“Then, we were still fooling around, and we picked up another sound.
“The skipper dropped some depth charges,” Huddleston said, and the German U-boat was hit.
Huddleston said he saw oil and debris come to the surface from the enemy sub, but never saw any survivors or bodies.
Following the war, the German government reported that a U-boat went missing while patrolling near Florida, at the time the Breckenridge was there running sonar tests.
After leaving Key West, Huddleston was reassigned to the battleship USS South Dakota, a “war wagon” with nine 16-inch guns on three turrets, two forward and one aft.
When he first arrived at the shipyards outside Camden, N.J., Huddleston said the new battleship was not yet finished and reporting sailors were put up in a nearby hotel until onboard accommodations were completed.
To this day, Army veteran Helgeson teases the veteran sailor about the Navy getting hotel rooms while the Army slept on the ground in sleeping bags. Even tents were considered a luxury to the “ground pounders.”
The South Dakota was commissioned March 20, 1942, and following shakedown cruises completed in June, she transited the Panama Canal headed toward the Tonga Islands.
The 680-foot ship hit an uncharted reef, however, and had to make way to Hawaii for repairs before her eventual deployment to the South Pacific.
Huddleston said he remembers sailing right into Pearl Harbor and seeing “a lot of rebuilding going on.”
The base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been attacked by Japanese war planes nine months earlier, and Huddleston said they could still see what remained of the battleships USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma.
Following a month of repairs, the South Dakota sailed on Oct. 12, 1942, with Task Force 16, built around the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.
The ships were to meet up with Task Force 17, centered on aircraft carrier USS Hornet, to sweep the Santa Cruz Islands and then move southwest to block any Japanese forces heading toward Guadalcanal.
“The Japanese fleet located us and sent planes to bomb us,” Huddleston said.
The Hornet was damaged, and as the South Dakota was nearby providing anti-aircraft support from its many guns, it, too, attracted the attention of attacking Japanese dive bombers.
“We shot down 26 planes in the operation (which became known as the Battle of Santa Cruz), and took one bomb,” said Huddleston.
A 500-pound bomb hit the ship’s number one turret, doing little damage to it, but sending a storm of shrapnel that damaged two guns of turret number two, positioned just aft of the lead turret.
“I was in number two turret, down on the electrical deck,” Huddleston said.
The Electrician First Class couldn’t see anything from deep inside the ship, but he recalls wearing head phones that allowed him to hear all the action.
“I was scared,” he said.
Fortunately for Huddleston and the 2,500-man crew of the battleship, the attack only took the life of one sailor.
American fighter planes, which also had detected the location of the Japanese fleet, sent three enemy aircraft carriers to the bottom of the sea.
Secret Army tank maneuvers
Fresh out of college at Washington State where he majored in horticulture, Clayton Helgeson signed up for the Army in 1942.
A critical need of the Army at that time besides infantrymen was mess cooks. The Army tried to entice Helgeson, but his mind was set on communications.
“The only thing they had then was Morse code,” Helgeson recalls, and he managed to land a communications assignment.
Following his basic training at Camp Rucker, Ala., the young recruit was sent to Fort Knox, Ky., for further training with an armored tank unit.
“We all had to sign a sheet saying we couldn’t talk about the tanks to anyone. We couldn’t say a word,” Helgeson said.
“We were told we could be shot if we talked about it.”
The 736th Tank Battalion was equipped with M-3, medium tanks fitted with extremely bright lights in place of the customary 76 mm cannon.
The unit trained at night in the California desert, waiting for orders to deploy to the European Theater of combat operations.
Finally the order came. The 736th was to go to Camp Shanks, N.Y., where they would board the Queen Elizabeth luxury liner, which had been converted for use as a troop transport.
For the next eight days, Helgeson was among 5,000 troops making the voyage to Glasgow, Scotland.
Though many became seasick, Helgeson said he never did, but he remembers being ever mindful of an enemy submarine that was reported trailing them across the North Atlantic.
“The sub never caught us, though. The Queen Lizzie was too fast,” he said.
His tank battalion was among the 150,000-plus service men being amassed for the D-Day invasion of France as Allied troops were to break the iron-fist grip the Germans held on Europe.
As June 6, 1944, approached, however, the 736th was stopped in its tracks not by Hitler’s Panzers, but by Gen. George S. Patton.
“He said we could be part of the D-Day invasion, but not as a secret battalion, only as a regular tank battalion,” Helgeson said.
Because the 736th Battalion’s tanks had their 76 mm cannons replaced with 37 mm cannons to make way for the high-powered lights, the unit needed to wait for replacement tanks to be shipped over from the States.
“We waited about three weeks to get the new tanks, and then we had to spend a couple of days cleaning out the cosmoline (a protective coating used to prevent ocean salt spray from corroding metal parts).
“We missed D-Day, but we did get to France,” Helgeson said.
In fact the 736th went ashore at Omaha Beach, one of the five beaches stormed by the Allies a few weeks earlier.
“It was probably the first week in August, and we went up into an apple orchard and waited for orders,” Helgeson said.
“We spent a month in our sleeping bags.”
The next orders sent the 736th to within 16 miles of Paris and within a couple of days, the tanks turned around and headed to Belgium and through Holland.
Helgeson recalls that the Dutch people were against the Americans being present in Holland.
“They would stand alongside the roads and kids would run up bringing you flowers,” he said.
In the middle of the bouquet, however, would be a hand grenade.
Though he himself was not wounded in the war, Helgeson said his unit lost “quite a few men” along the way to German tank units.
In one of the coldest, snowiest winters ever, the 736th became involved in what was to become the costliest battle of World War II to Americans.
The battle, which began as a German offensive in the Ardennes Forest on the German-Belgium border, involved 500,000 Germans, 600,000 Americans and 55,000 British more than 1 million troops between Dec. 16, 1944 and Jan. 25, 1945.
“During the battle, we were stopped dead in thick fog for 16 days,” said Helgeson.
“We had Germans right in with us.
He said some Germans even managed to infiltrate the Americans’ ranks with limited success.
“They spoke really good English, but they didn’t know about American baseball,” he said, explaining why many were captured.
He said he recalls the battle being right at Christmas time, and he remembers seeing a lot of frozen bodies German and American.
Once the battle was over, with 800 tanks lost on both sides, and the Germans falling short of their goal of reaching the Meuse River on the fringe of the Ardennes, Helgeson’s tank battalion was sent toward the Elbe River to join the 101st Infantry Division in a push toward the German stronghold of Berlin.
“We ended up not going into Berlin,” said Helgeson.
“It was decided to let the Russians take Berlin.
“We sat there (at the Elbe River) for three weeks,” he said.
During that period, Helgeson said many German soldiers came across the line to surrender to the Americans.
“They didn’t want to surrender to the Russians,” he said.
“We took our tanks and ran over their weapons.”
Following his experience in Europe, Helgeson was to be sent back to the States for amphibious training at Fort Ord, Calif.
The plan, he would learn later, was to prepare for an invasion of Japan.
On Aug. 6, 1945, U.S. planes dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, followed by a hydrogen bomb, Aug. 9, on Nagasaki.
The Japanese surrendered, and the invasion of Japan was called off.
‘They got ‘em shot up ... and
we fixed ‘em’
After receiving his draft notice in 1944, Earl Jones headed for boot camp in Farragut, Idaho, before he found himself sailing aboard a troop ship toward New Guinea.
Though he didn’t spend much time as a combatant, he witnessed a great deal of war’s destruction from his post as a carpenter on the repair ship USS Remus, a converted Landing Ship Tanks (LST).
With a deck bigger than a football field, at 400 feet by 75 feet, the Remus had a carpentry shop and machine repair shop on its lower deck, with a quonset hut set up on top.
“Our job was to repair amphibious craft,” said Jones.
“They got ‘em shot up, and they would come back down and we fixed ‘em up,” he said.
Jones spent most of his time on the Remus anchored in Lusack Island Harbor in the Philippines.
“One time, after Okinawa, about 15 ships came back all shot up and listing to one side.
“I remember, I thought, ‘Oh, we’re losing this thing,’” Jones said.
Once, when the Remus was sailing between the Philippines and New Guinea with a tank deck in tow, the tow cable broke and had to be reattached.
“The convoy wouldn’t wait for us,” he said.
“They kept going and we were out there all by ourself.”
Fortunately the repair ship was not shot at.
On occasion, when the enemy did come around dropping bombs, “they always picked out something bigger than us,” Jones said.
Work brought all
Like Helgeson, construction brought Jones to Alaska following the war.
A member of the carpenters’ union before getting drafted, Jones continued on in the trade, helping to build military housing at Elmendorf Air Force Base, and then at Fort Richardson when it was being built.
He has been a card-carrying member of the union for 64 years.
Helgeson used his horticulture training in the nursery business in Checalis, Wash., for about three years following the war, but then went into the construction business driving a Caterpillar building roads, eventually coming to the Kenai Peninsula.
Though he retired from Cat driving, he still finds himself helping a friend on the job from time to time.
Huddleston headed back to Texarkana after the war, and then was off to electrical engineering school in Milwaukee.
It did not hold his interest, and a buddy talked him into trying his hand at farming in the Everglades in Florida.
They had 40 acres planted with mango trees and also grew tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and egg plant, but the lure of the sea tugged once again, and he was soon off serving in the Merchant Marine on oil tankers.
For the next 4 1/2 years, he sailed from Rio de Janeiro to the Persian Gulf, to Kuwait and Venezuela, bringing crude oil back to the United States for refining. Family brought him back ashore to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he worked for Reynolds Metals for 23 years.
Huddleston then responded to an employment ad for people to work on oil platforms off Norway in the North Atlantic.
The employer turned out to be VECO, and after those jobs were turned over to the Norwegians, the firm had a place for Huddleston on Cook Inlet platforms. He eventually retired at 71 years old and resides off Ciechanski Road with his wife, Billie.
Huddleston, Helgeson and Jones say they have no regrets for their time served during World War II, but none has had a desire to do it again.
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