By Jack Sheedy
A little late, but the sentiment extends beyond one day…
It took two atomic bombs to sink her, my late cousin John said, proudly recalling the battleship USS Arkansas upon which he served during World War II. John was my grandmother’s cousin, so he was more like an uncle.
The Arkansas, known as “Arky” to her men, was a veteran of World War I, and by WWII was the fleet’s oldest battleship. Early on in the war she was assigned to protect convoys heading to the United Kingdom. Despite the success rate of the German submarines, no ships were lost under Arky’s protection.
Joining the Navy in 1944 just after his 17th birthday, John was aboard the Arkansas off Omaha Beach on June 6th of that year as the battleship shelled German positions in advance of Allied troop landings. He was among those assigned to Turret IV. Casting back across the span of half a century he could still recall the drowned US servicemen he helped pull from the waters.
I can still see their faces, he said, tears welling up in the eyes of the old man as he remembered young men whose lives were cut short.
The Arkansas remained in European waters, hitting German targets along the coast of France, at Cherbourg and later in the Mediterranean, before heading back across the Atlantic to Boston for an overhaul in preparation for continued service in the Pacific. Passing through the Panama Canal later in 1944, Arky headed along with other ships of the fleet toward a rendezvous at the island of Ulithi. Ahead rested Japanese strongholds and what would become battles forever etched upon the pages of history.
In February 1945, Arky shelled Japanese positions on Iwo Jima in preparation for the Marine invasion. While standing on deck John witnessed the flag being raised on Mount Suribachi. The months following found the Arkansas at Kerama Retto and Okinawa, providing bombardment in advance of US landing forces. Ports of call included Leyte and Guam. It was upon one Pacific island where John bumped into a relative from back home in Boston. Imagine the odds, he laughed.
Interestingly, the teenager was never alarmed by enemy artillery assaults again the ship at Normandy, in the Mediterranean, nor in the Pacific. Yet, the one threat that admittedly scared him was Japanese Kamikaze attack. Every evening the threat was imminent. A number of ships in the fleet were hit and one Kamikaze pilot nearly struck the Arkansas but anti-aircraft fire downed the plane just shy of hitting its target.
During September, with the Japanese surrender, the USS Arkansas’ mission shifted to that of support during the occupation of captured Japanese islands.
In January 1946 cousin John, Seaman Second Class, was honorably discharged to resume his civilian life, living and working in and around Boston. He re-upped for Navy service during the 1950s. Among his WWII ribbons, medals, citations, and letters of gratitude from the United States and from France are two notes that warrant special attention. One is from President Truman, which reads: “To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Armed Forces to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation.” The other is a homemade Veterans’ Day card from an elementary school child, received years later when he was an old man, thanking him for his service.
After the war, with a Cold War looming, the USS Arkansas was a participant in atomic bomb testing off Bikini Atoll in July 1946. Although she survived atomic test Abel, she proved no match for test Baker as its 23-kiloton “Helen of Bikini” bomb upended the ship, ripped her apart, and ultimately sent her to the bottom. A photograph taken of the mushroom cloud shows what is believed to be a vertical Arkansas in the lower column of the explosion.
As cousin John said, it did indeed take two atomic bombs to sink her.
Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.