World War II veterans reunite

Former crew mates of the USS Portland meet at the USS Juneau Memorial

Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2004

Some things are worth fighting for.

And that's a big reason that the USS Juneau, the World War II light cruiser memorialized on Juneau's downtown waterfront, is worth remembering, said veterans of its battle group Wednesday afternoon.

"World War II was a necessity," said Ray Eaton, one of six veterans of the heavy cruiser USS Portland who gathered at the USS Juneau Memorial.

The Portland and Juneau were last together on Friday, Nov. 13, 1942, for the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

Ted Waller worked his way from an apprentice seaman to chief boatswain's mate aboard the Portland from January 1942 to August 1946. He said his ship sustained the same torpedo damage as the Juneau that night. But a munitions magazine explosion ripped the Juneau in half, killing most of the crew. Fear of enemy submarines and sharks prevented rescue, leaving only 10 survivors from the Juneau. Waller now lives in Dallas.

"We had 1,200 men and only lost 18," he said of the Portland.

Mayor Bruce Botelho greeted the group with a proclamation declaring Wednesday USS Portland Day in the city. "We're proud to have you here," he said.

On the governor's behalf, chief of staff Jim Clark declared the week of May 24-31 as USS Portland Appreciation Week in Alaska.

Both proclamations pointed out that the Portland, known as Sweet Pea to its crew, earned 16 battle stars during the war. The ship went on to help liberate captured Alaska territory in the Aleutians.

"We might all be speaking Japanese today," Clark said.

The Juneau's sinking gained notoriety throughout the U.S. when it was reported the dead included the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa - Albert Leo, Francis Henry, George Thomas, Joseph Eugene and Madison Abel.

Five of the Portland veterans who remembered the Juneau came from the cruise ship Amsterdam, which was in town Wednesday.

One of the alumni greeted them: Bill Overstreet, a Juneau resident and Portland veteran who was sworn into the Navy on Nov. 13, 1942. He said his service as a seaman first class, deckhand and 20 mm machine gunner "prepared me well for jobs as school superintendent and mayor" in Juneau.

The Portland was part of battles including the Coral Sea, Midway, Okinawa and Corregidor and was designated by Admiral Chester Nimitz to accept the surrender of all Japanese Central Forces at Truk, Caroline Islands, on Sept. 2, 1945, the governor's proclamation stated.

Waller said last year's Portland reunion at Branson, Mo., was supposed to be the last. But a few of them decided to get together for an Alaska cruise this year.

"You love these guys," he said, looking around The Hangar on the Wharf during the reception after the official ceremonies.

Waller smiled when he was told the veterans looked like kindly grandfathers. "Most of us are over 80," he said.

Sixty years ago, the anti-aircraft gunner said, they did what they had to do, even though most were 18 or 19.

"You train for months," he explained. "You're scared going into battle. You react. You're not really there. They keep coming. We keep fighting back."

Eaton, who now lives in Seattle, recalled the attacks from the air. "You'd look up and you'd see a speck in the sky."

Waller said the planes would dive bomb or drop torpedoes, and then they saw their first kamikaze in the Philippines, later in the war.

Having gone through one war, Waller said he doesn't like to see young people go off to another.

"Any time you have to go to war, it's because our diplomats failed," Eaton said. He said some wars are a matter of choice and some wars are a necessity.

"World War II was a patriotic war," he said. People who weren't in the military were working in war-related industries.

"We were different," Waller said. He said he was raised to be patriotic and can't stand to see the way some football players react to the singing of the national anthem. "To me, when you play the national anthem, you stand at attention."

Fighting in defense of his country is something he would do all over again, he added.

"If our country was attacked by someone, I'd be the first in line to sign up," Waller said.

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