Voices from the Pacific War Voices from the Pacific War

Oral Histories


Master Chief Petty Officer Eberle

Mr. John J. Eberle was born and raised on a farm in North Dakota. He was one of twelve children, and during the Great Depression he served in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) before enlisting in the United States Navy in 1939. During his active duty career in the Navy he went from Seaman Recruit to Chief Petty Officer, later reaching the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer while serving in the Naval Air Reserves after World War II. Before and during World War II he served on three different aircraft carriers. He started his Navy career aboard the USS Enterprise, CV-6, and, after he Battle of Midway went to the USS Hornet, CV-8. After the sinking of the Hornet at the Battle of Santa Cruz Island in October 1942, he was assigned to various shore-based units, going to sea again in October 1944, aboard USS Altamaha, an escort carrier (CVE), ferrying planes from a South Pacific supply base to various units in the Pacific theater of war. He was attending an advanced aircraft mechanics school in Chicago when the war ended and was discharged from the regular Navy in December 1945, after six years and one month on active duty, but remained in the Naval Air Reserves until his retirement at Alameda Naval Air Station in 1976. Mr. Eberle now lives in Napa, California.

I had no special reason for joining the Navy. The government in those days had what they called the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and a buddy of mine who was in the CCC with me was anxious to join the Navy. He was the one who talked me into it. We went to a recruiting station in Minot, North Dakota, passed the preliminary tests, and then went to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the physical and further processing. I passed the physical but my buddy didn’t, and he was upset that I had passed and he hadn’t. I was reluctant to go without my buddy. See, in North Dakota most people go into the Army. The ocean and the Navy seemed so alien–so far away. Anyway, I decided to go in on my own. I don’t remember my buddy’s name and I never heard from him after that, but he changed my life. Everything that happened to me after that was because of him.
In November 1939, I joined the Navy and did my boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center and graduated in February 1940. In those days you could volunteer for different duty assignments. My idea of being in the Navy was to be on a cruiser or battleship as a deck hand. I had never been around aircraft, but one duty assignment was for Torpedo Squadron-Six (VT-6), which I thought would be torpedo duty on a battleship or cruiser. I volunteered for it and got it, but it turned out that Torpedo Squadron-Six was part of Air Group Six on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, home-ported in San Diego. In those days there were very few Navy training schools, so I became an aviation machinist mate through on-the-job-training. 
In boot camp, they were very strict, especially about the saluting, and not knowing anything about the Navy, I couldn’t tell an officer from a chief, and both officers and enlisted Marines wore the same uniform. Only the insignias were different. So when I went aboard the Enterprise I was saluting chiefs and enlisted Marines. Finally, a chief took me aside and said, “You are not in boot camp anymore. You only have to salute officers.”
In those days, besides being an aviation machinist mate, I had collateral duty as a rear seat gunner on a TBD, torpedo bomber made by Douglas Aircraft, called a Devastator. When the Enterprise was in port, our squadrons would operate out of North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego. We would often take off from the field at North Island in a three-plane formation. One morning we were getting ready to take off and one of the three planes was having trouble getting its engine started. I was in the rear seat of the X.O.’s (executive officer’s) plane, and we were waiting at the end of the runway ready to take off. On TBDs, when you lowered the wings you had to lock them manually. I guess the third plane didn’t want to keep the X.O. waiting and got in a hurry. When he got out to the end of the runway, he spread his wings but didn’t take the time to follow his takeoff checklist and failed to lock his wings. We took off and got out over San Diego Bay, and when I looked back I saw one wing start to come up on the plane that had delayed our takeoff. I called my pilot and told him one of the other planes had trouble, but it was too late. The plane went down and everybody aboard was killed.
We had eighteen planes in our squadron, and the plane that we lost was number eighteen. This same plane had been in several mishaps before this accident, so they replaced it with a new plane but gave it the number nineteen.
In early 1941, the home port of the Enterprise was changed from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. I had never been out of the state of North Dakota until I joined the Navy. So for me, Hawaii was a new experience. For example, I had never seen a pineapple before. Anyway, things were pretty routine in Hawaii before the war. We would go out and train Monday through Friday and have the weekends off, and liberty in Honolulu. We hardly ever went out without losing a few planes in flight deck accidents. We had spare planes hanging from the overhead of the hangar bay, and if we lost a plane, we took one down and used it as a replacement. 
Then on 28 November 1941, we left Pearl Harbor to deliver a squadron of Marine Corps fighter planes to Wake Island. Our estimated date of arrival back at Pearl was 6 December, but we hit a storm on the way back and were delayed by a day. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we were about two-hundred miles west of Pearl, and the Jap attack came from the north.
In those days we thought the Japs wouldn’t dare attack the U.S. Navy. They couldn’t see very well, and they had wooden airplanes–things like that, that’s what we thought. I was up on the flight deck on the morning of 7 December, and we started hearing rumors that the Japs had attacked Pearl Harbor, but most of us didn’t believe it. Earlier that morning we had sent some of our planes ahead to land at Ford Island. At about eleven that morning one of them came back to the ship with holes in its wings. He had arrived over Pearl after one of the attacks, and our anti-aircraft gunners were shooting at everything in the sky. The holes were from our own anti-aircraft fire. Then at about twelve noon it was announced that the Japs had indeed attacked Pearl Harbor. 
I was a second class aviation machinist mate by then, and the commanding officer’s plane captain. The C.O. of VT-6 was Lt. Cmdr. Lindsey. He was an Annapolis graduate and probably would have made admiral before the war was over if he hadn’t been killed at Midway.
On 8 December, we pulled into Pearl Harbor and saw the awful destruction. We stayed up all night to refuel and resupply our ship, then headed back out to sea the next morning. Originally, our mission was to go back to San Diego to pick up some replacement airplanes. However, after we got out to sea our orders were changed to stay in the area because the Japs were trying to block the entrance to Pearl Harbor with their subs. We had also taken aboard the body of an admiral who had been killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was put in our frozen food locker for transport back to San Diego, but with our change in orders we cruised around off Pearl Harbor for a couple of weeks with the admiral in the locker.
For the next couple months we made hit-and-run attacks on some Japanese-held islands.  We didn’t suffer any major damage during these raids, and the Japanese didn’t have anything we called kamikazes at this time, but there was one Jap plane that did try to crash into the Enterprise during one of these raids. I was on the flight deck and close enough to see the pilot and crew when they crashed into the catwalk on the aft-starboard side, then fell into the drink. Of course, we kept on going, and that was as close as I got to the enemy up to that time.
The Doolittle Raid:
In April 1942, we departed Pearl Harbor again, but we weren’t told what our mission was until we were at sea. We met up with the carrier USS Hornet, CV-8, and headed for Japan. The Hornet had B-25s on her flight deck, so they couldn’t conduct any flight operations [combat air patrols] and we were going along to provide fighter air cover for them until we reached the point off Japan where the B-25s would be launched for their raid on Tokyo. 
At about 0400 on 18 April when we were about six-hundred miles off the coast of Japan, reveille sounded, and then general quarters. Radar had spotted a Japanese patrol boat, and as the sun came up we could see it on the horizon. Our cruisers were firing at it and sunk it, but the fear was that it had already sent a message to Japan announcing our presence. So it was decided to launch the B-25s early. 
I watched as these Army Air Force planes took off. Instead of going all the way to the end of the flight deck before lifting off like most Navy planes did, some lifted off halfway down the flight deck. I guess they were afraid of ending up in the drink. It was a very windy day, which helped them all make it off safely. Then after all the B-25s were in the air, we turned around and headed back to Pearl at fullspeed because in those days the Japanese had a whole lot of ships, and we didn’t, and we were concerned by the possibility of being cut off by a superior enemy force. 
The Battle of Midway: 
Our next major engagement was the Battle of Midway in June 1942. I thought it was unusual in that it was put in the Plan of The Day that the Japs were going to attack Midway, and found out years later that we had cracked the Japanese Naval code, and that probably explains why it was in the Plan of The Day.
I was supposed to fly that day as a crew member of our squadron’s C.O., Lt. Cmdr. Lindsey, but because the planes were carrying torpedoes they wanted to keep them light. I was left behind and that saved my life, because the C.O.’s plane was shot down and all aboard were killed. Of the fourteen planes in VT-6 only four returned to the ship. Again, I feel fortunate for not having flown that day, and for having been at sea the day the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. 
Because we lost so many planes and pilots at the Battle of Midway, VT-6 debarked at Pearl and went to Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. We got new planes–the TBFs, a new torpedo plane made by Grumman, called the Avenger. We also took on some new pilots. Then in August 1942, after we had finished our training, we went aboard the Hornet and went out to the South Pacific, where we joined up with the carrier USS Wasp. 
The Battle of Cape Esperance–11-12 October 1942:
One afternoon while we were in the area of the Solomon Islands, supporting Marine Corps operations on Guadalcanal, we went to general quarters, and out in the distance I saw the Wasp burning. A Jap sub had torpedoed it and several other ships in our task force. We had been cruising in the same area for several days, and every morning Japanese land planes came out and observed our position. We shot down some of them, but I think they must have been setting us up for Japanese subs to come in and positione themselves for the attack. 
 It was ironic that the Wasp, which had been doing anti-submarine duty against the more dangerous German subs in the Atlantic, would be sunk by a Jap sub before it could even reach its new home port at Pearl Harbor.
In September 1942, I was advanced to first class aviation machinist mate. This meant more supervisory responsibility in aircraft maintenance, along with my plane captain duties. During this period the Navy also started making aircrew a full-time rather than a collateral duty. So from there on I would just fly enough hours a month to qualify for hazardous duty flight pay.
The Battle of Santa Cruz Island: 
On 26 October 1942, we had early reveille because we had spotted a large Japanese carrier force at about the same time they had spotted us, and we launched our planes. As a plane captain, my plane was my general quarters station, so after we launched our air group that morning a buddy and I went up to the forecastle, the open area between the flight deck and the hangar deck. In those days our carriers didn’t have what they called “hurricane bows” (the bow being contiguous from the hull to the flight deck). We went up there to watch the action. It was about ten that morning that about fifty-four Japanese planes hit us. My buddy and I were looking out ahead of the ship when we saw this Japanese plane coming right at us. I thought he was going to crash the island structure. As he got closer we laid down on the deck and over to one side. Our anti-aircraft fire was hitting the plane and must have damaged it, causing it to lose altitude. So instead of hitting the island structure, it hit the forecastle, right in between the flight deck and the hangar deck, where we were laying. The wings came off, and the engine and fuselage went through all the bulkheads in officers’ country and ended up in the forward elevator pit. When we stood up there were airplane parts on top of our bodies. We brushed ourselves off, and luckily neither one of us had a scratch. Later, we went and looked into the elevator pit and saw the pilot and crew still strapped in their seats, but all burned up.
The attack went on for about fifteen minutes. There were torpedo planes and dive bombers. A torpedo hit one of the engine rooms, and the Hornet lost power and stopped dead in the water. There were some fires, but no major ones. However, there was no water pressure, so we didn’t have any means of fighting the fires except with buckets. 
The ship developed about a fifteen-degree list. A cruiser tried to tow us, but a few Japanese land-based planes kept coming out and attacking the Hornet, and the towing had to be stopped because the cruiser was afraid of getting hit also. After about three tries, they finally gave up, and at about 1500 we were told to abandon ship. I then spent about three hours in the water and watched as Japanese land-based planes continued to attack the Hornet. I was finally picked up by a destroyer, and the reason we were in the water for three hours before being picked up was because the destroyers and other ships were busy circling and trying to provide fire support for the doomed Hornet.
I felt pretty safe on the destroyer because the planes were attacking the Hornet, but this one plane–it must have been a fighter–came by and strafed the destroyer I was on, and killed several Hornet survivors. We were all topside and were told to go below after that.
We were then taken to what they called a “survivors camp” in New Caledonia and put up in tents. We stayed there for about a month, then in December 1942 I came back to NAS, Alameda, California, on a Dutch cargo ship. I had temporary duty at Alameda before being sent up to the Bremerton Receiving Station in Washington State for reassignment. 
After a short stay in Bremerton, I was transferred to NAS Seattle, where I was made part of a newly formed composite squadron, VC-92, which was made up of a variety of bomber and fighter aircraft. And in June of that year I was promoted to chief petty officer at the age of 23. 
In September 1944, I was transferred to a naval aircraft maintenance unit, and we went aboard the USS Altamaha, an escort carrier. Our mission was to pick up planes and ferry them out to the fleet carriers. As an aircraft service unit, it was our job to clean up the new aircraft and get them ready for service. By that time in the war we had so much gear that if we lost fifty planes, they were easily replaced. It was in the early part of the war that we were short of everything. One time we were anchored in the lagoon at Ulithi and there were about one-hundred ships, including seven Essex Class carriers in there at one time. There were so many ships in there that one day a ship got hit by a submarine torpedo and we didn’t even go to general quarters.
The most terrifying thing I ever experienced during the war was when we got into a typhoon while aboard the Altamaha about two-hundred miles east of the Philippines in December 1944. It was probably my most memorable wartime experience, because it lasted such a long time. Most of the sea battles I was in were over in just a short while, but this typhoon lasted for about twelve hours. In the morning of 18 December, there were heavy overcast skies, but the air was calm. We launched some planes, then about 0900 it got too windy to continue. The wind velocity kept increasing and the ship started pitching and rolling. On this escort carrier the hangar deck was closed in and we had the whole ship loaded with new planes. There were about twenty on the flight deck, and about twenty on the hangar deck, and as the ship started pitching, some gas fumes started to accumulate on the hangar deck. Out of fear of a fire starting somebody decided to lower the forward aircraft elevator to vent out the hangar deck. At the same time, we had just put a plane on the catapult for launching when the winds picked up and they stopped the launch. About a half hour later this plane ripped loose from the catapult and fell down into the hangar deck upside down, and the fuel from the plane ran out and down the hangar deck. Fire retardant foam was sprayed all through the hangar deck, and it was pretty scary. It’s just lucky we didn’t have a fire in there.
As time went on, it actually got dark from the storm. All of the planes on the flight deck blew off, except one that hungup on the catwalk. With the forward elevator lowered, water that came over the flight deck washed down into the hangar deck.
At that time, the Navy did not have the capability to track typhoons, so the task force just cruised in place and let the typhoon pass. This meant that the ship would reverse directions about every halfhour. In making these turns, the ship would pitch and roll the most. Since there was nothing that could be done until the storm passed, I put on my life jacket and stayed in a compartment under the flight deck, moving from port to starboard as the ship changed direction, hoping that if the ship should capsize I could go overboard on the high side.
At about 1900 that evening the storm finally started to die down. The Navy suffered heavy losses as a result of that typhoon–over one-hundred airplanes and almost eight-hundred people lost on three destroyers that capsized.
In February 1945, I came back to San Diego and was assigned to C.A.S.U.-33 (Carrier Air Service Unit-33) at NAS Los Alamitos. In July 1945, I volunteered for Advanced Aircraft Maintenance School in Chicago. Here I was a chief and I was going off to one of the Navy’s technical schools for the first time in my Navy career. While I was there I got married. Then the war ended, and I was discharged from the regular Navy in December 1945. I had ninety days to make up my mind to reenlist if I wanted to keep my rate. It was a tough choice, because I really enjoyed my time in the Navy. So I decided to get out but stay in the Naval Air Reserves, which worked out all right. I made master chief while in the reserves and retired in 1976, and I really enjoyed my time in the reserves, too. And if it hadn’t been for that buddy of mine in the CCC, I would probably be a retired farmer in North Dakota right now.