Voices from the Pacific War Voices from the Pacific War

Oral Histories

Bill Lewis: USS Breese and USS Latimer

(Bill Lewis--far left)

Mr. Bill Lewis was born in 1919 in Esparto, California. His father was also born in Esparto where he worked all his life as a hired farmhand. After his retirement from the Navy in 1962, Mr. Lewis continued to go to sea as a merchant marine officer until the 1970s, when he returned to Esparto where he lives today. Mr. Lewis first served aboard USS Breese, originally commissioned as a destroyer in 1918. It was recommissioned as a light minelayer (DM-18) in the early 1930s. In 1939, Breese joined Mine Division Five Battle Force and saw service from Pearl Harbor until the end of the war.
Latimer was commissioned in 1944 as a fast troop transport. She served throughout the rest of the war and saw service until 1960, when she was made part of the mothball navy. Today, she is berthed in Mobile, Alabama.


My grandparents moved to Esparto from Missouri. My father was born about two miles from where I live now, and my mother was born in nearby Woodland. I grew up in Esparto during the depression–the bad years. Now, I wonder if those were the bad years or these are the bad years. We had more freedom back then, and there weren’t as many people. I didn’t graduate from high school. Things were pretty rough. I went to Woodland and did odd jobs to survive. When the chance came for me to go into the service, I took it. 
I went into the Navy on 7 July 1939 and did my boot camp in San Diego. After boot camp I was sent to the destroyer base in San Diego and helped put the USS Breese back into commission in September 1939. I was a seaman at the time, but later went into the engineering department. I was in the boiler rooms at first, and that is when I was designated a machinist mate.
Our captain was Alexander Bacon Cox. He was a lieutenant commander then. In fact, I talked to him by phone just a few years ago. He was an academy graduate and retired as a captain. He was a real good ship handler and a good captain. He was an all-around good seaman, is what he was. I stayed with the Breese as long as he did, and I came back to the States in March 1944 for new construction. He left the ship about fifteen minutes after I did for a new command.
We operated out of a new base in Astoria, Oregon, doing Neutrality Patrols. Neutrality Patrols were done as a sort of safekeeping to make sure no foreign warships came into American waters. We were primarily concerned with German submarines at that time, but we never saw any.
Then in 1940, Lt. Gen. Buckner and Capt. Ralph Parker of the navy came aboard, and we went to the Aleutians on an inspection of American bases up there. We went up there to see what could be done about coastal defense. We stopped at Seward, Dutch Harbor, and Kodiak. While we were in the inland passage, going up to Ketchican one night, we collided with a small Japanese fishing boat. There was only one man aboard the fishing boat, and I can’t remember if it was Gen. Buckner or Capt. Parker, but one of them jumped aboard the Japanese fishing boat. This happened at night, and I think they just wanted to see if any damage had been done in case the Japanese wanted to make a big deal of it. But I don’t think much damage was done to either the ship or the boat and I never heard any more about it. We came back to the West Coast after the inspection tour and stayed there until December 1940, when we went to Pearl Harbor and operated out of there until the Japanese attacked in December 1941.
Even before the war we operated under wartime conditions; it was darkened ships at night.

About ten days or two weeks before the war started we were on patrol off Hawaii when we went to general quarters. We had spotted a Japanese submarine on the surface. It was at night and the moon was out big and bright. My battle station was up on the 3-inch antiaircraft gun, and I went there from the engine room. The submarine submerged and we never saw it again. 
On 7 December 1941, the war started. I had been manning one of the liberty boats the night before and had been in my bunk only about four hours when general quarters sounded. I got out of my bunk grumbling about why we were having a drill on a Sunday. Just as I went through the hatch on the starboard side I could see the Utah rolling over. She was tied up where the carriers normally tied up over on Ford Island. I went to my battle station on the 3-inch gun and watched as a Japanese mini-submarine surfaced inside the harbor. Then it went down. It is said that the destroyer Cunningham sank it, but I thought it was the Dale, another tin can. Whichever tin can it was dropped depth charges on it, but it was so shallow in there that it was the screws from the ship that hit it and caused it to sink.
In those days we set the fuses on the shells by hand, and everything was done by rote. An officer told you what to do and you did it. There was one fellow on the gun who was supposed to set the fuses, but he kept saying, “Where is Mr. Barbee? I don’t know what fuse setting to make.” Mr. Barbee was the officer who was in charge, but he wasn’t there, so I took the wrench and started setting the fuses on the shells for half-second and one-second. With those settings the shells would no more than get out of the barrel and they would explode. But we were given credit for shooting down a Japanese plane with those settings. The Jap planes came right over our bow where I was. They were so low I could see the pilots. They flew over us to get at the battleships at Ford Island.
I guess it was about three hours later that we got underway and left the harbor. We were shorthanded because a lot of our people were still on the beach. We patrolled off Diamond Head for about seven days before coming back in. I know we were pulling four-on-and-four-off watches because we were shorthanded. We continued patrolling in the waters around Hawaii until the following spring when we were sent down to Canton Island to help pull off a ship that had gone aground there. 
In the early part of the war we received word that the Japanese were using French Frigate Shoals, northwest of Hawaii, to supply their submarines. Four of us minelayers, the Breese, Pruitt, Tracy, and Sicard, were sent up there to lay mines. We laid our mines, and as we finished the whole mine field blew up. Faulty mines is probably what it was. But then we had to go back and relay the field, but as far as I know they never sank any ships.
We came back to Pearl Harbor and were there only a short time when the Battle of Midway took place. We didn’t do any fighting, but when the Yorktown went down we picked up some of the survivors and took them back to Hawaii. After that we went down to the New Hebrides to help set up a base there on Espiritu Santo. We laid mines all around Espiritu Santo, and I don’t know why but the destroyer Tucker tried to come into the harbor through the mine field instead of through the marked entrance and was sunk by our own mines.
We laid mine fields all through the Solomon Islands, all the way up to Vella Lavella. We laid mines around New Georgia, Bougainville, Rendova, and Vangunu. The idea was to lay the mines where we thought Japanese ships would come with supplies and troops for the various islands in the Solomons. We laid mines off New Georgia one night, and the next day a PBY saw a bunch of Japanese transports and destroyers come through there. There were seven ships in all, and they all hit the mines we laid and were either sunk or badly damaged. 
As minelayers we would go single file in to an area where we wanted to lay mines. Then we would line up abreast and start laying our mines in a pattern and at different depths. Each ship carried over eighty mines apiece. They were submersible types and had three parts. There was the anchor, the explosive ball, then a float that when hit released the mine, which would then float up and hit the ship. They were all contact mines. 
Whenever we laid a mine field its location went out to all of our ships so they would know where it was and to avoid it. That is why I don’t understand how the Tucker wandered into the field we laid around Espiritu Santo. As far as I know those mine fields stayed where they were until the war was over, then mine sweepers went in to clear them. The mine sweepers were kept busy long after the war was over.
We saw a lot of the night battles that took place in the Solomon Islands. We were at Kula Gulf when the Helena was sunk, but we were pretty lucky; we always seemed to be on the edge of things when they happened.
I think it was in April 1944 that I received orders back to the States for new construction. I was sitting on my sea bag up on deck waiting to leave the ship when Capt. Cox leaned out of the bridge and said, “Lewis, where do you think you’re going?” I said, “I got orders to go back to the States.” He said, “You aren’t leaving this ship before I do.” So I stayed aboard for about another thirty days before leaving, which was about fifteen minutes before the captain did. 
I arrived back in the States in June 1944, right after the landing in Normandy. I put theLatimer into commission and we stayed around the States until October 1944. I made chief machinist mate while on the Latimer
While we were off Okinawa one day I was in the chiefs’ mess having a cup of coffee when general quarters was sounded. Just as I was stepping through the hatch to go down to the engine room a kamikaze hit so close to our stern that it knocked the packing loose from around the propeller shaft, and as the shaft turned it all came out and we started taking enough water that we had to use our bilge pumps. We had to go back to Pearl Harbor after that. It seems both ships I was on during the war were real lucky; neither ship lost anybody. 
While the Latimer was in Pearl I was transferred to a destroyer being built in the States. However, before the ship was put into commission the war ended. I had extended my enlistment, so I couldn’t get out when the war ended, and besides I liked the navy. The navy was good to me. I made a lot of mistakes. One of them was I didn’t take an offer to jump from chief to lieutenant (j.g.). I probably could have gone right up the ladder if I had. I didn’t have a high school education but I studied a lot and I learned a lot. If it hadn’t been for the navy I wouldn’t be where I am today. The only thing around Esparto was farming, and that is about the only thing there is around here today. In my day, either you stayed around here and worked as a farm laborer and retired on Social Security, or you moved on to something else. Besides, my parents couldn’t afford to keep me around. I moved back to Esparto in 1974 and did some farming. I came back and started doing what I originally tried to get away from.