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John Willey

John Willey, a native of Seaford, Delaware, served in the Navy during World War II. Born in 1921, John is currently 97 years old and recalls both Home Front and war time experiences. Prior to the war, John worked for a regional oil distributor, Peninsula Oil. In 1940, John married Virginia Elliott and had two children. He entered the service in 1942 and served until late 1945. After returning from the Pacific he continued his work for Peninsula Oil until his retirement. Mr. Willey currently resides in his hometown of Seaford, taking photographs of the town to compare with images from the past.

In this interview, Mr. Willey shares his experiences on the Home Front and the Pacific Theater. He remembers hearing about Pearl Harbor and having a distinct feeling that he would be involved in the War. After being drafted into the Army, he opted to join the Navy where he was a Seaman First Class. His time in the Navy is marked with a number of encounters with death, including multiple kamikaze attacks, the invasion of Okinawa, minesweeping in the Yellow Sea and surviving a typhoon with winds exceeding 120 miles per hour. John’s stories of life on an “oiler” complement his stories about rationing, blackouts and POWs back home in Seaford.

Air Raid and Kamikaze Attack

And from there we went up through the Philippines to Mindoro. Mindoro was an island south of Luzon, Luzon being the Northernmost Island in the Philippines. We pulled into a little cove or bay there. There were about five other ships, one of them was a tanker that had been burning for two days. Another was a merchant ship, another tanker. Thus came and put the anchor down. The old man had gone over to a meeting and word came to get out of there. So we pulled the anchor up and just got underway and three planes came over and the middle one dropped out and hit the merchant ship which happened to be an ammunitions ship and course that wiped it and all hands out. The other tanker was between us and the explosion and they’d lost some of their rigging and lifeboats and so forth. I didn’t see all of this, I was on the other side of the ship, but I felt it. I thought we had run aground be it the concussion. So we went out to another little island and hid overnight.

Naval Rank and a Proud Mother

What rank? Oh boy! I’m glad you asked that question. I got out of bootcamp and when you get out of bootcamp you automatically become Seaman First Class. So I wrote my Mother and said, “Well I’ve done something right, I am now Seaman First Class.” Mom didn’t get the joke and she went around the neighborhood saying “My son is now Seaman First Class.” I mean she would just proud as she could be, but I was the low man on the totem pole.

Confidence in Roosevelt and Truman’s Decision to Drop the Bombs

I had an awful lot of confidence, I was born and raised a Republican but everybody liked Roosevelt. They never showed anything degrading about Roosevelt. Everybody knew he was paralyzed but you never saw a picture of him leaning on his crutches, either behind the podium or sitting down or something– everybody liked Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt {inaudible}. And when he died I just thought I’m never gonna get home, you know. I thought that Old Harry Truman was a weak sister and would God bless him {laughter} he made the decision and as far as I’m concerned the right one. It would’ve been a forever bloodbath if we had gone in and tried to occupy.

AO79 Auxiliary Oiler, “Cowanesque”

AO79, Auxiliary Oiler, the Cowanesque. And if you look him up under World War II United States Navy Ships you can find the history. We got credit for two or three Jap planes depending on who you ask. But if you got a whole bunch of planes overhead and a whole bunch of ships shooting at it, everybody wants credit for it. {laughter}

POW Camps

Yeah, there were several of them around. There was one between here and Bridgeville, the next town North. Many of them worked for Parsons Milling, Parsons Lumber Yard. He made a lot of money on that. I forget what the going rate was that you paid for prisoners labor. Maria Heisel, a friend of mine, is from Missouri and they had a German Prisoner of War camp there and they had them at Church a couple of times. They had a choir in the prison camp and the choir would go out and perform for people. I don’t think there was a resentment of the German population like there was of the Japanese. I don’t know why. Well, I guess I do know why. We weren’t directly attacked {by the Germans}.

Gas Rationing

Yeah, gasoline of course was the first thing that was rationed. Everybody had stamps from the Ration Board. A, B and C Stamps, I forget now which was which what for ordinary family use, agricultural use, resale and if you went to a service station you had to give them stamps. When we went to fill up at a service station or a farm they had to give us stamps. These stamps were put on sheets and deposited in the bank so when you ordered a truckload of gasoline or a barge boat of gasoline the bank had to write a check or a certificate or whatever for those, that amount of gallons. That was quite a chore.

The Homefront Threat

Blackouts. Headlights were taped up so that there was only a little slit. If you were away from home and there was a blackout you stayed there. You couldn’t come home. You had Air Raid Wardens spotted out through the countryside. If you saw an airplane you were supposed to report it. One engine, two engines, which direction it was going. Air Raid Wardens also patrolled at night. If you could see any light at all shining from a house. All this was because of submarines being offshore. Ships were silhouetted against the light sky reflected, and for a period they averaged one tanker a day being lost off the East Coast here by submarines. For several years after World War II, if you went to the beach you carried your little cotton balls and nail polish remover or something like that to take the tar off your feet, {there were} little balls of this black oil that washed up.