As told to Mary Louis
Before participating in Operation Crossroads, I knew very little about nuclear weaponry. We were told very little. But I was not afraid because I figured the military would not risk the lives of their personnel.
USS Monticello (AP-61)
The ship stank. On a hot and humid day in mid-May 1944, I woke to find myself and my bunk soaked. I thought I had wet the bed. But no, I had just crossed the equator aboard the USS Monticello. To commemorate the occasion we were all issued “Domain of Neptunus Rex” cards certifying that we had crossed the equator. There were no initiation rites, however, because there was no room for that kind of play.
I had been in this hellhole for two weeks, sailing from Northern California’s Bay Area, and would endure another week until we reached our destination in the South Pacific. We were packed into the lower decks like sardines. The bunks were two or three high and only three feet wide.
We had been issued a mattress and a hammock in addition to our duffel bags to throw onto the bunks; there was literally no room to move around.
We showered with salt water and I ended up feeling stickier than before. We ate only two meals a day, standing up at a counter because there was no place to sit down. Twice a day we were taken up topside in groups for an hour of fresh air. I turned 18 aboard the ship.
“What a way to celebrate,” I thought ruefully.
Some of the men became sick to their stomachs from the conditions aboard ship. The only plus side I could see was that there was more for me to eat. We made a brief stop at Pearl Harbor but were not allowed on deck, much less ashore. We also stopped in New Zealand and were allowed on deck but still had no shore privileges to stretch our legs.
“How did I get here?” I wondered.
I was born in Alton, Illinois in May of 1926 to Benjamin and Caroline (Carrie) Bryant.
My father was commissioner of maintenance for all of Alton’s schools. He had to hire and supervise all the maintenance staff.
I was the youngest of 11 children. My mother naturally stayed home to raise us. I had five brothers and five sisters. My sisters were Ida, Fay (who died in infancy so I never met her), Ruby, Frieda and Virginia. I graduated from Alton High School in January 1944. We had a big school so there were two graduating classes ‒ one in January and one in June 1944.
My older brothers profoundly influenced me in that four out of five brothers were serving in the military during wartime and I wanted to help with the war effort too. The oldest was Ray, who was in his late thirties when the war started. He worked as a steel mill foreman. Because he was older and working in a war-related industry, he was deferred from the draft.
My second oldest brother was Benjamin Ralph, who served as a Gunner Mate 2nd class aboard the LST 820 (landing troop transport ship) in the South Pacific from December 1943 to December 1945.
Next in line was Charles Edward, who served as a Sergeant in the 6th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (known as Mecz for mechanized). Initially he was issued a horse while training stateside but when he went to Europe, he operated a tank. He received the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart for military tank operations in Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945.
Brother Edgar Louis joined the Marines in 1943 and was sent to Guadalcanal where he was wounded, eventually losing a leg. He also received a Purple Heart medal.
Brother James Eugene joined the Army Air Corps. As a First Lieutenant he flew P51s in Squadron 23, known before Pearl Harbor as the Flying Tigers.
I wanted to enlist early to follow in my brothers’ footsteps but my parents were adamant that I stay school until I graduated. Shortly after graduating in January 1944 I was ready to enlist in the Air Corps, and though I tried several times they turned me down because I was colorblind.
I then tried the Navy. Because I had memorized the numbers on the vision test, I passed and was accepted. I went home jubilant and my parents signed for me to enlist for the duration of the war. I was just 17 at the time.
In February 1944 I was sent to boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois. Apparently the Navy was in a rush to send more servicemen into the Pacific so boot camp was basically a place to get all the necessary immunizations and to learn Navy discipline. I had to take yet another colorblind test; I just mumbled and somehow passed. I learned how to march and how to hold a rifle as a guard but there was no training for any specific skills. After boot camp we were given a few days leave.
Next I received orders to report to California and traveled by troop train to a naval base near Pleasanton. My duty for part of my time there was to guard the base water tank; the tank is still there, so I guess I did my duty well. From there I was sent to Mare Island for a short stay before boarding the USS Monticello.
The Monticello was initially an Italian cruise ship until the U.S. military purchased it for a troop transport ship. The ship was about 650 feet long with room for 200 officers and 6,720 enlisted men. The cargo bay could hold 60,000 cubic feet of supplies. There was some armament ‒ one single 5-inch/38 dual purpose gun mount, six 3-inch/50 dual purpose gun mounts, 16 single 20mm AA gun mounts and four .30 machine guns.
We were not told what our destination was but I figured that we were headed for the South Pacific. Not knowing where we were headed brings me to how I ended up on that miserable trip to New Guinea.
We arrived in New Guinea in late May 1944. The Monticello anchored in Milne Bay at a large supply depot that served both the airfields in the western most area of the Bay and also the northern area of New Guinea. We were ferried to shore and quartered in barracks that were nothing more than a roof on poles with bunks underneath. We threw our mattresses on the bunks and were issued mosquito netting to secure around the bed to prevent malaria – the primitive barracks were “home sweet home” for us.
Although the Allies controlled the easternmost part of the island by the time we arrived, there was still a need to keep the airfields supplied so that air attacks to the south near Morrisey Bay could keep the Japanese away. To the Northwest, there was still some intense fighting as the Allies and Japanese struggled to maintain control of various strategic ports.
During the early years of WWII there was a history of malaria outbreaks among servicemen due to the heat and humidity, perfect conditions for mosquitoes. It rained anywhere from 100 to 300 inches a year. It was wet from January through April but then drier for the rest of the year. Milne Bay would have been picturesque, with several rivers spilling into the Bay from the Stanley Ridge, if not for the swampy conditions.
I was given two choices of jobs: drive a truck from the dock to the warehouse or work as a deckhand on a tug that pushed barges from the ships to the shore. The tug sounded more “Navy” to me. I started as a deckhand but I eventually moved up to coxswain and operated the tug. My crew consisted of a couple of seamen.
While in New Guinea, I saw an USO show. It was some comedian performing but I can’t remember who it was. We all sat on logs in an amphitheater to watch the show. Sometimes the natives would climb the palm trees and throw down coconuts for us.
After about a year in New Guinea I asked for a transfer. I was sent to Subic Bay in the Philippines around May or June of 1945. As coxswain, I was put on an LCM (Landing Craft, Mechanized) with a crew of a seaman and a motor mechanic, or “mack.”
I had never operated an LCM and the mack’s training was with road vehicles. We were told to learn by actually operating them and landing on the beach, dropping the ramp, etc. Because the surf was sometimes very rough, this wasn’t always easy. One of the crews actually beached their LCM, driving the side of the boat up onto the beach.
After I became proficient at operating the LCM, I was put in charge of the captain’s boat, a smaller landing craft used by the captain and his guests to get to the Officers’ Club across the bay.
I would meet PBYs (seaplanes) and found taking on personnel was very difficult as we had to back the boat toward the nose while the plane was constantly moving. Also, to get aboard my boat, the person had to go through the nose of the plane (the turret).
After a commander once stepped through the turret I was issued a beautiful 25-foot personnel boat and we could then load from the side of the seaplanes. Having the proper boat made my job much more enjoyable.
On another trip I had motor trouble. The motor mack was working on it when the captain asked me to signal one of the ships for help. I didn’t know semaphore like I should have, but fortunately as I was getting my flags out to try bluffing my request for help the mack got it running.
Another day I helped splice a cable to be used to pull PT boats out of the water and onto shore by using a “Marina Railroad.” We would run the PT boat into a cradle which pulled the boat along submerged tracks so we could pull it out of the water for repairs.
The captain’s boat was tied to a buoy in the bay. I would either swim out to it or I could catch a ride from one of the tugs. One day when I went to get the boat it wasn’t there.
I ran up the road and met the captain who told me that he had been outranked and it went with part of the fleet. We later learned it possibly was at the signing of the Japanese surrender; the captain said if he had known I could have gone with it.
Then I was issued another landing craft with pads, which we called a “matchbox” because of its relatively small size and rectangular shape. There was a canopy cover up front to protect the passengers from the ocean spray. I operated it from the stern.
One night I was asked by the base exec to meet a hospital ship anchored in the bay to pick up nurses for a party ashore. On the return trip it was dark and no lights on the shore when I realized I was about to run aground on the coral beach.
I slammed it into reverse and by pure luck made a perfect landing. As the commander stepped onto the dock he said, “Well done, coxswain.”
I yelled at the seaman about why he didn’t inform me of the proximity of the shore. The seaman said that he did call back towards me but the nurses were jabbering so loudly,
I couldn’t hear his warning.
I went off base when I had liberty a few times. I saw the homes on stilts (nipa huts). There were no commercial buildings – stores, etc. – in the little village.
End of the War and Re-Enlistment
The war ended when Japan signed the treaty on the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
On Nov. 20, 1945 I signed on to stay in the Navy for two more years, which meant I could receive my boatswain’s mate rating and a month’s leave.
I enjoyed my family and was able to reunite with my five brothers after the war. We were fortunate to be able to have a picture taken of the five of us brothers in our service uniforms. We were very grateful that all five of us made it home. It was great to see Ray, too, to learn what had been happening on the home front.
My parents were so proud of their five sons serving in the war that they put a flag with five stars (representing the five sons serving in the war) on the front door.
The USS Avery Island (AG 76)
I received my orders to report to a naval base in California and was assigned to the USS Avery Island (AG 76), a converted liberty ship. On May 29, 1946 I again crossed the equator and this time received the “Sacred Order of the Golden Dragon” certificate.
We went to the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands to participate in Operation Crossroads, nuclear weapons testing to learn the effects of atom bomb fallout on naval ships. There were 95 obsolete ships – American, Japanese and German – placed in close convoy formation within a one-mile circle of the bombsite. The ships were a variety of crafts – submarines (which stayed on the surface), battleships, destroyers, LST, aircraft carrier, oil tanker, cruisers and one ship from a dry dock.
There were animals on some of the ships, too, to study the effects of the fallout on domestic as well wild animals.
What we were told was that it was necessary to see the damage that would occur to the ships the farthest from the bomb. The question was, would the other ships be able to either escape or fight off the enemy before other bombs were dropped?
While the scientists were busy we were given liberty ashore, which we enjoyed by swimming and drinking some beer.
On July 1, we took the scientists seven to nine miles out to sea during the first test, which was called “Able.” This bomb was dropped from a plane. It missed its mark, which was intended to be the USS Nevada.
Instead the bomb landed closer to the attack transport USS Gilliam, which was only a few hundred yards away. Five ships sank that were anchored less than a mile from the drop zone and 14 ships were seriously damaged and were not salvageable.
Aboard ship I remember playing Acey Deucy cards with the cook, so we must have had some downtime.
Our crew was topside during the Able testing but we were instructed to close our eyes and put our heads down to avoid the flash until the OK was given to look up again.
What we saw was a very tall, tower-like cloud. Going back into the bay we saw the target ships had twisted masts that looked like pretzels. We anchored fairly close to them for about three weeks to allow the scientists to record their findings and set up equipment for the Baker test.
The ships that were not sunk or heavily damaged by the Able test were used for the Baker test, which involved a bomb detonated 90 feet underwater.
On July 25 we left the Bikini Lagoon in the morning for the opposite side of Bikini Island because of the possibility the explosion might cause a tidal wave.
From there we witnessed the underwater test that produced a beautiful gigantic mushroom cloud which seemed to cover half the bay.
After waiting a few hours we returned to the opposite side where we saw much more damage to the ships and witnessed the aircraft carrier Saratoga sinking.
The ships were damaged from the bottom rather than from the top as in the Able test. The mushroom cloud on the surface of the bay later turned into a “cauliflower” cloud as it rose from the surface.
After the scientists finished their examinations and reports, the Avery returned to California at San Pedro.
Before participating in Operation Crossroads, I knew very little about nuclear weaponry. We were told very little. But I was not afraid because I figured the military would not risk the lives of their personnel.
After the tests we were never informed of the results. The only information I know from those tests, I’ve had to read.
Prior to the blasts, all the people on the islands were relocated for their own safety, with the promise they could later return.
But the residents of Bikini Atoll were never able to return home. They tried several times but the radiation levels were too high; the fish and soil were also contaminated.
The USS Bush (DD-745)
In San Diego I was transferred to a destroyer for the first time, the USS Bush (DD-745). Mainly we worked maneuvers with aircraft and carriers around San Diego. The Bush sat so low in the water compared to the ships I had been on previously that we could see dolphins jumping out of the water and following us.
While I was serving on the Bush a fellow sailor gave me tickets to the 1947 Rose Bowl Game. The tickets were for seats right on the field, but the real bonus was that Illinois University was playing. After the game I was a little late getting back to the ship but was told that it was okay because it was New Year’s and nobody took roll.
Commander Pugh of the Bush tried to convince me to make the Navy my career. I could see I was not cut out to be a career Navy man and wanted to return home and start college. I was discharged at San Diego on Oct. 8, 1947 and became a member of the US Naval Reserves.
I went home to Alton, Illinois. I had missed the beginning of the first semester of college so I went to work as a truck driver for Railway Express. I went to work at 11 a.m. and picked up freight to deliver to the incoming 4 p.m. train from Chicago scheduled to arrive around 4 p.m. Because the train was usually very late, I would call the neighboring station for an estimated time of arrival and that usually gave me time to eat dinner at home.
In the fall of 1948 I started attending Shurtleff College in my hometown under the G.I. bill. I majored in business, but my main interest was playing football on the college team. I played for three seasons.
I also worked part-time at the nearby Shell refinery until the full-time workers went out on strike; at that point, I didn’t have much to do. I was still living at home when the Korean War started in 1950 and although I was in the reserves I was not called.
While I was still living at home, I was accepted into the Masonic Lodge, Franklin No. 25 in 1948. My father, a past Master, and my five brothers participated. It made me the proudest that I have ever been in my life. I am now a 65-year member.
My brother Edgar moved to California and settled in Stockton. Knowing I had an interest in sales, he called me about a selling job so I made my way west.
I entered the sales business for wholesale liquor, which became my career. I worked for Mid-State Liquors and later for Berberian Bros. My territory was Stockton, Modesto and the Central Sierras. Many weekends I would work my way up Highway 108 in Tuolumne County on Friday to Long Barn Lodge or Pinecrest Lodge where I would spend the weekend tending bar in return for food and lodging.
Love of My Life
On Labor Day weekend 1953, Noreen Pearson and a girlfriend named Bobbie Jo Fields were staying at the old Pinecrest Lodge. While they were eating dinner I asked the manager to invite them into the bar for an after-dinner drink. I was tending bar that night and we became acquainted.
After the bar closed a little early we all went swimming at 1 a.m., attracting many onlookers. I suggested the girls spend their last weekend in Stockton on their way home to San Jose after visiting the Gold Country and Lake Tahoe. They did stop in Stockton, checked into a motel and gave me a call. I invited my brother and his family to their motel for a swim, which really impressed Noreen. She figured that I was from a wholesome family.
We continued our courtship and were married in San Jose on Jan. 16, 1954. Her friend married my good friend Ray Betcher the following August. Both girls had been working at Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation (later FMC) in San Jose.
With the G.I. Bill we were able to buy our first home in Stockton and our two children, Patti and Billy, were born there. Noreen worked in an escrow office until our daughter was born. Then she taught part-time at Humphreys Business College and later at St. Mary’s High School.
When the Mother Lode territory salesman retired from Berberian Brothers, I was given that route. We moved to Twain Harte in January 1962. We have three grandsons and one granddaughter, all of whom grew up in Tuolumne County.
I retired in 1992 at age 66. Berberian Brothers had sold the company to Young’s Market and I worked for them the last six years.
Unfortunately I have had no contact with my fellow shipmates during the 50 years we have lived in Twain Harte. I played a lot of golf and served on the Twain Harte Golf Course Board for many years as well as the Oakdale Golf Course board. I am proud that I qualified for the Northern California Golf Association Net Championship at Poppy Hills Course in Monterey in 1991. I took third place in the Top Flight competition.
I officiated football for high school and junior college games in the San Joaquin District, served as president of Twain Harte Rotary, and served on the Twain Harte Community Services District Board (originally Tuolumne County Water District No. 1) for 40 years. I served as Cub Master for the Twain Harte area, and was a Little League coach and Tuolumne County Little League President.
My wife and I moved to Sonora in September 2011 and continue to enjoy our retirement. My whole family is extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to live in Tuolumne County.
For my military service I received a World War II Victory Medal, a star for the Asiatic Pacific Campaign, another star for the Philippine Liberation Medal, and an American Campaign medal. I never pursued receiving my military bars for my participation in WWII in the South Pacific.
I am proud to have served my country in the Navy. I would do it again. There are benefits I received from my service – first and foremost, of course, was maturity. But there were other benefits. Through the GI bill, I was able to attend college and finance my first home.
I am glad that I served in the Navy without getting into trouble. I didn’t pull any pranks, and I didn’t feel the need for any good luck charms, either. I had confidence that everything would turn out all right.
Medals Awarded to William Bryant
American Area Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (One Star)
Philippine Liberation Medal (One Star)
World War II Victory Medal