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WWII Navy veteran recounts his time aboard ship in South Pacific

by Richard Ledbetter Special to The Commercial | January 9, 2021 at 3:04 a.m.
The oldest living Fordyce Redbug, Dusty Lansdale, with his wife, Cybil, talks about his World War II experience aboard the USS Maryland with seventh and eighth graders during a pre-pandemic educational program at the Dallas County Museum. (Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)

Harold Dee "Dusty" Lansdale, the oldest living Fordyce Redbug, served aboard the battleship USS Maryland in the South Pacific through some of the worst fighting of World War II. The retired master electrician will mark his 97th birthday this April.

He and his wife Cybil reside on a 200-acre farm south of Fordyce where they still plant and tend a large garden.

Lansdale recently shared some of his life experiences.

"My grandpa built the first house on Lansdale Hill south of Fordyce," he said. "Grandpa's house was up on the road. Uncle Bill and Uncle Lonnie built homes down the hill from Grandpa, and Daddy built a three-room house back in the field. Our house was actually just across the Calhoun County line, but Daddy would never admit we lived in Hog Skin County. He and Momma raised three kids."

Lansdale said that by the time he started school, his family had moved, which was something he got used to.

"Daddy didn't stay put too well so some days I'd go to school in the morning and when I come home in the evening they'd up and moved," he said. "I'd sit down on the doorstep and directly here'd come Daddy to fetch me."

Asked how he got the name "Dusty," he said, "I worked as a downstairs ticket taker at the Dallas Theatre, and my (African American) friend "Dusty" Aron Perry took upstairs tickets for the (segregated) balcony. On Saturday mornings we'd change out the marquee together."

In the fall, Lansdale said, he went out for football.

"Perry would come watch us and we'd walk toward home together after practice," he said, adding the word "soul" with his trademark grin and his familiar way of addressing friends.

"Fred Harris gave me the nickname 'Dusty' because he said 'Dusty' Perry and I hung out so much together we were starting to look alike."

Lansdale said he was drafted into the Navy at age 18 on Feb. 19, 1943. "I didn't pick them; they picked me," he said.

Asked how he dealt with the rigors of basic training, he said, "One day at a time."

Following graduation from boot camp in San Diego, he received a brief furlough to Fordyce arriving home on Mother's Day.

"When I got back to San Diego in late May, we sailed on a troopship bound for New Caledonia in the South Pacific. It was a long hot trip, and I was sea sick a lot of the time. From there we went to Espirito Santo where we boarded the U.S.S. Maryland."

When the Maryland launched 100 years ago on March 20, 1920, it was the first battleship to carry 16-inch guns. It was berthed in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 during the Japanese assault on the Pacific Fleet. Despite severe battle damage, it was refurbished and put back into action for the Navy's war across the Pacific. The primary task of battleships was to cruise along the shoreline bombarding Japanese occupied islands before the Marines landed.

Lansdale won't allow a can of Spam in his house to this day. He explained, "We had 2,000 sailors aboard a ship designed to bunk 1,100 in peacetime. We needed the extra men to handle all the munitions we were firing. We'd be gone from port six to eight weeks on each engagement. We'd have enough fresh meat for about 10 days because that's all the freezers could hold. After that it was Spam or wienies for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Lansdale said he was a powder handler for one of the 16-inch guns on the ship. The guns, he said, lobbed shells weighing as much as 2,600 pounds.

"Besides a ship full of sailors, we had 110 Marines on board to guard the officers against the possibility of mutiny," he said. "But when we were in a battle, they operated guns just like the rest of us."

Lansdale was involved in eight naval engagements. They included assaults against Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands as well as a couple of islands in the Marshalls. Tarawa was the first U.S. amphibious assault against a Japanese-held island. Japanese troops typically put up fierce resistance everywhere except for the island of Roi. Notably, the 30 Nipponese defenders there surrendered without a fight.

The ship's next involvement was pre-invasion shelling of Saipan.

"We took a torpedo hit to our bow while there so we didn't go to the next major gathering of the fleet at Iwo Jima," he said. "I thought when we got back to Pearl Harbor we'd get a long leave while they repaired all the damage."

Instead, there was already a replacement bow assembled and waiting their arrival.

"The shipyard cut off one bow in dry dock and welded the new one back on," he said. "We were underway before we knew it.

"Our next big fight was Peleliu Island. Following that we went to Leyte in the Philippines," he said.

"At Leyte, there were about 90 Japanese suicide planes filling the sky so we moved our ship closer to the troop transports to provide them with air cover. I was on anchor detail when a Japanese plane dove on our ship. I ran for cover under the turret overhang. It got pretty crowded with sailors under there for a while. One suicide plane hit our ship causing us to return to Hawaii for more repairs."

But back to battle they went again, Lansdale said.

"We were back in Leyte Gulf for the largest ship-to-ship gun battle ever waged at sea," he said. "The 7th Fleet with newer ships was anchored near Australia at that time so the old ships fought the whole Japanese fleet by ourselves. We completely destroyed it. At the next big engagement in Okinawa they had no fleet left.

"There were mountains on either side of the straight entering Leyte Gulf. The Japs had a battleship anchored on either side of the pass to keep us out. Our officers told us it would take 30 minutes to send one of those big ships to the bottom, but after we steamed past throwing everything we had at them, they went off the radar screen in just five minutes."

In one battle, he said he lost 15 fellow sailors.

"In Okinawa we took another kamikaze hit to the gun turret next to the one where I loaded," he said.

"We shot our big guns so much it burned the rifling out of the barrels," he said. "The only port with a crane large enough to lift off 16-inch turrets was in Washington State. After docking, we got a 30-day furlough so they didn't have to feed us that whole time during repairs. I was just 19 when I went home from boot camp on Mother's Day 1943. I was barely 21 when I saw my family again Mother's Day 1945."

The Maryland was in port the day the war ended. Lansdale was on watch duty that night when the crew returned to ship.

"Some sailors were so drunk from celebrating we had to rig a gurney and roll them on to be hoisted aboard.

"Our unit suffered 121 casualties. I was lucky I didn't get a scratch, but there were times I was plenty scared. After the war I used the G.I. Bill to train for my career as an electrician. My time in the Navy gave me a deeper love of country, respect for discipline and a special bond with other veterans."


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