Navy Diary of Robert Dolzani, Excerpts
January 1, 1945 – February 4, 1946
I always thought of myself as the writer in the family, but both my parents left behind written accounts of crucial moments in their early lives. My dad kept—illegally—a diary of his final year in the Navy serving aboard a destroyer escort in the Pacific during World War II. In 1990, my mother filled a whole notebook with an extraordinary account of her early life on a country farm. Both are fairly good writers, my mother particularly so—I cannot help but notice how their writing , though not perfect, is more readable and even grammatical than that of many of my students, despite the fact that my mother went to a one-room grade school and neither went beyond high school (as almost nobody in that time did). At any rate, it is a pleasure to collaborate with them by interpolating some of their writing into my own. I am honored to have them as co-authors.
My father was sworn into the Navy in Cleveland on October 27, 1942, went through boot camp, Machinist’s Mate School, and Refrigeration School between then and May, 1943, then worked in the engine rooms of two destroyer escorts until the end of the war. “Escorting” destroyers in convoys meant shielding them from Japanese submarines and kamikaze pilots. For the last four months of 1943, he served aboard the USS Sloat, DE 245, visiting Casablanca, Sicily, and Italy; returning to the states, the Sloat returned to Casablanca, then went on to Gibraltar in early 1944. In mid-1944, he was transferred to the USS Key, DE 348, went across to Italy, and invaded some small islands off the coast of Greece, during the course of which three men were killed and several wounded. After returning to Brooklyn for repairs, the Key left New York for the Pacific on November 10, 1944. On January 1, 1945, my dad began to keep his secret diary. It lasts exactly one year, the last real entry being dated December 31, with one addendum: “February 4, 1946, 9:28 a.m. Discharged from U.S. Navy.”
The accounts of everyday life and occasional action are punctuated by the anguished romantic yearning of this twenty-three year-old sailor for my mother, Wanda (Wanie). This in itself does not surprise me: I know that my dad was romantic about my mother even after she had finally left him, even though the marriage quickly degenerated into one of those characterized by constant fighting. What was it about those old-fashioned, till-death-do-us-part marriages that resulted in that constant, irritable picking at each other? I have known so many of them—including my father’s second marriage, whose soundtrack, so to speak, was exactly the same as that of his first. What does surprise me is the enormous number of letters from my mom. In her later years, my mother had nothing good to say about my dad. When I once asked why in that case she had married him, her response was that “He wouldn’t take no for an answer.” But the number of letters she wrote to him suggests that wasn’t the whole truth.
Navy Diary, Robert Dolzani
January 1, 1945
What happened today is not such a good way to begin a diary, but it happened and I think it no more than right to state it here. I was put on report by the Engineering Officer, Mr. G.I. Peterson to me—Ensign Peterson to the Navy. I was awarded Captain’s Mast. Asked by the Captain, Lt. Commander Buckley, if I had anything to say, I said “No Sir.” He asked, what is your rate? I replied, “MM 3/C, Sir,” and he looked at the Chief Yeoman and said, “Bust to next inferior rating”—that was all. I think it fair to state that I was put on report for reading during an auxiliary watch.
Had a jam session this evening in Compit 203—Hill and Williams with their harmonica and guitar while the rest of us gave out with our rich baritones, tenors, and whatnot—mostly whatnot.
I slept topside last night—it’s cool, but the deck is pretty darn hard.
January 29, Hollandia, New Guinea
Gee, what a beautiful and happy day this is—after 2 ½ months, I received seven lovely, sweet letters from Wanie today and one from Sis too. Russians only 80 mi. from Berlin so Germans move capital to Munich.
February 3—At Sea
Convoy attacked by lone Japanese sub. We stayed behind and tracked him down—dropped about 30 depth charges on him—must have damaged him ‘cause a big black oil slick appeared on the water.
February 12—At Sea
Our orders are to join a “Killer Group” and patrol for a submarine which torpedoed an LST out here between Pelau Islands and Leyte. The sub hasn’t come up for about 20 hrs. so it must surface soon to recharge its batteries—yeah—we’ll recharge them for him.
February 13—At Sea
At 11 P.M. last night the sub did come up, spied us and went right back down. Between us and another DE we destroyed it. We positively sank it ‘cause this morning we could see oil and debris all over the ocean, but there was no trace of any pieces of the sub. We did see some dead Japs—not one was alive though.
February 21—At Sea
At 6:30 today we were only 50 mi. from Manila which is still Jap held—at 9 A.M. we were 40 mi. from Manila—patrolling outside the entrance to the harbor. We were told that these Jap merchant ships have submarines for escorts and that they may try to get into Manila Harbor. Also were notified to be on the lookout for Jap kamikazes and Jap suicide boats. These suicide boats are loaded with high power explosives and manned by 2 men. They ram into you and explode themselves. Cheerful place, isn’t it?
February 22—At Sea
Passed Corregidor this morning heading due north. We received orders to proceed north and screen for subs while U.S. amphibious forces invaded Corregidor today, suffering fairly heavy losses….AS for us we had to shoot down a Jap kamikaze and believe me he damned near got us before we could get him….No one got hurt except one guy who got himself a slight powder burn.
March 2—At Sea
What a night last night turned out to be. A lookout on one of the other DE’s spotted a periscope and the DE attempted to ram it, but was unsuccessful. So we shot up flares to light up the area and then we proceeded to prowl around looking for it, but we couldn’t find it. So we stopped dead in the water to enable the sound gear to locate the sub more accurately, but no luck. It’s dangerous business to stop dead when a sub’s around, remember a torpedo can travel at 50 knots. Today we’re still patrolling for the sub.
March 5—At Sea—In Port—Back at Sea
I’m really happy—indescribably happy—‘cause I got 29 letters from Wanie—also 6 from home. P.S. We have a call name too—it’s “Mad House”—sometimes it suits us perfectly.
Had to get rid of our pet monkey—he was too mean. Pete says I write to Wanie too often. One more crack out of him like that and I’m gonna really tell him off. The Officers who censor our mail are not supposed to express any opinions or discuss anything we write with anyone. That’s a Navy Reg.
March 25—At Sea and Leyte
We’ve been arguing and betting again….I contended that Mt. Rainier is the highest mt. peak in the U.S. Hill and Humble said no—Well we looked it up in the World Almanac and sure enough Mt. Whitney is 96 feet higher than Mt. Rainier. I’d like to see Miss Kerr right now. I know darn well she taught me in the 7th grade that Mt. Rainier is the highest mt. peak in the U.S.A.
Went to a different native village. One native wanted to buy my watch and I told him he didn’t have enough money to buy my watch. He got mad and went in his hut and came out with a tin box about the size of a cigar box and it was just plumb full of U.S. 50 dollar and some 100 dollar bills. He must have had 5000 dollars in that box. Where did he get it?
April 13—Leyte and Sea
Mail is a funny thing now-a-days: I get blue when I get it and I get blue if I don’t get it. Even bawled a little today—not ashamed though.
April 29—At Sea
Today the Captain told us we are now temporarily detached from the Phillipine waterfront to Task Force 78 and that we are going to Okinawa where all hell is breaking loose. Every day at least one U.S. ship gets hit or sunk. There are DE’s up there now on “radar picket patrol.” The longest any has stayed without getting hit so far as been 84 minutes—so says Buckley.
Today Mussolini was assassinated by Italian patriots—where’s Hitler?
Hitler is reported “Absolutely dead,” in a late news dispatch.
May 8, 1945—Sea—Follar Harbor
Tuesday, May 8, 1945 is official Armistice day for European war.
On way in this morning we saw Ft. Drum which is called—the Unsinkable Battleship—It is a large rock island, jutting up from the entrance to Manila Bay. Years ago the U.S. sculptured it to look like a battleship and put gun turrets on it fore and aft, etc. When the Japs invaded the Philippines they captured it; then when we invaded the Philippines during the invasion of Corregidor we had to take it back and to do this LCM’s pumped thousands of gallons of gasoline on the rock and the gasoline ran down into the rooms and tunnels inside the rock, where the Japs were hiding. Then demolition squads went ashore and set off dynamite charges thus burning the Japs out. In the distance we got a faint glimpse of Marivela Bay. We had liberty today and on the way over in an LCVP, I saw many many half sunken ships, both U.S. and Japanese. I counted 60 of them half sunken, with their masts and stacks and superstructures jutting out of the water. But that isn’t the half of it. Manila Bay has been named “Iron Bottom Bay” because there are between 500 and 600 ships at the bottom of the Bay—mostly Japanese ships—many of them were sunk in a sneak U.S. carrier plane attack during the first phase of the U.S. invasion of the Philippines. Manila itself is very much bombed to hell….The Filipino girls are teeny and cut in a Filipino sort of way.
June 12—At Sea
Another day I doubt if I’ll ever forget. Today we killed four very fanatical Japs in the San Bernardino Straits. Lookouts spotted a raft about 2000 yds or so dead ahead. We pulled up cautiously to investigate—knowing that Filipinos use “burn boats,” not rafts, and also thinking that it might be a Jap suicide raft or a booby. While making towards the raft we prepared ourselves by breaking out small arms—pistols, rifles, and submachine guns. We pulled right up alongside the raft and there in the raft without any doubts at all were 4 Sons of the Sacred Soil—one about middle aged wearing a mustache and was an Officer—the others young—about 18 to 22; all were Jap army personnel. We were not at General Quarters. All us us, except the guys who were manning the small guns, etc., were on the starboard side watching and ready to assist to take them aboard as U.S. prisoners of war. The Captain motioned them to come close alongside so that we could take them aboard. Then they mumbled to each other in Japanese; three of them—the 3 youngest jumped into the water; the Jap officer reached for a rifleof which there were two on the raft plus a revolver. That did it—we who were unarmed went flat on the deck behind the railing, while the rest of the guys who had the small guns shot the Japs and killed them and believe me they really filled those Japs with lead. The water turned red with blood—only seconds later we could see the sharks heading for the dead Japs. I’ve heard a lot about Japanese fanaticism, but I never thought I’d see the day that 4 Japs in a raft armed with 2 rifles and a pistol would try to do battle with a DE.
We’ve seen quite a number of different things since we’ve been out here, especially in the past week or so; buttoday an almost unbelievable and very shocking incident occurred. Ensign Viana committed suicide in his stateroom. He shot himself through the head with a 45 semi-automatic. A suicide note was found but naturally we enlisted men do not know what was on it. Rumors have it that his wife wrote him awhile back asking for a divorce. She’s a minor actress in Hollywood—Mr. Viana was a minor actor in Hollywood prior to entering the Navy. When Mr. Boon found him he was still alive—Feldman the pharmacist mate did what he could, but there wasn’t much he could do—he stuffed cotton in the bullet holes and in his nose and ears to try to stop the bleeding—I said bullet holes because the bullet went clean thru his head. We put him in a stretcher and carried him topside. To convoy was slowed down, the stretcher was lowered in the motor whaleboat and they took him over to a LST that had a doctor aboard, but Mr. Viana died on the way over. This occurred at about 7:30 A.M. Mr. Viana was well liked by all of us and was always a cheerful sorta guy until the past few weeks. He was buried at sea this afternoon at 2 P.M.—and we held a silence for 5 minutes, all thru-out the ship.
Just for the hell of it today we took the temperatures of the engine rooms and fireroom–107◦F in #1 E.R.; 111◦F in #2 R.F.R; that’s cool—at Manila it was 118◦ in #1 E.R.
Yesterday—mostly late last night—was “pollywog” day for 5 pollywogs who came aboard several months ago—so today was “shellback day”—the Jolly Roger flew for the 2nd time on the Key—first time was Nov. 19, 1944. I didn’t feel much like initiating anyone today though—my stomach has been upset all day and I have a cold. Those 5 pollywogs nearly drowned Peterson, Leydecker and Anlag last night, by throwing buckets of water in their ward rooms or staterooms rather.
August 10—Leyte, 9:30 P.M., Leyte P.I. time
HOLY SMOKE!!!! IT’S NEARLY UNBELIEVABLE!! JAPAN OFFERS TO SURRENDER IN ACCORDANCE WITH TERMS OF POTSDAM DECLARATION—EXCEPT FOR ONE THING: THAT THEY GET TO KEEP THEIR EMPEROR AS THEIR RULER.
It’s amazing—we can hardly believe it, but it’s true—it sure came as a surprise ‘cause I don’t think hardly anyone expected the Japs to quit all of a sudden like this. We were out on the fantail watching the movie “Till We Meet Again.” We hadn’t noticed that someone came and got the Captain while the movie was going on. All of a sudden we saw a red flare on our port side. We though—oh, oh, an Air Raid. Then all of a sudden the lights of all the ships in the harbor began flashing and almost simultaneously the Captain announced over our loudspeakers that Japan had offered to surrender. Wow—then we let go of everything we had—seats, chairs, water jugs and everything we got our hands on went over the side. We shouted to each other such things as “The war is over!” as though we didn’t realize it, and “We’re going home”….There are hundreds of ships in this harbor and every one of them has all its lights flashing on and off and ships sirens or whistles are blowing like mad. It looks and sounds like a combination of hundreds of Fourths of July and Xmases. We’re so overwhelmed with happiness that some of us cry and laugh at the same time. Walsh is so happy he doesn’t want the 10 bucks I bet him yesterday, but I’m so happy I insist he takes it. Can you imagine that? I only yesterday bet that the war wouldn’t be over until after Xmas….We broke out all the beer aboard and drank it all.
THE WAR IS OVER!!!
Today Washington announced that Japan has agreed to our terms. The war will not be officially over until the proper documents have been signed—the date of which hasn’t been set yet. Japan… Russia and China have all ordered their armed forces to surrender all arms and to cooperate and adhere to all orders given to them by any allied commanders. This afternoon 3 Jap subs surfaced and surrendered outside Leyte harbor.
People back in the States are celebrating the war’s end—well and good. Out here though—the 3rd Fleet had to shoot down 30 Jap planes; also a Jap suicide plane crashed into a U.S. ship at Okinawa and killed 15 men and the Russians are still driving through Manchuria.
I thought we were going to get sucked into the ocean today. A huge waterspout formed out here today and it got so big that it created a huge whirlpool with a tremendous vacuum in it and we damned near ran right into it. The water shot into the air way above the clouds.
Arrived at Leyte this morning after riding a partial typhoon all last night. At times you’d think the ship would capsize. We lost 2 of our life rafts, #3 and 4. The waves bent in #1 5 in. gun mount.
November 2—Subic Bay
Have been engaged 1 yr. to Wanie. Ah ha—my birthday—24 years young.
TODAY—1 yr. and 18 days afte we left N.Y. for the Pacific—we are headed back for the U.S.A.
This ship will have about 100,000 miles on it when we hit the States and we’ve been ¾ of the way around the world. When I get off DE 348 I will have traveled an odd 140,000 miles at sea on the DE’s 245 and 348. I will have about 25 months of sea duty—all on DE’s—25 months of DE chow—how did I ever live through it?
December 31—San Pedro
Well, this is it, folks—the last day of the yr. and the last day of this little “This & That.” So Long Every Body.
So far as I know, my father did not see any of his shipmates again until the late 1980’s, when I was living in Buffalo. I knew that there were a decommissioned cruiser and destroyer in Buffalo Harbor that had been turned into museums, and, when he visited, my dad and I explored those ships for several hours. It was one of the happiest times I ever had with my dad. Destroyers are larger than destroyer escorts but otherwise very similar, so my dad was able to give me a complete guided tour: the only thing that disappointed him is that there was no access to the engine room, so he could not show me where he had worked. But another good thing came out of this episode, for by means of it my dad learned of the existence of DESA, the Destroyer Escort Serviceman’s Association. This organization, open to anyone who had ever served on a destroyer escort, had tried, to the best of its ability, to compile information on the lives and whereabouts of all its members. Through its data files, my dad was able to get addresses and phone numbers, and thus to organize a yearly gathering of the remaining former crew members of the USS Key. It pleases me that twice I was inadvertently useful in connecting my father up with people who mattered to him, once when we discovered Raymond Dolzani in Niagara Falls, which led to my father’s making contact with our relatives in Italy, which in turn resulted in at least two trips over there, and once when he discovered DESA and was able to organize the yearly celebration. He loved these gatherings, and the other men were very grateful for them. Each year, of course, the number dwindled. Knowing that this time they were fighting an enemy against whom they would not win, they instituted a ritual that to me is a deeply moving symbol of the human impulse to banish misfortune, to make an affirmation of human community in the face of the ruins of time. They put a bottle of whiskey in a decorative box. When there were only two crew members left, they would break open that box and drink a toast to the whole crew, officers and common sailors alike. If he were alive, my dad would be 95: I am sure that time has already come and gone. There is no one left to toast them, so I will do so myself.