By Maggie Gust
Gordon Timmerman served as a U.S. Navy Gunner’s Mate Third Class on LCI-669 in the Pacific Theater 1944 to 1946.
Gordon remembers the radio reports of the bombing of Pearl Harbor when he was a freshman. People were stunned because there was no indication of aggression from Japan, rather peace negotiations were ongoing between the two countries. It took a couple of weeks for the full extent of the destruction at Pearl Harbor to be determined and also for America to realize the strength and numbers of the Japanese forces. “Really, the public was not aware of how serious this was going to be.”
Americans were aware of the Japanese invasion of Korea, incursions into China and other areas, mostly due to the thorough coverage provided by Life magazine. He remembers all through high school heading for the new Life magazine in the school library each week to see the photos and read the stories of recent war news.
Gordon enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a 17-year-old high school senior, when the war was going “full tilt.” The navy had a program allowing recruits to finish high school before starting basic training, if their parents would give signed permission. Gordon did not want to join the army, which was where most draftees ended up, so he convinced his parents to let him join the navy’s program. The enlistment term was “duration and six months,” so enlistees could have been in the service for a year or for 10 years!
Graduation was on a Thursday night in spring 1944, and the next day, Gordon reported to the train station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, his hometown. (They had already passed their physicals in Detroit weeks prior.) They were on their way to Great Lakes for boot camp. Many other high school seniors had enrolled in the same program, so not only was the train full of high school graduates, but the Great Lakes Training Center had many companies comprised solely of recent graduates.
After nine weeks of basic training, he was sent home for a nine-day leave, returned to Great Lakes overnight, and put on a train to Boston. They spent about a week at the Fargo Building located at the Boston Navy Yard while awaiting assignment. While there, Gordon saw Lena Horne, who put on a great show for the men at the Fargo Building. Then it was off to Charleston, South Carolina to pick up the ship, which they had to repair a bit before taking it out. During that time, they stayed in barracks at the local navy base.
The ship was LCI-669. LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) was the smallest ship of the navy that went across the ocean under its own power. Anything smaller went ona bigger vessel such as an LST to transport. The LCI was small – about 158 feet long and 23 feet wide. The LCI-669 had been in the invasion of North Africa, Sicily and Italy. It was returned to the States to be redeployed to the Pacific to prepare for the Invasion of Japan.
When the ship was ready, they started on a long slow trip through the Panama Canal, to San Diego and then Hawaii. While in Hawaii, the ship was assigned to transport a company of Marines to Guam. Among this group of Marines was one young rather sturdy fellow who developed chronic seasickness so severe during the entire 17-day trip that by the time they landed in Guam, he had to be removed on a stretcher, desperately ill.
Gordon himself never suffered seasickness, but it was a common problem among the crew. The ship was always well stocked with soda crackers, the only available remedy for seasickness on such a small craft. If you were not seasick yourself, you stayed on deck as much as possible, away from the crew’s quarters.
The ship was modified to be a fire support ship to assist the Marines on an invasion. They put six-inch navy gun mounts on the deck and twin 40-mm on the bow. They put 4.2-inch army mortars on the six-inch navy mounts, so that two guys could run them and turn them any way around. The shoreline at invasion time would be blocked out in 50-yard squares. Some ships would shoot at random, hitting whatever they could. The modified LCI’s were designed to work with radar, still in its infancy. Radar operators could see the distance of the ship from shore. The LCI ran parallel to the shore, able to maneuver in as little as five feet of water. The Marines would call in where they needed the support, and the LCI was able to fire shots at any 50-yard square.
Before modification, the troops they were transporting had stayed on the ship, but that area was filled with ammunition, mortar shells, so that basically it was a “floating magazine.”
While many service personnel complain about the food, peacetime or wartime, Gordon said he never ate so much steak in his life as he did on that ship. The ship’s larder was always well stocked, as the officers had a knack for accumulating more than adequate supplies. Their cook was an excellent baker in addition to his cooking skills. Homemade bread was available every day, as was plenty of butter, dill pickles and fresh onions. The crew was allowed to use these ingredients to fix themselves a tenderloin steak sandwich after watch, especially the 8 PM to midnight duty. The price for this luxury was cleaningup after yourself.
In port, fresh eggs and oatmeal made for a good breakfast. Coke was a favorite beverage when they were at sea. The empties would get chucked into the wide blue sea. Although no alcohol was allowed while they were at sea, when they were in port two cans of beer per man were allotted. Usually these were consumed during card games. Those who did not want to drink would give their two cans away, but there was a strict six-can allowance, two of your own and four “gifts” from friends. Their officers also imposed a 25-cent limit on the card games, not wanting any man to lose his paycheck.
If they had liberty while in port in a place like Honolulu, the poker games would take a back seat to the live entertainment that was available. Liberty in port meant a small boat would come out to the ship, take them to a dock in port and drop them off, then reverse the process on return. The large hotels in that city, the Royal Hawaiian, etc., had top notch talent putting on shows.
Other forms of entertainment on the ship were reading from the small library they had on board, as well as listening to the piano. One officer played, as did another man who played jazz by ear, “Could really rattle the ivories.” For exercise, they had a set of weights and a punching bag on the back deck. Then, of course, there was letter writing to the folks back home.
A daily routine at his job would include checking the guns and mounts, and cleaning and oiling them if necessary. They also had a couple of submachine guns, shotguns, and 45’s which were used to gangway watch. Gordon would take them apart, clean and put them back together. Everything was maintained in battle shape condition. Temperatures in ammo storage areas were recorded. Work schedule at sea when at battle stations, was on four hours and off four hours, plus watch when assigned.
Gordon developed a knack for keeping the ship on course during rough sea. One wave could throw the flat-bottomed boat 45 degrees off course. There was no wheel, just a little handle electric powered that was pushed back and forth, coordinated with the compass to stay on course. Gordon was the go-to guy when the ship needed to dock for loading supplies, fueling or just pulling into port.
They operated under very few rules in general from their officers. Oftentimes when they were in port, some of the guys would not want to walk back to the ship, but would confiscate a Jeep, hot wire it, and leave it at the dock. Sometimes there were six Jeeps on the dock, none of them assignedto the ship.
The sleeping accommodations onboard were not luxurious by any means. There were 29 men plus four officers onboard a ship that was 158 long and 23 feet wide. The bunks for the enlisted men were hung from the ceiling with hooks and chains, in groups of three bunks on each side. Conditions were cozy at best, and when they would hit rough seas or a typhoon, the hooks and chains would be bounced loose so that three men suddenly found themselves on the deck.
In addition to picking themselves up off the deck, rough seas could also mean eating in the mess hall, then suddenly finding yourself at a 45-degree angle with the food from the table splattered on a wall. Gordon remembers one typhoon that lasted four or five days with the ship rising 30 to 40 foot on swells, then suddenly disappearing down the side of the wave. He always said a little “thank you” in his mind to the ladies at the factory who welded that ship together.
One of his most outstanding memories of his time at sea occurred in the Sea of Japan. The ship was anchored about one-quarter mile from a seawall when a sudden storm came up, the anchor cable broke and washed the ship against the seawall, tearing a hole in the bottom of the ship. They had to abandon ship and climb the seawall. They had to go hand over hand over the side of the ship to get over the seawall. But for the next week, while their ship was repaired, the men enjoyed a week of luxury in a home formerly owned by a wealthy Japanese family.
When the news came that a new type of bomb had been dropped on Japan, there was much celebration because they knew the Invasion of Japan would now be the Occupation of Japan and that they would be going home.
Since Gordon had spent most of his time in the service at sea, accumulating points with very little leave, he was able to come stateside in June 1946. He was placed on a troop transport to San Francisco, about a 17-day trip, transferred to a train to Great Lakes where he spent a night or two before being mustered out. With his seabag, he caught the train, was met by his parents at the Grand Rapids train station, where it all started, and settled back into civilian life.
He considers himself very fortunate. Many of his high school classmates and kids from his neighborhood never came home from their service, or suffered terribly during their tour. A number of veterans came back with major disabilities. And then there were so many who did not come back. In his block inhis Grand Rapids west side neighborhood, there were at least six Gold Stars in the windows. One mother had two Gold Stars, two of her sons lost at Guadalcanal. No one “escaped” the war. Everyone experienced loss.
Gordon wasted no time getting back to civilian life. He started school in September 1946 at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where he met his wife Carol, to whom he is still married. She too was a freshman, like Gordon, but she was a recent high school graduate. Gordon played on the football team, along with many other veterans. Basically, they crushed most of the teams they played. Vets not only had maturity and self-confidence, they were determined to make the most of every minute they had.
Studying history and political science, Gordon graduated, found a teaching job in western Michigan and coached football as well. Two of the male faculty members at the school were also vets. They discovered they had been on Iwo Jima together, landing about 100 yards from each other and were hit about 15 minutes apart.
While Gordon continued teaching and coaching, and he and Carol were raising their two sons, he decided to get a master’s degree in public school administration. He worked as a principal for a number of years. Then he decided on a career change. He quit his job, enrolled in a three-year seminary program of the Reformed Church of America. After ordination on his 40th birthday, he was hired by the denomination for their national staff. For most of the next two decades, he was a “troubleshooter” for the denomination, traveling to churches that were having intramural communication issues and applying his confliction resolution skills.
Carol and Gordon have had a place here on Marco Island since 2000. They were snowbirds for awhile. Now as a full-time resident, Gordon gets to play golf twice a week, year round! One son lives here on the island while the other is on the West Coast. There are five grandchildren.
Gordon joined the American Legion Post 404 when it was started here on Marco Island and has really enjoyed his association with the other members. A highlight for him was going on the Honor Flight in October 2014. There were several other members of his Legion post on that flight, which made it even more special. The most touching time of the trip, according to Gordon, was their return to Fort Myers Airport when they were greeted by about 2,500 people of all ages welcoming them back from their trip and thanking them for their service.
Thank you for doing your job for our country and enduring those rough seas in that tiny ship. We are glad that you came back and we are proud that you are part of our community.