Wes Howe was near a ship in Subic Bay when he saw it.
An enemy plane — called a kamikaze — appeared over some trees and headed for the vessel. Kamikazes were known for crashing into ship in an attempt to sink them, killing those on board.
“He was at such a low altitude,” Howe said. “We could almost see into the cockpit.”
More than 70 years later, the Fremont man still remembers that close call and others. His myriad of memories includes driving bomb-carrying trucks through treacherous areas at night, staying in an army barracks surrounded by Japanese soldiers after their surrender — and later seeing them toss their rifles into huge piles as big as a house.
Howe was 21 years old and living in Garfield County when he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“When I went in, they wanted cooks, bakers and truck drivers,” he said.
He entered the service in February 1943 and remembers living in a tent in a wooded area and the cold winter rains in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Living in those conditions for five weeks left almost all of the men sick. And it took a while for their bodies to adapt — going from a place that was below sea level to the higher altitude of Cheyenne, Wyo.
Wyoming meant truck school and convoys and even 3 feet of snow followed by more convoy training in Rapid City, S.D.
“We put those trucks through the some really rough terrain in the badlands and up in mountainous areas and forded streams where the mud got so deep we had to try to get a wench truck across and wench the rest of them through it,” he said.
In November 1943, the men traveled by troop train to New Orleans, where they boarded a new ship and went through the Panama Canal on Christmas Day.
The men were promised a turkey dinner that night, but the electricity went out. They got their turkey dinner, but it had sat out too long and, the next day, everyone was sick. Three weeks later, the men and their ship went out again. They were in the Pacific when the ship went dead again and they drifted for days.
“We were just floating around, no power, no lights. No nothing. No escort. We were only ship out there,” he said. “When they got it going again, we headed across the ocean.”
But with no escort – and not knowing if enemy submarines were in the area – the ship did a lot of circling. It took 64 days to reach Australia in 1944 and many men, who hadn’t really recovered from the turkey incident, were seasick and in bad shape.
The men were in Australia for a while before being sent to their first combat area, an airstrip in New Guinea. There in the tropics, they set up an assembly line and assembled 104, new 1944 GMC Army cargo trucks – all the parts of which came in wooden boxes.
“It was hotter than a pistol in the daytime,” he remembered.
After that, the men hauled airplane fuel, bombs, ammunition, rations and freight from ships to airstrips. Bombs ranged in weight from 250 to 2,000 pounds.
The men went from New Guinea to Morotai, an Indonesian island, to islands in the Philippines — from island to island after they were secured.
“We most generally followed right in behind an invasion on those islands (by the infantry or Marines) and got an airstrip going as soon as possible or maybe several airstrips,” he said.
The men slept in tents. Air raid sirens interrupted their sleep, but the enemy planes were so high they looked like silver specks when search lights shone on them.
Howe remembers driving with a .45 caliber handgun in his fist through mountainous terrain at night — wary of snipers.
Snipers hid in rice fields shooting at guards on the bridges.
“We had to have guards stationed on bridges, even a small bridge. Sometimes the whole convoy would get stopped at night, because the guards got fired on by snipers,” he said. “Sometimes, we’d have to stop at a bridge and we’d bail out with our rifles and get on the other side of the truck and wait and see if there was any more fire. You never knew what was out there, especially at night.”
Howe and servicemen were always cautious of kamikaze planes as the soldiers unloaded fuel and other items. The ships often were hidden in a cove or harbor-like area with trees used as camouflage. Men like Howe drove their trucks onto U-shaped floating barges, where a crane with a net load of bombs or gas barrels to be loaded into the vehicles.
Kamikazis looked for ships. Howe remembers when one appeared over the trees, flying at a low altitude and heading their way. The plane was so close the men could almost see into the cockpit.
The plane was shot down.
“He almost stopped in mid-air, they filled him so full of holes,” Howe said. “He missed the ship by probably 300 or 400 feet. If they hadn’t shot him down there would have been a terrible fire if he’d hit that ship. It was loaded with 100-ocetane gas. There’d have been a lot of lives lost.”
Howe remembers later seeing wreckage of ships and airplanes in Manilla harbor and iron sticking up out of the water. He and others saw American soldiers, nurses and others who’d been liberated from a Japanese prison camp and now were being loaded into ambulances.
“A lot of them couldn’t walk anymore and they were carrying them out by stretcher … they were starved,” he said.
How and others were there for several months. Eventually, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gen. Douglas McArthur wanted to have operational airstrips in Japan so Howe was among 23 people taken there by an Army plane. They were given 15 minutes to unload their supplies, because the pilot wanted to leave quickly.
They would be some of the first Americans to step on Japanese soil after the war.
An American soldier arrived with an old Japanese truck and Howe and the others piled in, he said. The men moved into an empty barracks and fended for themselves without trucks, equipment or weapons.
After they were there two weeks or more, they heard noises. They learned that Japanese troops were in the other barracks.
“They still had their guns,” he said. “Along this airstrip was an open field and as they walked by, out there, they started tossing those rifles in piles … as big as a two-story house or more. We figured there might have been 5,000 or 6,000 troops in the barracks area.”
Howe and other Americans were there for months. He remembers going with a couple of other guys to see some of the vacated, unground installations that had living quarters, hospitals and shops.
They saw an underground dining hall where plates with a little rice were still on the table.
“It was like they (the Japanese) just got up and left,” he said.
Later, Howe and other men stood on the harbor’s bank and looked down on the deck of the USS Missouri and watched the peace treaty being signed with Japan.
Howe eventually returned to the United States.
In 1948, he married Katheryn Wood with whom he’d corresponded during the war.
She had served in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1944-46 — and after the war attended Northwestern University Dental School in Chicago with financial help from the G.I. bill. In 1949, she became the second licensed dental hygienist in Nebraska.
The Howes, who were married for 68 years before her death in 2016, had two daughters and a son and two stepgrandchildren. They had a family business, Fremont Body and Frame, for 35 years.
If he had to do it over again, Howe said he’d still enter the military.
“People don’t understand how serious that World War II era was,” he said. “This country had just come through the worst Depression that had ever been known and it hadn’t recovered yet—so we weren’t prepared for war. Automobile manufacturers changed what they were doing and started building all of these army vehicles. We had to start from scratch.”
Had the country not worked together, it could have wound up under dictators like Hitler.
“It was a desperate time,” he said. “The younger generation doesn’t know all of this unless they happen to read some books.”