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Don Smith, of Fort Dodge

Navy tanker takes sailor across Pacific

November 1, 2013
By BILL SHEA ( , Messenger News

Don Smith sailed through the Pacific Ocean in the final year of World War II on a ship loaded with tons of explosive fuel while Japanese submarines and boobytraps called mines lurked beneath the waves.

The Fort Dodge man was aboard what the Navy called a fleet oiler, but he refers to it as a ''floating gas station.'' His ship, the USS Taluga, carried fuel oil to replenish other vessels while they were still sailing. It also carried aviation gasoline which was pumped onto aircraft carriers to refuel their planes.

The ship survived a close call with a mine during one of its voyages. Smith said the weapon ''popped up out of nowhere'' and scraped along one side of the ship without detonating.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Don Smith, of Fort Dodge, displays a photo of the USS Taluga, a Navy fleet oiler he sailed on in 1945. The ship refueled other Navy vessels at sea and carried aviation gasoline to be placed on aircraft carriers for their planes. -Messenger photo by Hans Madsen

It was a dud, a fact that was confirmed when a sailor shot it with a rifle without setting off an explosion, Smith said.

He said his ship was in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the surrender documents were signed by Allied and Japanese officials not far away on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri.

About four years earlier he was playing basketball with his brother at their home in Rockford when a neighbor came over and told them that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese. Smith was 15 at the time.

He graduated from Rockford High School and was drafted in early 1945. He went to a military induction center at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. There, he was told he was going to be in the Navy.

''I was happy about it,'' he said. ''You don't have to dig trenches or live in a foxhole in the Navy.''

He was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois for eight weeks of basic training. He recalled that his drill instructor was a chief petty officer who had been a professional wrestler in civilian life.

Once, he said, the drill instructor stepped into the ring for a match at the training center. When his foe got him into a chokehold, all the trainees began yelling ''Kill him, kill him,'' Smith said.

After they graduated from boot camp, all of the newly trained sailors were placed on a train headed for San Francisco, Calif. There, they boarded a troop ship.

Smith said that aboard the troop ship the sailors lived in cramped quarters, with bunks stacked five high. The top bunk, he said, was the best one to have because whoever slept there didn't have to worry about seasick men vomiting down onto him.

He said he was seasick initially, but got over it. Later in his Navy career, he said, he sailed through two typhoons without getting sick.

In fact, he said he actually got hungry while his ship was being battered by the storms.

''The rougher it got, the bigger my appetite got,'' he said.

The troop ship took him to Ulithi Atoll, a Navy base in the Pacific Ocean. There, he boarded the USS Taluga.

That vessel sailed from the tropics to the Bering Sea and back. Along the way, it pumped fuel into other vessels. Smith said they often refueled two ships at once.

He helped handle the large hoses used to move fuel from the Taluga to other vessels.

Sometimes he steered the ship. At night, he could hear B-29 Superfortress bombers on their way to attack Japan.

On Aug. 6, 1945, a B-29 dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, prompting the Japanese to surrender.

The Taluga sailed into Tokyo Bay on Aug. 26. Smith said he wasn't worried about any kind of attack because the vessel was surrounded by so many other warships.

Eventually, Smith and other Taluga sailors were allowed to go ashore. He said he was surprised to find a statue of Matthew Perry, the U.S. Navy officer who made America's first contact with Japan in 1853, still standing in Yokosoka.

He also saw Hideki Tojo, the former military leader of Japan, in a jail cell that looked like a big cage.

''He was an ugly specimen of a human being,'' Smith said.

The Taluga sailed from Tokyo to Long Beach, Calif., during a 16-day voyage. From California, he took a train back to Fort Snelling, where he was discharged.

Smith returned to Iowa, where he worked for 30 years at a brick and tile company. Then he took a job with the former Chicago and North Western Railroad, which prompted him to move to Fort Dodge.

He is a familiar figure to anyone who visited the Fort Museum and Frontier Village, where he worked as a maintenance man.



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