Salute to veterans: Urbana native joined Navy after Pearl Harbor
CHAMPAIGN — When Japanese planes came under fire from Wendell Sullivan's ship in the South Pacific, he enjoyed the sight of them burning "like candles in the night."
There was no sympathy for the enemy aboard the USS Oakland. Sullivan said his fellow seamen cheered when they shot down a plane, torpedoed a ship or tattered a kamikaze pilot with machine gun fire as he hung on to a wing in the sea.
He was a teenager, and having fun, he says. "Boy, we kicked butt!"
Most Americans didn't have much sympathy for Japanese soldiers.
Even before the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Imperial Japanese military had committed atrocities in the Far East. Former Urbana resident Iris Chang wrote a bestselling book on sadism directed against Chinese civilians called "The Rape of Nanking."
After Pearl Harbor, Sullivan, an Urbana High School student, was caught up in the fervor for war with Japan, and also not thrilled with the possibility of being drafted into the Army, so he enlisted in the Navy.
In 21 months on the Oakland, he would be shot at and shoot back (with accuracy that later made him a natural for the Urbana police). He was near the island from which an atomic bomb was readied for mainland Japan. He watched the surrender of the Japanese empire on the USS Missouri from his ship in Tokyo Bay.
Born in Burnham City Hospital, Sullivan, now 89 and retired from the Urbana Police Department and the University of Illinois, recalls that he didn't have much shipboard experience growing up in a landlocked town — but he did like to swim.
From Cottage Grove Avenue, Sullivan improved his swimming skills in a glorious waterway called the Boneyard. Even though it was dirty and supported leeches, he enjoyed swimming there; it was especially deep near the Urbana Armory off University Avenue.
Those are happy memories. But for decades, "Sully" didn't talk much about the war that followed so soon. He didn't join the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars because he saw them as largely being bars, and he doesn't drink.
Finally, a friend, Anita Povich of Champaign, convinced him to talk, and in the last couple of weeks his family members have heard for the first time many of his war stories.
The USS Oakland (CL-95), launched from San Francisco, was commissioned in July 1943 with Capt. William K. Phillips in command. As a member of the first crew, Sullivan was a "plankowner."
During the Oakland's shakeout cruise along the West Coast, Sullivan worked as a lookout near the captain's quarter. A tow plane was on the horizon, then radar lost the plane.
"But I had it" in sight, Sullivan says. The captain promoted him to Seaman First Class.
Did he enjoy life on the ship? "Better than in the wake," he says.
Though he became an expert shot, Sullivan's early efforts cost him a fat lip.
On his first firing of a .30-06 Springfield rifle in training on Treasure Island, the powerful kick slammed his thumb right into his mouth.
The Oakland was decked with anti-aircraft guns. Its first job was to protect the ships in Task Group 50.3. It was "loaded for bear," he says, including "ash cans" — depth charges — to take on submarines.
In December 1943, a torpedo hit the USS Lexington and the Oakland slowly escorted her back to Pearl Harbor. In another escort mission late in the war, the Oakland put out life rafts after kamikazes hit the USS Bunker Hill.
On one moonlit night with "ocean like glass," the Oakland was given the unenviable job of drawing the Japanese away from the main task force.
Under fire, the Oakland's anti-aircraft guns were constantly booming and the crew was too busy for fear.
"You didn't have time to fill your pants," Sullivan says.
Later in the Leyte Gulf in fall 1944, the Oakland helped "kick the hell" out of the Japanese, Sullivan recalls.
The ship was at Corregidor, Iwo Jima and many other famous World War II battle sites. Sullivan estimates that the ship tracked the equivalent of dozens of trips around the globe.
Yet the Oakland sustained only three fatalities in the war — out of about 800 men, Sullivan points out. It sunk two destroyers and a supply ship.
He remembers how he felt when he heard news of the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima.
"Whoopee! War's over," he remembers saying. Many Americans believed, like Sullivan, that a conventional invasion of Japan would be costly in lives and could drag on for months.
Sullivan mustered out of the Navy in 1946, and the ship was sold for scrap in 1959.
But before that, Sullivan moved on to the National Guard as a stateside tank commander.
When Sullivan was offered an assignment to Korea, his late wife argued against it.
"It doesn't hurt to listen to your wife occasionally," he says now.
He had a stint as an Urbana cop, which included directing traffic at Broadway and Main, but the salary wasn't enough to raise a family on.
"They lost a good shooter," he says.
Wearing his police uniform, he applied for a job at the University of Illinois. Painting paid better. To this day, he can do the fine lettering evident on UI office doors.
But he never forgets the war — and still loves the Spam sandwiches the Navy once served him.