Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series that tells the story of a Waxahachie hero, John McElroy. The story is told largely in part to letters, military records, notes and pictures found in a trunk kept in storage by McElroy's children.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
My name is John McElroy. Most of my family and my friends call me Johnny, some call me Mac.
I am the son of Ed and Myrle McElroy. I am the oldest of five children, with one sister and four of us brothers.
I was born and raised at 330 Harbin Street in Waxahachie. Sister Jean had her own bedroom, but we brothers, Bodie, Tom, Pat and myself, all shared the same room. For a time we had little Pat sleeping at the foot of the bed, but eventually, he grew taller than the rest of us.
There was usually a croquet game set up and ready to go in the yard. Our home was always welcoming with open arms to any guest or stranger, that’s just the way our folks were.
We went to the Ferris Ward School on Gibson Street, just a 20-minute walk from home, and later to Waxahachie High which was even closer to the house.
Mom and Dad taught us that with hard work and perseverance, you could accomplish just about anything. Dad started out as a printer’s devil at the Waxahachie Daily Light and worked himself all the way up to managing editor. When I was 17, he was appointed by President Roosevelt as the postmaster for Waxahachie.
We brothers all had paper routes. Mom would drive us around town as we rode on the front fenders of the car and threw the newspapers.
I loved to tinker on home projects, anything that was mechanical and especially cars, I really loved cars. During my high school years, I played on the golf, tennis and football teams and I worked in Dallas at the Texas Centennial Exposition as a ticket taker.
One time I heard yelling coming from the neighbor’s house and I ran outside to see what all the commotion was about. Mrs. Jenkins had her leg trapped by her car when it accidentally rolled forward into the carport, so I just grabbed hold of the car and pulled it off of her. They all made a big deal out of the incident, but it just seemed to me like the routine thing to do.
After graduating high school, I attended the University of Texas where I majored in accounting. The football team ran an ad in the school newspaper asking for guys to try out for the team, so I did… I played safety and punter for two years but gave up football my junior year because it just took too much time away from my studies.
I have always been good with numbers and it seems as if accounting may be my calling. To help pay my way through school, I took a part-time job as a junior accountant at the Texas Liquor Control Board in Austin. During all those long hours of schoolwork, I would try to keep in mind my dad’s motto, “I will study and prepare myself and sometime my chance will come.”
Upon graduating from college, I was one of three accountants hired by the Stanolin Oil and Gas Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma. But first, we were sent for field training in Pampa, Texas where I worked as an oilfield Roustabout. The work was tough and dirty, but I liked it.
After my training, I took over the material transfer desk for the company and settled into what I thought would be a career in the oil business... December 7th, 1941 changed all that.
I sat next to the radio all afternoon listening to the news about Pearl Harbor. I was utterly shocked and disgusted by all this. My plans and my life seemed to be turned upside down. Before this day I never had much interest in the military, but now everything was different.
The next day, Dec. 8, I went to Dallas to take a Navy physical. Two days later my enlistment in the Navy Reserve was complete. It seemed as though we had been wronged, especially our Navy, and I wanted to do my part to make things right. I had always thought the Navy was the best branch of the military and I thought their uniforms were sharp, especially the dress whites.
A few months later I was called to active duty and sent to Northwestern University. They had a special Navy Midshipmen’s School there for training college graduates into naval officers. We were known to the Navy as 90-day wonders.
There was a thorough indoctrination course on apprentice seamanship with instruction in all sorts of nautical things, knot tying, survival skills and such. This was followed by instruction in ordnance, gunnery, navigation, engineering, and PT. Oh, and did I mention PT, lots of it.
It was there in Chicago that I met her. I was in town with some friends on R&R. It was a chance meeting at a nightclub. She was there with some other nurses from the Presbyterian Hospital. I noticed her from across the room and finally got up the courage to walk over and ask her to dance. That day I will never forget… Her name is Eva Marie… This girl from northern Minnesota, I have a strong feeling that she may be the one.
Upon completion of Midshipman School, I was asked by Commander Bulkeley if I might consider volunteering for Motor Torpedo Boat duty. When I told him yes, he leaned forward and said, “McElroy, can you eat monkey meat?” I quickly replied, “Yes Sir, Yes Sir, I sure can!”
I was drawn to the adrenaline and the independence of torpedo boat duty. It was nearly the only way that I would ever skipper my own boat. The very thought of it intrigued me. When I received orders that I had been selected for duty with the “Mosquito Fleet” it felt like a coronation, I was so proud.
They gave us a three-week special course in torpedoes before reporting for two months of torpedo boat training at Melville, Rhode Island. When I first strolled down the hill toward Narragansett Bay and saw those deadly looking boats in the lagoon, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
We were trained on the 80-foot Elco PT boat. She was quite a speedboat with three big 12-cylinder Packard gasoline engines, 4500 horsepower all together and capable of 41 knots. Each PT boat had four 21-inch torpedo tubes and several .50 caliber machine guns. I could only imagine the kind of retribution that we could unleash with this baby.
When we started out, I didn’t know an auxiliary generator from a heat exchanger, or a lazarette from a flux gate, nor a vee drive from a butterfly muffler. But I learned quickly at the hands of those salty boat captains that never missed a chance to tell us how rugged life was “out in the area.” We learned how to make a torpedo run, how to field strip a .50 caliber machine gun, aircraft and ship recognition, but most of us never became totally proficient at blinker.
We made regular torpedo runs on the Vineyard Haven lightship, patrolled outside the anti-submarine nets, ran missions to Block Island, and practiced boat handling at a dilapidated dock in the Fall River.
Upon completion of Motor Torpedo Boat training, I reported to the Brooklyn Naval Yard at Bayonne, New Jersey. I was assigned to a crew and made the skipper of the PT-161. We went through training together as a crew, and our boat was commissioned into service. I was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade and assigned to Squadron 9 in November of ’42.
Eve was able to come to New York City with me before I was to be shipped out. We went downtown to experience the big city and were at a nightclub when the owner gets up and makes a special announcement. Everyone there who was in a uniform was to have free champagne and dinner.
It was indeed a time of immense tension and uncertainty, but also of great patriotism. It was a wonderful evening for us, but bittersweet, as we both knew that this was our last time together, perhaps for a long time.
Our squadron left the states with eight of our boats cradled on the deck of a tanker. My boat sure looks awkward sitting up there out of the water. Our destination was Panama. It was January of 1943.
Once through the Panama Canal, our boats were unloaded in the Gulf of Panama, and we gave them a thorough shakedown at Taboga Island, the Island of Flowers. Our training here at Taboga lasted for about 30 days.
I named our boat “Jahnz Canoe.” When you really put the throttle to her, the boat would lift up out of the water and shoot up a high rooster tail wake behind us. Cruising in this patrol boat was an exciting rush for me. We practiced making torpedo runs on moving targets, everything but the actual live fire of our torpedoes. I felt like a true warrior knight of the sea.
Our boats were reloaded onto the deck of another tanker and we headed for the South Pacific. Upon crossing the equator, all of us slimy Pollywogs were given the Navy rites of passage, where we all became respectable Shellbacks. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say, I’m glad that’s over with. Other than that, it was a long and monotonous cruise southwestward toward the war. Our destination was New Caledonia in the Coral Sea.
Upon arrival at Noumea, New Caledonia our squadron, Ron 9, took part in boat exercises along with the battleships Washington, Indiana and North Carolina. This took place in a storm with mountainous seas which beat us and our boats terribly. Several of the boats had extensive damage, and one crewman received a broken leg out of the deal. Our PT survived, but we had to patch 10 cracked frames and 32 planks on the bottom of our boat.
The things that I will remember most about this place are the fenced off leper colony, the barrage balloons and the storm that nearly sunk my boat. It was indeed a rude welcome to the South Pacific.
After repairs, we sailed under our own power North by Northwest nearly 550 nautical miles to Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. It was on this long voyage that I had plenty time to think. I thought about Eve. I thought about my home place back on Harbin Street. I thought about my family. Dad would be proud if only he could see me now.
Once in the Solomons, we were now in the middle of the shooting war. The issue here was the airstrips on all the different islands and who controlled them. Our job in the PT boats was to deny the Japanese from resupplying all their island strongholds in the area.
We went on most of our combat patrols at night. That’s when the Japanese Navy ran their Tokyo Express down the slot south through the Solomons. Many a brave ship of our Navy had met its fate here in these waters of Iron Bottom Sound.
Occasionally we witnessed distant flashes on the horizon followed seconds later by a muffled boom, ka-boom, which signaled the probable death of a ship and its men.
Our accommodations here at Tulagi could be best described as native casual, mosquitoes and rats were a constant nuisance. Our tents, huts, native lean-tos, and Atibrine tablets set up against the thick jungle, heavy rainfall, high temperatures, swamps, excessive mud, and malaria. But I am not complaining, I knew we had it good compared to the Marines and coast watchers in these jungles.
Specially Processed American Meat, I got so sick of the spam. Fruit cocktail too, it seems as if we had everyone else’s supply of canned spam, canned fruit cocktail, and powdered eggs. I saw guys sell their real breakfast egg for five dollars, five bucks for one egg.
The average age of my crew was well below the standard for the squadron, but in my estimation, they were the best darn crew of them all. There was Gunners Mate Gallagher and Taberti, Torpedo Man Taylor and Van der Heiden, Motor Machinist Mate Frost and Ufert, Chief Spivey, Link the Navigator and Sheriff the Cook. There was McWherter the Radioman and Chase the Quartermaster. My Executive Officer J. D. Litton and myself the skipper.
We were all more civilian than Navy at first and our Commander was having a time making us say and do things the Navy way. He had just finished giving us unshirted hell for some land-lubber terminology someone had used. Just then one of the guys said, “Just a minute Commander and I’ll go downstairs to the kitchen and get you a glass of water.” Well, the air was nothing but “Blue Smoke” for a while after that.
I had four guys from New England, four from California, two from Florida, and one each from Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Missouri. They were a bunch of hard-working All-American boys that would ride with me into any kind of perilous situation and never even flinch.
Even though I started out with a very green group of sailors, we soon gained a reputation for being an outstanding crew. My boat was always chosen as the second boat in Commander Kelly’s squadron as he knew that he could depend on PT-161 to maneuver with him at close range no matter what the conditions and that we would follow him into any sort of fight.
We went up against Japanese destroyers and innumerable enemy barges. I was proud of the way my crew laid down heavy and accurate fire, changed out gun barrels, and repaired disabled guns while under return fire. Even a captured Japanese report complained that our squadron always fired first.
Our squadron, Ron 9, prowled mostly in the middle and northern Solomon Islands. We patrolled many different islands, straits, and passages. These places have names like Starr Harbor, Savo Island, Pavuvu, Banika, Guadalcanal, Lunga Point and Cape Esperance.
Guadalcanal was a vicious campaign for the PT’s, for all ships of our Navy, for the Marines and for the Army. Many brave men were lost to the Tokyo Express and in the jungles. When one of our boats was lost, the survivors were often ravaged by the sharks.
As we in the PT’s fought our way up through the Solomons, we had to bum, borrow and steal nearly everything we needed as we could carry few supplies on board. We were always up front and had inadequate supply lines. Scroungers were especially prized as a crewman, for we were constantly replacing parts and guns with whatever was available at the time, either by salvage or by pirating. We acquired a 20-mm gun and mounted it to our stern and also added a smoke generator to our transom. Our 161 boat now bristled with guns.