Editor's note: This is part three 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. Part one ran Oct. 15 and part two was published in the Daily Light Oct. 22.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
Our war continued on as we slowly progressed to the north. We spent a short time stationed at the island of Vella LaVella at a place called Lambu Lambu Cove. The base was just a few native grass huts and some tents back in the trees. There was an abandoned Japanese barge on the beach. A small dock was used to tie up to for refueling and all the other boats were tied around the cove to trees that grew out over the water. We were told there were still Japanese on the island and to not wander too far off the base.
Other places where we saw action were Lever Harbor, Cape Torokina, and Green Island. Gradually we pushed the Japanese back closer to their colossal stronghold at Rabaul, their most significant base in the South Pacific.
Mainly because of the fine crew I had, I was made a section leader, which meant on any given mission I was in the lead of three to six PT boats on every combat patrol.
There were many nights that we returned to our base as early as 2100 hours to get more ammunition and then we would go back out to hunt for more trouble. One night we came back to our base just outside of Kula Gulf on New Georgia three or four times. We discovered that we had exhausted all of the ready ammunition, so we had to go under the coconut trees and gather up some old ammo that had been exposed to the elements. As a result, we were having misfires and hung fires the rest of the night.
I will always remember my crew’s bravery that night. We were in a fight for our lives with eight enemy barges and all of, but one of our main guns jammed or broke down. Wylan stayed up on the bow firing his .50 Cal. like a madman while our other guns were silent. He never wavered.
I ran to check on the other guns and caught Joe Tiberti pulling a smoking 20-mm shell out of his gun and throwing it over the side with his bare hands. Van der Heiden was ramming the 20’s out of our stern mounted gun with all the force he could muster. There were buckets of water everywhere with hot 20-mm barrels in them. The last barrel was still in place, and ole Van was banging away on a cleaning rod trying to clear the barrel, not knowing what second might be his last as he was hammering on a high explosive round.
I ran back to see what was the matter with Chase’s twin 50’s and found him working intently on a lap full of parts from both guns plus what spare parts he had. Tracers were flying everywhere and a few uncomfortably close to my head. But Chase never noticed them except that they gave him a light to work by. I mentally crossed those guns off as Wylan’s 50 was the only gun firing except for the rifles and a Tommy gun from the remainder of the crew.
But on my next run, those guns were all spitting fire like vengeance. Oh, what a wonderful sound! That was the coolest exhibition of nerve that I have ever seen. I never dreamed that they would get them back together and working in the middle of a pitch-dark firefight. I was certainly one proud skipper.
It was a very satisfying feeling to witness the early dawn’s light filter over a sea as smooth as glass with a broom tied to our mast as we cruised slowly back toward our base.
About this time I began to experience some episodes of chills, fever and the sweats. Our medical officer treated me for malaria, and I was able to rebound after several days. The mosquitoes here are very thick. You can sleep under a net and all, but there is only so much you can do.
At this point in the war, our PT’s had become personnel barge fighters. The idea was to keep the Japanese from moving men from island to island so they couldn’t concentrate their forces or escape. We also helped move Marine strike forces behind enemy lines.
One night we were ordered, along with the 157 boat, to escort three landing craft full of Marines around the north side of New Georgia Island. At our rendezvous, the skipper of the lead landing craft and the ranking Marine officer wanted to know how two PT boats were going to defend them, especially against enemy aircraft. We told them that we didn’t have a set plan in mind but if something came up that we would handle it.
During the middle of the night, the attack came. A group of Japanese planes spotted us. We decided that the only course of action was to invite the planes to attack the PT’s and draw them away from the Marines.
We revved up our engines to full speed throwing up high rooster tails wakes, and we went zigzagging out across the black water. The Jap planes took the bait and dove after us.
It was no trouble to outmaneuver one plane. We just waited until he committed himself to a dive and we turned sharply to port or starboard, leaving a big puff of smoke for him to shoot at or drop his bomb on. With three planes it was a little more touchy, but nothing we couldn’t handle.
After three or four passes they gave up and left us alone. It was gratifying to return to the cheers of the Marines, but all in all just another routine mission, nothing to brag about.
It was early fall of ‘43 that our own forces and Tokyo Rose started reporting that I had been killed in action. I had to write a letter to my folks to let them know that regardless of reports to the contrary, I was safe and well and still had my boat. My officer friends started poking fun, talking about me in the past tense, saying “McElroy was a nice guy, wasn’t he?”
Again we moved further north to yet another new base, this time at Stirling in the Treasury Islands. Here we also tied up our boats to huge trees that overhung the water. The water was clear, and you could see the coral 20 feet deep.
Life went on as usual with powdered eggs, bugs, air raids and card games. There was a hot game of poker going on when a near miss bomb interrupted play. The men got up, put their helmets on and began arguing about the chips when a second near miss blew their helmets off and completely settled the disagreement.
I was told confidentially that orders had arrived for me to return to the states. A day or two later, Commander Kelly called me in. I thought it was to give me the good news, but instead, he confronted me with, “McElroy, how would you like to volunteer for a dangerous mission – a PT boat strike on Rabaul Harbor?”
The shock of the proposal almost buckled my knees. And he added, “When you come back I’ll have a nice surprise for you.” Well, I volunteered. What else was I going to do?
However as I walked away from his hut, I was mouthing the words to myself, “If I come back!”…Well at least no one will ever be able to question whether ole McElroy completely devoted himself.
As we prepared for the raid, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of dread. It was going to be a twelve PT boat attack, so we were headed for the lion’s den with 48 torpedoes and roughly 150 men. It was a long passage north through hazardous waters up to New Britain Island, then skirting east around and up to the Duke of York Islands and into the Bismark Sea.
We are most assuredly in forbidden waters now. I am not one to ask the Lord for much, but as we approached the final turning point, I did ask for his help.
Around the peninsula and past Sulphur Point and there it was, the most prominent Japanese naval base in the South Pacific. If I said that I didn’t have an awful churning in my stomach, I would be lying. In we went twelve boats at combat speed, loaded and locked. This idea might just be crazy enough to work.
We passed a Jap destroyer 75 yards abeam. Van der Heiden and Frost were in a very heated argument as to the number of stacks and guns on it. Their case was very soon settled when they opened up on us with everything they had.
I will never forget the sight of all those Japanese sailors running all over the deck. We could hear their voices and if I had a sailing rock, I could have hit one of them with it. We were too close in for their big guns to be brought to bear on us. The lookout up in their crow’s nest was firing down on us with some kind of gun. I figure he was the one that put the holes on our deck.
My boys put up a fight that I shall never forget. On the way back I overheard someone say, “Are those your knees knocking or mine?” We didn’t bring much ammo home. But we did make it. With help we made it.
Upon our return, Commander Kelly gave me the news that I already knew, my orders were to return to the states for leave. He also informed me that I had been recommended for a medal. That would be s'well if it happens. I sure hope they remember to cite my crew.
I was steadily losing weight and my strength. The malarial symptoms came back and the docs stepped up my treatment. This darn medicine turns one’s skin a yellow color. And as much as I knew that I needed to eat something, this canned spam doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps some Tobasco sauce would help it, if only we had some.
There was a little ceremony under the coconut trees and I was awarded the Silver Star with an ocean breeze cooling the sweat on my face. The citation came from by Admiral Bull Halsey. I was pleased to get it but upset at the same time. They should have cited my crew.
I went to my men and thanked each one of them and shook their hands. It was very hard for me to leave them, tougher than I ever imagined. We made a great team, and if it were in my power every one of them would have been decorated.
It was a long and strangely quiet voyage home, lots of time topside to reflect on everything. The doctors told me my war was now over. There is a feeling of regret about this… But I never lost any of my men, and for that I am grateful… I have seen a lot of things, some really bad things… That time off of Gatere when that Japanese floatplane damaged my boat, I still can’t believe I let that happen… At least none of my crew was hurt… It sure will be good to see Eve again… I hope she can recognize me.
Sailing underneath the Golden Gate was very nearly an emotional thing. My first steps back on the dry ground of America sure felt good. I had not realized how great it would feel to be back in the states. The medical officers here treated me for a few more weeks and then I was reassigned to set up a Navy duty station here in San Francisco.
A few months later Eve and I were married in my parent’s home back on 330 Harbin Street. It was April 18, 1944, and we began our delayed life together.
I was reassigned to teach seamanship at the Midshipmen’s School at Notre Dame University where I served for the remainder of the war. We operated training craft out on Lake Michigan.
Once I was sent to Jacksonville, Florida with several recruits to take delivery of a 104-foot rescue boat. I sailed it down around the Florida Keys, west across the Gulf of Mexico and all the way up the Mississippi and Chicago Rivers without the aid of a pilot. I enjoyed it immensely as no one shot at us along the entire trip. It was my last fling as a Navy boat skipper.
All three of my brothers made it into the war. Tom served as an Ensign on a tanker in the South Pacific. Pat served as a control tower operator and radar operator in the Army Air Corps. And Bodie, well Bodie was rejected by every service because of a crippled leg that he got from an accident with a horse. Turned down fifteen times, he never gave up, finally begging his way into the Navy where he served proudly in the Pacific as a chief mechanic.
After the war ended, I was released to inactive duty and took a job with the Internal Revenue Service finally making use of my accounting degree.
When the Korean War broke out I was recalled to active duty and served in the Office of Naval Officer Procurement in San Francisco and later in Albuquerque. Later transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where I served as the Assistant Naval Port Control Officer. Eve really enjoyed being there at GITMO raising our kids; it was such a beautiful place.
With the war over in Korea, I chose to leave active duty in May of ’55 and returned back to Texas. We settled in San Antonio where I went back to work for the IRS as a Special Agent in the Intelligence Division. With all the many places that I have been stationed over the years, I have always considered home as Texas.
During the Presidential campaign of 1960, I had the opportunity to meet with Jack Kennedy while he was in San Antonio. He introduced me to Lyndon Johnson. Jack and I talked for a while about old times. He offered me two tickets to his event that night, but as much as I hated to, I had to turn them down. Being a government employee, it just wouldn’t be right for me to accept free tickets for something that I could not otherwise afford. Anyway, it was sure good to see him again.
After more than 20 years of active duty and reserve duty, I retired from the Navy as a Captain. I will surely miss it, but it was time to move on.
I am amazed how the PT-109 story gained prominence over the years. What started out as an incident, turned into a happening, turned into a glamorous adventure. So the story grew as Kennedy gained fame in the political arena. None of us ever had any idea that he was the son of an ambassador until afterward. To all of us in the squadron, Jack was just another one of the guys… The rescue is nothing to brag about, but I am proud that I was a part of it.
After retiring from work, I took the opportunity to do a lot of things that I had pushed aside for a long time. That trip to New Zealand that I had been so disappointed to miss out on, I finally made that trip about 50 years later.
I loved to work on my cars and tinker with just about anything. Eve doesn’t believe in having any shiftless retiree around so she utilized me as a painter, paper hanger, plumber or whatever else was called for. But that’s OK because I can’t live without working and I can’t work without living.
The good Lord really blessed us, he didn’t bless us with wealth, but he did bless us with good health and with four wonderful children, all college graduates. All in all, we have had a very good life, a very blessed life.
The three most important things to me… God, Family, and Country … That is who I am. That is what I believe.
This is a great nation we live in, it is worth fighting for. I spent my life trying to serve my country and help others. I did the best I could.
We were sailors once, and young… Remember us.
John McElroy died on February 10, 2001, and was buried with full military honors at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.