At 17, Howard Mercer was on a mortar warship in the South Pacific portion of World War II, and he had a thirst to know all that was going on.
“I came to realize there were people in the conning tower above me, and they knew more than I did,” he recalls.
“I began wondering, how can I get up there?”
Mercer, now of Lubbock, Texas, had enlisted in the Navy in 1944 in Dallas and was assigned to the 158-foot LCI(M) 353. The ship was capable of firing mortars to support invasions and could also fire 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns plus a 50-caliber machine gun.
He became friends with the head signalman and asked him frankly, “ ‘How do I get up where you are?’ And he said, ‘Do you really want to learn?’
“I said, ‘Yes, I do — not to take your job — but how do I get in the conning tower?’ ”
In 18 months, Mercer became a signalman with enough skills to be promoted from seaman to third-class signalman, which was equivalent to the rank of sergeant.
During February 1945, in the latter stages of the war, Mercer’s ship was part of an immense armada gathered at Ulithi atoll in the Caroline Islands. It was assembled because the U.S. fully intended to invade Japan.
“I had never seen so many ships in all my life — and was never told what it meant. I just thought there were a lot of ships.”
He remembers, “They had everything in the world — tankers, aircraft carriers, destroyers and battleships.
“The United States went out to this island, moved everybody out — including some Japanese — and took over the complete island.”
From that point, it was stair steps, he said.
“We went from there to Leyte — they had just recaptured the northern end of the Philippines — and we invaded Okinawa out of the Philippines.
“From there we were going to go into Japan, but they dropped the bomb,” he said of the atomic weapons used to end the war.
At Okinawa, Mercer and his crew had met kamikazes, a name transliterated from Japanese to refer to the suicide pilots who were crashing their planes into U.S. ships.
Reports indicated 50 of the attack planes were operating during the battle.
“I saw destroyers being hit, and the Mississippi battleship I saw hit twice by kamikazes in one day.”
Mercer remembers his ship had a doctor on board, and they were also involved with rescue work. One distress call came from a destroyer escort at the northern end of Okinawa.
“We went and tied alongside her port side and began to help their wounded,” he said.
With his ship tied alongside the disabled ship, Mercer was watching a destroyer about 2 miles away that was under attack by kamikazes.
The destroyer was firing on the planes, but some were getting through to hit the ship.
Suddenly, one of the kamikazes went over the destroyer and headed directly for Mercer’s mortar ship. The plane was skimming low over the water, almost on a level with the ship itself.
“I could see the sea water being raised by its props.”
Only two of the ship’s guns could be fired because the disabled ship was tied alongside.
At that moment, Mercer thought he would die.
“I didn’t see there was any way we were going to escape. I thought, there is no way under God’s green earth that he is not going to hit us.”
But inexplicably, the kamikaze pilot pulled the plane up at the last moment and flew into the clouds, disappearing from sight.
Mercer recalls, “We could only fire two 20mm guns at the plane, but by God’s blessing the plane pulled up.”
Mercer had survived to return home. In 1947, he married Emma Lou, whom he had known from high school and who will have been his wife for 67 years on March 1. They have three children, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild, and have been living in Lubbock since 1953.
Although the war was over after the Battle of Okinawa and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the LCI(M) 353 did go to Japan in late 1945 and early 1946.
Mercer and the crew were almost tourists compared with the time in Okinawa and ate at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo where Gen. Douglas MacArthur was staying. He remembers standing outside to take a picture of the legendary general when he left for the day.
“I don’t know why we went to Japan, but we went, and I was glad to have the chance to go. I wouldn’t have gotten the picture of MacArthur if I hadn’t.”