Teacher is the keeper of World War II ship's history
By NICK HYTREK | Sioux City Journal, Iowa | Published: February 27, 2019
VERMILLION, S.D. (Tribune News Service) — Browse through any library or book store, and you'll find a number of books about major events and well-known stories of World War II.
But most don't contain the details, the everyday anecdotes that Dale Mette enjoys hearing.
For more than two decades, his basement has filled with reminders of those short tales from his father and a handful of men.
Mette unintentionally became the unofficial historian for the former crew of LST 751, the ship his father, Wilmer, served on in the Pacific Ocean during WWII. Inside a well-worn sketch book, Mette has jotted down notes and stories — a few of them perhaps embellished over years of telling — from the men who served with his father.
With a smile, Mette recounts those tales. There's the one about the Japanese pilot who waved to the U.S. sailors as he zipped by about 10 feet from the ship, knowing they wouldn't be able to swing the guns around fast enough to get a shot at him.
There was the ship's basketball team proclaiming itself champions of the southwest Pacific in 1945 after amassing a 92-2 record against the crews of any ship that dared to challenge them.
And when Gen. Douglas MacArthur stepped onto Luzon island, making good on his promise to return victorious to the Philippines, LST 751 was on the beach next to where it happened, the crew crowded along the rails to watch him wade ashore — several times as it turned out.
"They filmed it four or five times until (MacArthur) was satisfied with it. That's the kind of stuff I love to hear about," said Mette, who in the process of learning all these stories has compiled dozens of photos documenting the ship's history.
Mette had never heard any of these stories before his father asked him for a little help.
"My dad never talked much about his wartime experiences," Mette said.
Wilmer D. Mette, who was known to most people as W.D., grew up in Miner County, South Dakota. He married his wife, Fern, in 1942, and they were living in Baltimore when he was drafted into the Navy Reserves in September 1943. He served on board the LST (Landing Ship Tank) 751 from the time it was commissioned until after the war was over. A motor machinist mate 1st class, W.D. helped maintain the diesel engines on the ship, a vessel with a flat keel that allowed it to support amphibious landings by carrying tanks, vehicles, cargo and troops directly onto shore.
After the war, W.D. returned to Madison, South Dakota, where he and Fern raised Dale, his brother and three sisters while he owned and operated a cold storage locker plant.
In the early 1990s, W.D. saw an ad about a reunion for former LST 751 crew members. W.D. called the phone number, and the man who answered said he had only three names. W.D. took it over and asked Dale to help out.
"This just kind of really snowballed," Mette said.
W.D. threw himself into finding as many of his 100 or so former shipmates as possible, and in June 1993, they had their first reunion in Des Moines. Ten more reunions would follow until the final one in June 2004, the year after W.D. died.
Mette accompanied W.D. to four of those reunions. Prior to the first one, Mette, who has taught high school art in Winnebago, Nebraska, for 33 years, painted a banner with a picture of the ship. The banner went to every reunion, and each veteran signed his name near his duty station on the ship. The banner contains the names of all sailors confirmed to have died, a list that keeps growing.
According to the list of former crew members Mette has compiled over the years, there might be six still living.
"It's just been humbling to actually have met these men and their wives and become part of their families," said Mette, who also painted a picture of the ship that he gave to the U.S. Navy art collection.
For all his note taking and research, the veterans named Mette an honorary crew member, and the ship's signalman gave him a set of semaphore flags that he had used throughout the war. The captain's son has given Mette the ship's Third Substitute Pennant, flown when the captain was off the ship.
Mette stays in email contact with the sons of the ship's captain, executive officer and first officer, all now deceased.
"We call it the 751 family. We try to keep the memory of this ship alive," Mette said.
The ship's communications officer wrote a history of the ship at the end of the war. Mette owns a copy of it and hopes to update it with the stories he's collected.
"I've always thought that needs to be rewritten with all the little asides and vignettes that I was told and then illustrate it with the photos I have," Mette said.
The stories aren't all tales of bravery and great deeds, but they give a glimpse into the everyday lives of young men who missed home, worked hard and did their part in America's war effort.
Most of those men have now passed, but their service lives on in the stories stored in Mette's home.
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