Operation Ivory Soap was a secret, but no beauty secret

Boeing B-29 over Mt. Fuji.


By TOM VOGT | The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash. (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 9, 2015

"I figure the tuba saved my life," Bernie Hulse said.

It isn't the only remarkable item on his World War II résumé. Hulse left his tuba assignment to join a secret project called Operation Ivory Soap.

A military operation named for a floating bar of soap might not sound particularly menacing, but it was part of the war's final push. It supported the B-29 bombing campaign over Japan that ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs.

"Ivory Soap" was a bit of an improvisation, blending men and resources from the Army, Navy and Merchant Marine. Hulse was a radio operator, part of an Army Air Force unit that served on a Liberty ship.

The sea-going soldiers helped solve a problem that popped up in the Pacific theater. If American warplanes were damaged or had mechanical problems, the pilots couldn't be choosy about a landing spot. And airfields on the forward thrust of the Pacific campaign didn't have the skilled men or replacement parts or shop equipment to do major repairs.

So the repair shops came to them. Six Liberty ships, including the one Hulse was on, were converted into shops to repair aircraft. They were designated Aircraft Repair Units, Floating (just like those bars of soap) and could repair planes as big as the B-29 Stratofortresses.

Eighteen smaller ships were outfitted as Aircraft Maintenance Units; they could handle fighter planes.

When Operation Ivory Soap was being organized, Hulse was playing a tuba at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans.

"I had won the Pennsylvania state tuba solo championship in high school," the 90-year-old Vancouver veteran said.

After he was drafted in 1943, "They sent me to New Orleans to play in this band. We were the port of embarkation band. We played for guys who were leaving or coming back."

Without that skill, "I'd have gone into infantry training and would have been an infantry replacement," Hulse said. "That was about the shortest life expectancy the Army had."

Hulse's musical ability found another outlet when the aircraft repair vessels were being staffed.

"They were short of radio operators, and the Signal Corps said they'd make some," Hulse said. Six band members gave it a try, and five became radio operators.

"The test was a bunch of dots and dashes, and people who can read music had an advantage," Hulse said in the east Vancouver home he shares with wife, Joan; they've been married since 1948.

One of his friends, Tony Scanzello, got married before they left for the Pacific. Tony was at his wedding reception when he was told to report back to the ship immediately. As an Army major stood next to him, Tony telephoned his bride and explained that he wouldn't be seeing her for a while.

"He was not the happiest guy for six months," Hulse said.

Their ship eventually wound up at Tinian, an island that was the launch point for a big share of B-29 bombing missions. His shipmates used the on-board mechanical shops to rebuild electric motors, repair radar units and fix propellers.

"They would set up ashore to do engines; that didn't work too well on a rocking ship," he said. "We also had machines that supplied 70 percent of the breathing oxygen for B-29s going to Japan."

After the war, Hulse earned a degree in chemistry from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. That's also where he met Joan (pronounced "Jo Ann.")

"It's a Methodist college," Hulse said. "As Methodist preachers' kids, we paid half the tuition."

Hulse didn't know that he'd been part of a top-secret operation until long after the war.

"I never knew about the 'Ivory Soap' thing until recently," Hulse said. "I never knew it was secret. But it was routine that you didn't talk about anything."


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