Vince Fitzgerald Remembers V-J Day
by Duke Doering, Rapid City
August 14, 1945 was a wonderful day for America. It was V-J Day, the day that Japan surrendered to end World War II. Most Americans were not even born yet, but Vincent T. Fitzgerald remembers the day very well. He was a crewman on the U.S.S. Ozark, steaming from Guam toward Tokyo Bay.
This was another historic day in the whirlwind life of a very young sailor. Just a little over a year earlier, in April of 1944, a few days before turning 17, Vince Fitzgerald asked his father, “Would it be all right if I joined the Navy?”
A response of “It may be a good idea” was all the permission the teenage Redfield, SD resident needed to join with several classmates for a bus ride to Omaha’s enlistment station. All were found qualified and enlisted on the spot. In a matter of days, Fitzgerald was on a train, headed for the Navy’s basic training camp in Farragut, Idaho.
On the second day of training, his company stood in a parade field formation and listened to the commander: “…one in every five of you will not come back from the war.” Fitzgerald remembers looking around and wondering which one of the five recruits standing around him would not return. “I never gave it a thought that it might be me.”
Boot Camp was followed by aerial gunnery school at Whidbey Island, Washington, where sailors learned to engage targets, towed by B-26 bombers, with 20 mm and 40 mm guns. Then came training as a crewman aboard the Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel Boats, the LCVPs that also were known as “Higgins Boats.” Once trained, Fitzgerald became a plank holder on the newly commissioned U.S.S. Ozark, a vehicle landing ship that was to be his battle-tested home until the end of the war.
By October, the Ozark and its crew of sailors and more than 1,000 Marines had sailed to Pearl Harbor and then further west to Luzon, Philippines, where Seaman 2nd Class Fitzgerald had his first contact with the enemy as Japanese attack aircraft and Kamikaze pilots assaulted the vessel and others in a convoy. His primary mission remained operating the LCVP’s-–in choppy water--for a landing of troops and equipment at Lingayen Gulf, Philippines. On February 19, 1945, the U.S.S. Ozark was off the coast of Iwo Jima, where Fitzgerald--still a 17 year-old--and his shipmates delivered troops and supplies to the now legendary beaches. After the troops were delivered, the LCVPs continued to haul ammunition and supplies in and wounded troops back to the relative safety of the Navy ships.
Fitzgerald clearly remembers the drama of the return trips, with the boats often overloaded beyond their 36-man capacity. For nine consecutive days they brought casualties back to the U.S.S. Ozark, in all, 622 wounded Marines.
The next month, the ship sailed to Guam to deliver wounded Marines to a military hospital. With just a few days to re-group, the ship made way for Leyte, where the U.S.S. Ozark joined Transport Squadron 13 to prepare for the next battle, Okinawa. Enemy aircraft attacked the ships continually, providing Fitzgerald and his shipmates opportunities to display their gunnery skills. During the assault on Okinawa, the South Dakota sailor was again aboard the LCVPs where he earned a promotion to Seaman 1st Class and celebrated his 18th birthday.
By many measures, a prairie teenager had experienced an unforgettable year. “I was very naïve and never did realize the perils of it all until much later,” Fitzgerald states. “I did have fear, however that fear was not my personal safety, but rather that I would make a mistake and let down my shipmates or the Marines I was delivering to shore and the wounded ones I returned to the ship.”
The U.S.S. Ozark finally anchored in Tokyo Bay on Aug. 30, 1945, two weeks after the war ended. During the run for Tokyo, the Ozark’s crew steamed alongside 20 different Navy ships to transfer 911 men via breeches buoy to their ship. The vessel’s final post war mission was more pleasant. Fitzgerald and more than 1,000 weary but relieved GI’s traveled east as part of the “Magic Carpet Fleet” that returned servicemen to the United States.
The military continued to be part of Fitzgerald’s life, as a soldier in the South Dakota Army National Guard. He left the Navy in 1948 and joined the Guard where he served as a member of the full-time staff until 1989, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer 4. Among many honors, his decades of service earned him the distinction of being among the very last World War II veterans to remain on duty with the National Guard. Fitzgerald and his wife Marianne raised a family of five and have lived in the Mountain View area of Rapid City for nearly 50 years.
Picture of a LCVP like the one used in WW II.
Typically 36 troops were on the LCVP and unloaded as shown in this picture