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WWII vet survives sinking ship

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SIBLEY, Iowa -- Andy Mouw received a shrapnel wound in his left leg during World War II, but he never reported it and, thus, he never received the most honorable of medals, the Purple Heart.

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Mouw said he doesn't deserve it -- it wasn't like he lost an arm, or a leg ... or his life.

But what Mouw endured on a February day in 1945 aboard an aircraft carrier 25 miles off the coast of Iwo Jima ought to make every American proud of our World War II heroes.

Mouw grew up on a farm outside Hospers, Iowa, and dropped out of high school two months into his junior year. The day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was on a date with his girlfriend Nelvina. Little did he know how that event would change his life.

More than 18 months after the war began, Mouw said, "I had four other buddies and we were all going to get drafted."

He had heard how rough the conditions were in the Army, and knew the Navy offered "three square meals" a day and a dry bed to sleep in. So, the five of them enlisted in the Navy.

Each one was assigned to a different ship, with Mouw sent to Farragut, Idaho, for basic training, and then on to Astoria, Ore., to await completion of the aircraft carrier, the USS Bismarck Sea CVE-95 VC-86 -- manufactured at Kaiser Shipyards.

A few years ago he heard those ships referred to as Kaiser's little coffins because they were never expected to make it through the war.

"They were made so cheap, you could shoot through them with a 22-caliber rifle," said Mouw.

The ship transported torpedo bombers, fighter planes, aviation fuel and an assortment of ammunitions, making a couple of runs to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, before setting out toward the South Pacific.

Mouw was a seaman on board. It was his job to clean and swab the deck and every speck of the ship, but it wasn't long before he was relegated to direct service for the Bismarck Sea's Commander Born.

"I just dreaded it -- I was scared of him," said Mouw with a little chuckle. "When he looked at you, it looked like he could look right through you."

The duty was to last 30 days, and then a new seaman would be the commander's go-fer, but when Mouw's assignment was over, he had just half a day of freedom. Commander Born had asked his new sailor to get Mouw and bring him back, and the northwest Iowa farm boy would serve as the leader's shadow until the end.

Called to duty

The Bismarck Sea provided support to troops on several islands in the South Pacific. Its planes were used to "soften up the beaches" by dropping torpedo bombs to destroy the enemy, considered a small escort carrier, the Bismarck Sea accompanied six destroyers and six aircraft carriers.

"The ship came under fire more than once," Mouw said. "The kamikazes were pretty thick when we got up to Guam and Saipan."

Mouw said by then, many of Japan's "good" suicide pilots were already dead, and the new recruits weren't as successful in getting into the sun's rays to avoid detection by American troops. The ship also avoided hits by changing from its traditional zigzag course to a straight course when kamikazes were sighted. When they saw the Japanese planes heading for them, the captain called for a hard-right rudder, which often resulted in the plane diving into nearby waters -- if it wasn't shot down first.

"We missed nine of them in one afternoon," said Mouw. The last kamikaze pilot got so close he could hear plane parts hitting the side of the ship as it broke apart on impact with the sea.

Mouw said the attacks had everyone "pretty excited." That particular day they were lucky, but he knew they couldn't win them all -- and they didn't.

The big battle

On the evening of Feb. 21, 1945, the Bismarck Sea was headed toward Iwo Jima for one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. On the way, the carrier stopped at ports in both Saipan and Guam, where it was loaded with 185,000 barrels of airplane fuel, 250 bombs, 1,000 rounds of 5-inch projectiles, 2,000 powder bags, ammunition for 20- and 40-millimeter guns and thousands of rounds of shells, Mouw detailed.

"When we got near Iwo Jima, our planes were bombing the shores and beaches," he said. "We were off-shore about 30 miles and we could see the dust and the clouds. There was a big sea battle raging on the north side of the island."

The USS Saratoga was "hurt bad," said Mouw. As it moved farther away from the island, it traveled between the USS Bismarck Sea and Mount Suribachi. An estimated 50 kamikazes were in pursuit of the Saratoga, said Mouw, filling the sky and pushing the men of the Bismarck Sea into action.

The 40-millimeter guns fired on the Japanese aircraft, and while the kamikazes were fairly successful at dodging the fire power, they had a hard time getting through the constant firing of the 20-millimeter guns, Mouw said.

The men of the Bismarck Sea knew they were in trouble when a pair of kamikazes broke from the pack and headed directly for them.

"One of them was going to shoot into our octane tank," said Mouw, adding that the 40-millimeter shelling caused the suicide pilot to instead make a direct hit on the torpedo rack.

"The other (kamikaze) went right into the bomb stowage," Mouw said. "The flight deck was pretty well lit up."

When the ship's captain called out to abandon ship, Mouw went in search of his friend and fellow sailor Eddie Milota. Months before, they made a pact to meet in a specific area of the ship if something happened.

On his way to meet Eddie, Mouw faced a horrible scene -- soldiers badly burned, some dead and many crying out in agonizing pain. Nothing could be done to help them, so he kept walking until he found Eddie at their spot.

The two agreed to jump overboard together, swim as far away from the ship as possible and then inflate their life jackets. Eddie jumped, and Mouw, looking into a sea of blackness, decided to instead take one of the monkey lines dangling from the ship's side. It wasn't just a fear of jumping into the unknown that bothered him. Earlier in the day, Mouw realized the valve on his life jacket wasn't working properly.

Sinking at sea

When Mouw descended the monkey line, he discovered a bunch of sailors dangling from the end as the boat rocked in 20-foot swales. They rode out the waves together until a 3-man raft suddenly appeared. Everyone but Mouw let go of the rope to cling onto the life raft until rescuers arrived.

At one point, he let go of the rope and clung to the body of an Airdale, who was floating nearby. Mouw said he tried to get the life jacket off the man, but wasn't successful.

"All of a sudden, here come another life raft," he said. He asked permission to grab on (manners he learned from his parents back at home), and when no one answered, he grabbed hold of it anyway.

"Three in the raft were wounded and at least 20 or 21 were hanging on," he said, adding that they were all so scared they couldn't work together to get away as the wind blew them up against the ship.

From their raft, Mouw and his fellow sailors watched as flames and blasts emanated from their aircraft carrier. It took just 77 minutes from the time it was struck by Kamikazes until it sank off the coast of Iwo Jima.

Meanwhile, sailors like Mouw struggled in the water, losing energy by the minute. Each of them had their 1-cell, military-issued flashlight, which they turned on in the water in hopes of attracting a rescue boat.

Instead, they attracted more Japanese planes whose pilots began to strafe bullets at the Bismarck Sea's survivors. Mouw said he protected himself by ducking under water each time the planes passed -- a move that protected his head from getting hit because the bullets ricocheted off the water.

The Bismarck Sea sunk at approximately 7 p.m. Feb. 21, 1945, but it wasn't until 2 a.m. that a ship finally came to their rescue. By then, Mouw was so weak he had only the energy to get to the cargo net. Sailors had to climb down and haul him to safety.

"I just leaned over and kissed the deck," he said of finally getting out of the water.

Later that day, Mouw was taken to a hospital ship off the coast of Iwo Jima. It was from that vantage point that he saw history in the making.

"We saw the flag fly on Mount Suribachi -- we didn't see it go up, but we saw it waving," he said.

That was the last Mouw saw of battle. The hospital ship took the injured back to Pearl Harbor, during which time Mouw was reunited with his buddy Eddie, Commander Born and the many other sailors who were rescued from the waters. Of the 947 men on board, more than 300 were killed in action.

Mouw is still haunted by the memories of burials at sea for his fallen comrades. Their bodies were placed on a piece of plywood, a 50-pound projectile tied to each of them as an anchor, and an American flag placed over them, he described. They were hoisted to the edge of the ship, and as the plywood was tipped, their bodies fell to the waters below.

After Mouw returned to the U.S., he was given a 30-day survivor's leave in which he returned to northwest Iowa and married Nelvina, his girlfriend of three years. Together, they returned to California and he served at the Seal Beach Ammunition Depot until his honorable discharge on Jan. 12, 1946. During that time, Nelvina worked for the California Ship Building Company.

The couple moved back to northwest Iowa in early 1946 and settled in Osceola County. Mouw farmed for several years and eventually founded Mouw Transportation Company. The business was dissolved about six years ago, when he retired.

A few years ago, Mouw shared his story of survival with a northwest Iowa author who turned it into a book, "The Sinking of the USS Bismarck Sea SVE-95 VC-86: The Andy Mouw Story." There were only 450 copies printed, and Mouw has a very limited supply remaining. There is a copy available for loan at library in Sibley.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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