‘Tin can soldier’: Bessett had shipboard view of war
ADDISON — Earl Bessett watched the one-seater bomber plane approach from the gunner stack of the USS Hunt. As it skimmed overhead, its wingtip just feet from where he stood, Bessett saw the man inside of the open cockpit: a Japanese kamikaze fighter with a red scarf flowing out behind him. In the year and a half he had served on the ship, Hunt had never been so close to being killed.
It was April of 1945 and World War II was heading toward a conclusion. Bessett, 22, had served on the Hunt since it was commissioned in August of 1943, just months after he graduated from Burlington (Vt.) High School. The destroyer was part of the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 58 in the Pacific Ocean, and the ship’s main duty was to scout and patrol the outskirts of the fleet, occasionally strafing or torpedoing small enemy ships.
“They called us tin can soldiers,” said Bessett. “We used to have all the dirty jobs.”
With Veterans Day approaching this Wednesday and Americans honoring those who served in the U.S. armed forces, Bessett, an Addison resident, recently reflected on his experiences in uniform more than six decades ago.
The USS Hunt’s dangerous role, he said, was actually what kept it safe. In Bessett’s time at sea, he and his shipmates watched torpedoes slide straight under the shallow hull of their ship and planes scream overhead, heading for the aircraft carriers at the center of the fleet. It was the carriers that were the main target of attacks: the battleships were highly reinforced and the destroyers were small, but the carriers were more easily punctured and carried the fleet’s planes.
“We were small fish,” said Bessett. “They’d go right over us to get to the fleet.”
Toward the end of the war, however, the Axis was becoming desperate, and Japanese kamikaze fighters were attacking any ships they could hit. On April 14, three kamikaze fighters approached Task Force 58’s three destroyers, which were especially vulnerable, stationed at a distance from the rest of the fleet.
One of the destroyers was sunk and one badly damaged, but a lucky gun strike from the USS Hunt deflected the third enemy plane that had been hurtling toward the ship’s bridge. It knocked over the Hunt’s mast hitting the water, where kamikaze’s bomb deployed harmlessly.
Retelling the story, Bessett shook his head.
“I was lucky,” he said.
At age 19, Bessett was drafted but allowed to finish high school. In June 1943, a week after graduation, he shipped out to Springfield, Mass., where rather than be assigned randomly, he volunteered to join the Navy.
“You didn’t want to crawl anywhere and get dirty,” laughed Bessett’s wife, Cari.
And despite the difficulty of being confined to a small ship indefinitely, there were advantages to being in the Navy.
“Most times the food wasn’t too bad,” said Bessett. “Better than eating out of those G.I. cans that the soldiers and the Marines are eating out of today.”
The USS Hunt rarely docked, and would receive most supplies from other ships. Sometimes that included ice cream, butter and potatoes. They also received their mail, ammunition and fuel from other ships. On the rare occasions that the ship was in a port, the crew was allowed to go ashore for just enough time to enjoy a beer in rotating groups, so that the Hunt was never left unmanned.
Even when Bessett received the news that his mother was sick — and, shortly afterward, that she had died — he was not allowed to go ashore.
One of the things that helped Bessett through difficult times during the two years he spent aboard the Hunt was a small journal in which he recorded the events of each day, from the ship’s movements to the activities on board.
“I could’ve been court martialed if they knew I had that,” he said. “If we saw a body in the water, we’d fish it out, just to find out if it had any information like that.”
The diary, which Bessett still has, traces Task Force 58’s movements in often terse entries.
The note for Jan. 1, 1945, reads, “At sea. Happy New Year. ‘Like Hell.’”
The Hunt’s travels ranged from the Philippines to the Aleutian Islands. The Japanese task forces outnumbered the U.S. Navy’s forces four to two, but Bessett said both American fleets moved continually in order to deceive the Japanese of their numbers.
Though Bessett’s destroyer remained mostly undamaged, he didn’t come out of his service completely unharmed. As a gunner’s mate, it was his job to maintain one of the 40mm guns, fighting a daily battle against corrosion by the sea water. And during actual battles, he was strapped to the gun stack, just below the gun director, shielded from the roar of the guns by a single sheet of canvas.
“After the battle, my ears would be bleeding,” said Bessett. “In those days, they didn’t think about hearing.”
And after a trip to the sick bay for silver nitrate to stop the bleeding, he would be ready to do it again.
His hearing loss was not significant for many years after the war, but now, at age 85, he wears hearing aids in both ears — without them, he is about 80 percent deaf.
BACK HOME TO VERMONT
After the war, Bessett came home and started dating Cari, a fellow Burlington High School graduate
“We never really knew each other in high school. He was a big basketball star and I never went to any games,” she said.
But less than a year after Bessett spotted her on Church Street in Burlington and asked a friend to ask her out for him, they got married. And after successful careers — he at Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, she as a homeschool coordinator in Burlington — they retired to Addison, where Earl Bessett could pursue goose hunting with the Addison Goose Club, an organization he co-founded.
Today Bessett, as a member of the USS Hunt’s original crew, holds the designation of “plank owner.” At each reunion he attends, he sees fewer and fewer of the original crew. And he has a formidable list of surgeries behind him — double bypass surgery, surgery to clear up a blocked artery, and most recently an operation to repair a torn muscle in his leg. But six weeks after the most recent operation, he is walking well, and has even been goose hunting several times.
Even, 64 years after the World War II ended, Bessett still remembers it well. For many years, Cari said, it was difficult for her husband to talk about it.
“When you went into the service, you were there for the duration,” said Cari. “When you were in there you had that feeling, that this was going to go on forever.”