World War II Veteran Interview With H.L Caskey

Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans in 2011-12.  Most of these 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).

H.L. Caskey explains that he, like most veterans of World War II, experienced the entire gamut of emotions during his years of service:  anxiety, fear, uncertainty, happiness, triumph.

This 18-year-old boy, a Navy welder working below deck when his ship was attacked for the first time by the enemy, admits his initial concern. But in attack after attack, Caskey said he got madder and meaner to the point where he wasn’t fearful, only focused on his duty.  (He’d also talked his way to topside).  Yet he believes that his most heart-touching moments came in Tokyo Bay in 1945 when he saw the liberated American soldiers, gaunt from starvation and abuse from their Japanese captors.

Henry Leslie Caskey Jr. was born May 4, 1925, to Leslie and Fannie Caskey.  They were living in Waxahachie, TX, at the time but shortly moved to the Cypress Creek area where young H.L., the eldest of nine, began his schooling.  His father supported his family as a logger.  When that community school was closed, the Caskey kids attended Dodson High School.

Caskey has a strong build but says there weren’t many sports opportunities in the rural school at the time.  “I did OK in my studies, as far as I went.  That was just through the 9th grade, though.  Pearl Harbor happened and I figured I could be more use in the war effort if I learned a trade.  I went to the trade school in Alexandria to learn welding.  I could make money at the shipyard in New Orleans.  Chopping cotton didn’t pay but 50 cents a day and I’d had enough of that.”

He recalls that “Fatty Bass, a big man, came by my house looking for boys, women and all to learn the trade and build ships.  All the men were in service.  I loaded up with him and went right then.”  After only five weeks in Alexandria, this fast-learning teen from the cotton patch was moved on to New Orleans for advanced training.  He lived in a dormitory while he learned all possible welding methods.

The pay was good, too.  From 50 cents a day on the farm, he went to $17 a month in Alexandria (with all the food he could eat plus a place to sleep).  But once he was trained and working in the shipyard, this boy was in high cotton, indeed, at $120 per week.  He sent a lot of that money back home to help support his family.  This was November 1942.

“We built sea-going tugboats,” said Caskey.  “Now I’m not talking about those tugs you see on the Mississippi.  These were as big as some of those warships.  They’d go out and tow crippled ships.  We finished a couple of those in a little over a year that I worked there.”

“When I turned 18, I wanted to come home for a while.  I went by the Selective Service Office to say I preferred the Navy and see how long it would be before I was called up.  ‘Right now, if you want,’ they said.  I didn’t want to go that quick but it wasn’t long before I got the call.”

So in fall 1943, Caskey was processed through Fort Humbug in Shreveport.  Following a couple of days of leave, he was put aboard a freight train to San Diego for basic training.  That didn’t take long and by Christmas he was aboard a ship bound for the Pacific.  “When the ship first came in, it had holes in it they were patching.  I had a good idea where we were heading.  I was pretty young but I was the ship’s welder.  There was an older welder who’d been on board but he was taking leave.”

The first action Caskey saw aboard the USS San Juan, an anti-aircraft cruiser, was New Georgia.  The cruiser would be involved in 12 other battles as they made their way to Tokyo Bay.  (Cited engagements were Treasury/Bougainville, Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, Asiatic-Pacific Raids, Western New Guinea, Marianas, Leyte Gulf, Luzon, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Third Fleet Strikes on Japan and the Philippine Liberation).

“None of the battles were good.  I’d say Okinawa and Iwo Jima were the worst.  The Japanese knew the end was getting close so they came at us with those kamikaze planes.  They figured they were going to die anyway so they wanted to take us with them.”

The veteran revealed, “At first, I didn’t know when we would start shooting those big guns, with 5-inch shells.  Everything is quiet, then all of a sudden, boom.  Maybe that didn’t bother me so much.  What did bother me was that my station was below deck in the repair division.  I couldn’t see what was going on.  Finally I was able to move topside.”

While Caskey described his daily jobs as small.  One time the cruiser bumped the side of a larger ship and salt water began leaking into a fresh water tank.  He welded for two days straight but the outside water pressure was too great to overcome.  They finally sealed off the tank and allowed it to fill with salt water.  Other fresh water tanks were still available.

Shortage of food was no problem, “for what it was,” said Caskey.  “Horse meat for breakfast, powdered eggs and plenty of bacon.  We had good cooks who made fresh bread every day.  There was a big kitchen with two galleys.  In battle, they made sandwiches.  Sometimes you’d stay at general quarters for two or three days in a row.”

When the war ended, as the cruiser moved into Tokyo Bay, they spotted two allied prisoners of war swimming and waving for help.  “They were Brits who’d jumped in and started towards the ship, thinking they were closer than they were.  What got me was when we picked them up, they looked so poorly.  They didn’t have a rag of clothes on and they were just skin and bones.  I didn’t think anyone could be so poorly and live.  To welcome the POWs, the ship’s cooks fixed two tables of every possible food they might want.  But they’d been so starved for so long, they could only eat a handful.”

The liberating military teams went ashore and began freeing POWs in the many internment camps in the area.  Everybody wanted to help.  In the camps, condition was no better.  The excitement of liberation was too much for some of the Americans who died while they were being taken out.  “Seeing those POWs was the most heart-touching.  They’d starved them to death.”  Caskey was not part of the liberating force ashore and the San Juan saw only those two British POWs but he said the clearing of the prison camps was accomplished in less than a week.

As the war had progressed, Caskey said, the men had become calloused to their initial fear.  “After a while, you accumulated something that made you meaner and meaner.  You didn’t want to hide from the enemy attacks…you wanted to be involved.  You know, it took me 60 years to get over that hate.  I finally asked the Lord to let me forgive.  I didn’t talk about my experiences for the longest time.  My kids could look at the books and photos but we didn’t talk, except some to my son, David.  Finally, when the grandkids came along and asked questions, I began to talk about the war.”

This veteran not only recalls where he was when news of the war’s end was announced, he had the presence of history to find his ship’s photographer friend to take a picture of his crew.  “I was still up when word came through on the radio.  I went around, waking up men with the news.  There was this one guy who’d said when the war was over, he was going to fall down on his knees on the hatch and praise the Lord.  When I gave him the news, he did.”

The San Juan was still in Tokyo Bay when the unconditional surrender was signed aboard the USS Missouri.  Not long after, they sailed home, escorting a hospital ship filled with freed American POWs.  Once stateside, Caskey became anxious as he watched virtually all of the crew getting discharged and going ashore.  “It looked like I was fixing to go back to Japan so I went to see my friend, Lt. ‘Dusty’ Rhodes, who’d go on to become the ship’s captain.  He wanted to keep me on but I said, ‘Lieutenant, I came to do a job but I’m finished.  I’m not going back.’  Within 15 minutes, an announcement came over the speakers, ‘Seaman First Class Caskey, come down to quarterdeck.’  In another 30 minutes, I was gone.”  He was discharged in New Orleans Dec. 16, 1945.

By then, his parents had moved on to Oak Grove.  Caskey tried his hand at growing a cotton crop there, but only briefly.  Thanks to the Navy, he had a marketable trade skill and went to work in a shipyard, as he had started.  Only this time is was one in Galveston.  Still not settled, he moved on to help in the reconstruction in Texas City that had been devastated in April 1947 when two cargo ships exploded at the terminal.   He then went with the Brown & Root construction of a Dubach refinery.  In 1951, he moved to pipeline work with Pipeline Union 798 and traveled all over the United States, Canada, Alaska, South America, Persian Gulf and Egypt (where he left in a hurry when he saw the 6-Day War unfolding).

Following a full career in the pipeline business, this veteran wasn’t finished with work.  He built a machine shop, then began Caskey Drilling and then went into logging.

Caskey first met Dorothea Durbin from Brewton’s Mill in July 1943.  When they first met before his service, “he seemed like quite a catch.  He had a shiny new 1937 Ford with plenty of passengers, new clothes and coins in his pocket.  He came home in December 1945 and we were married April 1, 1946.  Maybe we should have thought about what that date means.  We eloped.  I’d ordered a wedding dress and picked it up when it came in.  Only my big sister, Aubyn, knew and helped in the planning.  We ran off and got married in Bro. Stokes’ home.”

It obviously worked out for the best.  Now a couple for over 66 years, they had three children, Donna, “who came along nine months later,” Cheryl and David.  They have seven grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren, ages 13 on down.

“We give God the credit for all that has happened in our lives,” Caskey concluded.  “We’ve been blessed.”

Crew celebrates end of World War II