Wednesday, July 27, 2016

TOP STORY>>At the surrender in Tokyo Bay

Leader staff writer

World War II veteran Thurlow Fernandez, 94, of Sherwood witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay when the defeated empire signed a peace treaty aboard the USS Missouri at 9 a.m. Sept. 2, 1945.

Fernandez spoke about his six years in the Navy and being a boxer during an interview at his home with retired Col. Anita Deason, military and veterans affairs liaison for Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

Fernandez, who spent six years in the Navy, was born on July 11, 1922, in Caney, Kan. His parents were Spanish immigrants. His father, Jose, was a barber and a shoemaker. His mother, Rosa, was a farmer and a housewife. When his father first came to the United States, he worked in the coal mines in West Virginia before moving to the Midwest.

Fernandez was the youngest child. He had one brother, Jose and four sisters, Savenah, Sarah, Liberty and Olga.

Fernandez’ was in kindergarten when his family was living in Chicago.

“At home we spoke Spanish all the time. I still remember in kindergarten the teacher getting on to me, but I learned (English),” Fernandez said.

Fernandez was 12 years old when his father died from cancer. He said his father was very active but caught a lung illness working the mines and it affected his health. Fernandez, his brother and mother moved to Gary, Ind., to live with his sister Olga’s family.


“When I was kid and growing up, I was always fighting. The neighborhood I grew up in, you had to learn how to fight. I was in a Spanish family in an Italian neighborhood — Al Capone’s neighborhood. He had a big garage across from my home, full of whiskey. Police raided that. My father said, ‘Go get some,’” Fernandez said.

“My brother was different than me. I was a fighter. He was a lover,” Fernandez said and then laughed.

Fernandez started out as a featherweight and moved up to welterweight. His nickname was “Turtle.” He fought in the Golden Gloves in Gary.

“I used to fight with Tony Zale and his brother, who was my coach,” Fernandez said.

Zale was world middleweight champion several times in the 1940s.

Fernandez said he had a manager who promoted fights for him. We made $5 to $10. That was good money back then. Fernandez boxed at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He fought some professional fights Friday nights at the Medinah Athletic Club in Chicago, he said.

Fernandez continued boxing while in the Navy.

“I won the welterweight title in the Navy. Nobody wanted to mess with me. I was well known in the Navy,” Fernandez said.


Fernandez enlisted in the Navy in 1941 during his senior year at Froebel High School in Gary to keep his brother at home to support his mother.

“I was always very fond of the Navy and the ships. The Navy was very good to me,” Fernandez said.

After basic training he was sent to San Diego, Calif., and assigned to the U.S.S. Hornet aircraft carrier. He was standing watch at the base on Dec. 7, 1941, when the news arrived that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. A commander put his arm on Fernandez’s shoulder and asked where he was from. Fernandez told him Gary, Ind.

“You won’t see Gary for a while,” the commander said.

Fernandez was assigned to a destroyer repair unit and was transferred to New York City in February. A group of 200 sailors were waiting at Pier 92 to board a naval ship to join a large convoy headed to Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The French passenger ship Normandy was in the next pier and caught fire.

“We were called to fight the fire. The fire was started by enemies. We were sent to help take some of the people off the ship. We fought it all day and it tipped over,” Fernandez said.

The voyage to Ireland took 14 days. Fernandez said he lost count of how many ships were torpedoed and sunk by enemy submarines.

“It was an awful sight. You don’t stop to pick them up,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez recalled helping a merchant marine sailor while at a camp in Londonderry in Northern Ireland.

“All he had were the clothes he had on him. I asked him where were all his shipmates. He said he lost them and he didn’t know what happened to them,” he said.

“The merchant marine was from New York. I called him to my Quonset hut. He was about my size. I fitted him with my clothes and gave him eight dollars. He went ashore and had a good time. He gave me a knife and said, ‘I want you to keep this to remember me.’” Fernandez said.

The merchant marine returned Fernandez his uniform. Fernandez still has the knife.

He was assigned to diesel generator watch and maintenance.

Fernandez missed the invasion of Normandy due to a hernia.

“I was hospitalized. I would not be here if I was on it. Every one of my shipmates were killed on the ship I was supposed to be on,” Fernandez said.

At a base in Falmouth, England, Fernandez was assigned to maintain the engines of landing ship tanks, landing craft personnel and landing craft infantry for the invasion.

“That’s where I must have lost a lot of my hearing. We didn’t wear hearing protectors. You stood right by the engines revving up to 12,000 RPM. You only heard noise for the 12 hours you stood watch,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez was stationed in Falmouth, where he met his first wife, Joyce.

He had to get permission from the base commander to marry. Fernandez was given the weekend off and a bottle of rum.

In September 1944, Fernandez got orders to return to the United States. It took three days on the passenger ship Queen Elizabeth. The ship carried German prisoners of war and wounded U.S. soldiers.

“They let the German prisoners on first. There were 5,500. They had the upper deck, and we had all the lower decks. We got along good with them. They were behind cages. We’d go up and talk to them. They talked English just as good,” Fernandez said.

He said the Germans left the ship first in New Jersey.

Fernandez had a 30-day leave and saw family back in Gary. It was Fernandez’s first return to the U.S. in three years.


Fernandez was later assigned to the USS Delta, a freighter that shipped pineapples from Hawaii and was converted to a heavy repair ship for the Navy.

The USS Delta joined a fleet of ships for the invasion of Japan. They were in Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands when word came that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.

Fernandez said they picked up several American sailors who lost their ship to torpedoes from Japanese submarines. One of the sailors was named Bob Dressel.

“I was in charge of the diesel room. They assigned him to the diesel room, and I gave him the job of keeping records in shape. He got my name and took a liking to me,” Fernandez said.

Dressel gave Fernandez his name and phone number back home.

“When I got out of the Navy, I contacted him,” Fernandez said.


Fernandez was in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan formally surrendered ending World War II.

“When the war was over, we pulled in alongside the USS Missouri. We could see the Japanese come aboard. All our officers were right behind them. We could see them signing with the lights on it. We could hear them talking. We were told to be very polite to them and don’t get snotty with them,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez and several sailors were assigned to board the Japanese battleship Nagato. He said the conditions in Japan were terrible and he gave kids candy and food when he went on shore.

“I was assigned to the engine room to see how it worked and get the engine started. The Japs were very clever. The engine was started with air compressors and they damaged them all, so you couldn’t start the engine. One of our officers was very clever. He got oxygen tanks from our ship and made fittings to put on the engines and we got the engines started,” Fernandez said.

In October 1946, Fernan-dez was picked to stay with the USS Delta and put it in storage at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. He mothballed the engines, compressors and electric equipment.

In Fernandez’s Sherwood living room is a black clock above the fireplace mantel.

Fernandez was in the USS Delta’s storeroom when he saw a shelf full of clocks in boxes. He saved one of them.

Fernandez was honorably discharged from the Navy in May 1947 as chief machinist mate. He said the Navy wanted him to stay in, but Fernandez’s wife was hospitalized for tuberculosis and he wanted to take care of her.

He went back to night school on the G.I. Bill and graduated with a two-year degree from Purdue University in Indiana.

He called his Navy buddy Bob Dressel, an executive with General Motors in LaGrange, Ill., who had promised him a job after the war. Fernandez and his wife took a bus, because they didn’t have a car and visited Dressel and his family. They had dinner at the Dressels’ home on a Friday.

Dressel told Fernandez he would have a job for him on Monday at the Electro-Motive plant, which made generators for railroad diesel engines.

Dressel knew Fernandez’s experience in the Navy and put him in the generator and injector room.

Fernandez moved up from cleaning and testing injectors and governors to teaching others how to work on them to eventually being salesman. Fernandez worked for GM for 32 years until retiring in 1980.

“General Motors was good to me,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez and his first wife were married 38 years until she passed away more than 30 years ago. A few years later, he married Margie, an Arkansan. They have been married 32 years.

He moved to Little Rock in 1964. “The reason I came to Arkansas was three technicians were sent to the Missouri Pacific Railroad to hold classes teaching how to operate locomotives. I was asked to stay one year, and here I am yet.”