I met Richard Vanderwall last summer in my quest to interview WWII vets and record their stories. He and his wife are sweet people and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them. They live at the same retirement community as Mom. If you know a WWII vet, ask them to share stories– you’ll be amazed!
“By the time our ship reached Pearl Harbor on December 12, oil from the explosions of American ships was three inches thick on the water,” said Richard Vanderwall of Fort Wayne.
Vanderwall was a Seaman 2nd class assigned to the USS Indianapolis in the United States Navy. His duties included keeping the ship’s log while at sea and being stationed on the bridge above two batteries of 8-inch guns. His duty of being stationed on the ship’s bridge above the two batteries of 8-inch guns would result in permanent hearing loss in one ear.
Upon hearing of the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the USS Indianapolis which was just arriving at Johnston Island, 717 miles southwest of Honolulu, when the attack occurred. Immediately the cruiser reversed its course and headed toward the Hawaiian Islands to help.
Despite being five days after the initial attack, danger was not over. At 1800 hours on December 12, a Japanese sub fired on the USS Indianapolis. Thankfully, it missed, giving the Allies time to retaliate. “One of our destroyers blew him out of the water,” said Vanderwall.
As the pier for the USS Indianapolis was demolished by the Japanese war planes, the Indianapolis docked at another pier. No lights were allowed. For 10 days the USS Indianapolis, two other American cruisers and three American destroyers patrolled the area, looking for enemy subs and aircraft on radar.
Such excitement was not part of Richard Vanderwall’s plan when he joined the Navy in 1940. Born on a Potawatomi Indian Reservation in Delia, Kansas in 1921, Vanderwall lived with his family, including parents and two sisters and two brothers. His father worked for a man who owned a nearby ranch.
After graduating from High School in Soldier, Kansas, in 1939, Vanderwall looked for employment. The Depression made it nearly impossible to find a job. His father had been a sailor with the United States Navy during World War I. He recommended that Richard join the military and be guaranteed a pay check. With his father’s assistance in accompanying him to the recruiting station in Topeka, Kansas, Richard Vanderwall passed all of his tests and enlisted in the Navy in February 1940.
By May Vanderwall had completed Basic Training at Great Lakes Training Center (today it is called Naval Station Great Lakes). He was assigned to 120 Company G. Each sailor was issued clothing, one sheet, hammock and pillow. “Some guys never learned sleep to sleep in a hammock,” said Vanderwall who was able to do so.
From Chicago Vanderwall was sent to Treasure Island Naval Base in San Francisco, California, where he was assigned to the USS Maryland. This location was, among other things, the major Navy departure point for sailors in the Pacific.
In May 1940 the USS Maryland and its crew set out for Honolulu. During the 2,200 mile trip Vanderwall quickly acquired his sea legs. “I was never sick,” he said. After receiving a New Testament Bible from his mother, he often spent time reading it.
At Pearl Harbor Vanderwall was transferred to the USS Indianapolis. By Sept 1942 His rank was Quartermaster 2nd class. Vanderwall was not authorized to carry a side arm.
The incident with Pearl Harbor had put the United States at war with Axis powers. The American Navy, though damaged heavily by Japan’s destruction at Pearl Harbor, recovered and became aggressive in fighting the Japanese and Germans. As a result, Vanderwall saw plenty more action.
In February 1942 at Rabaul on the island of New Britain, approximately 350 miles south of New Guinea, Japanese bombers attacked American ships. One of them was the USS Indianapolis. Miraculously, the ships escaped damage while every Japanese plane was shot down by anti-aircraft fire by the ships and fighter planes in the area. One American fighter pilot, Butch O’Hare, shot down five enemy planes, eliminating the primary threat. His precise actions that day made him America’s first flying ace and a Medal of Honor recipient.
The Japanese continued to rule Rabaul, using it as an air base, though essentially cut off by Allied forces on surrounding islands. They surrendered the island in 1945.
Another naval battle for Vanderwall took place at Kiska, Alaska.
The Japanese had captured Kiska, part of the Aleutian Island chain, on June 6, 1942. The sole inhabitants of the island included a small U.S. Navy Weather Detachment consisting of ten men. The next day the Japanese captured the nearby island of Attu.
In October USS Indianapolis and other American vessels attempted to fire on Japanese troops on the island of Kiska. The Japanese returned fire, but no lives were lost. The Japanese held the island until 1943. Vanderwall and other sailors involved in the skirmish earned a battle star for the endeavor.
Another danger common to sailors came not from enemy fire but Mother Nature in the form of typhoons. In November 1942 Vanderwall’s ship encountered a typhoon with 15-foot waves and winds of 100 knots (115 mph) that endangered the lives of everyone on board. This particular typhoon lasted for two days. “We were approaching the Unimac Pass in the Aleutian chain,” said Vanderwall. “Despite the bad weather, we cleared the pass and kept the ship steady.”
By November 1942, Vanderwall had seen enough excitement on the Indianapolis and asked to be reassigned. He left the ship in November 1942 in Alaska and returned at Treasure Island near San Francisco where he was assigned to the USS Tuluran.
Vanderwall was still in the Navy on July 30, 1945, when the Indianapolis, still serving Allied forces, was torpedoed by a Japanese sub. The Indianapolis had just delivered critical parts for the first atomic bomb to be used in combat to the United States air base at Tinian when it was attacked.
The ship sank in 12 minutes. Of 1,196 crewmen aboard, approximately 317 went down with the ship. For four days the remaining men faced death, primarily by shark attacks as they awaited assistance. Survivors were spotted four days later by the crew of a patrol boat. Only 317 sailors survived. Indianapolis was the last major U.S. Navy ship sunk by enemy action in World War II.
Even though Vanderwall had been off of the Indianapolis for two years, he recalls the angry feelings he and other American sailors felt as they heard the news of its sinking. “There was not a single guy in the American Navy who didn’t want be out at sea at that time,” he said. The feelings of patriotism have continued throughout his life.
After leaving the Tuluran, Vanderwall was sent by the Navy to Washburn University in Topeka to enroll in courses for aeronautical engineering.
In July 1944 he was transferred to the University of Notre Dame for more schooling. There he met a pretty high school graduate named Erma. “She was a hostess at the Service Men’s Center,” said Vanderwall. Hostesses danced and provided conversation with soldiers. Erma left the center with her date, but returned to dance with Vanderwall.
The two kept in touch while Vanderwall resumed his military career. Following Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Vanderwall was discharged in February 1946. For being involved in three battles Vanderwall was awarded three battle stars. He proposed to Erma on Valentine’s Day 1946 and they married in April.
Vanderwall planned to use his GI (‘government issue’, a term used to refer to an American soldier) bill benefits to attend Notre Dame. He switched his major from aeronautical engineering to economics. However, the college had a 2-year waiting period, due to other soldiers wanting to use the GI bill. Vanderwall enrolled instead at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. By the time he graduated in 1949, the Vanderwalls had two children.
They would eventually have six children and later 15 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Richard Vanderwall became an insurance salesman working in LaPorte, Muncie, Fort Wayne, and Minnesota. He retired in Fort Wayne. Today, Richard and Erma Vanderwall live in a retirement community in Fort Wayne.
In June 2011 Vanderwall participated in the Honor Flight, a program that offers WWII veterans the opportunity to tour the nation’s capital, free of charge. “I am proud to have been involved as an American sailor in World War II,” he said. “The experiences I had at that time have been with me all of my life.”