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Bob Bigler enlisted in the Navy in 1945 and after months of training boarded the USS Okacola in San Diego for the Philippines on Aug. 11, 1945. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)
It took almost 70 years but a previously unknown piece of Bob Bigler’s past caught up with him late last month.
Bigler, who lives in Cove, was eating lunch at the Union County Senior Center when he struck up a conversation with John Turner, a lifelong La Grande resident. The Navy veterans began discussing their World War II experiences when they were surprised to learn their paths apparently crossed about 68 years ago. Bigler and Turner discovered they had traveled from the Philippines to Okinawa, Japan on the same tanker.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Bigler said.
The tanker Bigler and Turner was on was was transporting a large quantity of freshwater to Okinawa where it would be distributed to smaller Naval vessels. Bigler and Turner have no memories of seeing each other on the voyage but this is easy to understand considering that they were two of about 250 men on the vessel. What both men do remember is a terrible typhoon they traveled through, one which generated waves so high that the tanker’s pilot zigzagged to avoid hitting them head on.
Unlike other vessels caught in the typhoon, the tanker Turner and Bigler were on did not capsize in part because of its cargo. The fresh water on board steadied the tanker.
“It stabilized us,” Bigler said.
Not all craft were so luck. Vessels between the Philippines and Okinawa were destroyed by the storm. The mariner causalities included a yacht owned by movie star Errol Flynn. A Navy commander had been staying on the yacht before it was destroyed.
The typhoon in Southeast Asia was one of an array of memorable Naval experiences for Bigler, whose World War II ended almost before it began. Bigler enlisted in the Navy in 1945 and after months of training boarded the U.S.S. Okacola in San Diego for the Philippines on Aug. 11, 1945.
Three days later, Bigler’s crew learned that Japan had just surrendered, ending WWII. Bigler does not think it was a coincidence that Japan surrendered three days after he left San Diego for Southeast Asia.
“They heard me coming,’’ Bigler said with a broad smile.
The news that the war was over was not cause for elation on Bigler’s ship. He and his crewmates were ready for action.
“We were a bunch of young kids. We could hardly wait to get out there,” Bigler said.
The sailors missed seeing combat, but witnessed the horrifying aftermath.
In Okinawa, Bigler and his crew witnessed Japanese soldiers who had committed suicide rather than surrender to the U.S. military.
“They were afraid of what would happen. They had been told terrible things about how they would be treated (if captured by Americans).”
The reality was that Japanese prisoners were treated humanely by the U.S. military, Bigler said.
Following a stint in Okinawa, Bigler was sent to Japan where he assisted with the United States’ occupation of Japan for about a year. Bigler was one of more than 350,000 men with the American and British forces who participated in the military occupation.
Bigler did not have much interaction with the Japanese people.
“The civilians were standoffish. They didn’t want to communicate,’’ Bigler said.
The people of Japan had little to eat in the days following WWII. The potato and orange peels the Japanese people were scrounging for on the streets made this evident. “They were starving,” Bigler said.
The occupation transformed war-ravaged Japan into a democracy. Bigler credits the work of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was named supreme commander of the occupation by President Harry Truman, with doing an outstanding job of leading it and helping Japan get back on its feet.
“He did a good job of restoring the economy,” Bigler said.
McArthur was based at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which is where many high ranking officers stayed during the occupation.
Bigler and some friends once walked into the Imperial hoping to meet some VIPs but were quickly shown the door.
“We were thrown out quickly. We were not supposed to be there,” Bigler said with a laugh.
Following a stint in Japan of about a year, Bigler was sent by ship again to the Philippines. The ship’s passengers included Japanese prisoners who were being transported to the Philippines to stand trial for war crimes. The men were quite ill, which Bigler explained was because they were not used to eating the rich American food they were served.
The Japanese prisoners were understandably quite nervous during their voyage to the Philippines.
“Their lives were at stake,” Bigler said.
Bigler himself said he was frightened only once during his military experience. This was on the day he left his home state of Colorado for boot camp at the Great Lakes. Bigler, who lived in Wiggins, a rural Northeast Colorado town, left by train in Denver. The train passed by Bigler’s family home about 70 miles after leaving Denver.
“I looked out and thought I might not see it (my home) again. That was the only time I was afraid,” he said.