September 21, 2009
Veteran's Story: Plymouth man's crew saw atomic blasts

News Journal

PLYMOUTH -- The worst moment Al Marvin, 83, can remember was helping to bury fellow sailors at sea after the battle of Okinawa.

"It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life," he said.

A galley cook aboard the USS Rockingham, an assault troopship in the Pacific in 1944 and '45, Marvin was assigned to help bury six seamen who died of injuries after their landing craft was hit by a Japanese kamikaze plane during the landings at Okinawa.

"There were four men assigned to each litter. My job was to hold the flag as the man in our litter was dropped over the side," he said.

Marvin, who worked deep in the heart of the Rockingham making sandwiches and coffee for the crew, said the landing craft on one side of the Rockingham was destroyed by a Japanese fighter plane. This ship had just dropped off its load of soldiers on the beach at Okinawa.

"We never got touched," he said. "We did pick up most of the survivors. But six of them never got home."

The Rockingham was pulling out of San Francisco Bay with a load of Marines for the assault on mainland Japan when news came of the Japanese surrender.

"We were just passing under the Golden Gate when we heard about it," he said.

So half of the Marines were dropped off in Australia.

After a quick stop in Manila to pick up Gen. Douglas McArthur's family, car and household belongings, the Rockingham set sail for Yokahama. Marvin said after the McArthur family was put ashore, his ship made several trips back and forth across the Pacific.

"We were part of the Magic Carpet program to get the troops home," Marvin said.

The Magic Carpet wasn't always smooth sailing.

Marvin can remember some tumultuous times as the Rockingham, which also served as a hospital ship, fought its way through a typhoon to reach port in Japan.

"It was a bouncy trip," he said. "The wall rivets in the galley were flying."

At Bikini Atoll she was a floating hotel for scientists who came to see what the new atom bomb could do.

"They tested the first bomb somewhere out in the desert and then dropped two from airplanes onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Marvin said. "At Bikini after the war they wanted to see what those bombs would do to ships.

"There was every kind of ship from an aircraft carrier to battleships, cruisers, destroyers, troop ships and landing craft anchored. When the first bomb was dropped from a plane we were anchored about 16 miles away. They set the second bomb off under one of the ships. I think it was the Saratoga, an aircraft carrier."

He and the Rockingham's entire crew were on deck for both explosions.

"We wore sunglasses and put our heads between our legs so we wouldn't see the flash," he said. "Then we looked up. What we saw was a pink, beautiful cloud that kept going up and up and up. The explosion was loud, and there was lots of vibration but no tidal wave."

Soon the Rockingham was sailing into the doomed fleet and Marvin said scientists wearing protective gear got aboard the Saratoga and other ships to see what had happened to them.

He said one friend, who was aboard the small craft that carried the scientists from ship to ship, may have suffered from radiation sickness.

"(The Navy) never admitted he had radiation sickness, but he had a lot of health problems and eventually got a little pension out it," Marvin said.

Before Bikini, Marvin said the Rockingham was at sea when he got word that his father back in Plymouth had died. He said the funeral was held up until he could get home on emergency leave.

"I had no brothers or sisters and my mother was alone. I got home on a Monday. The funeral was on Tuesday. I was gone by Wednesday."

Marvin said he planned to re-enlist for four years, but his mother needed him home to support her so he came back to Plymouth and finished his hitch in the Naval Reserves.

Marvin said there were 14 boys in his 1944 graduating class from Plymouth High School, and most were gone by graduation time.

"Twelve of us joined the Navy, but two flunked the physical. They both wound up in the Army. The other two boys were in, too," he said. "One of them was in the Merchant Marine and the other in the Marine Corps. One of the girls in our class served in the Women's Army Corps."

Before he went into the Navy, Marvin worked part-time as a meat cutter in a Plymouth grocery store.

"That's why I wound up being a cook," he said.

He had his old job back within a couple days of his return in 1948.

He worked at several grocery stores in Plymouth, Mansfield and Ashland before taking a meat cutter's job at Mack's Market in Plymouth. He was there for 43 years and wound up as the store manager the last 14 years.

"I didn't retire until I was 80. I wish I had done it a lot earlier," Marvin said. "There are so many things I wanted to do that I can't do now."

Marvin married his wife, Joanne, a widow, 37 years ago. He inherited three step-daughters and now has four step-grandchildren.

He has had three bouts with cancer and underwent a hip replacement. He also has a pacemaker and is coming off a hard 16 days of battling double pneumonia at MedCentral/Shelby Hospital.

"Still, I was able to work until I was 80," he said.

As for his Navy career, Marvin said he enjoyed the quiet times and was too busy to worry when things got rough.

He even got to meet Bob Hope and several other USO entertainers while on a rare shore leave in Honolulu.