“We were just boys doing our jobs. The lieutenant taught us hopscotch and marbles. Later he helped me get my high school diploma.”
Sitting in a comfortable bungalow in mid-town Galveston, Second Class Sonarman, Cornelus Irewin Van Dussen, “Neal,” is telling a story 76 years old.
His memory is crystal clear as he explains his Navy days during World War II.
The son of a first generation Dutch hardworking father, Van Dussen grew up in Michigan. Out deer hunting one day, the car broke down and his father refused to get him. Neal missed his final exams, thus keeping him from playing basketball, so he joined the Navy at age 17 in December 1942.
A former Seascout, he qualified well and was told he would go to school, but first he was sent to a naval airport in Brazil to load planes. From there it was the shortest distance to fly to Africa.
After a year, he went to Miami for sonar school. He was impressed by the Russian soldiers perfect marching from their hotel. Next assignment was USS Samuel S. Miles, a new Cannon Class Destroyer Escort, DE 183.
Aboard Miles, this farm boy traveled through the Panama Canal and off to all the major battles of the Pacific Theater. Leyte Gulf, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Caroline Islands, New Guinea. Earning eight battle stars, her mission was to shield aircraft carriers from attacks by Japanese planes and submarines. She excelled at both, shooting down five planes, and sinking I-177, a Japanese submarine, carrying an admiral and over 100 troops.
The Japanese sub from 13 miles out was approaching a U.S. aircraft attack force near the Palau Islands. Van Dussen, listening on sonar, heard the propellers of I-177 under the waves and directed the firing of 24 hedgehogs, small mortar rockets. Splash — but nothing else. A second set of hedgehogs shot up in an arc hitting the sea 100 yards out, silence then boom. A blast so loud it was heard 13 miles away, knocking out Miles’ radio. For an hour, the task force feared Miles was lost. Only I-177 sunk.
North of Okinawa running screening duty, Miles was attacked repeatedly by Japanese planes. A kamikaze plane’s propeller killed Robert Allen when it struck. The only death suffered by the crew, but not the only injury.
Manhandling bombs and running through high seas in a complex vessel was always dangerous. Van Dussen’s quick thinking saved a sailor burned by a valve failure.
But what still haunts Van Dussen was Suicide Cliff in Saipan, where he witnessed thousands of Japanese civilians, including mothers holding babies, jump from high above the rocky beach to their deaths. Japanese propaganda had broadcast that U.S. soldiers would torture and rape them.
After a successful maritime career and a sailing business, Van Dussen longed to tell his story. A story of boys doing what needed to be done and the costs to keep us free. Visit Galveston Naval Museum to see a real destroyer escort; you might meet a veteran to thank.