California Council for the Humanities

California Stories Initiative

Years of Valor, Years of Hope

Tulare County and the Years 1941-1946

Tulare County Library

The Friends of the Tulare County Library

And the Tulare County Historical Society

Interviews in 2003-2004

Interviewee: John Northcutt


Date: October 24, 2003

Report No:  1

Interviewer: Lois Owings


Place: Tulare County, CA

Place of Interview: Visalia, CA




Note: John Northcutt died in July, 2004, before the final edit of this interview.

LO: This is October 24, 2003. Years of Valor, Years of Hope: Tulare County

And the Years 1941-1946. Interviewer: Lois Owings. These are the memories of John Northcutt. The interview is being done in Mr. Northcutt’s home in Visalia, California. What is the date of your birth?

JN: I was born August 23 1923, in the state of Texas.

LO: What were your parents’ names and where were they from?

JN: My parents were from Texas. My mother’s maiden name was Velma Hardin. My dad was Felix Northcutt and they were both from Texas.

LO: How old were you when World War II began?

JN: I was 18 years old when World War II started, I think.

LO: What was your life like prior to the war?

JN: Well, I didn’t have a very good life, because I came from a very poor family. My dad and my brother Byron ("Buck") and I came to California in 1939, when I was 15 years old. We worked at Tagus Ranch picking peaches for twenty-five cents an hour. My mother, brother Talmadge and sister Vayda came out later that year.

LO: You said you were working, and you weren’t married. When did you get married?

JN: Well, I didn’t get married until 1946, after the war.

LO: That was after the war. Okay, let’s see, did you have children at any time during the war?

JN: No, not to my knowledge.

LO: Where were you and what were you doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed?

JN: I was back in Texas, working for a road construction company. When I heard the news on a Sunday morning, that Pearl Harbor was bombed, I immediately left Texas, a day or two later, when I got a ride out to California. I started begging my dad to let me go into the Navy. Which he wouldn’t let me go for a while, but he finally, in late 1942, he agreed to let me join the Navy. I joined the Navy in 1942, late ’42, and stayed in the Navy until late ’45.

LO: All right. Did you, after you heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, did you sleep well after that or did you have fear?

JN: Well, no, I didn’t know even where Pearl Harbor was, when it was first bombed. I just knew that we had entered the war with Japan , and I slept well and I wasn’t frightened or anything myself. I just wanted to get home and get into the Navy and go help the rest of the men take care of the business at hand and that would be to whip Japan , to defeat Japan .

LO: Okay, you said get home, where was home to you?

JN: Visalia, California was home.

LO: Do you recall your attitude or those of your friends toward the Germans?

JN: Well, toward the Germans, that was secondary to Japan . Japan was the one that was a threat to us.

LO: Italians, how about them?

JN: Well, I was young and uneducated. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade, so I wasn’t (chuckle) too sharp on anything, except just what was on hand.

LO: Okay. Why do you think that you felt like you did?

JN: Cause I felt like I did. (chuckle)

LO: Okay, did your own life change?

JN: Well, my life changed when I went in the Navy. Before I went in the Navy, I was just another California fruit tramp. My dad and my bother and I, we did farm labor, the same thing that the Mexican people are doing now. That is what we did then, until I went into the Navy. I had about three years of farm labor; that’s one of the reasons I dropped out of school. Like I said before, I came from a very poor family, and I helped out. I went to work when I was 15 years old, drawing a man’s wages. I did that until I went back to Texas and worked very shortly for the construction company there. When I heard the war started, I came back to California and went into the Navy pretty soon.  I went ahead and did farm labor, cause that’s the only thing that I knew, until I volunteered to go into the Navy in, I think it was October, 1942.

LO: All right, describe your experience during basic training.

JN: Well, basic training then was different than it is now, because a war had just started, so, naturally, we were rushed through our basic training, which didn’t amount to much. I don’t know; it was just a couple of months in Farragut, Idaho, where my basic training was. As soon as I finished base training, they sent me to Treasure Island, up by San Francisco, to assign me to a ship, because I didn’t want any schooling. I only wanted to go to sea and get in the fight, so they assigned me to a destroyer, which is just a fighting ship. I was assigned to the U.S.S. Bush, VD529. It was built at Bethlehem Steel in San Francisco and it was a brand new ship. I was on it one day before it belonged to the Navy, but I stayed on it until the day it sunk and I was one of the last men off of it. That’s how I came by the Bronze Star medal.

Ed: Farragut Naval Training Station, established in 1942, trained 293,381 sailors. It is located in Athol, Idaho and is now an Idaho State Park.

LO: And what was your job on the ship?

JN: Well, my job on the ship kind of varied, because I really didn’t want to have any rank or any responsibility and I declined the rank twice, so I could just stay as a Seaman First Class. I did various things on the ship. I stood watch on the bridge most of the time. I stood wheel watch and Quarter Master watch and Seaman watch and Lookout watch and I just stayed Seaman First Class until I got out of the Navy. I did various things on the ship, but I had no specific, really, no specific job to do.

LO: Okay. Were you or your unit involved in any unusual operations? If so, please give details.

JN: Well, one operation we were in, that I’m proud of, was that the destroyer I was on and four other destroyers escorted General Douglas McArthur from New Guinea to the Philippines . We met the landing force at daylight in Leyte Gulf, because we had left several days later than they did, because we were faster than they were. Our little convoy was five destroyers, and a cruiser that General McArthur was on and a communication ship that had a lot of brass on it. So, we escorted General McArthur for the initial landing in Leyte Gulf. Of course, we did a lot of business with McArthur, because we were with the Seventh Fleet and that’s what they called the McArthur Navy.

We were in amphibiousness. We made nine major amphibious landings during World War II, starting in the Aleutian Islands in the Aleutian chain between Alaska and Russia . We invaded Attu and Kiska Islands, then they sent us to the South Pacific and that’s where we joined up with General McArthur, in New Guinea . We started our island hopping to Japan and that included New Guinea and the Admiral Islands, Iwo Jima, and the Philippines . We got as far as Okinawa and they assigned us on Radar Picket Station #1 and we lasted six days there.

We invaded Okinawa April 1st and we got sunk April 6, 1945 in the late afternoon. We had to stay in the water until the next morning before we were picked up. We lost 114 men. Some died of exposure, because the water was cold. Some were shot, some were blown up and we ended up with quite a few wounded. I was among the wounded. And there were 114 dead sailors. That was on April 6, 1945.

LO: How was communication? I’m sure that was important to you, with your family back home in Visalia. How did you keep in touch with them?

JN: Well, back then, the Postal Service had what they called V-Mail. It didn’t cost us anything to write and it was a condensed little letter that was called V-Mail. That’s the only way that we had communication with our folks. It was by air, by mail.

LO: Did your views toward race relation change? And you said you didn’t really have any view against the race or anything during the war, right?

JN: Well, of course, I had a view against the race. I said the German people; I wasn’t in the war with German people. I certainly didn’t like Hitler. The German people, I think were a lot more humane people than the Japanese. The Japanese people were very barbaric at that time and I hated them. To be honest, I don’t even like them today. The Japanese people; I saw things in World War II that they did that was very, very inhumane.

I saw the remains of a group of CB’s, that’s part of the Navy, the construction battalion; and they went ashore on a little island. They weren’t even armed. They went ashore to build a little jetty on a little island in the Admiral group that we had invaded with McArthur’s crew. They cut their heads off and threw them back in the water. They were just very barbaric people then. I didn’t like them then and my feelings are still the same.

LO: Okay, what do you recall doing when you had time off? Your free time.

JN: Well, I’ll tell ya, we didn’t have much free time for close to the three years that we were afloat. We did go to Australia one time, which was very pleasant. We got a five-day liberty in Sydney, Australia . Other than that, we were in the islands with the natives, where there were only native people and we didn’t have any social life or anything like that. Like I said, we were on a destroyer and they only built a destroyer to fight and the destroyer was always the first ones there to the fight. So, all we did was fight or practice to fight.

LO: Did they bring in any USO Shows, to your unit?

JN: Well, they didn’t bring (chuckle) the USO Shows to where we were, because we were like what you would say was the front line.  We didn’t get to see (chuckle) any USO or shows of any kind.

LO: Is there anything or anyone that you especially remember from your service time?

JN: Oh, I remember lots of people. I was a very close shipmate of a very young man. I think he was 19 when he died. I named my daughter after him. He was a shipmate of mine and his name was Tony Wysocki. He was from Detroit, Michigan and we were very close friends, because we were together all the time that the ship was afloat. He got shot. A plane, strafing on us, shot him and he lived for four hours after being shot through and through. We held on to his body and he was buried on Okinawa. When I got out of the service and got married, my first child was a daughter and I named her Toni. He was one of the most outstanding people that I knew, personally, during World War II. 

Like I say, we worked with McArthur and I helped him aboard ship one night and helped him back over to a PT boat, when we were making the invasion of the Admiral Islands. I also remember Admiral Crutchley, from the Australian Navy. He was captured by the Germans and they burned a swastika on the side of his face. Then when I met him in New Guinea in 1943, he had grown a beard over the scar that it left. The ship that I was on, we were assigned; we were a lend/lease ship to the Australian Navy and we served a year and a half with the Australian Navy under Admiral Crutchley’s command. The day we invaded the Philippines , a Japanese bomber dropped a bomb on the HMS Australia, which was a heavy cruiser. It killed the captain and Admiral Crutchley and a bunch more of the officers. We went back to our own Navy, operating with our own Navy then.

Ed. A biography of Sir Victor Alexander Charles Crutchley, Admiral, states that he died in 1983. He was a British Admiral who commanded the Australian Naval Squadron 1942-1944, was the Flag Officer Gibraltar 1945-1947 and retired in 1947.

LO: Let’s see. I have a few more questions. You said you weren’t a prisoner of war. Tell me about your experience after your ship was sunk and about you, yourself.

JN: Well, after the ship was sunk and we stayed in the water overnight, in the coldest water, and the darkest night I have ever seen in my life and listened to my shipmates die, they put us aboard a crew transport that had been hit by a suicide plane. We went aboard it April the seventh and stayed on it until May the fourteenth. That’s when we got back to the United States . And they gave me a thirty-day survivor’s leave with one-day traveling time. I came home. And when I went back to Shoemaker up by San Francisco, I was assigned to a tugboat, a yard tub big, that tied up the foot of Broadway in San Diego. I spent my remaining time there. And that’s where I was at, when World War II was over. I was on the tugboat, the U.S.S. Pocahontas, tied up at the foot of Broadway in San Diego and I had lots and lots of points. We got out on a point system and I had way more than enough points to get out, but I had to stay aboard for about three more months, until they got a replacement for me. I was second in command and I was the navigator and I was on it for about six months until the war was over and I got out of the Navy and came home to Visalia.

LO: What was the reaction of your unit when the war was over? Was there a lot of celebrating?

JN: Well, myself, personally, I was still pretty upset about losing my shipmates at Okinawa and the day the war was over, there were four tugboats that tied up at the foot of Broadway. I was on one of those and everybody went ashore that night, except me.

LO: Okay. You said that you had some medals. Would you tell me about your medals?

JN: Well, the medal I have is the Bronze Star Medal with the Combat V on it. That is the only medal that I have. The others are ribbons that were awarded to us for different engagements we were in. I have four of those. Two of them are just victory medals, which a lot of people had, and a defense medal. But I have two medals that I am pretty proud of. And that’s the Philippine Liberation Medal; it was awarded by the Philippine Government. I have the Asiatic Pacific Medal that has seven battle stars on it. The Philippine Liberation has two battle stars on it. We were in nine major battles during World War II. On our record on the ship, we’d sunk three of their destroyers, two of their merchant ships and maybe, I think, eight or ten of their bombers and 27 of their fighter planes. That was kind of our record. And one submarine.

LO: Were you able to find a job, or did you have job opportunities after you returned from the war?

JN: Yes, I was very lucky, I was very fortunate. I didn’t have any trouble getting a job, because the Southern Pacific Railroad was trying to hire all the veterans that they could. I went to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad as Receiving and Shipping Clerk. I was first in Tulare and then I had a chance to move to Visalia. I worked for them for a while.

LO: Did you take advantage of the GI Bill, after the war?

JN: No, I didn’t. I didn’t take advantage of any housing or any schooling or anything like that.

LO: Okay. Did you join a veteran’s organization?

JN: I did in later years and still - I’m a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and I belong to a group called the Tin Can Sailors. A tin can is what they called destroyers back then, because they were so thin and when they fired their big guns, they rattled like a tin can. They called them tin cans, but they were destroyers and I belong to the destroyers…whatever.

LO: Okay. What activities do you do? Do you get together with the veterans?

JN: I’ve only been to one meeting. They’ve have had these meetings, survivors of the USS Bush, they’ve had them for years. But last year they had one in Reno, Nevada and I went to that one. And I got to see . . . I think there were two hundred of us that got off alive and I think there were thirty-five or forty of them at the reunion. I saw those guys and it was a real feeling; I hadn’t seen them in 57 years. That was quite an experience, to see these guys that I was a young man with in World War II. They were like me; they are old men now. I wouldn’t have recognized them, if they hadn’t have told me who they were. That’s the only reunion that I’ve been to.

LO: Okay, is there anything you would like to add that we have not covered in this interview?

JN: Well, I don’t know of anything pertaining to World War II, especially. I pretty well covered that.

LO: Okay, let me ask you: How do you think the World War II years in Tulare County affected you?

JN: Well, I wasn’t here any of the time, hardly at all. I was overseas most of the time during World War II, so the rationing part, the gasoline and the cigarettes and what have you, that didn’t affect me. We had all the cigarettes we wanted and we had all the gas we needed. So that part didn’t . . . if that answers your question, that didn’t affect me in any way. I wasn’t even here.

LO: All right. How do you think the World War II years affected the way Tulare County is now?

JN: Well, that was a long time ago and Tulare County has changed so very much. I’m not near as proud of Tulare County today as I was before the war and during the war and after the war, because now it is so terribly over- populated. And the crime rate. And they have let so many people come to this country, that they have ruined California, Tulare County and the whole state, as far as I am concerned.

LO: All right, thank you very much, Mr. Northcutt

L.Owings/pd 4-23-2004/ Edited JW 8/30/04

Ed: words in italics are the result of a phone interview with Vayda Shepherd, John Northcutt’s sister (see her interview) and research into the correct spellings for this interview, done on August 30, 2004..