World War II Oral History interview
Veteran: Mitchell A. Bradshaw
Date: July 1, 2002
US NAVY Armed Guard, Gunner’s Mate
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski
On Sunday December 7 1941, twenty-two year old Mitchell Bradshaw was standing with some friends in front of a drug store in Frederick, Virginia. When they heard the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, he said to his friends, “why don’t we all join the navy tomorrow?” And the very next day he indeed enlisted in the United States Navy.
At the outbreak of the war, Mitchell Bradshaw was working on his family’s farm in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. During the Second World War, farmers were exempt from military duty due to their role in providing food for the country, but like many other farmers’ sons, Bradshaw wanted to serve, and, on January 2 1942, he began his navy service at Richmond, Virginia.
After finishing basic training in Norfolk, Virginia, Bradshaw was assigned to serve as a gunnery mate in the “Navy Armed Guard,” a unit that provided weapons and gun crews to defend merchant ships. He joined a five man crew on the merchant ship SS Alan A. Dale.
Bradshaw recalled the Alan A. Dale as “a good, fast, beautiful ship. We didn’t have to go with the [slower] convoys.” The ship was built in 1939 in Denmark, and its original name was Nordvest. Stuck in New York at the outbreak of World War II, the Nordvest was seized by the United States under the “Ship Requisition Act” in 1941, and she eventually was re-christened the Alan A. Dale, sailing under a Panamanian flag. Bradshaw sailed twice on the ship to England, and then to Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. He stated that his first combat experience was aboard the Alan A. Dale in the English Channel: “I had a 30 caliber machine gun [a Lewis gun] on my lap when a plane came out of the fog; I shot at it as it passed by the ship. It went down. A British trawler radioed that there were no survivors.”
He recalled going to the Canary Islands to pick up an officer (“He was a gentleman”) for their gun crew, and then sailing to Cape Town, South Africa and on to Sydney Australia, Bombay, India, and then across the Indian Ocean into the Gulf of Oman to Iran …”people were shooting at us from across the bay,” he recalled.
Bradshaw’s ship left Iran and headed to Durban, South Africa. He recalled seeing “the flashes from their [British] guns as we passed by [Madagascar].” When the Alan A. Dale returned to Norfolk, Bradshaw and three other men were reassigned to a coastal freighter that he recalled “took us down to South America. On our way back we got hit; I don’t know what we got hit with, but we jumped off the ship. The next day we were picked up and spent three days in Port of Spain, Trinidad. We ate coconuts, drank rum and got sick. The navy then took us to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then to New York City, where they put us on the Queen Elizabeth, that took us to Scotland. There were 18,000 seasick soldiers and sailors on board. I got sick too.”
In Scotland Bradshaw and his gun crew were assigned to the merchant ship SS Gateway City, which joined a convoy heading to Russia. “They took us out to the ship in a barge, because they thought that if they brought the ship into the port, some of the merchant seaman might jump ship,” he remembered. The convoy was attacked by German U-boats on the way to Russia, and the Gateway City received some damage from an exploding allied depth charge and had to pull into Reykjavik, Iceland for repairs. He remembered that, “We took the next convoy into Russia and docked at Murmansk, Russia on Christmas Day 1942. We stayed there through 28 days of constant air raids.”
On the way back to the United States, Bradshaw’s convoy was relentlessly attacked; one ship was hit as soon as they passed the breakwaters of Murmansk Harbor. He recalled: “I was trying to hook a man floating by and I fell in. I froze. I remember they picked me up and put me into a lifeboat -but nothing else. When I woke up, I was on a destroyer. I had no clothes on and had blankets piled on top of me. They put me on another ship that was going back to the States, and then all hell broke loose.”
“The convoy was attacked by a U-boat wolf pack that lasted for three or four days. I understood that the convoy lost 14 ships in one day, and that out of 38 ships that left New York only 11 returned. We woke up one morning to fog, and at sea we depended on our foghorn for safety. When the fog lifted, we saw four or five American destroyers on the horizon. They destroyed the wolf pack.”
Bradshaw returned to Little Creek, Virginia and was then was sent to Fort McHenry, Baltimore, where he was assigned to a gun crew on the Liberty ship USS Albert Ritchie. She sailed to Oran, North Africa and took part in the invasion of Italy at Anzio. “We unloaded at sea and made about five trips to Anzio from North Africa.”
Bradshaw returned to the United States and stayed for several weeks at the Armed Guard Center in New York City, where he met the girl who he would later marry. He recalled that part of his duty at that time was to deliver mail, as well as guarding a train load of American “AWOL”s (soldiers Absent without Leave) from New York to Boston, Massachusetts. He was then assigned to the Navy’s amphibious forces and took part in the Normandy invasion on an LST (Landing Ship, Tank.)
Bradshaw recalled that when his LST hit the sand on Omaha Beach, on D-Day, the army couldn’t get the lead tank off the ship, and it had to back off the beach. The beach was so crowded with ships that his LST couldn’t land again until late that afternoon. “We made eight trips between England and France, bringing in supplies and taking out the wounded,” he recalled.
Bradshaw mentioned that 1,000 American lives were lost during an LST sea maneuver off the coast of England before the D-Day invasion. ”We got a message from General Eisenhower that said that if we mention it to anyone, we would be court-martialed. I have it home, in writing.” (This is probably a reference to Operation Tiger at Slapton Sands - the German E-boat attack on a landing training exercise. – ed.)
Bradshaw’s LST left England on a voyage to Oran, Algeria, to assist in the invasion of southern France. He remembered that, “We made about four or five trips from Oran into the French Riviera,” during that operation.
After the invasion of southern France Bradshaw returned to the United States, where he married his wife Irene and soon afterwards was transferred to Galveston, Texas for training on an LSMR (Landing Ship Medium Rocket). The LSMR was intended to provide indirect fire support with rockets during landing operations. The war ended while he was on a shakedown training cruise preparing for the invasion of Japan. His service over, he was discharged and recalled, “they gave me train fare to New York City.”
Bradshaw said that he did not let what he saw throughout the war bother him. He explained how he found a way to cope with seeing all the dead bodies by relating that experience to what he had seen while working on the farm. He said that he did see one man become so disturbed that he had to be put in a straight jacket.
Bradshaw recalled that the weapons he was assigned changed and improved during the war. He said that the first machine gun assigned to him was a .30 caliber Lewis gun, with a drum magazine, and that he later worked on .30 and .50 caliber Browning machine guns. He mentions that the 20 millimeter anti-aircraft gun was a beautiful weapon. He said that all of the destroyers were armed with 5 inch guns. He said that the equipment he had was good, and the quality of food depended on which ship you were on. Bradshaw mentioned being entertained by James Cagney and his sister and the heavyweight boxing champ of the world Joe Louis at a USO show.
He recalled that the merchant ships he was on had to use the Intracoastal Waterways because of German U-boat attacks of the US coast. He remembers spending three days in the Chesapeake - Delaware Bay Canal very close to his home, because a ship ahead of them had run aground. Bradshaw opined that the “merchant seamen were a bunch of bums who laughed at us for making $21 dollars a month, while they made ten times that.”
Bradshaw explained how different the war was in the Atlantic Ocean from the war in the Pacific Ocean. “The Germans, before shelling a ship, would sometimes allow the survivors to get away in lifeboats, and they sometimes would patch up the survivors, give them cigarettes and even direct them to the nearest land. The Japanese would strafe and ram the lifeboats. That’s why you don’t see a Japanese car in my driveway.”
Mitchell Bradshaw, who lived in South Plainfield, New Jersey at the time of his interview, was awarded the Amphibious Force Insignia, American Campaign, European-African-Middle East Campaign ribbons, as well as several medals from France and Russia.