World War II oral history interview
Date: August 23, 2001
Veteran: Stanley J. Truax
Interviewer: Robert Pontecorvo
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski
Stanley Truax was born in Spring Lake, New Jersey in August, 1917. Eighty-seven years later, on August 26, 2004, he died there, three years after his Veteran’s Oral History interview at the National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt, New Jersey.
The Coast Star, a local weekly newspaper, published a front page story on Truax’s passing, including photographs of his flag-draped casket being taken out of a Spring Lake First Aid Squad ambulance used as a hearse and carried past honor guards and mourners lining the front steps of St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic Church in Spring Lake.
WWII vets Stanley Truax (far left) and Jack Geiger (far right)
Truax’s obituary provided details of some of the significant historical events he participated in as a seventy-year member of the Spring Lake First Aid Squad. He assisted survivors of the September 1934 wreck of the Morro Castle, a luxury liner that caught fire off the New Jersey Coast and drifted in to the Asbury Park beach with a loss of 134 lives. In May 1937 Truax’s ambulance squad was again called into service to aid in a headline-making disaster, as the German airship Hindenburg went down in flames at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, killing thirty-six passengers. Truax recalled taking the Hindenburg’s captain to a nearby hospital in his ambulance.
In his Oral History interview, Stanley Truax recalled yet another newsworthy pre-World War II incident he was involved in. In December 1937, he and a military school classmate were rescued from their fifth floor room during a fire in Jersey City’s Hotel Plaza. The fire began around 8:00 AM, when decorative cotton “snow” was ignited by a toy electric train running beneath a Christmas tree in the hotel lobby. Truax and a roommate heard someone yelling in the hall, and when they looked out the door saw smoke coming up through the elevator shaft. As the boys put on their uniforms, the phone rang; when Truax picked it up, however, there was no one on the line. Unable to leave via the now smoke-filled hall, they wet themselves down in the shower and went to the window to wait for the fire department. Subsequently they saw two firemen, assisted by two taxi cab drivers, holding a safety net on the sidewalk below. Stanley followed his roommate in a jump out the fifth floor window, but broke his back upon landing.
The three initial fatalities from the fire included an eight year old boy, Berthold Birnbaum, who, with his ten year old brother, had been playing beneath the Christmas tree when it began, Mrs. Ida Thompson, a fifty year old maid who died of smoke inhalation on the seventh floor, and twenty year old William Marx, a hotel worker who rushed up the stairs to warn guests, but also died of smoke inhalation on the sixth floor.
The January 17, 1938 edition of the New York Times reported the death of the final victim, Helen Sullivan, a twenty-four year old hotel switchboard operator who remained at her post, calling guests to warn them, until her clothes caught fire. When Sullivan reached the street most of her clothing and hair were burned off. She never recovered from her burns and died in the hospital on January 16. Over twenty people were injured in the fire. Truax spent two weeks in traction, six weeks in a cast “like a turtle,” and one and a half years in a brace before he recovered completely.
Once his brace was removed, Truax went to work at Bendix Aviation in Teterboro, New Jersey. He remembered getting his older brother James, (a former Marine), a job working with him at Bendix. Truax was driving to Fort Dix, New Jersey, with a girl whose brother was stationed there on December 7, 1941 when he heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack. When he and his friend arrived at the base, they were surprised to learn that her brother had been shipped out that morning.
During the course of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech the next day, Truax’s brother James told him that he would be going back into the Marine Corps, since “…the Marines was the best of the three outfits.” James rose to the rank of Gunnery Sergeant on the aircraft carrier USS Franklin. He was killed on March 19, 1945, fifty miles off the coast of Japan, when a single Japanese plane flew low through cloud cover and dropped two bombs on the flight deck of the carrier. Truax showed the interviewer photos of the burning carrier, and recalled that he was told that his brother had given his life jacket to a shipmate. He said that over seven hundred men were lost in the attack. [The US Navy reported 724 men killed and 265 wounded in the Franklin bombing. The attack earned the ship the dubious distinction of becoming the most heavily damaged US carrier in World War II.]
In March 1942 Truax tendered his resignation notice to Bendix and followed his brother into the US Marine Corps, enlisting at Perth Amboy, New Jersey and boarding a slow train for Parris Island, South Carolina. He completed his basic training at Parris Island and further training at the Marine Aviation Mechanic School in Jacksonville, Florida. His formal training complete, Truax then shipped out of San Diego by troop transport ship to the Southern Cross Air Transportation headquarters, located on the South Pacific Island of New Caledonia, where he worked there as an aircraft mechanic and crew chief on Douglas DC4 transport planes. The DC4s transported men and supplies between air bases on New Caledonia and the islands of Bougainville and Guadalcanal.
Truax remembered that his plane took off before dawn one morning, heading for Bougainville full of Marine paratroopers. Immediately after the DC4 lifted off the runway, its right engine stalled out. The plane was flying low, and the co-pilot froze when the captain told him to raise the landing gear to prevent a flip if it hit the water. Truax reached around the copilot and pulled the switch to raise the landing gear, then helped the pilot feather the engines. This stabilized the plane, and the pilot was able to gain some altitude and return to the airstrip. After it landed, “there was a lot of hugging on the ground” Truax recalled. Within two days the engine was replaced, and the mission completed. After that incident, he was allowed to act as co-pilot on some runs.
Truax noted that Bougainville was the most dangerous island of the three in his unit’s area of operations, because the Japanese would lob shells over the mountains during the day as well as stage air strikes in the early morning darkness. He remembered looking out at a body water off Guadalcanal known as “Iron Bottom Sound,” awarded that nickname because of the many warships that had been sunk there and were laying in its depths. He thought about the four sailors from Belmar, New Jersey who, along with the famous Sullivan brothers, went down with the USS Juneau off Guadalcanal.
On occasion, the maintenance staff would take rifles to hunt down some “…Jap stragglers who were still holding out in the mountains….” He related that on one occasion “… two hungry Japanese soldiers tried to pass as Allied soldiers and walked into a chow line looking for food. The Americans captured them and “turned them over to some French Nationalists.”
Among the DC4 crews’ duties was transporting USO troupes from island to island. Truax had a chance to talk to movie star Randolph Scott during one of the flights. He recalled that they talked about Spring Lake, where Scott’s sister lived, and where Truax had worked as a beach boy. He remembered supplying Scott’s sister with towels on the beach.
In all, Truax spent 14 months in the Solomon Islands before returning to the United States. Following a fifteen-day liberty leave at home, he was assigned to the newly commissioned aircraft carrier USS Block Island, and then stationed at Pasadena, California. The crew trained under tight security, with radar-equipped planes.
One training mission took place in heavy fog off the California coast. Over the objections of the Marine aviation colonel, the carrier’s captain ordered planes to take off into the fog bank. Day fighters, night fighters, TBM [Avenger Torpedo Bomber, General Motors mfg.] and TBF [Avenger Torpedo Bomber, Grumman mfg.] and spotter planes were all sent up, but not all were radar equipped. Those that had radar made it back to San Diego, but many went down into the sea, and many men were lost. The captain of the Block Island was court-martialed, but returned afterward to again command the ship. “It was a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened,” said Truax.
Truax returned to the South Pacific on the Block Island and took part in the invasion of Okinawa, the liberation of the Philippines, and the search for survivors from the USS Indianapolis, the cruiser that had carried the first atomic bombs to Saipan, and on its return trip was sunk by a Japanese submarine. “We never found any, but some were picked up. The sharks had chewed them up.”
Truax was getting a haircut in the shipboard barber shop when he heard the news that the Japanese had surrendered and the war was over, but operations still continued for the Block Island. The ship was dispatched to the Formosa to liberate POWs who had been forced by the Japanese to work in nickel mines on the island. The communication tower at the prison camp had been knocked out, and Truax recalled that “at first the Jap guards did not believe the war was over, until they were convinced by a Japanese interpreter, who we had brought along with us on board the ship.”
Many of the POWs were survivors of the Bataan Death March, and Truax was appalled by their terrible physical condition. He remarked that “the Japs just worked them to death. To keep them awake, they would burn them with cigarettes. Well they looked like a bunch of bones walking around with skin over them, with all those marks all over them. They had dysentery and were very sick.” Showers were set up near the gangplank and “as they boarded the ship they were decontaminated, showered, decontaminated again and showered again, while doctors examined them.” Those that could sleep on cots in the Block Island’s hangar deck did, while others had to be taken to the ship’s sick bay. They were all taken to the Army Hospital at Manila, for rehabilitation. The prisoners were of many nationalities, Truax recalled, including Americans, British, Canadians and others. He exchanged letters with some of them after the war, but said “that didn’t last long because they all died. That was not a surprise, after all they had gone through.”
Stanley Truax returned to the United States and was discharged from the Marine Corps on November 8, 1945. His brother James, lost on the Franklin, would never come home. Truax reminisced about his brother, who had been part of the Marine Corps Drill Team that performed at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair. James always returned home on leave by train, in uniform. When he walked from the station, Truax recalled “…he looked and walked like a Marine.” James had been classified as “missing in action” for one year after Japanese bombs tore through the Franklin’s flight deck. Every night before she went to bed, his mother would look down the sidewalk, hoping to see him walking home from the Spring Lake train station. And then he was officially declared killed in action, and hope was gone.
After his discharge, Truax found work as an aviation mechanic in New Jersey, including experimental work on rocket engines in Trenton, before he settled into a job at the Lakehurst Naval Station, working first on dirigible engines and later on a wide variety of aircraft engines. He retired from Lakehurst in 1982. He married after the war and had one child, a son.
At the time of his interview, Stanley Truax said he believed that “the kids of today have a great future in front of them. Kids are smart today.” He added that if he could, he “… would do it [military service] again if the country is in peril. This is the greatest country in the world.”