Being in the Navy was a necessary thing in ’42

OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Kenneth Surface always enjoyed writing and kept a journal of the things he considered important in his life. His journal entries were the basis for this story. Born in September 1925, Kenneth Surface’s first memory was of traveling in the back of a Model A Ford somewhere in the middle of northern Iowa as a 2-year-old, when he suddenly found himself in the middle of a mattress on the roadside after being bounced out of the back of the truck. He always believed one of his brothers, either Gerald or Orville or maybe both, pushed him out to make more room for their playground, he wrote.

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Veteran Kenneth Surface celebrates his 88th birthday.

In 1941, Mr. Surface was perfectly content working on a cattle ranch on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was the chore boy and cook. Life wasn’t easy. He was up milking the cows before breakfast, and then the real work began for the day. He learned how to make pancakes and cornbread, but after a week or so, he decided they needed some meat, so he took his rifle out to get a turkey. He ran into a flock of them, and promptly shot one and brought it back to the ranch and began plucking feathers. Well, no one ever told him to stick it in a pot of boiling water first, he wrote. It took him about an hour of tugging and pulling to get all those feathers out. Hours later, the boss came home to find the turkey cooking in the pot, and told him he was cooking a turkey buzzard. Needless to say, they went back to eating cornbread after that.

Things went fine until he got the brilliant idea to join the Navy in June 1942, he wrote. He and his friend Johnny Overhost went to Omaha to be inducted into the Navy and then rode a rattletrap train to San Diego to boot camp. While he was in boot camp, his brother Jerry picked him up and took him to San Diego for Liberty. They visited the El Cortex Skyroom, which was famous for “turning in the air,” but he wrote that he did not need anything to turn under him because the two Zombies he had were enough!
After boot camp, he boarded the USS Zeilin and headed for Hawaii. Once he arrived, he was transferred to ship’s crew, and five days later, they were bound for Wellington, New Zealand, to train troops for the invasion of the Gilbert Islands.

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Jane and Kenneth Surface did a lot of traveling in their 50 years of marriage.

Because they’d crossed the equator, they were “real” sailors, he wrote. Everyone felt good about themselves. They got liberty in Wellington, and everyone went ashore, including the 3,000 or so Marines they brought along to invade Tarawa. Sailors and Marines have never gotten along except when it really counts, he wrote. So they all went to town to drink some beer and raise a little hell.

The Zeilin anchored about a mile offshore, and they had about 35 landing crafts aboard, each with a three-man crew. He was part of one of those crews, and they carried 30 Marines ashore each time. “We lowered the ramp and put the men ashore. A lot of the guys never made it any farther,” he wrote. After a couple of days, they finally secured the island. Five of them went ashore on Tarawa — just checking things out, and while on shore, their mother ship, The Zeilin, took them down the row of islands and invaded another one. Five days later, the ship came back and picked them up.

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“Being in the Navy was a necessary thing to do, but I’ll take the ranch life any day,” said Kenneth Surface.

“They went back to Hawaii to stock up on food, ammo and men before setting sail for Kwajalein Island for another invasion, but this one was not as dramatic,” he wrote. “It had already been bombarded before the Marines landed so it was pretty well softened up for a quick mop up job.” He remembers a rickety dock about 60 feet long, and they had to take their boat hooks and push Japanese bodies out of the way to dock their landing crafts. He stayed on Kwajalein about 10 months as boat pool, and his ship never did come back.

He finally got to go back to the States for rehab leave in late 1944 and was promptly sent to Ulithi Atoll, west of Kwajalein, where he rejoined the boat pool for about a year. While in Ulithi, the USS Franklin, a small carrier, was towed in to the harbor with nothing aboard but hundreds of dead bodies. The ship was entirely gutted by fire. Days later, it was towed out of the harbor, and he never knew what became of it. “The boat pool was disbanded, and I wound up back in Pearl Harbor looking for something to do,” he wrote, “but not for long. I was put aboard a tug boat, the YTB537, with a crew of eight men. This was not a seagoing tug, but the Navy did not seem to know this.” The tug and crew was needed back in Kwajalein to move ships destined to carry atomic bombs for the Bikini atom bomb tests called, “Crossroads.” They were escorted to Bikini by a larger tug boat, and they had no navigation to guide them — only the lights of the large tug. It was a distance of 2,000 miles.

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Because he crossed the equator, Kenneth Surface was a “real” sailor.

The test was in July. One above water and one below. His brother Dick was there with him aboard a destroyer patrolling the outskirts of the bomb area. Later, the Veterans Administration said the stomach cancer and brain cancer which killed him were due to his involvement with the bomb test.

Mr. Surface was in the Navy and was discharged on Sept. 29. He hitchhiked a ride on a destroyer back to Pearl Harbor and was discharged at Treasure Island in Frisco. “Being in the Navy was a necessary thing to do, but I’ll take the ranch life any day,” he said.

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Kenneth Surface served in the U.S. Navy during WWII.

“Civilian life started with a bang — new wife; no job; middle of winter and broke,” he wrote. He worked at various jobs in Rapid City and then in Kansas City before moving to West Palm Beach in 1956, and in 1976, he and his wife Jane moved to Okeechobee. He worked for E&E Automotive until he retired in 1991, and that lasted about a day and a half before he went back to work for E&E for two more years. He worked for Alex Sirum GMC for two years and then decided it was time to take Jane camping and fishing so he retired for good. They traveled a lot and had a wonderful time in their 50 years of marriage, said his wife, Jane.

Mr. Surface passed away on Jan. 21, 2015.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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