World War II oral history interview
Date: September 26, 2001
Veteran: Leo Fraser, U.S. Navy
Petty Officer/Signalman 2/6
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Walter Borkowski
Leo Fraser was born in Paterson, New Jersey in February 1925. On June 30, 1943, within a month after graduating from Saint John’s High School in Paterson, Fraser enlisted in the United States Navy. He chose the navy over the other services because he had learned to operate boats and developed an affinity for them during family vacations at Lake Hopatcong, N.J.
Fraser was assigned to Newport, Rhode Island for naval basic training, and he expected to go to Signal School after graduation. Instead, he was ordered to remain at Newport for a medical examination to determine whether or not he had a heart murmur. After being found fit for duty he shipped out directly to Norfolk, Virginia, where he joined the crew of the newly commissioned destroyer U.S.S. Clarence K. Bronson, as a seaman second class. The Bronson was built at the Kearny, New Jersey shipyard, launched in April 1943 and commissioned in June 1943.
Fraser remained a crewman on the Clarence K. Bronson for the rest of his naval career.
Initially unhappy with his duties, he applied for a position as a signalman and was accepted and received schooling and training in the essentials of visual ship to ship communications in Morse code and the operation of signal lights and flags. He explained that signalmen were stationed on a ship’s bridge to relay messages to and from the captain with little delay. Communications speed was of the essence, since ships zigzag in combat zones to be more evasive targets. It was important for all the ships in a task force to be aware of course changes, which were relayed through signals.
During his time on the Bronson, Leo Fraser was in thirty-seven engagements with the enemy. He said that his assignment in the ship’s “general quarters” battle alarm was as a range finder for one of the Bronson’s forty millimeter antiaircraft guns, and he noted that the primary function of destroyers was to provide a protective screen for the fleet’s aircraft carriers. On one occasion Fraser’s gun was firing at a low flying Japanese torpedo-armed “Betty” bomber [The Mitsubishi G4M bomber, or “Betty,” as the Americans nicknamed it, could carry a 1,768 pound torpedo or the same weight in bombs.] heading for an aircraft carrier, and Fraser still recall the bomber’s nose gunner, who for some reason, was not firing his gun but seemed to be smiling. “I could see his teeth” Fraser recalled, as the Betty flew past the Bronson and fell bullet riddled into the sea.
Fraser noted that in addition to shooting down enemy planes, his destroyer rescued American pilots. He remembered that the Bronson recovered over seventy-five American airmen whose planes were shot down by enemy fire. The rescued pilots and crewmen were usually transferred back to their carrier within a day, but during the battle of the Philippine Sea, a pilot and his crew had to remain on board for two days, because heavy fighting made it impossible to make the transfer any sooner. During those two days, the airmen became friendly with the crew. It wasn’t until almost fifty years later that Fraser became aware that the pilot was George Herbert Walker Bush, who became the 41st president of the United States. [The incident Fraser described was the first time George Bush was shot down and successfully landed his damaged “Avenger” bomber on the water. He and the other two crew members paddled their life raft to the Bronson. The second time Bush was shot down, he parachuted from the plane and was the sole survivor of the crew.]
Fraser also recalled an “eerie” incident during the battle of the Philippine Sea that he referred to as “the shining of the lights…” The Bronson’s task force commander ordered all ships to aim their thirty-six inch searchlight beams into the night sky as a beacon for planes returning to their carriers in darkness after combat air patrols against the Japanese.
During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Bronson was assigned to a cruiser battle group ordered to intercept a Japanese battle group that was steaming south. In a night action the enemy lost one aircraft carrier, one cruiser and three destroyers. Fraser recalled that he was so preoccupied with doing his job that he felt little fear during combat from Tarawa in December 1943 to Wake Island in August 1945.
Bad weather was another matter, and provided a good reason to feel fear. The Bronson rode out three typhoons. One [in December, 1944] was so fierce that Fraser’s task force lost three destroyers, the Hull, the Spence, and the Monaghan, along with most of their crews. He recalled that he was told that low fuel supplies in the destroyers’ tanks created a lack of sufficient ballast and contributed to instability and their consequent foundering. In a typhoon, Fraser explained, top heavy ships would roll over on their sides, enabling ocean water to enter their smokestacks, extinguishing their engine furnace fires and causing them to go dead in the water.
In early 1945 Fraser returned home for four weeks leave and then returned to the South Pacific for the Bronson’s final sortie to Wake Island, and then the coast of Japan. The ship was present at the Japanese surrender ceremony on September 2, 1945. During his time on the Bronson, the ship was awarded eleven battle stars and one presidential citation. With the war over, Fraser returned to the United States. He considered making the navy his career but opted for civilian life and was discharged on February 18, 1946.
Fraser enrolled at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey and graduated in 1949, completing four years of study in three. In subsequent years he was employed as an accountant, a controller and then a computer system designer, setting up computer systems in the United States, France, Germany, Ireland, and England.
Fraser created a “Tin Can Sailor” display of destroyer memorabilia and artifacts, including a scrapbook and other items of naval history. The display was on exhibit at the New Jersey National Guard Militia Museum at Sea Girt, New Jersey, was officially recognized by the state’s governor, and is now part of the New Jersey National Guard Militia Museum’s Trenton display.
Fraser believes his service in the navy was a great thing for him and made him a man. He said that he learned how to take and give orders, and learned how much people working together with discipline could accomplish. He remembered that while the navy did not tell him what he should be in life, it did demonstrate to him what he did not want to be. He wanted to be in a position to give orders rather than take them. He said that if he had had sons instead of daughters, he would have liked them to enter military service.
Fraser believes that school history textbooks do not cover World War II thoroughly enough, and that young people today don’t realize how fanatical the Japanese were at that time. It is his opinion that dropping the atomic bomb saved a lot of American lives and was the “best thing we did.”
[The U.S.S. Clarence K. Bronson was decommissioned in 1946, re-commissioned in 1951, and decommissioned again in 1960. The ship was transferred to Turkish service in 1967, where it was renamed the Istanbul. It was scrapped in 1987.]