During his World War II-era naval career, Millsboro resident Sam Keenan endured and survived many dangerous situations while fighting against the naval and air forces of the Japanese Empire.
From artillery fire, to kamikaze attacks, and even a near-fatal typhoon, Keenan’s years of service to his country were filled with excitement, adventure and even a little fear and trepidation. He survived it all and returned home after the war, leaving the service for good three years after the Japanese surrender.
But it was one of those journeys between Japan and the United States that today provides some of the most indelible memories for the Rhode Island native, ones he’s carried with him for the past several decades.
The images, the thoughts, the stories from that voyage back to America still invoke intensely powerful emotions in the former Navy man, ones he doubts will ever leave him. If truth be told, he’s not sure he would want to abandon them even if he could.
Still, the memories of the former prisoners of war he helped liberate during that historic mission are difficult to stomach. The health problems, the horrible emotional turmoil, the physical scars — they were all out in the open, in very real and very horrific fashion.
“These guys had all been in prison three, four, even five years, and they had all kinds of problems,” recalled Keenan in a 2010 interview from his daughter’s home in nearby Seaford, Del. “They had tropical ulcers, sores, lice, loose teeth; they were just in really bad shape… It was hard to even realize or comprehend what they had gone through.”
There were about 700 former POWs on the U.S.S. Gosper, Keenan’s ship, during that memorable journey. Some were American, some were British; all were heading home, while suffering what would be long-term effects of their ordeals.
Food was a priority, and it didn’t take long for their past experiences to seep into their present situation.
“Our mess hall was open 24 hours a day, and these guys could have anything they wanted to eat, but we ended up having to put guards on the trash cans, because they would see food in there and put it in their pockets,” Keenan recalled. “It was because these guys had never gotten any food from the Japanese, and they just didn’t like the idea of anything going to waste. So they would stuff their pockets full of food.”
It was certainly a memorable journey across the Pacific for Keenan and the few hundred other Allied servicemen on board, an adventure that came at a time when the Japanese military was close to laying down their arms. The war that had consumed the world for more than six years was almost over — finally!
It was near the end of a long journey for Keenan, who had enlisted in 1944, when he was only 17.
“I just wanted to serve my country any way I could,” he said, rather matter-of-factly.
Joining the United States Navy as a teenager, he completed basic training in New York and spent a few days in California before joining the crew of the U.S.S. Gosper in Astoria, Ore.
It would be his home for the duration of the war.
“We put that ship into commission and took it to the Pacific. We transported Marines and soldiers and we were just back and forth all the time,” he said.
A Haskell-class attack transport acquired by the U.S. Navy during World War II for the task of transporting troops to and from combat areas, the Gosper was launched by Oregon Shipbuilding Corp., on Oct. 20, 1944. It was later transferred to the Navy and commissioned on Nov. 18 of the same year.
As was the case with most ships entering the war zone in the Pacific, Keenan and the men of the Gosper stopped first at Pearl Harbor, the site of one of America’s darkest days just a few years earlier.
Once there, the decision was made to convert the ship into a much-needed casualty evacuation transport, and the Gosper was furnished with operating rooms and other hospital facilities.
After the conversion, she steamed for the battle taking place on the Japanese island of Okinawa, with a new team of doctors on board.
“We were still a fighting ship, but we now had 48 doctors on board and about 100 crewmen, and they changed some of the living quarters into hospital bays,” Keenan remembers. “From then on, most of the people we transported were people who had been wounded in battle. We would run them to Guam or to Pearl Harbor, and then go back to get more.”
The Gosper arrived in Okinawa on April 6, 1945, just five days after the initial Allied landings there. It was a tumultuous day for Keenan and the rest of the crew — Japanese planes targeted the ship several times, including many of that nation’s kamikaze pilots.
The men of the Gosper shot down at least one Japanese plane that day, watching soberly while several nearby transport ships were sunk.
“They kept sending planes over; they would drop a bomb on one ship and then hit the next ship with their plane,” recalled Keenan. “That way, they could knock out two ships with one plane. We shot at a lot of planes that day, and we shot the one down that came right at us… When they called general quarters, I went to a gun mount and it was my job to hand the ammunition to the loader.”
Watching a Japanese fighter plane make a beeline for your ship was a scary feeling, to say the least, for American servicemen serving in the Pacific. But it was a fact of life in the final weeks and months of World War II, and most were prepared for the possibility.
The crew of the Gosper was no exception.
“We had a lot of firepower, and we threw everything we had at it,” recalled Keenan. “It was a close call, but the plane crashed into the water about 200 feet from our ship. After it was over, we went out and picked up the pilot, who was floating in the water, so we could take his lifejacket off and present it to our captain.”
While at Okinawa, the Gosper served double duty as a landing craft, carrying food and other supplies to troops on the beaches. They also transported reinforcements to the battle and took many wounded soldiers back to their ship for medical attention.
The daytimes were filled with constant action, as the Japanese put up a big fight to maintain control of Okinawa. But the nights were the scariest, not knowing what to expect, always preparing for the worst.
During many overnight shifts, Keenan served on an old “smoke boat,” an ingenious ploy developed by the Americans to mask their ships from the enemy during the nighttime hours.
“We would go out at night and cover the ship with smoke so the Japanese pilots couldn’t see it. We did that by using smoke generators, mixing diesel oil and water to make smoke and then going back and forth in front of the ship,” Keenan recalled. “We wouldn’t do that until the pilots were about 20 miles away, but we’d stay out all night. In about 15 minutes, we could make enough smoke to hide the entire ship.”
The Gosper remained near Okinawa caring for casualties of the bitter battle until April 17, then sailed to Ulithi and Guam, carrying wounded soldiers to hospitals for further care.
They then loaded more than 1,000 reserve combat troops and got under way for Okinawa again, returning to the island on May 1.
The crew remained there for more than two months, caring for the casualties and helping to fight off Japanese air raids. The Gosper sailed to Buckner Bay, on the east side of Okinawa, a few days later, from there joining a convoy that eventually took the crew home.
Under repair during the final days of the war, the Gosper was later pressed into duty carrying occupation forces to the Pacific, sailing Aug. 26, 1945, for the Philippine Islands.
She nearly didn’t complete her mission.
“While we were off the coast of the Philippines, we ran into a typhoon, and it was really, really bad,” recalled Keenan. “Three or four of the ships in our group capsized, and we almost capsized, too, when one wave sent us over. But, fortunately, there was another wave that sent us back upright. If that other wave hadn’t come, we definitely would have capsized.
“That storm lasted for hours, and the waves were 50 to 60 feet high. It was scary.”
Surviving their harrowing experience at sea, the Gosper then took on board the prisoners of war that made such a big impression on Keenan, carrying them first to Pearl Harbor and then to Seattle, arriving in early October.
“When we brought them into Pearl Harbor, we had to shave their heads because they had lice, and clean them up using talcum powder,” he said. “But by the time we got them to the United States, they each had their own uniform and most of them went up in rank automatically.”
The Gosper later joined “Operation Magic Carpet,” the gigantic task of bringing home soldiers from the Pacific, making two voyages to Pearl Harbor and back before departing in February 1946 for the East Coast.
From there, Keenan spent time in Canada before being transferred to Cuba for the duration of his military service.
He returned home after leaving the Navy in 1948 and moved to the coastal Delaware town of Millsboro in 1967. In his adopted hometown, he became well known for the bowling alley he and his family owned before a fire destroyed the business in the 1970s.
After working in the mobile home industry for a few years, he later opened a furniture store in 1996, where he continues to work today.
Looking back on his military service, Keenan said he realizes how vitally important it was that the Allies won history’s grandest war all those many years ago. And he’s proud that he played a part in that effort.
“I was very happy that the war ended, but I was also very glad I was able to serve,” he said. “I was proud of what I did and I would certainly do it again.”
For his service during World War II, Keenan was awarded a battle star and several military ribbons.
He continues to make his home in the Millsboro area.