Dateline crossing x’ed off X-mas

By From page A1 | March 10, 2011

RETIRED NAVY CAPT. James Kessler, 92, talks about his naval career that began in World War II. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

RETIRED NAVY CAPT. James Kessler, 92, talks about his naval career that began in World War II. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

One of the most memorable Christmases retired Navy Capt. James Kessler of Placerville ever experienced was the one he missed in 1943.

On Dec. 24 of that year the USS Boise, the cruiser on which Kessler, now 91, was serving, crossed the International Dateline near Samoa.

Kessler recalled learning about the International Dateline in elementary school in Birmingham, Ala. His teacher had told them about a ship that had missed Christmas by crossing the International Date Line on Christmas Eve.

“I felt real sorry for those unfortunate people who had missed Christmas. After all that time, I remembered learning about the International Date Line and hearing that story. Little did I imagine that I would someday miss Christmas the same way,” Kessler said.

But in 1943, it was all in a day’s work.

Kamikaze Christmas

In 1944, off the coast of the Philippines, Christmas was almost missed, or rather, almost destroyed.

It had been a good Christmas Day, as Kessler and some shipmates were allowed to go to shore on Leyte Island, where they toured a Philippine village that had been left intact.

“But when we came back to the ship, we had just sat down at the tables for a dinner of roast turkey when Kamikaze planes filled the sky. General quarters was sounded and we had to man our battle stations.”

It was the first time the crew on the Boise had faced the suicidal Kamikaze pilots.

After a few hours the crew again sat down, another raid came. Some three hours later, the sailors ate a turkey dinner that was as cold as their fear.

It was the first time that Kessler had experienced a full-fledged attack, and he couldn’t help but remember what President Roosevelt called “the date that would go down in infamy.”

When Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, Kessler was attending Spring Hill College, a Jesuit university in Mobile, Ala., where he was studying to become an accountant.

“I was helping other students move chairs in the gymnasium. A student came in and said that he had just heard on the radio that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. None of us had ever heard of such a place and accused him of pulling another Orson Welles (fake broadcast of an invasion by Martians),” said Kessler.

When the students completed their work in the gym, they returned to the dormitory and found out that the bombing had actually taken place.

“Like other men of my age I was filled with patriotism and anxious to do my military duty. My first inclination was to enlist in the Army like some of my classmates, but Father Smith, the president of Spring Hill College, held a general assembly and cautioned us not to make a quick decision.”

Kessler had already been aware of the Navy V-7 program, for which he had applied in 1940. He was accepted, but his father insisted that he complete his college education.

“My father reasoned that that once training had started that candidates would be retained on active duty because the war in Europe was raging. This actually did happen to the people who were in the program,” said Kessler.

In January 1942 Kessler again applied for the V-7 Program and was accepted. He graduated in May 1942, but still had not received his orders for active duty. As it turned out, he reported to Midshipman School at Columbia University in New York on Dec. 7, 1942, exactly a year after the Pearl Harbor attack.

A meeting in Newport

When Kessler met his future wife Elizabeth, she was a WAVE. Stationed in Newport, R.I., Kessler went to Boston on leave. He and Elizabeth began dating, and eventually got married.

One of their two sons, John graduated from the Maritime Academy in 1969, the same year that his father retired from the Navy.

The Navy changed Kessler’s life forever, and he never regretted not becoming an accountant. As a navigator in the U.S. Navy, his life altered course dramatically. Kessler had the opportunity to see the entire world, a feat that may not have occurred in the world of numbers.

A fortunate ship

After successfully completing Midshipman School, Kessler was assigned to the USS Boise, a light cruiser. The officer said that Kessler was lucky that he had orders to the most famous ship in the Navy.

“I asked him why it was famous and he asked me if I ever read the newspaper or magazines because the ship’s story was widely published, but I hadn’t seen a magazine or newspaper for months. He said that the USS Boise sank three Japanese cruisers and three destroyers, but was heavily damaged during the battle,” Kessler said.

Kessler’s roommate received orders to a sub chaser school, and Kessler didn’t see his roommate until 18 months later in the Pacific when he brought his ship alongside the Boise to request bread and water.

Maneuvers of war

The USS Boise spent 35 months overseas during the 44 months that World War 11 lasted. She operated in the Netherlands East Indies in 1941-42, the Pacific area in 1942, the Mediterranean in 1943 and again in the Pacific in 1944-45. While in combat zones, the Boise underwent numerous air raids but was not damaged by bombs or Kamikazes.

“Except for the night engagement of Cape Esperance, no crew member was killed in action. She was praised on a number of occasions for her fast and accurate anti-aircraft fire and was given credit for shooting down seven planes. She received 10 battle stars for her contribution,” said Kessler proudly.

“She participated in 14 major invasions and fired thousands of rounds of ammunition in shore bombardments. She was damaged only once in enemy action at Cape Esperance. Every time the ship got underway I looked forward to a new experience,” Kessler said.

Documented memories

One of the reasons that Kessler has such vivid memories is because he was the officer that kept the War Diary. There were strict regulations, so Kessler dutifully left the war diary on the ship, but writing down the events helped his recollection. He also wrote a memoir, a fascinating account of his life aboard the cruiser.

One of Kessler’s unforgettable stories concerns a Filipino Chief Petty Officer steward who had enlisted in the Navy in the Philippines about 20 years previously and was serving on the USS Boise. When the Boise arrived in Manila on Dec. 4, 1941, it was the steward’s first time in the Philippines since he had enlisted; he was granted leave to visit his family in Lingayen.Then the war started on Dec. 8, and the ship sent him a message to report back immediately. Before he got back, though, the ship had departed. The steward reported on board a repair ship anchored at Manila. When Manila was bombed, the repair ship moved to Bataan.

The ship was under air attack, and half the crew of the repair ship was sent to shore daily for safety, because the ship a had little or no anti-aircraft protection. The orphaned CPO steward had some extremely harrowing experiences. He eluded capture by the Japanese several times, then decided to go to Lingayen until the Americans returned. He buried his white uniform to hide his loyalty and joined an underground guerrilla group, continuing to fight the Japanese.

When the USS Boise pulled into the Lingayen Gulf some four years later, the steward donned his now-brown uniform and reported to the ship. The same OOD who had manned the deck four years earlier was on duty, and he recognized the steward.

“The steward was not well and was infected with worms. He received medical care and in a short time resumed his duties in the wardroom. The steward received four years back pay … I know of this story because I had the job of writing the War Diary for the ship and had to interview him to make a report to the Navy Department. I had to talk with him several times before I could write the report, because he spoke such broken English; the steward had forgotten much of the English he knew since he hadn’t spoken it for four years,” Kessler recounted.

Coming back

The USS Boise picked up Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Manila, and Kessler was assigned the duty as his boat officer; MacArthur wanted to visit Philippine Islands to let the people know he had returned.

Later, a jeep with a trailer pulled up and offered the general a ride. He said if all the party could get aboard then he would accept the ride. All the men rode back to the landing.

“If we had to walk, Gen. MacArthur would have walked also. He was a brave man with the bearing of a general, but he cared about his men,” said Kessler.

Meeting “Wild Bill” Donovan

When Kessler was in Lae, New Guinea, he was designated as boat officer when the renowned head of the OSS, Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan, came to visit. He took a small boat to pick up the general, and was told to proceed to the coast and to look for a flashing light, because he would be there.

“It was one of those pitch black nights, and we (the Boise) were anchored a few miles out. Our little boat proceeded in a southerly direction parallel to the coast, but no light was sighted. With our hearts in our stomachs, we finally reversed course and at last encountered the flashing light. Gen. Donovan stood on a dock about six feet above the boat. Remember, it was pitch dark, but the general said he would jump for the boat, and he did. He landed and I grabbed him to prevent him from going overboard,” said Kessler.

Having successfully retrieved the general, Kessler started back to the ship, but it was impossible to distinguish the Boise among the hundreds of blacked-out anchored ships in the dark harbor. They made a selection and were “lucky enough to find the Boise. I was one relieved officer when we got the general aboard,” Kessler said.

Home at last

Now Kessler lives in Placerville, which he also finds beautiful, much like upstate New York, where they lived near the Adirondack Mountains. Due to Elizabeth’s lung problems, the Kesslers moved from upstate New York to Florida. They moved back to California just a year before Elizabeth’s death. Kessler’s sons, John, 62, and James, 60, and Kessler’s “wonderful daughter-in-laws” and grandchildren seem to adore their patriarch.

Kessler seems to like everyone, and to find meaning in his active life. He remains a busy man, but always takes time out for exercise and cooks for himself with an eye on proper nutrition.

“You get old if you don’t do anything,” Kessler said. “As you age you can’t let the little things bother you. There’s no point in getting mad about it. Everyday I go to Mass and thank the Lord for his blessings. When I get up, I say to myself: ‘Today I’m going to do the best that I can.’”

The USS Boise took Kessler around the globe. “I am proud to have served on her and I treasure my memories of her.”

email the reporter at [email protected]

Susana Carey Wey

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