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November 11, 2007

Our War: Seaman quickly knew meaning of 'no excuses'

No excuses. That's what World War II and the Navy taught Dean Eccles, 85, of Belleville. Seaman 1st Class Eccles in 1941 was a machinist's mate on the USS Smith, a 1,480-ton Mahan class destroyer. He was on the Smith throughout the war.

No excuses.

That's what World War II and the Navy taught Dean Eccles, 85, of Belleville.

Seaman 1st Class Eccles in 1941 was a machinist's mate on the USS Smith, a 1,480-ton Mahan class destroyer. He was on the Smith throughout the war.

"I was seasick for the first two times I went out," Eccles said. "And that was no excuse. If you had a shift, you'd better be there, no excuses. If you were puking, you'd better bring a bucket. On a destroyer, if you weren't attacking someone, you were defending yourself. And if you weren't doing one of those, you were on watch. We were so busy we didn't have time to make excuses."

The USS Smith was in the Pacific patrolling the Santa Cruz Islands with a fleet of other destroyers, carriers and cruisers, Eccles said. His job was to keep the engines running, but like everyone else aboard ship, he was also a gunner and assigned to man the guns on the gunnery deck.

He had been assigned to those forward guns until, for some reason unknown to him, he was moved to a different location around the beginning of October 1942.

On Oct. 26, 1942, the fleet was attacked by Japanese planes. A carrier was sunk. A cruiser was sunk.

A flaming Japanese torpedo plane was going down, so the pilot aimed it into the USS Smith. It crashed into the gunnery deck Eccles had occupied just two weeks earlier.

"Here I am, I didn't have a scratch on me, and my buddies were flying through the air with their clothes on fire," he said. "We took the dead men and wrapped them up properly and slipped them overboard and then we went to New Caledonia to drop off the injured men."

The dead had to be buried at sea, he said, because on a destroyer there wasn't a spare square foot to properly store bodies.

Twenty-nine men were killed on the USS Smith that day, 28 were missing in action and 12 wounded.

One-hundred and forty Japanese planes were destroyed during the Battle of Santa Cruz.

"They say combat changes people," Eccles said. "That day definitely changed me."

Eccles went on to survive other close calls.

He had a torpedo running straight at him as he manned a gun on deck.

"If my legs extended down into the water it would have gone right between them, but it went too deep and didn't get us," he said.

Late in the war, Eccles was on the only destroyer out of four that escaped being hit by kamikazes. The Japanese suicide pilots sunk one destroyer and damaged two others.

Then on the next patrol the same thing happened -- one sunk, two damaged by kamikazes, but not Eccles' ship.

"By the third patrol, the guys were ready to go over the side," Eccles said.

The officers got word of the unrest and let the crew know the third patrol was going to be out of harm's way.

World War II shaped an entire generation and wrought a "no excuses" attitude, Eccles said.

"If a war could be wonderful, it was a wonderful war," he said. "We knew who the enemy was and they knew who we were. It taught us to take responsibility for what we did and what we fouled up. Things weren't a depression, but things weren't too good, either. People helped each other, it wasn't the government helping.

"These poor guys today, they really have a tough job on their hands because they don't know who the enemy is."

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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