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August 4, 2008

Our War: Edwardsville man never thought of doing anything besides serving his country

When he says he's from a patriotic family, you can believe Edwardsville resident Floyd Campbell. Not only did Campbell join the Navy as a 17-year-old only a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but right after he was discharged he signed on with the Army.

When he says he's from a patriotic family, you can believe Edwardsville resident Floyd Campbell.

Not only did Campbell join the Navy as a 17-year-old only a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but right after he was discharged he signed on with the Army. He eventually volunteered to go to Vietnam.

He never thought of doing anything besides serving his country.

"My dad had to take me to the post office and sign for me because I was so young," Campbell said of signing up for the Navy on Dec. 16, 1941. "But he never tried to talk me out of it. After Pearl Harbor, Americans knew what they had to do."

Campbell said he joined the Navy because he was from the north central Montana town of Havre, about 100 miles southwest of Great Falls, and wanted to see the ocean.

"I was from dry land country, so it seemed like the thing to do," Campbell said. "Besides, the Navy was short handed and we knew they needed help after they basically lost everything they had at Pearl Harbor."

After a three-week-long boot camp, and a couple of weeks painting ships in California, Campbell was assigned to the destroyer Aylwin.

The Aylwin was in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked to drag the United States into World War II. It managed to get underway and flee to open waters -- even though its commander wasn't aboard at the time -- while hammering away at the attacking planes with its guns. Its crew claims to have downed three attackers.

By the time Campbell arrived on the ship in February 1942, the carnage of the surprise attack was still evident at Pearl Harbor.

"It was total devastation," Campbell said. "Some of the ships were still smoking."

Some of the first action the young sailor saw came while escorting the aircraft carrier Lexington on a raid of Japanese bases on Rabul in mid-February 1942. The task force was spotted by Japanese bombers and attacked.

"That was the day that Butch O'Hare became a legend," Campbell said. "And we were right below the whole thing."

Lt. Edward "Butch" O'Hare, after whom O'Hare International Airport in Chicago is named, became an ace when in six minutes he downed either five or six Japanese planes, depending on the story you believe, in an F4F Wildcat fighter.

The Aylwin, according to battle reports, is credited with shooting down one Japanese plane that day.

Campbell was a seaman first class. He took part in 10 sea battles, including Coral Sea, Midway, Tarawa, Guadalcanal and in the Aleutians.

During attacks Campbell worked as a gun pointer on the fantail, or rear of the main deck. His job was to set the fuses on anti-aircraft shells that determined at what altitude they would explode.

One day the Aylwin came under attack. After the battle when the all clear was sounded, Campbell was cleared to go below deck to take a shower and relax. He had just got nice and soaped up when the alarm sounded another air raid.

"I ran out of the shower to my position with nothing but a sock in one hand and a shoe in the other," Campbell said. "There I was with a battle going on over my head, completely naked, cranking like hell on those fuses."

Unfortunately, the raid turned out to be an American PBY flying boat.

"That pilot didn't identify himself as friend or foe," Campbell said. "After having a few shells explode around him, he made a right turn and flew away."

While it was in the heart of the action in major battles, Campbell said the Aylwin never took a major hit. That was the beauty of being in a small ship that was protecting aircraft carriers and battleships.

"We were a secondary target," Campbell said. "But the problem was that since we were so small, one hit was all it would take to finish us off."

Another job of the smaller ships was to rescue downed pilots.

"We were picking up a pilot one day and we were approaching him slowly because if you got too close you would suck them under the ship," Campbell said. "He yelled at us 'will you guys hurry it up, this water is cold.'"

Better cold than drowned.

Toward the end of the war, Campbell was transferred from the Aylwin to a new destroyer that was being built called the Brush.

The Brush participated in the battle of Leyte Gulf and supported the Iwo Jima and Okinawa invasions. But Campbell said what he remembers best was a mission to chase down and sink ships with torpedoes in Tokyo Bay.

In July 1945, shortly before the end of the war, the Brush and two other destroyers played havoc with the battered Japanese Navy. Virtually unchallenged, after sinking or damaging several ships, the Brush cruised in Tokyo bay on rescue duty for bomber crews that were forced to bail out during missions to bomb the Japanese homeland.

"We were scheduled to help with the occupation of Japan," Campbell said. "They were training the destroyer crews as the war ended. They even gave me a Tommy gun. But they never used us."

Soon the Brush was headed for home and Campbell was discharged from the Navy.

"I thought about staying in," Campbell said. "But I got in a little trouble for little things here and there. So I figured if I stayed in I would never be anything more than a seaman first class."

Campbell wouldn't leave the service of his country, however. He joined the Army and was sent to Germany were he joined the occupation forces as a highway patrolman.

When he returned stateside, Campbell worked as a fire control specialist at the Nike missile site near Marine.

It was a surreal world of underground bunkers and silos. When he was off duty and in the community, he was unable to even talk about what he saw with his friends and family.

He retired from the Army as a chief warrant officer in 1962.

"The Army was about to ship me out overseas and my family didn't want to go," Campbell said. "It was time, but I loved to serve my country."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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