Back in World War II, Jim Lotzgesell was an aviator. He flew the OS2U Kingfisher seaplane off the stern catapult of the light cruiser USS Nashville (CL-23), or if the sea was relatively calm, off the water.
He survived plane wrecks, mid-air danger, kamikaze attacks and discovered a world of military might he’d never known, as well as a career and comrades he thoroughly enjoyed for more than 21 years.
First however, he had to decide which branch to go in.
Lotzgesell, a native of Sequim, was going to the University of Washington when Japan’s attack on Dec. 7, 1941, catapulted the United States into World War II.
Like many young men, Lotzgesell wanted in. He thought about the Marine Corps for a while but after talking with an old Navy chief, he decided on the Navy.
“There was a war going on and I was afraid I was going to miss it,” Lotzgesell said.
Once he was officially in the Navy, it didn’t take long before he was aboard the USS Chester (CA-27), a heavy cruiser. For five months he traveled with Task Force 94 to Adak Island in the Aleutians, bombing Matsuwa and Paramushiru in the Kuril Island chain.
Lotzgesell remembers when they bombed Paramushiru in heavy fog.
“The fog was so thick that we were in a line of U.S. ships and one almost came up our stern. We bombed their airfields and we could hear the Japanese planes above us but the fog was so thick they couldn’t see to drop their bombs. They never did.”
Lotzgesell got sick and went to the hospital in Attu. While he was gone he was replaced on the USS Chester. So he got new orders for the USS Nashville (CL-43).
Then he started traveling. From the Aleutian Chain, to Seattle, to San Francisco, staying in the very nice Clift Hotel for two weeks, then on a banana boat where he was bunked five men high.
He got outside, though.
“I spent the whole trip on the hatch playing poker,” he said. “In 11 days at sea, I won over $500. I sent it home to my folks.”
Then he was on a PB2Y-3, a large, four-engine sea plane that ambled across the Pacific to Tarawa, to Manus, Admiralty Islands, north of New Guinea and one degree south of the Equator.
Manus had a large bay and a sailor told him to go out on the dock and wait for a liberty boat which would take him to the USS Nashville.
It did, but only after Lotzgesell has spent the day waiting on the pier and getting the worst sunburn of his life.
Once aboard, He was flying the OS2U Kingfisher and in a large lagoon.
“Once I was flying at about 1,500 feet and as far as I could see there were ships at anchor — American and Australian,” he said. “I never saw anything like that.”
The USS Nashville was in Task Force 67 and carried Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“We were bombing islands on the way to the Philippines, everyone knew that’s where we were headed,” Lotzgesell said.
The USS Nashville provided fire support at Hollandia, Tanahmerah Bay and Aitape and Biak, Schouten Islands. They were getting ready for the Philippines.
Lotzgesell said Douglas MacArthur was the smartest military mind he has ever met.
“He could look at a chart of an island and pick out the areas he was gonna hit, where the troops would come in and he was right,” Lotzgesell said.
So they kept mopping up islands on the way to the Philippines, he kept flying reconnaissance and firing missions, telling the military where to aim their guns and the USS Nashville kept steaming.
There were Australians on the ship and Australian ships in the harbor.
They also had Australian flight control on USS Nashville’s bridge.
One day, Lotzgesell was up in his seaplane and saw two planes up above him, coming in from the right.
“I banked it and dove down to 50 feet off the deck, trying to shake them and they followed me down,” Lotzgesell said.
“I then realized they were Australians. I called the ship and told them to get those guys off of me. When I got back to the ship I was pissed off and I was headed to CIC when the Executive Officer caught me by the arm and spun me around and said we don’t want to start another war with the Australians.”
Lotzgesell remembers another day, Dec. 13, 1944, as a hot day.
They were on their way to Mindoro, south of Luzon, and Lotzgesell was resting on the stern in the shade when he looked up and saw the red of a rising sun on a Japanese plane.
It came straight down and hit the USS Nashville between the two stacks. It’s two bombs blew up about 10 feet in the air.
The kamikaze killed 133 men and wounded 190 more.
“It killed every marine on the ship except for two and most of the chiefs,” Lotzgesell said.
“The Marine master sergeant had to match the body parts with the bodies and I offered to help him. I picked up an arm and put it next to a Marine Corps body but it had a wristwatch on and the master sergeant knew the guy didn’t wear a watch,” Lotzgesell said.
The ship went back to the West Coast for repairs.
While 50 miles off Hawaii, Lotzgesell saved his own life by doing everything right, though he didn’t know it at the time.
The Navy had just introduced the Curtiss SC-1 Seahawk, a single-seat reconnaissance seaplane that could be launched from cruisers or battleships.
The OS2U Kingfisher, with the back seat, had proven very useful in carrier operations.
They could land in the water, pick up downed pilots and get them back to the carriers.
Someone had decided to put a stretcher in the fuselage behind the pilot in the SC-1 Seahawk.
Lotzgesell was to be the pilot.
Traditionally, the paymaster arrived in port first to get the men’s pay ready so he was chosen to go into Hawaii with Lotzgesell.
They strapped the paymaster in first, then Lotzgesell, and lowered the plane into the water, which was a little rough.
Perhaps because the extra weight of the paymaster, or the rough water, the plane started to bounce. And continued to bounce.
“I put the nose up and the plane started to come up but turned over on its side and crashed into the ocean,” Lotzgesell said. “Then it started to sink.”
Lotzgesell got out of his seat, pulled it forward and down and got the paymaster out of the stretcher, out of the plane and headed for the surface.
Then he started to head up.
“But my parachute got hung up on the windshield of the plane and we’re sinking.
“I put a foot on the dashboard and pulled and pulled and finally I got free, but then as I got out of the plane and headed up I got hooked up on the antennae which is 20 to 25 feet,” he continued.
“I couldn’t stay under water any longer, so I pulled and pulled and finally I was free. As I went up and up I felt I was at the end of my rope but I broke the surface and got air,” he said.
Though he had trouble, he managed to inflate his raft, found the paymaster, who was clinging to the big float that had broken off the plane, and relaxed while waiting for the ship’s boat.
When the boat showed up, Lotzgesell directed them to the paymaster, who was behind the float and then went back to the ship.
“A pilot on board, Bill Haynesworth, later told me when I was bouncing up and down on takeoff my tail horizon stabilizer broke off,” Lotzgesell said.
Still, when they compared notes on board, he had done everything right.
“Training,” he said.
Lotzgesell spent more than 21 years in the Navy. He was sent to Whidbey Island after World War II.
Also after the war on March 5, 1946, he married his sweetheart, Shirley, who he’s still married to today.
And he’s continued to do right.
Every Monday morning, he gets together with other veterans at Artie’s restaurant. They talk about what they went through and how it was worth it.