When Alfred T. “Oppy” Leous received a tip from his brother-in-law to avoid serving in the Army in World War II, he took it to heart.
Dick Willett, married to Leous’ twin sister, Olive Jean, had told him how unhappy he was in the Army and that Leous should do whatever he could to avoid that branch of the service.
“I went to the Coast Guard, and they said I was too short, which – at 5 feet, 2 inches – I guess I was,” Leous says. “Then I went to the Marines, and they didn’t want me because I had a bad ear. I went to the Navy, and they took me.”
The Navy, though, proved to be anything but smooth sailing.
Within four months, Leous was part of Operation Torch, the British-American invasion of the French North African coast, which began Nov. 8, 1942.
“There were about 150 ships involved in the invasion. We counted them. You could see every one of them. We were off the coast of Casablanca in Morocco,” Leous says. “I worked on the quarterdeck refueling destroyers and cruisers. The Suwannee had been a tanker before it was converted to an escort carrier.”
The battle ended Nov. 16, and soon after it was off to the Pacific by way of the Panama Canal.
“We anchored off New Caledonia, and our planes flew onto the beach to assist the Army. There weren’t many planes at the time,” Leous recalls. “It was early in the war, and the planes were being made at Bell Aircraft and Curtiss-Wright up here in Buffalo.”
As the American forces gained traction in the Pacific, Leous says, pilots on his ship began working overtime conducting aerial searches of islands for Japanese aircraft and the ocean waters for enemy submarines.
“Our poor pilots would go up for four or five hours in the morning and then come back at noon and then go back up for another four or five hours,” he recalls. “When the pilots spotted enemy landing strips on the islands or submarines, they would bomb them.”
The ship’s crew, also on a grueling schedule, conducted gun watches and refueled vessels, Leous says, adding that he never regretted taking his brother-in-law’s advice.
Not even when he came close to death in the October 1944 Battle of the Philippines and kamikazes crashed into American warships.
“I was on a 20 mm deck gun when one of the planes crashed about 20 feet from me. We were all shooting at it, and it just came right at us, crashing onto the flight deck, then to the hangar deck and then down to the quarterdeck, where a bomb on the plane exploded and we lost a lot of guys,” Leous says. “It was terrible.”
The enemy didn’t let up. Quite the contrary.
“The next day, we were hit again by a kamikaze,” Leous remembers.
“This time, the plane crashed into our aircraft that were getting ready to take off. We lost 10 planes.”
After that, the Suwannee headed to Washington State for repairs before returning to participate in the Battle of Okinawa and others before Japan was finally defeated in August 1945.
On his 25th birthday, Sept. 16, 1945, the Navy, he said, provided him with what amounted to the strangest experience of his life – a chance to walk about Nagasaki and personally view the destruction caused by the second of two war-ending atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
“We were walking around for about 30 minutes, and there was still smoke coming from the ground,” Leous says. “All the Japanese were wearing masks over their mouths.”
Those haunting memories have stuck with him:
“You wonder why the Navy let us do that.”