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Battles in the Pacific

70 years after Pearl Harbor Navy vet recalls

Goodrich resident Ralph McMahon served on the USS Pecos during WWII. (click for larger version)
December 07, 2011 - Goodrich-Ralph McMahon can't recall where he heard the breaking news.

"When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941—I was ready to go," said McMahon, now 88, and a village resident. "I joined the Navy less than three months later in March 1942. I figured I'd go fast— either my ship would get blown up or the sharks would get me."

Wednesday marked the 70th anniversary of the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, pulling the U.S. into World War II, and for veterans like McMahon the day is a time to remember those that did not make it home.

"I was lucky," he added. "Almost ten years in the Navy during both World War II and Korea—I was lucky to make it home."

In December 1941, McMahon was an 18-year-old who had attended Royal Oak High School and was working at a local lumberyard for 40 cents per hour.

"The Japs attacked us, so a neighbor and I signed up."

McMahon was assigned to the USS Pecos, a Navy tanker transport ship that carried high octane gasoline, diesel fuel and black fuel for steam ships.

"The airplanes on the aircraft carriers needed the gasoline—the ships would come alongside the Pecos and we'd send hoses over and pump off fuel at sea."

Over the next two years of the war the Pecos and its crew fueled more than 1,400 ships and covered 162,000 miles in the south Pacific Ocean. The crew also shot down more Japanese aircraft than any other auxiliary ship, added McMahon.

"I slept out on deck most of the time, in a hammock," said McMahon. "The weather was warm most of the time in the South Pacific—I recall sailing to Pearl Harbor, Bora Bora and the Marshalls (Islands). We were in a battle off the coast of the Philippines near Leyte. The Japs were dropping these skip bombs—they'd skip over the water toward our ship. One bomb exploded near us and I could feel the shrapnel hit my left arm. I was OK. They removed most of the metal fragments, but the ship doctor left a few in there. They told me I'd have something to show my grandchildren."

One of the bombs was a dud, but hit the Pecos cargo boom—bending it almost off, recalls McMahon.

On several occasions the crew of the Pecos continued to fuel during major Japanese air raids, including attacks by kamikaze pilots. The Pecos spent most of April and May 1945 near Okinawa during the island invasion.

The tanker returned to the United States in May 1945 after 17 continuous months at sea.

After 3 1/2 years aboard the Pecos, McMahon transferred to the USS Keyes, a Navy destroyer..

In 1948, six months before his six-year stint was up McMahon signed up for two additional years in the Navy.

"I signed up in San Diego when I was on the USS James Keyes in Washington where I served as a mechanists first class."

In 1951 McMahon met his wife Lois (Bar). The couple were married in April.

"In May I received a telegram that I was to report to the Great Lakes Illinois and served time in the Korean War aboard the Keyes. I was on that ship for 4 1/2 years.

He was discharged from the Navy in 1952.

"We were a military family," he said. "At one time five of the six brothers in my family served during World War II or Korea. Our father, Dewey, served in World War I and was injured during battles in Belgium and France. My brothers, Dick (Air Force), Ralph (Navy), Ray, (Army), George (Navy) and Harold (Army) all served."

McMahon said he lost the hearing in his ear after being so close to guns.

"Some of the guys put cotton in their ears when they worked near some of those big guns, but many sailors simply had no ear protection."

In 2001 McMahon was hospitalized for heart surgery.

"The doctor asked me if I was a smoker," he said. "It had been 50 years since I'd had a cigarette—he told me my lungs were black."

McMahon said that contact with asbestos in the paint or insulation on both the tanker Pecos and later the destroyer USS Keyes were responsible for the condition of his lungs.

According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, during World War II several million people employed in U.S. shipyards and U.S. Navy veterans were exposed to chrysotile products as well as amosite and crocidolite, since these varieties were used extensively in military ship construction.

"We can't be sure, but since both ships (Pecos and Keyes) were new with fresh paint and insulation when I came onboard—the asbestos was in the air," McMahon said.

He is currently receiving lung treatments.

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