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Navy vet shelled Japan's coastline for invasion that never came

At 16 years old, Clayton F. Eldridge was more interested in making money than getting an education.

So he quit McKinley High School in 1943 and worked as a welder at Curtiss Wright aircraft factory on Vulcan Street.

"I made about $22 a week and spent it on clothes and entertainment," the 91-year-old Eldridge said.

But money took a back seat to patriotism when he turned 17.

"I was very patriotic and knew that I could go and help. I was anxious to go," he said of joining the Navy, which accepted 17-year-olds who had parental permission. "My father signed the papers."

Eldridge arrived in the Pacific Theater in the spring of 1945, part of a fast carrier task force in the Navy's 3rd Fleet. He was a gunner's mate on a quadruple, 40 mm anti-aircraft weapon mounted on the USS Dayton.

The ship's job was to soften up Japanese defensive positions along the coastline.

"We were shelling the coast on and off for a number days. It was a lot of noise," Eldridge said. "Our battleships were shooting their 16-inch shells that went flying over us. We knew we were doing a lot of damage."

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Clayton F. Eldridge, 91

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Fort Erie, Ont.; resided many years in Buffalo

Branch: Navy

Rank: Seaman, 1st class

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: 1944 – 1946

Most prominent honors: Asiatic Pacific Theater Medal, one battle star; World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: gunner's mate

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This action started in early July 1945 and was in preparation for the invasion of Japan. But all of a sudden, the task force's services were no longer required and the ships were ordered to leave the coastal waters.

Eldridge said they were not given an explanation of why the bombardment had been stopped. But history provides that answer.

President Harry Truman ordered that the world's first atomic bomb be dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. After that, the war concluded.

When Japan formally surrendered aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, Eldridge says his ship and many others were there for the moment.

"My buddy and I climbed up on the aft smokestack of our ship for a better view, but couldn't make out any individuals."

But Eldridge adds that he had no problem seeing what was above him as the Japanese surrendered.

"There were about 1,000 warplanes. The sky was just full of them. My buddy and I looked at one another and we just couldn't believe it," he said.

With the war won, the crew of the USS Dayton served as part of the occupational force into the fall of 1945.

World War II gunner’s mate Clayton F. Eldridge got his father's permission to join the Navy when he turned 17.

The Dayton docked in Yokosuka Bay, Eldridge said.

"There was this burned-up Japanese warship there and an America flag was flying from one of the highest points on its superstructure, and it was a wonderful sight to see that," Eldridge said, his voice catching with emotion.

He and fellow sailors later boarded a train to visit Tokyo.

"There were bullet holes in the ceiling of the train," he said.

That damage was caused by American warplanes that had strafed the train, he believes.

When he arrived in Tokyo, Eldridge said he was determined to obtain war souvenirs and offers no apologies for how he went about it.

On his first attempt, he says he spotted a Japanese police officer directing traffic and was drawn to a sword in the officer's belt.

"I tried to take it from him and I finally gave up," Eldridge said of the struggle, adding that the officer spoke English and said, "You should show respect for my uniform."

Eldridge and other sailors later came upon a stockpile of Japanese rifles the Navy had collected.

"We were told we could each take one and we did," he said, adding that he still has the firearm.

On another trip to Tokyo with his companions, Eldridge said they walked into a house that was occupied by two people and started rummaging around for souvenirs.

"I took a Japanese flag and a couple photo albums," he said. "I'm not sorry for what I did. I always figured what they would have done to us."

But many years later, Eldridge said he mailed the photo albums back to the family. He explained that his daughter, a nurse, had befriended another nurse from Japan who was in the United States and able to connect with the family.

A family man himself, who had married the former Mickey Calicchia and raised three children, the retired photo engraver for the former Buffalo Courier-Express said he had come to realize the albums, "for sentimental reasons," should be returned.

But not the flag. That was a keeper.

He and his wife, who died several years ago, had resided in Buffalo for many years, but moved to Fort Erie, Ont., and built a home not far from where he had spent childhood summers. And though he lives in Canada, Eldridge says he remains as patriotic as ever to America.

"I'm just glad that I was old enough and able to go and serve," he said.

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