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After joining the fight at 15, a veteran recalls the victory at sea

John D. McAlpine, 86

Hometown: South Buffalo

Residence: Orchard Park

Branch: Navy

War zone: Asiatic-Pacific Theater

Years of service: 1943-47

Rank: Boatswain’s mate second class

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal

Specialty: General sea duties

By Shawn Campbell

News Staff Reporter

John D. McAlpine was a mere 15-year-old when he walked with a friend on South Park Avenue at Bailey Avenue in his native South Buffalo and casually uttered the words that would change his life.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we go join the Navy?’ ” the 86-year-old McAlpine says, recalling a conversation with his buddy, Wally Martin.

It was November 1943, World War II was at its height, and serving your country was “just the thing to do,” McAlpine says.

Admittedly a poor student, McAlpine didn’t mind dropping out of South Park High School as a sophomore.

He and Martin quickly headed to a recruiting office downtown and obtained copies of their birth certificates at City Hall for 50 cents.

But it took a little fudging for him to be able to enlist.

“We just changed the last number on the birth – made a ‘6’ on it instead of an ‘8’ so I would be 2 years older – so I would be 17,” McAlpine recalls.

One of McAlpine’s friends, whose father was a notary public, stamped his enlistment forms, while two other friends in a pool hall forged his parents’ signatures.

More than a week later, McAlpine’s mother and father, John and Janet, finally found out where their son had ventured to – Sampson Naval Training Station near Geneva.

“I called my parents from there and let them know where I was,” McAlpine says. “My mother, she wanted to get me out, while my father said, ‘Let him be.’

“I wasn’t one bit worried. I was very excited. This was what I wanted to do. This was great for me. This was real enjoyment. I was almost like on a vacation.”

Soon after, McAlpine was bound for the Pacific.

For the first few months, he enjoyed his time aboard the destroyer USS Howard, meeting other sailors, learning how to handle guns and participating in target practice.

The excitement came to a quick halt, however.

On Oct. 24, 1944, McAlpine’s task group, Taffy 3, consisted of five small aircraft carriers, three destroyers and three destroyer escorts.

Following the Battle of Leyte Gulf on Oct. 25, 1944, in the Philippines, a powerful Japanese naval fleet had reduced Taffy 3 to three carriers, one destroyer and two destroyer escorts.

“It wasn’t until we started to see action that it wasn’t …,” McAlpine remembers, pausing to collect his emotions.

“This is when I have some trouble,” he says, with tears welling in his eyes. “It wasn’t fun anymore.”

Saying the next four words was difficult for the Orchard Park resident: “People had to die.”

McAlpine still thinks about the sailors who lost their lives that day and considers himself fortunate.

“We lost 50 percent of our task group,” he says. “I didn’t know at the time, but I found out later on that some of those guys were in the war for three days. That was a rather difficult time.”

After what was left of McAlpine’s small task group put up a spirited fight, the Japanese surprisingly retreated, and further American casualties were avoided.

“There was two big (Japanese) battleships, like 10 cruisers and a fleet of destroyers, maybe 10 or 12. … They came down on us,” McAlpine says.

“We were a small task group. We didn’t even have any armor-piercing bombs. … We weren’t meant to fight a naval war.”

McAlpine was wounded in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 and received a Purple Heart. A Japanese kamikaze struck his destroyer, killing six of his shipmates and wounding about a dozen others. McAlpine was hit in the leg with shrapnel.

“I’ve never seen so many airplanes in my life,” he says. “There were hundreds of them – everywhere. … They were just diving down towards the ships and smashing into them. I saw aircraft carriers getting hit and cruisers getting hit.

“This plane got down and it got close to the water and it was just skimming along. … All of a sudden, his one wing broke off, and he tipped a little. …

“Our ship tried to turn to get away from him. We were maneuvering all the time, but he just kept following us, and we just turned and he hit the back end of the ship.”

The Howard then returned to Guam to be repaired in preparation for an expected invasion of Japan.

That invasion never took place, though, because the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.

“They dropped those beautiful two bombs – saved us a lot of lives,” McAlpine says. “I don’t think I would have been here if we’d have ever invaded Japan.”

McAlpine was honorably discharged Nov. 4, 1947, and returned to South Buffalo, where he soon met Sally Watts, who would become his “loving, understanding wife.” They have been married for 66 years and have four children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Over the next five decades, McAlpine worked as a die setter at J.H. Williams, a tool manufacturer in Riverside; a new-car salesman at John Maroone Ford in Cheektowaga; and a counselor for emotionally troubled teenage boys at Baker Hall in Lackawanna.

Following an industrial accident at age 22, a portion of McAlpine’s right arm was amputated, but that didn’t stop McAlpine from becoming an avid golfer. He joined the National Amputee Golf Association and played in tournaments throughout the country for many years.

In 1988, he recorded two holes-in-one in a span of three days – one ace on the 12th hole at Brookfield Country Club and the other on No. 12 at Springville Country Club.

Feeling bored upon retirement from his counseling job at Baker Hall, McAlpine got a job as an adult resident assistant at Hilbert College. Twenty-two years later, he still works there from September to May as a desk attendant at Trinity Hall.

“It’s a good college, and the people are really great to work for,” McAlpine says.

“I work six hours a day, five days a week. I work from 1 until 7, my wife gets rid of me, and it gives me something to do every day.”

As for that high school diploma he bypassed when choosing to serve? Through the state’s Operation Recognition program, McAlpine finally became a South Park graduate in June – nearly 71 years after he walked alongside Wally Martin and decided to join the Navy.

Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, presented McAlpine’s diploma at the school’s commencement ceremony.

“The kids all got up and gave me a standing ovation,” he says. “That was really great. I made kind of a smart remark. I told the president, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to make your 20th reunion.’ It was really an emotional night.”