War on the waves
World War II Naval veteran recounts battles at sea
By BRET MOSS Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
Outside the city of Marietta, Okla., lies the residence of U.S. Navy veteran Sylvester Alfred Wells, a man who has seen many important pieces of American naval history.
Wells, who is known as S.A. to most, boasts nine battle stars, each representing a naval battle in which he served his country during World War II in the Asiatic and Pacific arena.
Wells was born in 1925 near Marietta and attended Tahlequah Indian School from the first to sixth grade and then moved with his family because his stepfather worked on the railroad, which required relocation. They later moved back to Marietta in 1939.
Wells’ biological father was full-blood Choctaw, making him half Choctaw of which he is very proud.
On June 23, 1943, 17-year-old Wells enlisted in the Navy. “I went in on what they call a Minority Cruise in the Navy. You go in when you’re 17 and you get out when you’re 21,” he said. He went to boot camp in San Diego, and from there, went to torpedo school in Newport, R.I.
In a rather clever move, Wells chose to enlist in the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army.
Upon completing his torpedo training, Wells was sent to Recife, Brazil, to a repair ship called the Melville. The Melville repaired a wide variety of naval equipment. It contained a machine shop that allowed for repairs to whatever was needed. “They could do just about anything and repairs for other ships,” recalls Wells.
After a year with the Melville, he travelled to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he boarded the Melvin, a Fletcher-class destroyer. This was the second ship of the U.S. Navy to be named after John T. Melvin.
“It was a new ship… we had to take it on a shakedown cruise,” said Wells. Shakedown cruise refers to a sort of trial run for the ship and crew. They would test the guns and other functions of the destroyer to make sure operations went smoothly and familiarize themselves with the workings of the ship, he explained.
The Melvin’s shakedown cruise took place in February of 1944, in Bermuda. After the shakedown, they traveled with the battleship Iowa through the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor where Wells and the Melvin’s crew got their first assignment in the Marshall Islands.
This assignment was part of the United States’ efforts to take back ground on the Pacific front. The Melvin would go from island to island, fighting to relieve them of Japanese control. “Just about every engagement they had, we were in,” stated Wells.
For these engagements, Wells’ battle station was the portside depth charges on K-Guns. He would fire 300-pound canisters of TNT to certain depths in order to sink submerged submarines that opposed the American efforts.
Wells’ job was to set the depth at which the canister would explode to make the most efficient impact to the submarine. Each certain depth was calculated by sonar and then relayed to Wells as he competed his duty.
Wells was also charged with loading the canisters after they were fired. When it came time to reload, about three or four men would load the 300-pound cylinder that had an approximate two-foot diameter and three-foot length.
Other than manning the K-Guns and depth charge canisters, Wells was also assigned to do maintenance on torpedoes.
Over the course of his tour in the Pacific, Wells recalls engaging about six submarines. “In Saipan, we caught one on the surface and we were going to ram it,” declared Wells. This was not an unusual approach to sinking surfaced submarines at the time. The Melvin was equipped with a cutting bow, which was a large piece of steel designed to ram subs without hurting the ship.
The crew had fired a shot at the sub before attempting to ram it, and when they got to where the sub was, it had already submerged. Wells is unsure whether or not the shot made contact and sank it, or if the sub submerged to avoid the ship because it was in the blackness of night.
Among the most notable events in his travels, Wells took part in the largest naval battle in World War II and what is said to be the largest naval battle in history. “We escorted the 25th Army Division into Leyte Gulf for that invasion,” said Wells.
While in Leyte Gulf, the Melvin got an assist for sinking a Japanese battleship and destroyer and fired nine torpedoes, according to Wells. “They were firing at us and they were hitting all around, but they didn’t hit us,” mentioned Wells as he told of how the Japanese radar systems were sub par to its American counterpart at the time.
The crew of the Melvin also used a witty tactic to avoid shots from the enemy. The crew in the firing room would burn oil to create a large amount of smoke to construct the illusion that the ship was on fire, making the Japanese suspect they had disabled the vessel. This would also provide a smoke shield, making it hard for the Japanese to see the Allied Forces. “She [the enemy ship] thought we had been hit, but we were making smoke,” exclaimed Wells.
Wells and the Melvin were involved in numerous other World War II naval battles in the effort to win the Pacific for Allied Forces. Out of all these conflicts, “what scared me most out there was the weather,” stated Wells as he recalled how nature was sometimes a more menacing foe than the opposing force. Traveling through several typhoons and over the 7-mile-deep Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth, did not sit well with him. “I didn’t know it at the time and I’m glad I didn’t,” said Wells with a laugh.
During the patrols in the Pacific, the crew of the Melvin went 62 days without seeing land. At one point during the patrol, the aircraft carrier Saratoga lost a man overboard. Because of this, three destroyers containing about 900 men were sent back to rescue the fallen naval seaman.
Eventually the Melvin found the individual and rescued him safely. This was a dangerous task according to Wells. “There we were with searchlights and if there had been any submarines out there, they could have sunk us,” because they would have seen the searchlights, said Wells.
He traveled to Iwa Jima and Okinawa, and towards the end of the war, he was within 70 miles of Tokyo. They fired upon the enemy, but by that time they didn’t have enough resources to fight back. Not long after that, Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945.
After Japan’s surrender the Melvin was ordered to patrol an area near Japan to clear out underwater minefields. The crew would cut the cables that the mines were anchored to, they would float to the top and then the crew would shoot them to make a huge explosion.
In February of 1946, Wells was discharged from the Navy in Norman. He went on to work in the oil field and did a variety of jobs there. He became very adept at repairing machinery and fixing various things. He traveled to the ends of the country working for the oilrigs and even worked on some offshore rigs.
Wells now resides in Marietta and has a wife and two daughters, Tanis and Leslie. He is proud to have served his country in its time of need and is humble about the great service he has given for every American citizen.