Overton Brooks VA Medical Center
Remembering ‘Big T:’ Veteran recounts WW II
“If it happened in the South Pacific (Pacific War of World War II) I was there,” Floyd Turley said. “All four years, from beginning to end, I was on the USS Tennessee.”
The USS Tennessee, called “Big T” by its Sailors and Marines, barely survived the Battle of Pearl Harbor. The BB-43 destroyer was docked next to the USS Arizona when it was destroyed by enemy aircraft December 7, 1941.
After repairs and upgrades, the USS Tennessee participated in almost every event in the Pacific War of World War II, from the first amphibious assault at Tarawa to the Occupation of Japan, including the Surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay.
Before joining the U.S. Navy, Floyd lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. When his father died, Floyd’s mother pulled him from school to support the family. He was nine years old.
“We were so poor we didn’t have cockroaches,” he said. “I had to pull a little red wagon delivering groceries. They paid me fifty cents a day.”
Years later, Floyd said he wanted to join the Navy after seeing his brother in uniform. “I saw him in his dress blues,” he said, “saw how snazzy he looked so I decided to join up. I was fifteen; had to lie about my age. Then I went to basic training in San Diego.”
After basic training, Floyd found himself on the USS Tennessee with 2,800 other Sailors and Marines. To Floyd, the USS Tennessee was more than a ship— it was his home and family for the next four years and even a school, teaching him lessons and skills that he would use for the rest of his life.
“I was a signalman, never fired a shot. When I first found out that I was going to work in signals I said, ‘Boy I’m in Trouble.’ I thought the Navy was going to train me in something I could use when I got out,” Floyd said, “but I’m very grateful for the experience because I used that skill to work for American Airlines for thirty-five years making aircraft fabric and upholstery. The experience helped me support my family.”
Not only was Floyd responsible for making signal flags, he used the flags in tandem with Morse code to communicate with other ships. He worked in close proximity to other Sailors and Marines who fought off enemy aircraft and ships. The Tennessee’s crew also “peppered” enemy held islands with fire support to aid Marines conducting amphibious assaults. One of Floyd’s most vivid memories is of the amphibious assault at the Battle of Tarawa.
“I remember that there was a problem with the landing craft. They couldn’t get the Marines on the beach because of the coral reef,” he said. “Marines had to hop over the side of the craft into chest-deep water. Well, there were some ships that were scuttled there and the Japanese had set up sniper nests in them. They were also using machine guns and mortars. I remember we had to bury the bodies in deeper water. We had to tie the bags to 5"/38 shells so they would sink. I get a little shaken up every time I think about it. I can’t believe how many (Marines) survived. I’ve got a special place in my heart for Marines.”
For Floyd and his fellow servicemen, Tarawa was only the beginning of a four-year haul to bring down the Japanese Empire. He would later see service in such places as Saipan, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa to name a few.
“In Leyte Gulf we had seven kamikazes, one submarine and two battleships,” Floyd said. “Our smaller U.S. destroyers fought against larger battleships because Admiral Halsey took many of the larger ships north to engage the enemy. He really left us in a jam.”
The Battle of Okinawa, known as the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific War of World War II, also proved a challenge to the Sailors and Marines of The Tennessee. One Marine, Sgt. Maj. Roger M. Emmons, who served as the sergeant major for the Tennessee’s Marine detachment gave this account of the Battle of Okinawa when the ship was hit by a kamikaze “suicider:”
“Twenty-two men were killed instantly, or mortally wounded so that death resulted very shortly thereafter. Pharmacists’ mates went into action to give first aid to the 107 men that were injured. Stretcher bearers removed the more seriously wounded to the collecting station on the main deck. The less severely wounded were treated by members of the crew. Burial services were held just at the sun was sinking on this sad day for the (USS Tennessee).”
Floyd was a close friend to one of the Marines who was killed, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana.
“I had a good friend of mine who was a Marine,” he said. “I met him because his battle station was next to mine. Well, April 1st was D-day for Okinawa. On April 12th we were hit by a Kamikaze, more like it fell on us after we shot it down. It killed my friend. It wasn’t until later that I realized that President Roosevelt died on the same day.
“Years later I was at Barksdale Air Force Base for a reunion of World War II Veterans and I was wearing my USS Tennessee cap. I felt someone grab my arm and I turned around and it was this young woman. She asked me if I was on the USS Tennessee and I said that I was. Then she said ‘were you really on the USS Tennessee?’ And I said yes. She asked me if I knew someone. It turns out that my friend, the one that died, was her brother. She said that she didn’t know what to think, her and her family, they had never heard about what had happened to him. All they got was a letter that said ‘Lost in Action.’ I told her about what happened and she was finally able to get some closure.”
After four years and a harrowing experience half-a-world away, Floyd returned home. “My momma didn’t know whether to slap me or give me a hug,” Floyd said, laughing. “I came home got married and eventually ended up in Tulsa (Oklahoma) working for American Airlines.”
Floyd and his wife Betty, currently live in Shreveport. Of those who served on the USS Tennessee during World War II, only five Veterans remain.