WWII veteran who was 'there' recalls last days of conflict

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Hank Saulpaugh shows a photo of the Navy cruiser USS Concord, where he was stationed during World War II. TOM MILLS

The last shot of World War II was fired from the Navy cruiser USS Concord, and Henry (Hank) Saulpaugh of Bluffton was there.

It was August 1945 and the Nazis had already surrendered in Europe. The bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the war continued in the Pacific.

Saulpaugh, 93, who lives in Sun City with his daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Daniel McLaughlin, has an extraordinarily clear memory and loads of stories to describe his wartime Navy experiences.

"I was assigned to one of the smaller guns, Battle Station No. 2, on the port side of the ship," Saulpaugh said of his wartime experience off the coast of Japan. "The small guns couldn't reach, so the captain invited us on deck to watch as the big guns fired. Those guns were the only ones that could shoot far enough to hit land. They (the enemy) were shooting back."

Saulpaugh described what happened next. "We heard the shelling stop. The captain came over the loudspeaker and said the war was over," he said. "Yes, we were happy! We started jumping around."

In 1943, at age 17, Saulpaugh, a native of upstate New York, had been an air raid warden in downtown Kingston, near Albany, N.Y. His job, whenever he heard the siren sound, was to go downtown, where he walked through the streets with a flashlight. "I had to be sure the blackout blinds were pulled, and lights were out," he said. "People didn't like me telling then what to do, but they did it."

He had tried to join the Army, but they wouldn't take him because he weighed in at only about 130 pounds. That wasn't enough. Next, he tried the Navy, and had to get his mother's notarized permission to join.

"They took us (recruits) right away," he said. "First, we went by train to the Great Lakes Training Center in Illinois. We were rushed through that training, and then returned to New York where we shipped out to Panama and boarded our ship, the USS Concord. We were in the Third Division."

When explaining his duties on board, he said, "It took five or six of us to fire our 10-foot-long gun: one guy on each side, and someone to move it up and down. It took two or three people to load it. I was the gun captain. I'm not sure why they picked me."

Saulpaugh continued his story: "We took a test, and I quickly became petty officer third class. I took information from the bridge and figured out the angles needed to reach our target. I'd convert it for the guys."

He described the USS Concord as a "four-stacker" whose main purpose was to bombard the enemy. The ship had two airplanes. One took off from the deck using a catapult, and the other was a sea plane that could be lowered into the water for take-offs and landings.

In one horrific incident, fuel exploded just before a plane was going to launch. Many were hurt and some died. Saulpaugh said he was on the detail that cleaned it up.

He showered the men, dressed them in their uniforms, wrapped them in canvas, and then placed a United States flag over them. The sailors were buried at sea.

Admiral Richard Byrd, who served on Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz's staff, spent an extended period of time on the USS Concord. "I think we were taking him someplace secret," Saulpaugh said.

He explained that Byrd was present when the new sailors, who were termed "Pollywogs," became "Shellbacks." This is a traditional initiation rite to commemorate a sailor's first crossing of the equator. It is boisterous, fun, and a morale booster.

Saulpaugh has photos of Byrd watching the shenanigans.

Saulpaugh told of going through the Panama Canal many times. "To come home after the war, we returned through the Panama Canal and went to Philadelphia where I got off the ship," he said. "We were taken directly to Lido Beach on Long Island to be discharged."

Asked if he craved anything during those long periods aboard ship, his bright blue eyes twinkled and he said, "Women."

In 2016, Saulpaugh went on an Honor Flight, whose mission is to transport America's Veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials dedicated to honor their service. He traveled from New York and was accompanied by his son-in-law, Daniel McLaughlin, who is an Air Force veteran. It was Saulpaugh's first time on an airplane. "I liked it. I sure would go again!"

According to Joe Tantillo, membership chair of the Sun City Veteran's Association, there are 26 World War II veterans in the organization.

Some of Saulpaugh's wartime memories were new to his daughter, Nancy, who listened as he shared his stories. "I had never heard some of these stories before," she said. "My dad really is amazing. He remembers so much and he has the best attitude. In all my life, I have never heard him say a bad thing about anyone. He is a kind and sweet man."

Katherine Mace is a freelance writer who lives in Sun City.

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