The Greatest Generation: Nathan Underwood

Okinawa, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands…a listing of islands you would find in a history book of major Pacific battles during WWII. It’s also a few of the places that Nathan Underwood and the crew of the USS Alderamin delivered supplies and troops to during the war. As Nathan would tell it he never saw any enemy action during his tour of duty. However he would be leaving out the fact that his ship often delivered Army GIs and Marines to these and other islands within days of being “secured”. In fact the Alderamin brought Marines to Iwo Jima at the same time Duane Hull and the Seabees were repairing runways on the island under enemy fire.

Nathan’s naval tour began in the U.S. Army. As he was wondering where he should go at the Camp Blanding recruiting office in Jacksonville an Army officer signed him up. While this Army recruiter was attempting to finalize Nathan’s paperwork a Navy recruiter grabbed him and voila…at the age of 18 he was official property of the US Navy. After eight weeks of basic training at Bainbridge, Maryland and three months of on-board training at Little Creek, Virginia, Nathan and a crew of 250 (mostly teenagers) boarded the USS Alderamin at Portsmouth, Virginia and headed for the South Pacific with cargo holds completely full of 6 ounce bottles of beer. “Probably won the war” Nathan said with a smile.

The Alderamin made its way to the Panama Canal via New York City and Cuba. Nathan chuckled when he told me the 500 foot ship could run at a top speed of a whopping 9 knots. While in the Atlantic they were constantly surrounded by Navy escort vessels as protection against German U-boats. Nathan said as soon as they reached the Pacific he never saw another escort. In fact after seventeen days at sea the Alderamin barely missed colliding head on with the only ship they saw between the Panama Canal and Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Islands by sounding general quarters and taking evasive combat maneuvers. Nathan remembers this really shook everybody up while putting most of the crew flat on their backs.

In addition to the islands mentioned above, supplies and troops were also delivered between other South Pacific islands including Guam, New Caledonia, and Fiji. When I asked Nathan about particular memories he told me of several. His scariest moment occurred while he was the rope-man on the captain’s launch when it exploded during refueling. The blast knocked Nathan unconscious and sent him off the deck into the Pacific below. He told me the only reason he survived was because several sailors dove in and pulled him aboard. Nathan also remembered the day the war ended while he was anchored at Okinawa. He said “You could walk on the bullets in the air” during the celebration. On a lighter note he remembered what a sad sight it was to witness 1400 Army troops seasick and leaning over the side of the ship en route to an island landing.

I am constantly amazed to hear of reunion stories all over the world from WWII vets. Nathan got to visit with his brother John in the Philippines and with his best friend from high school on an aircraft carrier in Espiritu Santo (which by the way is the fictionalized locale of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific). I dare say any had ever even heard of such places growing up in Frostproof, Florida. I think the most impressive image Nathan left me with as we talked was that of him and his three brothers serving our country at the same time during the war. O.V. landed on Okinawa and Iwo Jima, J.D. was in the Navy in the North Atlantic, John landed in the Philippines, and Nathan sailed the South Pacific. This is the stuff that made the Greatest Generation just that…every sibling in one family from a little town in Florida did their part to ensure our freedom…and I thank each one of them for it.

As has become the norm with my interviews of these prayer breakfast men, Nathan was much more interested in telling me how he met his wife Appie at the Church of God in Frostproof rather than what he did during WWII. They were married eleven months before he joined up and he told me he wrote her a letter every day he was gone…from November 20, 1943 until December 31, 1945. That was the day that he was discharged at Camp Blanding and headed straight for Frostproof to see her.

I believe Jesus said it best in Matthew 23:11-12;

“The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”