- Cullman, Alabama


November 11, 2012

From family farm to world war

CULLMAN — Buddy McLeroy couldn’t wait to get off the family farm in Cold Springs and into the Navy. He was too young by a year. His dad told him firmly that there was no way he would sign for him. His dilemma was solved by a bottle of wine.

“There was a man down at the Farmer’s Market in Birmingham who forged my daddy’s name for a bottle of wine,” he laughed.

His mother had given him a little New Testament Bible, so he changed his date of birth from July 8, 1926, to the same date in 1925 in the bible registry. The recruiter shook his head when he saw that the slender youth only weighed 108 pounds, so he listed Buddy’s official weight as 118.

“My first regret for all that was after basic training,” said McLeroy. “I got a short leave to go home and arrived about daylight. When I walked in the house Momma was cooking breakfast.”

“It smelled so good,” he exclaimed. “I was tired so she told me to lie down and rest until she finished cooking. That bed felt so good….yes, I regretted it a little then, but later on in my life I was glad that I’d joined.”

Buddy wanted to be with his brother in Pensacola, Fla., so the recruiter sent him there. The Naval officers took one look at the young boy and put him to work dipping ice cream. “I wanted to be in the Navy,” he said indignantly. “Not dipping ice cream. I was mad for two weeks!”

One day a soldier came in and heard Buddy growling about not getting assigned to a ship. “If you want to be a part of the destroyer fleet, you need to sign up,” he said.

Buddy didn’t need to hear that a second time. He went out and signed up right away. Before long, he left the ice cream business for the seven seas.

“They sent me to Charleston, S.C., where I boarded an old ‘four-stacker’ anti-sub patrol ship that was rusty, damaged and falling apart,” he chuckled. That ship took the young seaman to Africa.

His big break came when someone mentioned that he would make a good signal-man because he was too scrawny to be swabbing decks or loading guns. He did well in signal school, which was sited just off the coast of Maine near Great Diamond Island.

After completing his training he was assigned to the U.S.S. Denebola, a Naval destroyer supply ship. His shipmates called him “Reb” because of his southern heritage.  It was his job to send signals with lights, using Morse code, and with flags and sonar.

But it was aboard the U.S.S. Hilary P. Jones, DD-427, that McLeroy spent most of his time in the service. It was from the deck of this ship that he would witness one of the most famous scenes in history — the signing of the surrender of the Japanese Fleet.

There were over 400 destroyers in the area to prevent submarines, ships and planes from leaving Japan. Sometimes McLeroy’s ship would anchor in Okinawa. “When they dropped the first atomic bomb we were off the coast of Japan,” he recalled. “I was on the top deck, looking at Mt. Fuji through my binoculars when it went off.”

There was strict radio silence in the hours before the bomb was dropped. The sailors aboard the Jones had no idea what an atomic bomb even was, although they had heard rumors that the U.S. had developed a bomb that could destroy the world. “They called it the ‘ultimate weapon’,” he said.

As soon as the bomb was dropped, 100,000 people disappeared off the face of the earth in an instant.

 “We got orders to look for survivors of the Indianapolis, which was hit hard. Some of them were pulled from the water by the crew of the Madison,” he recalled. (The Indianapolis had delivered the bomb to Guam).

“It was about two weeks before the actual surrender,” recalled McLeroy. “The official surrender was Sept. 2, about 10 a.m.”

McLeroy had a ringside seat, and still remembers the day in vivid Technicolor details. “The water was so calm,” he described. “About eight Japanese generals, who hadn’t wanted to surrender, but were ordered by their emperor to do so, stepped aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in full dress uniforms, but without their swords. They came across the gangplanks and bowed all the way down on the bridge in front of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.”

“Truman had offered them an unconditional surrender, but they asked, and were granted, freedom for their emperor,” explained McLeroy.

 The Emperor had announced that his people had suffered enough, so the generals reluctantly agreed to surrender.

Along with the U.S.S. Hilary P. Jones, other U.S. destroyers, Hughes, Madison, and Selfridge bore witness to the historic moment that day in Tokyo Bay.

McLeroy recalled MacArthur’s speech. “We are gathered here, representatives of the major warring powers, to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored. The issues, involving divergent ideals and ideologies, have been determined on the battlefields of the world and hence are not for our discussion or debate. Nor is it for us here to meet, representing as we do a majority of the people of the earth, in a spirit of distrust, malice or hatred. But rather it is for us, both victors and vanquished, to rise to that higher dignity which alone befits the sacred purposes we are about to serve, committing all our people unreservedly to faithful compliance with the understanding they are here formally to assume.

“It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past — a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice.”

“MacArthur had set it up so that the surrender would take place aboard the Missouri because President Truman was from there,” said McLeroy.

McLeroy’s captain walked up to the young sailor and said in a low voice, “You can’t tell them where you are, but I want you to go below and write your momma and daddy a letter, when you finish it, bring it to me and I’ll make sure it gets through the censors.”

McLeroy did as instructed. Today, he still has that very letter, much worn, bordered in red and blue stripes, in an airmail envelope stamped Sept. 2, 1945, Tokyo Bay. It bears a seal with initials penciled in showing that it was approved by a censor.

After a while the sailors were allowed to go ashore. They stayed in Yokohama. “At first the Japanese people would just about break their backs bowing, but later they just smiled and were very friendly,” recalled McLeroy.

He and his buddies went out in the direction of the blast. “There was nothing there — not a tree or a building or anything — literally nothing, with the exception of maybe parts of an iron safe or some metal fencing,” he said of the scene. “It was ten times worse than what we saw here after the tornado.”

His mother sent him packets of Kool-Aid. “We wore life belts that would inflate in the water. There were little tubes in them and the guys discovered that if they broke them open they could keep the Kool-Aid cold,” he laughed. “I was the most popular guy on the ship for a while there.”

He was stationed in Occupied Japan, near one of the northernmost islands until time to go home. His ship sailed past islands like Iwo Jima, the Philippines and Guam. “We would often fire on them just to let them know we were there,” he said. “Some of those Japanese soldiers were still fighting the war years later.”

McLeroy returned to Cold Springs Mountain after seeing death and destruction on the high seas and bearing witness to history. He was now officially a high school senior.

Walking down the hall one day he stopped in his tracks. By a girl, of course. “I thought she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen,” he smiled. “I still do.”

Cleo Lott, the 1947 Strawberry Princess was indeed a beauty. Her photo was on the Alabama road map along with Big Jim Folsom that year.

She had never been off the farm. After winning her dad’s approval, which wasn’t easy, the two began dating. They graduated in May and married June 7, 1947.

After graduation McLeroy went to school in Jacksonville, Ala., on the GI Bill. His class toured the governor’s mansion in Montgomery. “When Big Jim Folsom found out that I was from Cullman County, he got up out of his chair and invited me to sit in it,” laughed McLeroy. “When I sat down he made me put my feet up on his desk.”

“Look at you,” laughed the popular governor. “You’ve sat in my chair and done what I do all day.”

 When the Korean War started McLeroy had the opportunity to go to work for the phone company.

“We were poor,” he declared. “Even the poor folks called us poor. I’d made vow years before, standing in a cotton patch looking at my uncle’s new car, that one day I’d go to work for the phone company,” he said.

In 1950 he did just that.

The McLeroys have been married for 65 years. They had one son, Ronald (who passed away at the age of 54) two grandchildren, Todd and Dana, and six great-grandchildren.

McLeroy worked for the phone company for 39 years. He never turned down a minute of overtime.

“I grew up in the Navy,” he said, thinking back over his life. “It changed me from a little boy into a man. One thing the Navy taught me well was discipline,” he said. “You have to have self-discipline.”

Men like Buddy McLeroy, living repositories of this country’s proud legacy, hold our history in their hearts. He and other World War II veterans were honored this week, along with present and future veterans by Cullman County school children.

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said.

 It was an honor to tell his story.

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