Veteran spent most of WWII training: Gunner in training
SLAYTON -- The year was 1943. Jim Meaden was in his senior year of high school at Slayton and working alongside his dad, Otto, in the family-owned Meaden Machine Works, when his draft notice arrived in the mail. He was told he would need to report for duty soon after graduation, but it wasn't until he was interviewed by specialists at boot camp that he was assigned to the U.S. Navy.
"I preferred the Navy and they let me go that way," said Meaden, who completed boot camp in Farragut, Idaho. "I feel the Army, you never know when you're going to get something to eat. In the Navy, you've always got your food with you, wherever you go. That had something to do with it."
With the mechanical skills he learned while working alongside his dad, Meaden eventually transferred to Norman, Okla., to attend Navy gunnery training school. Additional training was provided in Hollywood, Fla., before he transferred to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to begin training with his radioman Couts, of Missouri, and his pilot, H.L. Cary of Providence, R.I.
"From there on we were a team all the way through the Navy," he said, adding that they were assigned to a naval base on San Diego's North Island.
During his years in the Navy, Meaden served aboard five ships -- the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, escort carriers USS Makasser Strait, Kule Gulf and Bairoko, and a brief stint aboard the ammunition ship, USS Shasta.
"I just handled the turret on the upper side of the torpedo bomber," he said of his job. "The pilot also had two 50-caliber machine guns on both sides of the cockpit, on the leading edge of the wing. The pilot was the only one who could handle those two guns in the wings."
While Meaden reported for duty in 1943, he never really served in combat.
"We were in training all the while I was in the service," he said. "When we finally got out into the Pacific, the Japanese had so little stuff left. They had everything shot to pieces. We got out there so late in the Pacific that we really didn't get into any live warfare."
That isn't to say Meaden's job wasn't dangerous.
"I suppose the closest I ever got to being killed was right in the United States," he said. "That was on a training mission."
Meaden, his radioman and pilot had boarded their torpedo bomber for a practice mission in Klamath Falls, Ore. They had gone over their usual routine almost exactly, except that he and Couts didn't light up a cigarette.
"I can't remember any time at all that the two of us back there in the bilge were not smoking a cigarette before we took off," he explained. "This particular day, we took off and Couts yelled at the pilot, there's gasoline pouring back into the bilge. We had aviation fuel pouring back into the bilge."
The pilot swung around and landed the plane back on the runway, and all three climbed from the plane.
"I said to my radioman, 'Which pocket did you have the Lord in when we got off the ground today?' He said, 'What do you mean?'" Meaden recalled. "Neither one of us were smoking. We'd a been one big ball of fire if one of us had been smoking when that gas came pouring back into the plane."
Training missions were always an experience, said Meaden. In one of their training exercises, a pilot was sent up with a 30-foot nylon sleeve attached to the back of the plane. Gunners were then tasked with shooting at the sleeve in air-to-air target practice.
As an added challenge, the military would sometimes cause the turret guns to malfunction, requiring immediate attention from the gunner to fix the problem and still shoot off 1,000 rounds of ammunition before the plane returned to base.
"They would grade you on how many rounds of ammunition you could actually shoot while you were up there and still fixing the problem," Meaden said. "It only took me a couple of minutes to fix the problem. You don't have any tools so you've got to make do with what you've got."
His experience growing up alongside his father in the business attributed to his mechanical skills while serving in the military, and led to him being the top gunner in the squadron.
"I was good at fixing anything," he said. "I had eyes like an eagle. I could take a watch apart and put it back together without a magnifying glass."
Meaden was also an excellent marksman. In fact, one of the medals he received during the war was for expert pistol shot. He would have received one for turret gunner too, if they'd made one, he said.
"Every training place we went, they told us we were 10 percenters -- if you wanted to be flight crew, you had to be in the top 10 percent," said Meaden. The remaining 90 percent of the men in the squadron were assigned to either ground crew or worked as supply and transport pilots.
"They were pilots for everything under the sun, but they weren't fighter pilots," he added.
When Meaden and his squadron finally arrived in the South Pacific, their main task was sub patrol.
"Every day we'd drop sensors and when one of those picked up a submarine, you'd get the IFF (Idenfication Friend or Foe) on it right away," Meaden said. "If it was a foe, you'd call in the destroyer. The sensor would tell you how deep he was and what direction he was going. When that sensor picked up a Japanese sub, he was a dead duck -- he didn't have a chance."
Meaden served in the U.S. Navy from 1943 through the fall of 1946. After the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, the torpedo squadron returned to its California base and was assigned to new duties. Meaden was sent to Chicago to become a shore patrolman.
"We had a 45-caliber revolver on one side and a billy club on the other," he said. They patrolled the railroad as soldiers returned home.
"My mission, I'd get on at the Milwaukee Depot and they'd send me to Kansas City to do patrol, then they'd send me back to Chicago," Meaden said. "This continued for three or four months."
After his patrolling duties were complete, Meaden was asked to sign on with a Navy and make a career in the military, but he had plans of his own -- to return to the family business in Slayton. The day after he was discharged from Fort Snelling, he was working alongside his father in the shop.
With the exception of the war, Meaden has spent his entire life in Murray County. He was the second generation owner of Meaden Machine Works and, though his son has long since joined in the business, he still has an active role in the shop.
"I'm 86 years old and I go to work from 8 to 5 every day," Meaden said with a grin.
Julie Buntjer is a reporter at The Daily Globe in Worthington which is owned by Forum Communications Co.