Little did Wayne Gustafson know when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in spring 1945 how soon World War II would an end and what part he would play in returning Japanese POWs to their homeland.
Gustafson, 94, was born in Chinook but spent most of his young life in Hardin, graduating from high school in 1945. In April of that year, at age 17, he traveled to Helena to enlist. Not long after he graduated and turned 18, Gustafson was called to active duty.
Following boot camp in San Diego, he was assigned to the 300-foot USS LST 915, an amphibious ship typically used to deliver Marines and equipment to islands for battles.
Gustafson, a quartermaster, was navigator aboard the vessel. He spent most of time in the wheelhouse guiding the ship’s path. Not all of the threats came from serving during a war.
“I survived several life-threatening typhoons aboard ship,” he said. “During the height of one storm the waves were 100 feet high, tossing us around like a piece of lumber. Then we lost power and the engines were swamped with water in the middle of the night.”
America was 4-1/2 years into its war with Japan by the time Gustafson joined the Navy. In the Philippines, awaiting assignment, he expected an order to invade Japan to come at any time, an action that would have led to further protracted fighting.
“We knew it would be bloody because the Japanese were fanatical fighters,” Gustafson said. “If they were invaded on the homeland, we knew how hard it would be.”
Instead, the U.S. dropped its first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and a second on Nagasaki three days later. The war officially ended on Sept. 2.
Gustafson’s ship was assigned to transport troops and armament to occupied Japan, as well as supplies to Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Guam, Saipan, the Philippines, Wake Island and Japan. But its main duty was to repatriate Japanese soldiers, a trip the ship made “two or three times.”
Though there were 60 crew members onboard and nearly 700 Japanese POWs, the prisoners never posed a threat, he said. They were relieved to be going home.
Gustafson remembers clearly when the ship sailed into the harbor at Sendai, 200 miles north of Tokyo. The cheers of the POWs as they sailed into port – “It was the biggest cheer I’ve ever heard, including football games.”
Gustafson also recalls looking up into the hills surrounding the port city, where he saw artillery pointed toward the ship.
“It occurred to me how good it was we were there in peacetime, not trying to invade the country,” he said. “It would have been deadly.”
He also remembers returning to the United States in May 1946, sailing from Hawaii to Northern California and seeing an iconic site.
“The morning of our arrival in San Francisco it was really foggy, which was not unusual,” he said, as he helped guide the ship. “All of a sudden the fog raised and the Golden Gate Bridge was right in front of us. It was one of the greatest thrills.”
Gustafson shared a humorous moment regarding the end of his military career. Honorably discharged in July 1946 from the Bremerton, Washington, Naval Station, with the rank of Quartermaster Third Class, he didn’t have any means of letting his parents, who by then lived in Bozeman, know he was returning home.
After a Greyhound Bus ride home to downtown Bozeman, he lugged his 100-pound seabag uphill to his parents’ house and knocked on the door.
“Nobody answered and the house was locked,” Gustafson said. “It was over July 4th and my folks had planned a trip to Minnesota.”
Fortunately, Blaine, his older brother, a student at what was then Montana State College, lived at a frat house and that’s where Gustafson landed until his parents returned. He enrolled at MSC that fall and graduated with a degree in architecture in 1950.
Gustafson moved to Billings and worked as an architect for more than 50 years, opening his own firm. Though he retired in 2004, he is still known in Billings for many of the buildings he designed.