On a Slow Boat to Saipan

Airdate: August 2

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

In December of 1944, John F. Onion Jr. from San Antonio, a newly minted marine, set sail for Saipan. The journey had been delayed because of problems with the ship, and Onion recalls everything was still not fixed:

"And I think it was the second day that they announced that there would be no drinking water available at all hours, that the ship's equipment for turning saltwater into freshwater had broken down, or something was wrong with it so that if we wanted water to drink, we had to line up at eight o'clock in the morning, stand in line, and get hot water that came out. And then six o'clock in the evening, you need to get back in line."

Onion describes a welcome assignment during the voyage:

"One time they grabbed us and told us that they needed a cleanup detail to go back to officers' country. So we went back to officers' country. And we had a broom and a mop and pail and something else. Well, back there they had a cold-water fountain. So we'd work a little bit and go over and drink cold water. And finally they told us we were through."

The cold water was difficult to forget, as Onion explains:

"That evening, one of the guys who'd been with me on that detail said, ‘What are you thinking about?' And I looked at him, and I said, ‘Cold water.' (laughs) He said, ‘I am too.' He said, ‘Let's go back there and get some.' I said, ‘We can't do that. They've got guards on either side of the ship.' He said, ‘How did we get back there this morning?' I said, ‘We were on a detail.' He said, ‘I got a bucket, if you can get a—a mop.' So sure enough, he brought a—found a bucket, and I found a mop. We said, ‘Work detail,' and the guard stood aside and let us go back there. We tanked up with water, came back on the other side with our—

"The next day he said, ‘What are you thinking about?' And I said, ‘The same thing you are.' So we went and looked, and we couldn't find a mop, broom, bucket, or anything. So he said, ‘Let's go back anyway.' Well, the officers made a habit of coming out of officers' country, so to speak, in their skivvy shirts, and they didn't wear their insignias or anything. So, any rate, he said, ‘We can bluff our way through.' So we went up to this one guard, and this guard said, ‘Halt! Officers' country! You can't go back there!' And my friend turned around and said, ‘How long have you been on this ship? And when are you ever going to learn the officers on this ship?' ‘Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I'm sorry, sir.' I mean turned around. The two of us went (laughs) back there, tanked up on water, came out on the other side. And I told him, ‘I don't think I ever want to do that again.' (laughs) And we didn't."

John Onion Jr. went on to serve at Saipan and Okinawa and took part in the U.S. occupation of Japan, before returning home to pursue his law studies. In 1989, he retired as presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after twenty-two years of service on the court.

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