The memories have faded.
He’s sure there are things he’ll forget to tell, but it’s been more than six decades. A lot of life has happened since.
Don Arbogast has books on the war, photographs, clips from the paper, like from when his destroyer was put out of commission years after the war.
Certain moments come into focus now and then.
“I still think about it a lot,” he said. “You can’t get it out of your head.”
Arbogast picked the Navy for what it wasn’t. He didn’t want to be on the ground, in the Army. The draft board was after him, he said. He thought he’d enlist and beat them to it, so he’d have a choice.
What he heard and saw later reaffirmed his decision. At Saipan and Tinian, he saw men lying on the islands, Marines floating dead in the water so thick a man could walk across their backs.
Home on the Crow Indian Reservation, Arbogast tried to convince another to join the Navy with him. His friend didn’t want to go.
Overseas, Arbogast got a letter from his friend. He had been drafted, sent to Germany.
Then Arbogast picked up another letter, from his sister. The friend was dead, killed in a building explosion.
The Navy had to be better than all that. But war on the sea came rough: submarines from the water below, kamikazes from the sky. Once, a bomb dropped on the destroyer’s deck, flew right between the stacks and fell into the water. Days were marked by close calls.
Training in Farragut, Idaho, was but a taste of what was to come. Arbogast had been warned of what might happen.
“They told us when we left there, I remember at Farragut they said, ‘You guys, a lot of you will be going overseas, and a lot of you won’t ever be coming back.’
“So that wasn’t very encouraging.”
Arbogast joined up when he turned 18. After 16 weeks of training he went from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, where he caught his destroyer, the USS Coghlan (DD-606).
The destroyer hadn’t even reached Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands when it met choppy waters. The men had been practicing maneuvers with LST and LSM landing craft during the day. Some of them didn’t have anywhere to sleep, Arbogast said, so they crawled into Higgins boats.
The water was too rough, and the boats floated away. Arbogast said he could see the men waving their arms, illuminated by the destroyer’s search light.
“Pretty soon you couldn’t see them anymore,” he said. “They had drowned.”
Arbogast stood watches in the boiler room as a fireman. When it came to battle stations, he set shells from inside a handling room. Shells came from the magazine at the bottom of the ship, raised up to Arbogast so he could set fuses.
The handling room would get so hot sweat dripped into Arbogast’s ears. He had to keep removing his ear plugs to wipe perspiration away.
Since he couldn’t see outside, couldn’t see where the shell was going, instructions came to Arbogast from the bridge.
From his station, he could hear what was happening outside. Planes strafing the destroyer sounded like a hail storm.
At Saipan, the USS Coghlan patrolled, and at Tinian it assisted a flotilla of ships, destroyers and landing craft that delivered men to the shore.
In the Philippines, “that’s when we really got into it then.”
During the landings at Ormoc Bay on the island of Leyte, the destroyer fired back against a heavy kamikaze attack. One plane crashed into the Coghlan’s sister ship, right at the gun Arbogast manned on his own destroyer.
“It just bulged and it killed everybody in it,” he said.
The destroyer shot down at least two planes. When the shells burst, they threw shrapnel, so Arbogast never could tell how many planes his destroyer hit.
The Coghlan pulled into the bay in the early morning hours, Arbogast remembers.
It was dark, and the crew onboard didn’t expect to encounter part of the Japanese fleet.
The landing craft unloaded its men, and the Coghlan shelled a Japanese ship. It was one of two ships the Coghlan shelled during the war.
When Arbogast’s destroyed arrived in Japan, he found out the war was over. The ship traveled to Nagaski, then Hiroshima. Arbogast didn’t go ashore, but those who did reported back.
“It was really a mess,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to go in there.”
When Arbogast arrived in the U.S., a friend suggested they call the Army Air Force to see if they could catch a plane home. Arbogast said no, he’d had enough. He took the train instead.
Life felt different in Montana. His mother had remarried; the house had been sold.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself after I got home,” Arbogast said. “... Really unsettled, you know?”
Soon after, he moved to Sheridan and worked 32 years as a mechanic. He’s stayed there ever since.
Overseas, Arbogast was a young man. He went in not knowing what to expect. He didn’t let fear bother him.
“Since then I’ve been scared,” he said. “I told my wife I’m just very lucky to get back at all.”
They served with honor
Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.
“They Served With Honor” is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week through Veterans Day 2011.