Lewen Bill Street Jr. almost didn't make it to the Navy.

He was in the middle of his training in Farragut, Idaho, when he came down with pneumonia in all lobes of his lungs.

Street went to sick bay. Today, he can't remember anything from that time.

He soon went into a coma and was sent to the Naval hospital, when letters were sent to his parents. Street was not expected to live.

But somehow, he pulled through. His lungs were badly scarred, his breathing shot and his heart weakened.

He couldn't pass the mandatory swim test. Years later, when he tried to enlist in the Korean War, that failed test would stop him. They said he wasn't fit for battle. But during World War II, the Navy took him anyway. They assigned him to the battleship USS South Dakota and sent him to the Pacific.

Onboard, manning a 40-millimeter gun, Street lost much of his hearing and his hair. His shipmates came up with a new nickname for him: Old Man.

"Yeah, I was an old man at 19," Street said.

The South Dakota served in eight major battles and saw 42 major hits. Street served in the L Division, a team of about 30 men who served as lookouts in the superstructure of the ship. He scanned the water with field glasses looking for mines. It was hard to see through the garbage other ships had left behind floating in the water, Street said.

As soon as something was spotted on the radar, Street had to climb down to the deck in a matter of minutes to get to his battle station at the ship's bow.

Street remembers air attacks, Japanese planes filling the sky and flying low enough that the men could see the insignia drawn on the sides. American planes would tip their wings to show they were friendly, but "they got shot anyway."

The South Dakota launched attacks on Marshall Islands Roi and Namur and the first attack on the Mariana Islands. Street and the 1,500 men onboard fought through the Battle of the Philippine Sea and made strikes against Manila and Luzon, Okinawa, Tokyo and Iwo Jima.

Once, Street heard a loud bang at the starboard side. He and the others on the bow were too busy trying to take down Japanese planes, "we didn't have time to see what was really happening."

A 500-pound bomb had been dropped on the deck, killing all the men manning the 20-millimeters. When the raid was over, fire controlmen worked to put out the fire on deck. The bomb had blown a hole down three or four of the ship's decks.

"You're just going in there to do what you can for your country. You didn't have time to get scared when you were in battle. ... It was only afterwards," Street said. "You got a little shaky on that."

Nearing the war's end, Street volunteered and underwent special training in hand-to-hand combat. He and about 30 others were to man the Japanese battleship Nagato. The Nagato was a prime example of a modernized Japanese navy, and although bombed heavily in raids, the U.S. Navy wanted to bring it back to the States.

When Street and the others got onboard, prisoners had already been taken. No need for hand-to-hand fighting. Street was briefly put in charge of watching the prisoners. The Nagato was too badly damaged though, water filling many of the lower decks, and the Navy decided not to bring it back home. The Nagato was sent to Bikini Atoll and later destroyed in atomic bomb tests.

Even after the war, Street continued to fight, reliving battles at night. Then, they called it battle fatigue.

"You'd be asleep and you'd hear a battle call, like a ‘Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!' That's the way it was," Street said. "‘Man your battle station! Man your battle station!'

"I heard that for years."

When he thinks about it now, he says he finally got over it. But then he second guesses. "I don't know if I've gotten over it yet or not."

After the war, Street went to Philadelphia to get discharged. During his physical exam, the doctor told him of his severely damaged lungs, hearing and heart. The doctor said Street could make a claim, but it would take several months.

Street wanted to get home, so he left. His discharge pay was $102.67.

Street's daughter, Debra, heard barely anything about Street's service until several years ago. In 2004, he caught pneumonia and again was not expected to live. Debra began hearing his stories, and asked questions so she could seek help from the VA.

Today, Street has made a recovery. And he says he'd go back to war and do it all over again if he could.

It's a sentiment he shares with many. Even then, during war, they felt that way.

In a crew letter members of the USS South Dakota mailed to their families, the men detailed one boy's final battle onboard. As Japanese planes bombed the ship, someone called for a group of men to drop down and protect themselves. But the men kept standing, firing their machine guns. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing but "crumbled figures."

One of the boys lay dying in sick bay, and a chaplain knelt down to hear him speak:

"I am happy to have done my part."


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