Unit: A Coast Guard amphibious unit aboard the USS Cepheus (AKA-18), one of a handful of Navy AKAs manned by the Coast Guard.
War fronts: Served 1942 to 1946. The Cepheus delivered ammo and supplies to Oran, Africa, Naples, Italy, and to Southern France during the invasion to connect Allied soldiers with the invasion forces who landed at Normandy. The ship's cargo was designated to support the Okinawa invasion, and she spent 16 days there under constant raids by Japanese planes and submarines. Later, the crew went to China and Japan.
After war: Eiserman went to the Merchant Marine Academy where he earned his third mate papers. On the G.I. Bill, he studied forestry and aquatic biology at Utah State University. Worked as a fisheries biologist for 27 years for Wyoming Game and Fish. Married 54 years before his wife's death seven years ago. Has three sons and one grandchild.
His words: The Cepheus was an Andromeda-class attack cargo ship, carrying the machinery of war to all the fronts, wherever food, gas, ammunition, medicine were needed. It was near New Guinea when news came over the loud speaker that Japan had surrendered. "The old man hastened to say, 'Just because everybody else is done fighting, we're not.'"
I’ve taken a look at the line up of ships and it sure is going to be a big show. Just think while I (write) this now, you people back home have no idea of the huge operation pending but in a few more weeks, the whole world will hear about Okinawa …
Our boys are sure going to have it tough, but the Japs will have it twice as tough.
-- March 20, 1945
After days at sea, the smell of newly made land stirs something in a sailor. Fred Eiserman let his imagination wander whenever the USS Cepheus approached another port.
“Each new land has a different sort of odor,” he wrote home to his folks on July 31, 1945.
“Like that evening we passed Ireland and the odor of peat in our senses. I remember Africa’s dry smell as we crept along the coast and Panama’s tropical jungle odor as we came in across the Caribbean ...
“So it goes as each new landfall is approached, many of us sense these things but never realize it.”
In the middle of it, Eiserman was like most sailors, airmen and soldiers. He didn't know much about where he was going, why, what it meant for the big picture.
But for five months -- from Feb. 24 to July 31, 1945 -- Eiserman stole away when he could, writing what he understood about his position in a letter to his folks. He wrote between raid alarms, sometimes by flashlight.
Between April 1-16, his position was Okinawa, on an attack cargo ship loaded with gas, ammunition and other tools of war.
The fighting started immediately. Eiserman saw five Japanese planes shot down the first night, one on the next day. Suicide fighters raided morning and night. Midget subs and suicide boats attacked from the water.
April 5: I’m praying that God will favor us in the days to come as he has so far. We have 800 tons of ammo aboard and that sure could cause us to disappear from this old Earth.
… I’ll sign off now hoping that I may complete this letter and deliver it personally at some future date.
April 7: Eiserman watched seven planes go down, six Japanese and one American by friendly fire. Bad weather and raids kept the Cepheus from off-loading its explosive cargo."Today, during broad daylight, these trigger happy LST boys shot down another of our own planes, his stars were just as plain as could be. It sure was a disheartening sight."
April 10: Artillery fire from Marines on the beach lit up the night skies. The battle waged in the sky and water too. The crew started off-loading, including much of the gasoline, as the weather cleared.
"We have been pretty lucky so far laying around here so long on a powder keg ... Two nights ago the ship about 420 yards on our port side was hit with a suicide boat loaded with TNT ... I can't understand those people who throw their lives away so easily. One boat was picked up with six dead Japs who committed suicide with hand grenades because they failed in getting into the transport area."
April 12: "To watch all this anti-aircraft fire gives you a sense of deadly fascination ... This afternoon, while I write this, large groups of Jap planes are trying to get in, both high and low flyers. Just before I came below I saw three Jap planes go down in flames, two by anti-aircraft fire and one by a high flying fighter ... We can sure thank those fighter pilots. After these raids are over, it is okay to look back on them but while they are going on our hearts are sure in our throats."
April 14: The Cepheus' cargo was off-loaded at last, and the nearest raid was 28 miles away. "Oh for the peaceful evenings and mornings out at sea ... The scuttle butt today has it that Germany is through with the war, I wonder how true that is. I hope so, as that will sure help us a bit down here."
On April 15, the raids started at about 5:30 p.m. and the ships put up their smoke screen, so thick Eiserman couldn't see the water. The Cepheus sailed out the next day, the battle still raging.
In later years, as scholars studied it and historians wrote about it, the Battle of Okinawa would be called the “Typhoon of Steel." It was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific, involving four Army infantry divisions, two Marine divisions and some 1,500 ships. The Navy lost more men than in any other battle.
Eiserman knew none of that then. He just knew Okinawa would be significant.
On July 31, 1945, he wrote: "I sit on the fantail in the evenings sunset and dream of other ships that have come this way, of their great deeds and what the crews at that time must have felt as they have traveled under the great dome of sky that covers all great waters ...
"We ourselves have taken part in some history making."
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.