Lyle Svoboda, World War II Veteran

Lyle Svoboda of Lander recounts his time spent in the Navy during World War II and being stationed off the coast of China for two years after the war was over. (Kerry Huller/Star-Tribune)

Kerry Huller

Typing skills made deck hand Lyle Svoboda a yeoman 2nd class.

When Svoboda signed up for the Navy, he imagined scrubbing and painting decks, working under the hot sun. He enlisted knowing he’d be drafted and didn’t want to dig foxholes in the Army.

In 1945, the Navy assigned him to the USS Cocopa, an ocean-going tug called an ATF 101. Three days after he reached his ship in the Philippines, the ship’s yeoman left on emergency leave. The executive officer needed a new typist, and fast. The battle of Leyte was ending and the crew knew it would be headed for a Japanese invasion.

Scouring the files of the 80 men on the ship, the officer found only one man who could type: apprentice seaman Lyle Svoboda.

The officer called Svoboda and asked if he wanted the job.

“I said I would think about it,” Svoboda said. “I didn’t know anything about being a yeoman.”

The next day the officer called: You’re our new yeoman.

“I walked into the job not knowing zilch. No training, no instructions, no nothing. Here’s your typewriter, two file cabinets full of files and a desk and a chair.”

Svoboda learned fast that a yeoman was always at the captain’s side. But his ship didn’t even have a captain. The old skipper left a day after Svoboda became yeoman. The old skipper was retirement age and didn’t want to invade Japan.

A lieutenant commander arrived on board, one notch below the normal rank for a skipper. He didn’t last too long.

Svoboda’s not sure exactly what happened, but one of the seamen in the ship’s anchor hold got into trouble. Angry, the new skipper called immediately for a captain’s mast — an informal on-ship trial — to determine a punishment.

Svoboda recorded the trial: An officer presented the charges and the seaman denied them.

“The skipper picked up a three-inch shell casing that was an ash tray on the table and threw it at the seaman and hit him in the head,” Svoboda said.

An executive officer arrested the skipper and called an admiral aboard. After another hearing, this time for the rogue skipper, the admiral took him off the ship.

In five days as a yeoman, Svoboda had seen more than many see in a career.

Two days later, and two days after most ships left for Japan, the Cocopa got a new skipper. That one worked out.

On their way to Japan, Svoboda’s tugboat received news of the atomic bombs. America would not have to invade Japan. Boats would sail for home.

Not the USS Cocopa.

The Cocopa turned northwest to Shanghai, its new job to rescue distressed ships at sea. Shanghai was quickly becoming one of the world’s largest trade ports, and that meant typhoons regularly ripped through cargo ships.

The Cocopa was one of only a handful of U.S. Navy ships stationed there, and Svoboda spent most of his time in his tugboat.

Once he was allowed a rest and relaxation period on mainland China in a town called Wangchow. The Navy had a hotel there, a resort meant for sailors who earned a break.

There, Svoboda and a buddy drank with Admiral Chester Nimitz, chief of naval operations during World War II.

Svoboda and his friend were on a veranda overlooking the city when they saw the Admiral Nimitz and two others drinking cocktails.

The seamen excused themselves, not wanting to bother such an important admiral, but Nimitz told them to sit down. For one drink, the young men joked with the commander of the Navy.

Days later, outside the city, Svoboda and his friend noticed a crowd of people gathered in a square. They elbowed their way into the group to see a man on his knees, hands tied behind his back and blindfolded with a Chinese army soldier pointing a pistol at his head.

The man was a communist spy, onlookers said. Svoboda and his friend stood and watched for a moment before the man was shot.

“There was lots of clapping, but my buddy and I left. We didn’t want to be around to celebrate,” he said.

During the two years Svoboda sailed on the Cocopa, it went through seven typhoons. Some of the rescues were ships stranded with no steering, or ones that lost their engines. Other times storms beat the ships so badly they broke in two. The Cocopa saved half a cement barge as it snapped in half. They got the men off the ship and towed half to Okinawa. The other half went down.

It once spent 45 days towing a floating dry dock from Australia to Japan. Some days they moved less than a mile in rough seas.

Their rescues routinely happened in the worst ocean weather. The boat would roll back and forth at 45-degree angles, and the men quickly learned to balance on a rocking ship.

“You get sea legs,” he said.

During one rescue, his appendix burst.

“They radioed for the closest ship because we had this LST in tow and there was nothing we could do.”

The pharmacist on board knew to keep Svoboda’s temperature down by packing him in ice.

“That was the only thing that saved me, otherwise I would have died,” he said.

A destroyer called the USS Parks came to his rescue, bucking 12-foot waves while crews transferred the sick seaman. He slept in the admiral’s bunk for two days, sailing to Guam and was back on his own ship in a couple of weeks.

By 1947, two years after the war officially ended, Svoboda went home. The skipper wanted to send him to officer training school, but Svoboda was through with the Navy. He went to college, moved to Casper and became an accountant.

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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A Casper native, Christine Peterson started as a Star-Tribune intern in 2002. She has covered outdoor recreation, the environment and wildlife since 2010, and became managing editor in 2015. If not tracking bears or elk on assignment, she's chasing trout.

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