Born on the Fourth of July
Harold Tatsch was born on July 4, 1927 on Pecan Creek in Gillespie County, Texas. His family moved into Fredericksburg in 1936. Tatsch got a job as a bellhop at the Nimitz Hotel in the summer of 1944 and enlisted in the Navy the following November. When asked during his Oral History interview at the National Museum of the Pacific War on October 28, 2005 why he chose the Navy and why he enlisted at just 17 years of age, Tatsch chuckled, “On account of my brother, I guess.”
Tatsch traveled by train to San Diego for training and a wakeup call to the realities of Navy life. “[We] went through our physical up through there and finally when we got our hair cut and all that, they put us on a truck, after we got our clothes and everything, put us on a truck and took us to the barracks. And our company commander came out of that room, the first thing he said, ‘You’re late.’”
After several weeks of “mostly marching and things like that,” Tatsch reported to the newly constructed USS Drexler (DD-741) on February 13, 1945. “The Drexler was a Sumner-class. It had six 5-inch guns, four 40- millimeter guns and ten torpedoes. Two midship and two in the back. Depth charges and a bunch of 20 millimeter. It had a lot of firing power on it. I was in the 40-millimeter ammunition room.” This assignment meant that Tatsch passed clips of four 40-millimeter shells through a small opening so they could be loaded into the gun. Tatsch got to do this quite often en route from San Diego to Pearl Harbor as the crew of the Drexler got in, “A lot of practicing.”
From Pearl Harbor, Tatsch traveled aboard the Drexler to Guadalcanal. Tatsch was there long enough to “drink three beers” before shipping to Ulithis and then on to Okinawa. It was during this leg of the journey that all Tatsch’s ammo practice paid off. “We were still escorting the carriers, at that time. And when we got there, April the first, there was one Jap plane that attacked us, four carriers and twelve destroyers, something like that. One plane attacked us. That old boy didn’t have a Chinese chance.”
Tatsch continued utilizing all that practice when the Drexler reached Okinawa. “Our ship was the main bombardment ship. We bombarded that island. We fired on that thing, I guess, three hours, three of four hours. Constant firing.” Tatsch left his assigned duty once during the engagement but soon returned to fulfill his duty. “One morning the Jap plane come in, and I wanted to see what, where they were going, so I got out of my room, left enough clips up there and I saw that plane coming straight at us, I could even see the fire coming out of the guns, that’s when I went back in my room.” That plane was shot down as were the several that followed. “We had about, oh I guess, four or five maybe six planes to our credit.”
But the worst was yet to come.
“May the 28th, that’s when we was on picket station 15, east China Sea, that morning at 7 o’clock. Six bombers come in. They were in for suicide. And then the first plane we shot down, second plane, a combination of the Lloyd and ours, shot down. Third plane was heading for the other destroyer and they missed it and they came in and hit us.”
“We opened it up [the ammo room] and looked to see what was going on and there was fire all over the place, guys running, so I told the other old boy, I think maybe we better get back in that room. So we went back in our room, closed one latch— And that’s when the second plane hit us.”
The plane hit midship between two stacks and only 30 feet from the ammo room Tatsch was in. Tatsch and his fellow loaders escaped outside to see total mayhem. “I saw these guys go over the side, and then I noticed the ammunition was falling out of our room. So I picked up one of those clips, that’s when I looked down the side and said, ‘Hell, they’re going overboard. I think we’re sinking.’ So I threw that clip in there and I told him, ‘Let’s get the heck out of here.’ And I went down on that side, on the port side, and the last thing I can remember is I was hanging on the side, next thing I was about 50 yards away from the ship. Which was sticking straight up there.”
Tatsch swam away from the sinking vessel as fast as he could to find that he was one of the lucky ones; roughly 150 didn’t make it. The survivors of the Drexler spent three hours in the water before they were rescued. “After they picked me up, that’s when I was ready to go home.”
Tatsch didn’t go home right away, however. Instead, he was sent to Pearl Harbor then given 40-day survivor leave. It was while on this leave that he learned the war was over. Tatsch was still only 17 years old but wise enough to be, “thankful that I stayed alive.”
Gayne C. YoungGayne C. Young is a graduate of St. Edward’s University, the former Editor-in-Chief of North American Hunter and North American Fisherman - both part of CBS Sports -and a columnist for and feature contributor to Outdoor Life and Sporting Classics magazines. His work has appeared in magazines such as Petersen’s Hunting, Texas Sporting Journal, Sports Afield, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Under Wild Skies, Hunter’s Horn, Spearfishing, and many others.