Ian Lord, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — In 1945, Alvin O. Ward began his second tour in the Navy. He was sent from San Francisco to the South China Sea and expected a direct route to his ship, the YMS-46, a small minesweeper.
However, it took Ward several months and a few adventures before he managed to join the crew.
Ward, 90, of St. Albans, said he was sent from port to port in China and Korea searching for the ship. During his search, oftentimes alone in a strange country, he experienced a typhoon, a munitions explosion and even some “Okinawa mud.”
One of his stops was on Okinawa, arriving there just months after the 82-day-long battle that’s become part of World War II legend. While there, Ward and some of his fellow sailors experienced a brutal typhoon, throwing their small encampment into complete disarray.
While cleaning up the campsite after the storm, Ward said a munitions cache malfunctioned, causing a huge explosion, separating him from his three camp-mates. He was never to re-connect with them after that.
Ward survived both the typhoon and the explosion and came back with a long-lasting souvenir.
Since his first tour of duty near the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico — “God’s Country,” he called that area — Ward had kept a small, blue notepad, on which he wrote the names of fellow sailors and notes of his travels.
After the explosion, Ward found his trusty notebook — caked in “Okinawa mud,” which is exactly what he wrote on the page to which it was opened that day. Today, the notebook still has the names of his fellow sailors, along with several pages of 67-year-old mud splatter.
Following the several-month journey, Ward eventually hooked up with the YMS-46 in Shanghai, and from there, the 146-foot minesweeper was involved in seven invasions during which it defused 97 mines throughout the Pacific Ocean. His ship also brought down a Japanese kamikaze plane, a pilot-guided suicide aircraft rigged with explosives.
The minesweepers — usually about an eighth the size of a battleship, Ward said — would travel in a “v” shape in groups of 15 to 20, defusing mines throughout the seas. Ward said these ships and their crews were the first ones in during an invasion, and lead minesweepers would occasionally hit a mine, “losing everybody.”
Among a crew of about 30 men, Ward was a motor machinist mate, first class.
“Anything mechanical on the ship, I would fix it,” Ward said.
Ward never made the rank of chief mechanic, but that was only due to procedural errors. For all intents and purposes, he said, he was the chief mechanic on his ship.
Life on sea was exciting, Ward said. With no doctor on board, the men were left to fend for themselves when anyone was injured or became sick. Ward sustained a knee injury during his first tour, but he never received his Purple Heart.
Not all of the dangers in the war stemmed from the enemy, however. For instance, he remembered one short-tempered cook on his ship. “You never knew, if you were in the galley, if you’d get a knife thrown at you,” he said.
During his “liberties” — breaks from service — Ward befriended a fellow sailor who was also a boxer. He said the boxer, whose name he can no longer recall, ended up defeating China’s champion boxer, and he later heard from another fellow vet, that the boxer had ended up fighting in Madison Square Garden.
Ward’s mechanical prowess began at a young age. He was born in 1923 in Cumberland, R.I., one of four brothers, three who would serve in the military.
As a young boy, Ward said he often played in junkyards and with old cars. “I can still hear my mother howling my name to come back inside,” he said.
In 1942, Ward enlisted in Providence, R.I., and from there, traveled around the world. After his first tour in the Caribbean, Ward was sent to a General Motors school in Ohio to get advanced training. After completing the course, he went off to Camp Shumaker in California before he began his search for the ship.
After returning home, Ward went to work in a machine shop. He met his wife, Barbara, who he married in 1946, and the couple moved up to St. Albans in 1948, along with their young daughter.
Ward and his in-laws, who had moved with them to St. Albans to run a government-owned slaughterhouse on Route 7, built three houses off of Route 7-South in St. Albans Town, including the one he and Barbara still live in today.
The Wards raised two daughters, Linda and Laura, who both have children and grandchildren of their own. Ward said he has three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, while Barbara chimed in about their visits and the energy the littlest ones bring to the family.
After working at various auto garages throughout St. Albans, Ward eventually got a job at General Electric in Burlington, where he retired in 1988.
Even slowing down on his lifelong hobby of buying and restoring antique cars — Reo motorcars are his favorites — Ward and Barbara are enjoying a peaceful life together in St. Albans. Their oldest daughter lives in Rochester, N.Y., and their youngest lives nearby in Sheldon. Even their grandkids have been spread out around the country, starting families of their own.
By referring to his handy little notebook, Ward had been able to keep up with his fellow sailors, although he said they’re fewer and fewer of them around. A few years ago, he was able to contact the son of one of the campmates he was separated from during the explosion on Okinawa.
Ward noted how quickly the time has gone since he served. A minesweeper trade magazine has a “Taps” list of veterans who served on the ships who have recently died, he said.
For the past few years, Ward said he hasn’t been able to march in the Veterans Day parade in St. Albans because he hasn’t felt quite up to it, but he’ll still always go and salute the flags with his fellow servicemen. He said he’s fortunate, at 90, to be able to keep participating.
“So far I’m still here,” Ward said.