The youngest of 12 children raised by a widowed mother during the Great Depression, Thomas Dugan was the class clown who just could not wait to turn 18 to join the military. His eagerness to serve his country at a time when the United States was suffering catastrophic depression followed by the outbreak of the Second World War ultimately made him forever part of what has become known as the “Greatest Generation.”
Dugan will be 94 years old on Sept. 18, but his memories of the war remain clear. A plankowner on the USS Intrepid, having begun his service when the ship was placed in commission, he retains a piece of shrapnel that pierced his Navy whites in his locker during a Japanese air raid. His life was spared more than once as suicide bombers attacked his ship.
Getting through the war was hard with friends and fellow shipmates dying in front of him, followed by burial details he always seemed to be assigned, he said.
“I served it. I don’t know how I did it. I just kept going,” he said from his home in Myrtle Beach.
For veterans like Dugan who lived through so much death and destruction, sharing war stories is difficult. With the loving support of his wife of 70 years, however, Dugan was eventually able to put some of the emotion behind him in order to share a living history.
His stories about the war were documented in 2013 through an oral history interview for the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Complex when he and his wife, award-winning artist Dixie Dugan, traveled to the 70th anniversary of the commissioning of the Intrepid in New York. Dugan’s remembrances are vital to recording the history of that war as the now aging veterans numbers are rapidly dwindling.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there were more than 16 million members of the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII, and by 2016, the number of those still living had decreased to 620,000 with an estimated 372 WWII veterans dying daily.
His early years
Raised in Greenville, Texas, Thomas Franklin Dugan’s mother, Cora, refused to sign for her youngest son to join the military before he was 18. Raised on a farm, his family was fed while many others felt the effects of hunger.
“It was rough. There were no jobs,” Dugan recalled. “When war broke out, everybody went to work. It was terrible the war started but everyone got a job.”
While he waited anxiously for his 18th birthday, Dugan went to work in the Civilian Conservation Camps in Arizona after dropping out of 10th grade. At age 16, he made $30 a month with a mandatory $15 sent home and $8 put in the bank, leaving him with $7 for living expenses. By age 17, he was working at Terrell Aviation School in Terrell, Texas, until he could enlist.
The day he turned 18, he signed up and was shipped to Great Lakes Naval Air Station in Chicago for a shortened boot camp of only 27 days. He was then assigned to Chicago Navy Pier to attend aircraft mechanic school for six months, graduating June 4, 1943 on his mother’s birthday. His first assignment – and many after – was to fight fires if any started as pilots landed planes on aircraft carriers.
It was while he was stationed in Chicago that he met the love of his life at an indoor skating rink; however, she was only 14 at the time.
“My skating box had soldier, sailor and Marine painted on the side because my mother had four brothers in the service. He brushed up against it and got paint on his blues,” Dixie Dugan said. “I said my daddy would get that off and I took him home with me.”
That chance meeting sparked a love that had to wait for the 14-year-old to grow up and graduate high school and has lasted through the years. Placing a light kiss on his cheek and touching his hand throughout the interview, Dixie Dugan described her husband of seven decades as not only a gentleman but a “gentle man.”
“I couldn’t wait to marry her,” said the man who has supported and encouraged her art career.
Living through the war
During his time on the Intrepid, Thomas Dugan was assigned to the gasoline detail. Although he was an airplane mechanic, he did very little work on the planes.
“We would change spark plugs sometimes but there was no time to do very much maintenance,” he said. His ship carried 90 planes and when they didn’t fly, they were shoved off the ship, he said. “If they wouldn’t fly, they were in the way and we pushed a lot of them overboard.”
The ship, whose construction was expedited after the war began, survived five kamikaze attacks and is noted for helping to win pivotal Pacific War battles. Dugan recalls all-day bombings. One left a hole “bigger than this room” in the side of the ship, he recalled. When a torpedo went through the wings of the planes that hung over the side of the ship, swab handles were broken to slow gas leaks, he said.
When one torpedo caused the ship to lift up and down, “There were four or five planes upside down and the ship’s rudder was jammed to one side,” he said. “We rigged a sail cloth out of canvas barrel bags to catch the wind … We finally got a heavy cruiser tied to us to take us into Pearl Harbor but they couldn’t fix her so we took her through the roughest seas to San Francisco slamming into and sinking tug boats trying to help us control the ship.”
After a lengthy repair, the crew reloaded and headed back to Pearl Harbor to start all over again, he said.
Another of Dugan’s memories was of a Japanese attack in Okinawa. The ship shot down eight or 10 enemy planes. “It was chaos. We tried to hide,” he said with a chuckle, “but there was nowhere to hide.”
With a more somber tone, he recalled the invasion of the Philippines when two enemy planes dived into the ship. “The Jap planes went down and killed people. There was fire on the hanger deck. Someone yelled ‘Turn the water on Dugan.’ About a minute and a half later a plane dived at us and killed almost everybody. The only thing that saved my life was I was back there turning the water on.”
That was the day the shrapnel went through his compartment into his clothing and he kept pieces as a reminder of that event. The chaos of guns firing meant it was almost impossible to hear the planes diving, he said. They were loaded with gasoline and the fires left the ship so black Dugan said you “couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”
Another sad moment occurred when the Intrepid’s crew saw the Franklin get bombed. “We were in general quarters and I saw a [Japanese] plane drop two bombs on her and the ship exploded. Rockets were shooting off the ship everywhere but didn’t reach us. It killed 1,300 men,” he said.
Of the 3,200 shipmates on the Intrepid, 99 were killed during the war. With no refrigeration, there were many burials at sea and Dugan was frequently on the burial crew leaving harsh memories for a young man to live with.
Shortly before the war ended in September 1945, Dugan ended up in a hospital in California diagnosed with diabetes and was given a medical discharge. After the war, he worked in the oil fields in Texas and sent for Dixie, who had by then turned 18. He later earned a bachelor of science and was recruited by the Air Force to teach aircraft mechanics. He spent 34 years teaching systems and showing pilots how to get out of ejection seats. He and Dixie moved to Myrtle Beach in 1966 with the Air Force and have made it their home ever since.
Freelance writer Angela Nicholas can be reached at email@example.com.