Editor’s Note: Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Milton Schiff (U.S. Navy Retired), now 90 years old, lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife, Caryl, and dog, Jake. While in the Navy, Schiff became a Navy SEAL and participated in various missions in the Pacific. Naval Special Warfare Command’s Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Black sat down with Mr. Schiff at a Phoenix chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars where he spoke about SEAL training, his account of the war, friendships and the winning combination for success. Here is his story:
I was 17 when I enlisted right out of high school. I was called up in May of 1944, and went to boot camp at Sampson, New York. From boot training, I went to aviation ordnance school at the Naval Head Technical Training Center in Memphis, Tennessee. While I was there, I thought the war would end without me having the chance to win it, so I asked for sea duty.
After completing rate training as a gunner’s mate, I was one of many candidates for a new program with the underwater demolition teams.
In early fall of 1944, we arrived by train to Fort Pierce, Florida. First, we were assigned to pyramid tents. Then we received carbide green uniforms, and steel helmets, and liners, and combat boots. At midnight instructors woke us up, and we got dressed quickly, and we ran down to the beach. We would run a mile, walk a mile, and run a mile doing a 20-mile run stretch. All those that didn’t finish were picked up by a two and a half ton truck. It was one of those big army type trucks. We never saw them again as they were shipped out. That was the beginning of hell week. From that point on, almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we were in and out of swamps, getting shot at with live ammunition, in rubber boats making landings from the Atlantic at night, during the day working with explosives, setting off Bangalore torpedoes to get rid of barbed wire.
At Fort Pierce, they used live ammunition and explosives. Either TNT or tetrytol. Tetrytol was just coming on the scenes at that time. Until then, they used quarter pound blocks of TNT. They used them as hand grenades and as booby traps. It was always top stress training, but it was good because it got you in shape and got you attuned. Anyone who screwed up was out. We went down there with 1,000 people. We went into combat with 400 men. Later, more of those were skimmed off at Amphibious Training Center in Maui, Hawaii, where advanced training took place, when we became UDT because they couldn’t swim.
On my team, Commanding Officer Lt. E.P. Clayton kept most of those guys who couldn’t swim and put them in as our boat crews. He made them gunners, and pick-up men, those who would pick you up from the water, to keep the guys together as a platoon. We had four combat platoons and one headquarters platoon. At headquarters platoon, you had the pharmacist’s mate, “Smokey,” a great guy, came out of the 1st Marine Division, where he was a corpsman. We also had a couple of chiefs, and no one could figure out what their jobs were, but they drank a lot of coffee. We had a radio tech who kept our communications going. I was a swimmer, and we had 13 swimmers, including our officers. We had an extra radarman and two gunners, to maintain the platoon as a unit. One of the gunners who handled our rear .50 caliber machine gun was Frankie Fattori. He ended up as a real good buddy. I’ve visited him a couple of times in civilian life years later.
In Maui, we started Combat Demolition training because UDT was not at Fort Pierce at that point. We did explosives and all kinds of stuff, but no swimming. We practiced landings night and day, had various psychological testing to see how we stood up under pressure. We arrived in Maui by ship around midnight, and we were put in a landing craft while wearing our dress blues, sent ashore to a sandy beach, assigned pyramid tents, and the next day we found out we were Underwater Demolition Team 21. Four teams were there. As I remember it was 18, 19, 20, and 21 I think, but for sure 18 and 21 because I had good buddies in team 18. We went into the training in shorts, K-bar knife, and canvas boots. We got a half a day off one Saturday a month, and half a day off for church on Sundays.
Then, it was time to get shipped out. There were five or six of us from my platoon. We went up to a beautiful cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with a priest from Portugal. We received our last rites and a St. Christopher medal. At that time, St. Christopher was the patron saint; now it’s St. Michael. Then we boarded the fast transport ship USS Bunch (APD 79) and set off for different stops and ended up in the Philippines. While in the Philippines, we trained to get in and out of our rubber boats and to get them on or off our ship.
In March, we headed to Okinawa for an invasion. When we there, they tasked us with reconnaissance missions. We were assigned to work with the Army’s 96th Infantry Division. When we went in, we cleared a lot of beaches. We worked there and then we worked with the 6th Marine Division in the Naha harbor area of Okinawa. All this time we were under massive kamikaze attacks, at least 30 attacks a day. We could see them hit the carriers off the coast.
We went out one night on picket duty to be the early warning for incoming “Betty” bombers. That was the planes they made to crash into ships while carrying heavy explosives. We got the notice that the flagship, the USS Dickerson had been hit, and we went into the rescue. We saw the flames. The bomber had hit the whole upper structure. We went in close, bumper to bumper, it was an amazing feat by the crew of the Bunch. They just did a brilliant job.
While some of our people went over to bring out the wounded, I went into the water to affect a rescue. The whole thing probably took six or seven hours. Then we dropped off the survivors we had gotten from Dickerson. There weren’t many; they lost a lot of men. We deposited them to a hospital ship. Then we went about our duties, working with the troops, and doing recons and demolitions work in and around Okinawa for several months.
We went off at the end of May, for rest camp in Guam. We were there about two weeks. At night we would take fire from snipers because there were still live Japanese soldiers there. During the day it would rain about every hour on the hour so that we would hang up our clothes on the line, and the rain would come and rinse the soap out. That’s how heavy the rainfall was.
We got a notice to get right back to Okinawa because they had problems getting into Iwo Jima. The resistance was stiff. We had been there earlier. Another team, team four had been pulled out. They were apparently ineffective and were shipped back to start training for the invasion of Japan with other teams. We worked under fire and in shallow water on dead coral, which was tough. We set off several hundred tons of explosives, tore out that reef, and enabled tank landing ships to come in with heavy equipment, and they were able to knock out the island.
We then hit several other islands, and a small one, where there was a radar crew ready to surrender. Five of us paddled in at 3:00 a.m. one morning. The Japanese came down to the beach to surrender, and we said, “No surrender. Go back,” because we were waiting for Marines to do an official surrender. We sat there, and the Marines showed up at 6:00 a.m. in a landing craft and with a combat photographer. They made a gallant landing with us out of sight. We laughed, got into our rubber boat, paddled back to the ship, and that took care of that invasion.
Shortly after that, we were sent back to the States for a rest period and to get ready for the invasion of Japan. We were there for two weeks and then they dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. We rushed back down to San Diego, flew up to Alameda, and then flew back to either Guam or Kwajalein. Assigned to a new fast transport ship USS Begor (APD 127). We steamed off to Japan, ran into atrocious weather; it was a typhoon. We got to there, and we were assigned to take Fort Number One, the entrance to the bay. Team 18 was ordered to take Tokyo Bay. They had dropped anchor before we did, so they got credit for the first anchor, but we got the first surrender on August 29, 1945. The crew at the Fort One turned over their sword to my commanding officer. We went on from there to different places in Japan, destroying suicide boats and midget submarines.
Around October we headed back a little early to San Diego where all the teams were decommissioned. That was the end of UDT for a while.
We had no fatalities. We had a lot of people who got a lot of shrapnel wounds. You kind of shrugged it off. No one who was wounded in that respect went to a hospital ship or left the unit.
Other than that we were very fortunate, and I say that because we were well trained, and our commanding officer and our platoon officers were great. That makes the difference. It’s just like in business. If you’ve got a good president of a company and good leaders in a company, you’ve got a successful business. The Navy and any military are only as good as the training. That’s it. Recruit properly, train properly, and supervise properly, and you’ve got a winning combination. It’s no secret to success, and that was it. I loved the Navy very much, and I still do today.
During the rescue operation of the Dickerson, seven of us were awarded medals. The officers received silver stars and the enlisted men, I think there were three of us enlisted, received the bronze star with valor. That was my experience in World War II.