The USS Salute (AM-294), a minesweeper in World War II, now lies in 30 meters (98.4252 feet) of water in Brunei Bay.
Built by Winslow Marine Railway and Shipbuilding Company in Seattle, she was launched on Feb. 6, 1943, and struck a mine on June 8, 1945.
A real workhorse in her short life of two years and several months, the minesweeper operated in the Pacific Theater where she escorted convoys, provided anti-aircraft and anti-submarine support and search-and-rescue services.
On the day she was blown up, she had cleared 143 mines off the coast of Borneo when the 144th one exploded. Known now by locals as “the American Wreck,” she was anything but and received five battle stars for her excellent and extensive work performance.
A sonar operator aboard that ship from the day she was launched until minutes before the ship broke into two parts was Middletown native Tilden Dale “T D” Ulrich, 92.
With a ship’s motto of “Where the fleet goes, we’ve already been,” Ulrich’s account of that June day harkens back to his experiences as a boy when he maintains that he “hooked in the movies every day.” Translated, that means he would tell an usher that he had to deliver a message to his sister in the theater. Ulrich would then slip to the front of the theater, open the exit door a crack, put in a brick or something to keep it open, and welcome the 20 or so friends who were waiting outside.
So the magic and mystery of movies was imprinted in his young consciousness as he watched hundreds of hours of actors put themselves in all sorts of danger on the screen — and managed to escape virtually unscathed. He especially was enthralled by the Singing Cowboys — Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter and others.
On June 8, 1945, he was helping the captain of the USS Salute, Lt. Raymond Henry Nelson, on the flying bridge when he was ordered to go to the radar room to retrieve something. The exact nature of the errand has long escaped Ulrich’s memory.
Ulrich says, “This room was at the bottom of the ship, and I had been there only seconds when, BANG! Throwed me up against the bulkhead. Liked to have knocked me out. I thought, ‘My mother’s gonna take it real hard, me dying like this. I hope I pass out before I drown.’
“I shouted to the radio operator, ‘Johnson, let’s get out of here.’
“It was pitch black, but we knew the ship well. We reached the second deck by climbing up a part of a ladder that was in the rubble. Then we reached the third deck, where sunshine was coming through the hatch.
“On that deck, the first thing I seen was my best friend laying there with half of his head blowed off. I picked him up and put him on an ammo box. By that time, I realized the ship was just hanging there in two parts, barely holding together.
“I was confused, dazed, but I could see rescue boats. Of the 100 of us on board that day, nine were killed and some of us were wounded. I lost my hearing and got a big gash, a serious injury, in my head.
“The strange thing about it all was I felt like I was in a movie, there and not really there. I was lucky that day. That feeling continued later as I watched my best friend being buried at sea. And when I was awarded the Purple Heart aboard the USS Boise, I don’t remember the time or the day or the officer who read the commendation. I was barely 21 years old and had been in the U.S. Navy for almost three years.”
After the war ended, Ulrich enrolled at Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., with plans to be an English teacher. Love interfered, and he dropped out to marry Marilyn Lee, a beautiful and ambitious partner, who died in 2006. Together, they built a highly successful business and raised and showed Morgan horses.
Of President Harry Truman’s decision to hasten the war’s end by bombing Japan, Ulrich indicates, “It saved a lot of lives, and that’s the point in war.”
Of General Douglas MacArthur’s skills as commander in the Pacific Theater, he says, “He was aboard the Boise when I was going back to San Diego, so I saw a lot of him. I had tremendous respect for him, and everybody loved him. Saved the Philippines.”
Of the conflict between Truman and MacArthur, Ulrich says, “I loved Truman and McArthur. Too bad they opposed each other. At that time, I wasn’t anything. I’m a Republican now. Most businessmen are.”
Ulrich has sold his 100-acre place in Lebanon, and is now downsizing, moving to Sparta, Ky., to a 30-acre spread where he will raise Santa Gertrudis cattle — with no danger of exploding mines.
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or [email protected]