There is certainly no shortage of credit that can be shared when honoring the men and women of the “Greatest Generation,” who have donated both their time and resources to help bring victory to the Allied forces in World War II. Most ironic, however, is the hesitancy of those who sacrificed the greatest in accepting any accolades for their individual efforts during the conflict.
“I really didn’t do anything special (during the war),” said J.R. Goff, 90, Jefferson City. “There were so many people—such as the women who helped build (Navy) ships—that have never received the recognition they deserve.”
Raised in several small Missouri communities, Goff was attending high school when he decided to leave his studies in 1943 and enlist in the Navy, thinking he “knew everything there was to know.” He added, “I wanted to go get on one of them ships and join the fight. I don’t really know why … I just wanted to get out there in the middle of it and boy did I ever,” he chuckled.
The 17-year-old recruit traveled to Farragut, Idaho, for several weeks of basic training—a site, which, according to the Idaho Military Museum, trained 293,381 recruits while in operation from 1942 to 1946. (The Farragut Naval Training Station is now part of Farragut State Park.) Without any specialized training other than that he received at Farragut, Goff was transferred to the naval yard at Puget Sound, Wash., in the summer of 1943 to prepare for assignment to the USS California (BB-44)—a battleship that was undergoing a major reconstruction after incurring damage during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
“There were about 160 women that were working on that ship doing welding and all kinds of work like that, but that’s not something they really ever got credit for,” the veteran explained.
In early 1944, the ship was deemed seaworthy and departed for a shakedown cruise, during which time Goff received on-the-job training in a capacity that would help defend the vessel.
“I served as the first loader on one of the quad 40 mm guns,” he said. The weapon, he explained, was a single gun mount with four 40 mm barrels attached and a loader assigned to each barrel.
With the shakedown cruise behind them, the ship set sail for the Western Pacific where they participated in shore bombardment missions near Saipan. On June 14, 1944, Goff recalled, a shell from an enemy gun battery struck the USS California, resulting in the death of one sailor and wounding of several others.
“When that happened,” said Goff, “they turned the big 16-inch guns toward the shore and blew that enemy gun to pieces!”
Whether by luck or skill, the crew avoided significant damage during this incident; however, the vessel would encounter a more deadly situation in January 1945 while providing shore bombardment at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines.
“We were on General Quarters (all hands to battle stations) because there were Japanese planes attacking the ships in our group,” Goff said. “One of the planes hit us and exploded … it burned to death my fourth loader,” he solemnly remarked. “I used to hate even talking about that day because I lost so many of my friends.”
According to online naval records, the kamikaze attack resulted in the death of 44 crewmembers with an estimated 155 wounded.
“We really didn’t even have time to clean up from the attack,” Goff continued. “If I remember correctly, we were on General Quarters for three days or so.”
In mid-February 1945, the ship returned to Puget Sound to undergo repairs from the damage sustained in the kamikaze attack. The young sailor had acquired enough points to qualify for a discharge, but while awaiting his release at San Francisco, he volunteered to extend briefly his service and was assigned to an attack transport named the USS President Hayes (APA-20).
“The Hayes made a run to the South Pacific to pick up some soldiers—I think we were gone three or four weeks,” Goff said. “On the way home, I remember that some of the soldiers got so sick they begged us to shoot them,” he jokingly added.
The battle-tested sailor ultimately received his discharge in February 1946 and returned to Missouri. Goff went to work for U.S. Steel in St. Louis and retired in the early 1970s after more than 30 years with the company. He was later employed as a corrections officer at Algoa Prison in Jefferson City, where he remained for another 15 years. Married to Geraldine (Gerry) in 1957, the father of five children now enjoys sharing the quiet life with his wife at a local retirement community, asserting that although he views his military service to have been of little significance in the grand scheme of the war, it did award him with many abiding memories.
“The Navy taught me to do what I was told,” he grinned, adding, “Yes, sir! No, sir!—and all that kind of stuff that will keep you out of trouble.”Smiling, he concluded, “When I enlisted, I was just another young kid that thought he knew everything there was to know, but I soon found out differently. There were certainly some tough lessons I had to go through a war to learn.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.