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Honoring Our Heroes

Aviation Machinist Mate James L. Tatum: Age 100

Aviation Machinist Mate (AMM) James L. Tatum served three years,11 months and two days in the U.S. Navy during WWII. His Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was airplane mechanic and aerial gunner. His Naval unit received the Presidential Unit Citation. His entire Naval service was in the Pacific Ocean where he was aboard aircraft carriers in the battles at Tarawa, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Saipan, Guam and Leyte.

AMM Tatum was born December 29, 1923 at Autauga County, AL, to his parents, James L. Tatum and Sarah Ella Tatum. His brother served in the 101st Airborne in France. He attended Lanier High School in Montgomery, AL; however when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he decided to volunteer and join the U.S. Navy. At age 18, he reported for duty at Birmingham, AL, January 13, 1942.

AMM Tatum completed Boot Camp at the Navy Station Norfolk, VA, followed by six months of aviation machinist training there. He was then sent to Hollywood, FL, for six weeks of training as an aerial gunner. Next, he was stationed at North Island at San Diego, CA, for more training as an aerial gunner. While there, he few behind the pilots flying dive bombers such as the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber and the SBD, Scout Dive-Bomber which was the Navy’s main carrier-based scout/dive bomber. He was then sent to Alameda, CA, with a VT CV37 (fixed wing) squadron where he worked as a mechanist and as an aerial gunner. This was followed by serving at Monterey, CA, for six weeks, at El Centro, CA, training for night flying and at Los Alamos, CA, for six weeks.

AMM Tatum boarded the Sangamon (CVE-26) a former oiler, a U.S. navy escort carrier, at North Island, San Diego, CA. He was involved in very dangerous service in combat on the deck where he was involved with mechanical maintenance of the airplanes on the carrier. In July 1943, the Sangamon was redesigned CVE-26 and supported the Tarawa Invasion in November 1943. He arrived on the 20th in the Gilberts to support the assault on Tarawa. His first combat battle was the Battle of Tarawa which was fought on November 20-23, 1943 between the United States and Japan in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands and was part of Operation Galvanic, the U.S. invasion of the Gilberts. During the first two days of this operation, her planes struck enemy positions on the island. Then through December 6th, weaponry repairs were made at sea.

During early January 1944, the ship trained off southern California and on the 13th, it sailed west, and from January 31st until mid-February, the Sangamon supported the assault and occupation of Kwajalein. Steaming via Pearl Harbor, the carrier pushed on toward her next amphibious operation, the assault on Kwajalein in the Marshalls. AMM Tatum’s second combat was the Battle of Kwajalein which was fought as part of the Pacific campaign of World War II. It took place January 31- February 3, 1944 on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Employing the hard-learned lessons of the Battle of Tarawa, the United States launched a successful twin assault on the main islands of Kwajalein in the south and Roi-Namur in the north. The Japanese defenders put up stiff resistance although outnumbered and under-prepared. The determined defense of Roi-Namur left only 51 survivors of an original garrison of 3,500. For the US, the battle represented both the next step in its island-hopping march to Japan and a significant morale victory because it was the first time the Americans had penetrated the "outer ring" of the Japanese Pacific sphere. For the Japanese, the battle represented the failure of the beach-line defense. Japanese defenses became prepared in depth, and theBattles of Peleliu, Guam, and the Marianas proved far more costly to the US.

On the 25th, during routine flight operations, a returning fighter failed to hook a wire on landing, broke through the barriers and crashed into parked planes on the forward flight deck. Its belly tank was torn loose and skidded forward spewing flaming fuel. Fire soon spread among the planes. It raged along the flight deck, and flames beat up over the bridge making ship control extremely difficult. The carrier was turned out of the wind so that the fire could be fought. By 4:59 p.m. it was under control. Seven of the crew died in those eight minutes. Seven others were seriously injured, and of the 15 who jumped over the side to escape the flames,13 were rescued and two missing. AMM Tatum was on deck when the crash happened, and he was thrown into the sea. He suffered second degree severe burns to his arms and legs; however after being treated in the sick bay, he returned to duty.

Next, the ship moved on to Eniwetok, where her planes covered the landing forces from the 17th to the 24th. On the latter date, she departed the Marshalls and headed back to Pearl Harbor to complete repairs received during the Kwajalein Invasion and was sent out on CAP and ASP On March 15th, the CVE got underway again. Departing Hawaii, the carrier rendezvoused with Task Group (TG) 50.15, the fast carrier force support group, on the 26th. For the remainder of the month and into April, it escorted that group as it operated north of the Admiralties to refuel and resupply the fast carrier force after it had conducted strikes on the Palaus. In early April, the Sangamon retired to Espiritu Santo and at mid-month, sailed for New Guinea. Briefly attached to the 7th Fleet, the carrier covered the landing at Aitape from the 22d to the 24th, retired to Manus for two days and then returned to the Aitape area where she conducted patrols with five missions to protect the escort carrier group and the target area.

Following repairs, he served in the Marshall Islands area and participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea that June. The Sangamon then returned to

Espiritu Santo whence it departed on May 19th. Rehearsals for the Marianas campaign followed, and on June 2nd, he sailed for the Marshalls. Rendezvousing with TF 53 en route, the carrier covered that force to Kwajalein and then to the Marianas. From the 17th to the 20th, the carrier guarded the force as it steamed to the east of Saipan as a backup force for TF52 which was then engaged in the assault on and the occupation of the island. From June 2-17, the carrier guarded the force as it steamed to the east of Saipan as a backup force for TF52 which was then engaged in the assault on and the occupation of the island. From July 13th to August 1st, the carrier covered the bombardment groups engaged in the capture of Guam. On August 4th, the carrier returned to Eniwetok, and on the 9th, the carrier proceeded to Manus where it was anchored for almost a month. On September 9th, the Sangamon departed Seeadler Harbor, New Guinea. and steamed for Morotai. There from the 15th to the 27th, the carrier again covered Allied assault forces. After the initial waves had landed, her planes shifted from combat support to bombing and strafing missions to destroy Japanese airfields on nearby Halmahera. AMM Tatum participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in the liberation of Leyte. From the flight deck, he saw the first Japanese kamikaze hit the USS Santee (CVE-29), an escort carrier. After the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Sangamon was detached from TF 53. The Battle of Leyte was the last one that the cruiser and he were in, and then he was sent to Seattle, WA, and then to Chicago for training at the advanced engine school. While there, he fell and suffered an injury to his head and was hospitalized in Seattle when WWII ended. He was then sent to New Orleans to be mustered out of military service December 15, 1945.

AMM Tatum recalls attending the USO shows starring Bob Hope. He remembers enjoying the shows at Magnus Island, Leyte, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Espiritu and the Admiralty Islands. He recalls hearing Tokyo Rose on the radio.

After his military service, AMM Tatum used the G.I. Bill to study farming which paid him $90.00 per month for four years, and he started farming. He was employed at Maxwell AFB, AL, for 30 years as an aviation machinist in maintenance control in Civil Service on the T-39 airplanes which were used to fly dignitaries. He retired from that employment in 1982. He is a member of the Pine Level Methodist Church. He is a member of the Escort Carriers Association. In the past, he has owned 520 acres where he raised 200 head of cattle and 45 acres of cotton, and he lives in a house there that he built. AMM Tatum and his wife, Mildred, were married 54 years, and she is now deceased. They had three children, six grandchildren, 10

great-grandchildren and nine great-great-grandchildren.

AMM Tatum’s conclusions about what serving in the U.S. military means to him are: “It meant that I was helping my country. We were at war, and we were fighting someone who wanted to rule the world. I was doing my part as good as I could do. Whatever they told me to do, I tired to do it right as good as I could. It meant a lot to me to know that I was serving my country and knowing that I was helping.” He would like people to remember him, he always tried to do the right thing, and if he could help someone, he wanted to help them. He tried to look for the best in a person.


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