Saratoga County

Navy veteran from Clifton Park recalls joy of VJ Day

Clifton Park resident Daniel Riley remembers when the gunfire ceased and the news came that the last
Daniel Riley spent some time on the USS Wisconsin during his time with the Navy during World War II. Here the ship is seen in 1991 in New York Harbor. (The Associated Press)
Daniel Riley spent some time on the USS Wisconsin during his time with the Navy during World War II. Here the ship is seen in 1991 in New York Harbor. (The Associated Press)

When Clifton Park resident Daniel Riley was 9, his uncle brought him a .22-caliber Springfield single shot rifle. “I used it for target practice,” Riley said. “I’d aim at the blue glass bottles that Roman Seltzer came in.”

Ten years later, he found himself manning a .50-caliber Browning machine gun while stationed in the Pacific during World War II. “I’d never fired a gun like that in my life,” Riley said. “You figured, ‘I’ve got to get this guy or else he’s going to get me.’ ”

He remembers when the gunfire ceased and the news came that the last chapter of the war had finally come to a close, 70 years ago tomorrow — Aug. 15, 1945.

Riley was born and raised in Rochester. Upon graduating from high school in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy. “It was a combination of wanting to get in and do something for my country, and also because all of my buddies were going in,” Riley said. “I didn’t want to be left all by myself at home working at a plant or something like that.”

His decision to enlist in the Navy over other branches of the military was no accident. He was greatly influenced by the Navy’s motto: “Join the Navy and see the world.”

And so he did; he sailed the Pacific, he helped take troops to Japan, and even ended up in Shanghai, China, for a couple of months.

“I spent a little bit of time on the USS Wisconsin [one of the largest and last battleships built by the U.S. Navy], then I was sent to Little Creek, Virginia, Amphibious Training Base and became a member of the crew of the USS LSM [Landing Ship Medium] 256, which was 200 feet long and 30 feet wide.”

He spent 18 months in the Pacific. His team made landings in the Philippines, delivered personnel from the Army, the Marines and also the mechanized units such as tanks to the beaches of the Japanese-held Pacific Islands.

Majored in spanish

After the war, he graduated in 1952 with a major in Spanish and a minor in English from the University of Rochester, which is where he met his wife, Elaine. “We’ve been married for 61 years now,” Riley said.

They have five children and seven grandchildren. They met in 1953 at a party in Rochester while Elaine was attending school and the rest is history. They were married Aug. 14, 1954.

War, without question, alters the course of one’s life. “We lost five of my classmates from East High School in the war,” Riley said. “It affected my life greatly; my family didn’t have any money, college wasn’t even mentioned as I was growing up. As a result of serving, I got a college education with the GI Bill and that, of course, changed my life in ways unknown.”

He spent the next 31 years working as a district manager of western New England, upstate New York and Pennsylvania for Lever Brothers, a national company that was the United States division of the Unilever Corp., which was the largest consumer product company in the world.

It was this job that caused him to move to Clifton Park in 1980. Since 1987, he’s been retired.

Deepest fear

Fear was a constant state of being while crests of waves slapped the sides of ships. Some of the scariest situations that Riley found himself in were the kamikaze raids by Japanese pilots at Okinawa. “Many times we would be in general quarters around the clock,” Riley said. “They were looking for bigger ships like battleships and destroyers, but if they couldn’t find a bigger ship, they took what they could get.

“One of our main jobs during that time was to make smoke whenever there was an air raid; the object was to obscure the bigger ships, so we did that while wondering, ‘Hey, we are making all this smoke to protect the battleship, but what about us?’ ”

Enemy fire wasn’t the only danger lurking while floating in the Pacific. “Our ship was flat-bottomed,” Riley said. “In rough water, especially typhoon weather, it was incredible the way that ship pitched and rolled; you just wondered if it wasn’t going to be slapped and that would be the end. It was almost on par with an air raid.”

Needless to say, serving on an LSM was the first choice of no one. “You were going right into the beach and getting fired at from Japanese shore batteries,” Riley said. “After we off-loaded Marines and Army [personnel] we would back off the beach and then from that point on for days, sometimes weeks, we would go out into the outer harbor where the supply ships were and carry supplies back to the beach; it ranged from oil and dynamite to beer.”

The stress was more than many could take. “Some guys after that had to rush to the bathroom or else drop their shorts over the side of the ship,” Riley said. “It was scary.”

There are a couple of moments from the war that Riley will never forget. “On April 12, 1945, we were approaching Okinawa, and we got the news that FDR died,” he said. “This was such a shock to everyone aboard the ship, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop because we all stood there wondering the same thing: ‘What the hell are we going to do now?’ In our eyes, Roosevelt was prosecuting the war, he was the guy, and at that point no one had heard of Harry Truman.”

The second, of course, was the day he realized that he was going to make it out of the fray alive.

Grateful to get home

On Aug. 15,1945, Riley’s ship received the news that the Japanese had surrendered.

“The whole thing was this, when the war ended on August 15, my shipmen and I would say hundreds, maybe thousands of amphibious ships, like mine, were getting ready to get underway for the invasion of mainland Japan on November 1,” Riley said. “The estimates of allied personnel who would be involved in that were anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million and we were going to be in the first wave — my kind of a ship. I figured I had a 50/50 chance if we went into Japan, but we didn’t have to because Truman made the decision to drop the bomb.”

He continued: “There are people who have questioned that but we were 18- or 19-year-old kids; we didn’t care how the war ended, we just wanted to get home to our families, wives, sisters, brothers and so on.”

They felt thankful that a B-29 had dropped a super bomb (Little Boy) over Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and a second bomb (Fat Man) over the city of Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

Riley recalled the Japanese surrender.

“At that moment, battle-hardened men dropped to their knees, tears flowing unapologetically at the sheer joyfulness of the moment, the crew now having reason to believe for the first time since arriving in the Pacific Theater that we would at last be reunited with our families.”

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