Timothy O’Leary has heard all the jokes and tells a few of them if you're willing to listen.
His combat mission in the South Pacific was a rare post for someone in the Coast Guard, but World War II required all hands on deck. Despite joining an organization whose primary mission is to protect and serve the nation’s costal waters, O’Leary travelled half way across the world to aid in the war effort and deliver needed supplies and personnel all while dodging fire.
Even a Navy sailor, lifted from the water by the men of O’Leary’s LST 67, didn’t hide his surprise at seeing a Coastie ship so far from home.
“This guy stopped when he saw the Coast Guard crest on the wall in our mess. We had just scooped him from the water, but he still had his wits enough to ask us what we were doing so far from the states,” O’Leary chuckled. “We were one of only a handful of Coast Guard ships out there, so everyone was surprised to hear that we were Coast Guard, not Navy. We took a lot of pride in that. We were a very close group.”
O’Leary’s favorite ribbings - “The Navy guys and especially the Marines, they always told us we outside of our three-mile limit. When I wear my Combat Coast Guard hat, the guys comment and I always tell them someone had to keep those German ships away from Manhattan. It’s all in good fun, the way soldiers and sailors talk. A good sense of humor is important in life.”
The experiences O’Leary had in the Pacific Theatre more than warrant his combat distinction. He spent the entire war aboard a Landing Ship Tank (LST), a flat-bottomed vessel originally designed to move equipment to shore and then be abandoned. They never abandoned the ship. Instead, LST 67 delivered men, gear and ammo into hostile action in New Guinea, the Philippines and if the war had continued, all the way to Japan. He spent more than two years aboard his LST, but almost never joined the military in the first place.
“My brother joined the Marines without asking our parents and my father was crushed,” O’Leary said. “My dad thought a high school diploma was the end of all goals and he enlisted before he finished school. My mother told me if I joined before I finished high school my father would drop dead in the yard. I couldn’t do that to them, so I waited.”
He didn’t wait long. After finishing high school, O’Leary was working in Boston and saw a sign reading: “Join the Coast Guard – Small Outfit – Advancements Are Rapid.”
“I didn’t even know what the Coast Guard was. I learned quickly that a small unit meant NO advancements,” O’Leary smiled. “A recruiter saw me looking at the sign and yelled from the window, asking me if I wanted to join. So I did. My brother Jimmy was my example. I looked to him for patriotism. And we all believed we needed to stop the Nazis.”
Unbeknownst to our veteran of the month, joining the nascent Coast Guard in 1942 meant O’Leary was bound for war. He received seven weeks of drill instruction from a crusty Marine sergeant who believed his “Coastie” recruits needed discipline. He joined the service in order to stop the expanse of the German War Machine, but ended up in a large ship filled with Navy and Coast Guard sailors bound for the Pacific Ocean.
“I didn’t know much about the Japanese, but I soon found out,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary boarded a troop carrier headed for Australia, a journey by sea that lasted more than a month. Once in Australia, he and his shipmates received their assignments with most boarding LSTs. O’ Leary and his fellow shipmates were assigned to LST 67. They had another name for their craft – “Large Slow Target.”
“They handed out assignments and I was given ’67,” O’Leary said. I didn’t know it at the time, but they assigned people to their ships in order – 65, 66, 67 and so on. I suppose I was fortunate because later in the war, LST 66 was torpedoed in the Philippines.”
LST 67 spent the majority of their time in the pacific supporting the battle for New Guinea. Hoping to contain the allied advance, the Japanese had thousands of troops in the mountains of New Guinea, forcing U.S. Marines, U.S. Army and Allied forces to engage the enemy and halt any attempt to occupy Australia. LST 67’s mission was to supply the battlefield by maneuvering in and around the island, dropping troops and gear. They completed their dangerous mission while taking significant fire from the enemy.
“The Kamikazes were the worst,” O’Leary said. “We had a 20mm and some 50s and everyone on the ship was expected to do all the jobs. You did your best to fight them off. I can remember thinking at least three times that a Kamikaze would get us and all three times the planes just disintegrated in front of our eyes (from the ship’s guns). Not every ship was that lucky.”
Once New Guinea was secure, LST 67 moved to the Philippines, changing to a light-and-dark blue color scheme to blend into its new environment. Their assignment here was to carry ammo, a scary proposition for a small ship since it immediately became a target.
“That’s when we lost ’66,” O’Leary said.
LST 67 received another paint job in the Philippines, this time a brownish camouflage. O’Leary asked why the boat needed the brown scheme and was told it was for the coming invasion of the Japanese homeland.
“That scared us a bit,” O’Leary said. “We knew we would do what we had to, but we also knew the Japanese would fight us even harder if we invaded. I’m glad we didn’t have to.”
The brown camouflage never mattered as Japan signed the armistice just weeks later. LST 67 continued to complete its resupply missions since Japanese fighters in the mountains of New Guinea were unaware that the war was over. Even after Allied forces dropped leaflets into their mountain defenses, the Japanese refused to surrender.
“Once our mission was over, some of the guys were picked to go on these giant ships to head back to the states,” O’Leary said. “First we thought we were lucky to not get on those ships as they were pretty crowded, but then we found out that they wanted us to sail back to America on our own LST. The big ships were better. They got home much faster. It’s quite a thing to travel all the way across the ocean in a little LST.”
O’Leary reenlisted after returning from World War II. Some of his peacetime posts included stationary ships off the east coast designed to guide planes into the Boston airport. He enjoyed his time in the Coast Guard, but only finished one more contract, opting for a civilian career.
He spent 38 years continuing to serve his community in the Cambridge Fire Department. Fiercely proud of his service, he started an American Legion Post in Cambridge, Marsh Post 442, serving as a charter member and eventually the post’s commander.
O’Leary moved to Melrose a few years back with his wife Gabriella and said he loves the Melrose community. He is quick with a joke and the type of veteran who will engage in conversation with anyone. Despite ending his military service more than 50-years ago, he still speaks the vernacular; ending our phone conversations with a sharp “O’Leary, over and out.”
He has much admiration for the generations of veterans to follow his and he’s seen a few. He believes in having camaraderie from one generation to the next and hopes the current Iraq and Afghanistan generation join the various veteran service organizations that “give the type of help and support only other veterans can provide.”
Melrose Veteran Services is proud to have Timothy O’Leary serve as our veteran of the month for February and March, believing he embodies the term veteran, taking lessons learned from the military and taking them home to make a difference in the community. O’Leary’s life is one of service, one of many Melrose veterans who answered a call and continue to do so.
As for what O’Leary took from the service, besides a tremendous work ethic and dedication to his community…
“Discipline,” O’Leary said. “That’s the advice I would give to our newer generation of veterans. Remember the discipline you learned and you will do well in life. Oh and of course, have a sense of humor. Have I told you the one about…”
If you would like to nominate a future Veteran of the Month, whether it is a family member, a friend or a respected member of the community, please contact Veteran Services Officer Ryan McLane at Melrose Veteran Services (781) 979-4186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.