Reviewed by Diana Ahmad
James “Rex” Ritter joined the United States Navy’s Seabee Battalions at the start of World War II, as well as the birth of the Seabee units. From Texas to Tinian and Tokyo Bay looks at the contributions of the editor’s grandfather and his men during World War II Alaska and the Western Pacific. Eventually becoming a Lieutenant Commander, Ritter joined the Navy only months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The memoir takes the reader from Ritter’s first few days at Camp Allen in Norfolk, Virginia, to the end of the war on Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands, in an easy to read, delightful explanation of Ritter’s experiences in the Navy’s newest unit.
A 39-year old professional Texas highway engineer and a former member of the Merchant Marine, Ritter joined the Seabees with the perfect background to serve as a member of this new group who would be in charge of naval construction for the non-continental United States. After a year of training at several bases on the East Coast from Virginia to Rhode Island, he and his group received orders to go to Alaska to construct Quonset huts, seaplane bases, and so on for the Navy at several points in the Aleutian Islands, including Dutch Harbor, Atka, Amchitka, Adak, Attu, and Kodiak. During his time in Alaska, he rarely encountered the Japanese, but often vied with the United States Army for equipment and space in the Aleutians. In early 1944, his 107th Seabee Battalion received orders to go to the Western Pacific and repair the facilities on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands after the Japanese had been defeated there. They also repaired facilities at Ebeye and Bigej, just next to Kwajalein. In each assignment, Ritter accomplished his missions and kept his battalion together with a positive frame of mind and willingness to learn and do whatever was necessary to achieve the needed goals.
The theme throughout the memoir was the importance of training. Coming to the Seabees as a professional engineer gave him the needed skills to build an airstrip or Quonset huts, but he soon learned that he needed to make deals with, for example, the Army in order to use their equipment, as well as creating new ways of dealing with Seabees who had gone astray from the rules of order in the unit. To Ritter, keeping his unit together was of primary importance and if that meant he had to do bigger jobs, then that was acceptable to him. Keeping morale up in the battalion also included providing good food and mail service. When his unit received new orders, he learned to fly to the next location ahead of his men so he understood the new area and what to ask for when he met his commanding officers. Ritter learned to use abandoned Japanese equipment to the advantage of his unit and their mission. Making connections with Seabee friends from his home in Texas and his first bases in Virginia helped make his job, as well as his men’s jobs, easier. He was even able to use his relationship with his cousin, country-western star, Tex Ritter, to bring Dorothy Fay, Tex’s wife, to the Marshalls for a private performance for J.R.’s unit.
On September 2, 1945, a friend invited him to fly over Tokyo Bay and witness the signing of the Japanese surrender through binoculars from a B-29 high above U.S.S. Missouri. Even after the war ended and the surrender was signed, Ritter continued to train for the next assignment. As he waited in Saipan for transportation back to the United States, he followed his friend around Saipan learning and training in maintenance engineering which became his career in San Francisco after he returned to civilian life.
While Ritter and the 107th rarely encountered the Japanese in either Alaska or the Western Pacific and the war often seemed far away, the memoir provided an excellent look at the training and the importance of all units in the Navy. J. R. Ritter wrote his memoir many years after the war, but it still provides enough detail to give a good look into the experiences of one of the first Seabee units. Editor Jonathan Ritter has provided informational footnotes, photographs, appendices, and a bibliography. The memoir readily informs readers about the Seabees and their ‘Can Do’ attitude.
From Texas to Tinian and Tokyo Bay: The Memoirs of Captain J. R. Ritter, Seabee Commander during the Pacific War, 1942-1945. Edited by Jonathan Templin Ritter. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2019.
Reviewed by Diana L. Ahmad, Missouri University of Science and Technology
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