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Winfield Joseph Sluyter: 'I saw the war flying, looking backwards'

Petoskey man took part in the Battle of Midway in 1942

Anyone who has seen a movie about the Battle of Midway during WWII has a fairly good understanding of what Winfield Josiah Sluyter’s experience was like.

“Win,” as he is called, served as an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Navy during WWII in the Pacific Ocean aboard an aircraft carrier. He was assigned to a Casablanca-class escort carrier named “U.S.S. Savo Island,” a CVE 78.

Win Sluyter
Win Sluyter pictured in his living room, 2019. (Photo by Tamara Stevens)

The carrier was named in memory of a naval battle fought off Savo Island in the Solomon Islands on Aug. 9, 1942.

The carrier “Savo Island” did not participate in the Battle of Midway, which occurred from June 4 to June 7, 1942, but many similar actions and harrowing battles of war were carried out and witnessed by Win and his crew mates. “Savo Island” was launched on Dec. 22, 1943. She could carry 28 aircraft on her 512 feet of ship. The ship was 65 feet at her beam, and 860 crew members lived on board while fighting the Japanese.

“I was one of the fortunate ones that came back,”

said Win, 94, of his time in the service.

Win served his country in the Navy from 1942 to 1946, “three years and three months,” he said. During the years that he was at sea, “Savo Island” was involved in numerous operations throughout the Pacific, including the Mariana and Palau Island campaigns; the Battle of Samar; the Philippine’s campaign; and the Battle of Okinawa. “Savo Island” provided aerial support during several campaigns in the Philippine islands.

USS Savo Island
USS ‘’Savo Island’’ (CVE-78) underway in May 1944, location unknown. (photo from Wikipedia)

On the morning of Oct. 25, 1944, her escort came under fire when Admiral Takeo Kurita’s powerful surface fleet reached the relatively unprotected American escort carriers. Despite intense air pressure, the Japanese scored a tactical victory at the Battle of Samar, but “Savo Island” emerged unharmed. Their main mission was to protect the convoy lanes leading to the Philippines. Her aircraft supported the landings at Mindanao in December 1944, then Lingayen Gulf landing at Luzon in January 1945. During the later battle, a special attached suicide aircraft grazed her flight deck, giving her crew a brief scare (from Wikipedia “The Battle of Midway”). Win recalls the suicide aircraft attack.

“We were shot at by Japanese kamikaze pilots,” Win said. “We shot down many Japanese planes. One carrier was hit by a kamikaze plane right next to us and sunk. One kamikaze plane hit our carrier, but the pilot was sloppy and it landed in the ocean. We were fortunate.”

Navy fighters
Navy fighters during the attack on the Japanese fleet off Midway, June 4th to 6th 1942. In the center is visible a burning Japanese ship. (photo from wikipedia)

Win said it was exciting, but not fun. “There is nothing fun about war,” he said.

“I didn’t know how the Japanese could train their pilots to do that,” Win said of kamikaze pilots. He knew many pilots in the U.S. Navy, but didn’t know any who were suicidal.

Win never slept in the bunk he was assigned to below deck, because of the suicidal Japanese. He preferred to sleep somewhere up on the flight deck, he said. He felt safer sleeping up there because it would be a better place to be if they were hit by a kamikaze pilot or shot by a torpedo.

They didn’t work in shifts on the carrier, he said. They worked whenever they were needed. Win worked as an aircraft mechanic and took care of the airplanes. “We kept them in good running shape.”

Sometimes the planes came back from air bombing raids with holes shot in them and damage to the planes. Win and his fellow mechanics would repair the planes and get them back up in the air as quickly as possible. The aircraft were Grumman TBF and General Motors TBM Avengers carrying torpedoes and F4F fighter squadrons, which made up the composite squadrons. The fighter planes escorted the torpedo planes to the target areas. It was not uncommon to have planes in the air all day long from pre-dawn hops until after sunset.

“That’s when the Japanese were up looking for us,” Win said.

When he wasn’t repairing the TBF Avengers, Win would serve as a tail gunner on a torpedo plane.

“I saw the war flying looking backwards,” he said. Most crewmembers on a carrier had two jobs, Win said. He was trained to be a mechanic, that was his regular work job, plus he was a tail gunner, that was his Navy defense job.

Win describes how the torpedo bombers would deliver their payloads. The TBF Avenger torpedo plan would dive at a 70 degree angle to correct their course and drop the one torpedo that each plane carried. Win said most of the time they carried small bombs, but one time they carried a large torpedo.

Aerial of the Midway Atoll
Aerial photograph of Midway Atoll, looking just south of west across the southern side of the atoll, November 24, 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway’s airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the entrance channel.

“I probably would be dead if I was a pilot (in the war),” he said, because the Navy lost a lot of pilots. The “Savo Island” was one of the smaller carriers the Navy used, according to Win. They lost as many pilots in operational accidents as in battle.

Landing on a carrier in an aircraft is no easy task. “It looks awful small from up there,” Win said. The carrier had only 480 feet on the flight deck for aircraft landings. “That isn’t very far,” he said.

While on board the carrier, Win and his ship mates would hear about various battles and eventually the bombs being dropped on Japan. They had news each morning. Communications weren’t what they are today, however; and he doesn’t remember ever calling home.

He does recall going all through the Pacific Ocean and even flying over China at one time. When the war was over, he and his shipmates were discharged and transported back to the U.S. by other ships from Hawaii.

Win was born in Royal Oak, Michigan, on Dec. 2, 1924. He began flying airplanes at the age of 14. He would go to the Pontiac Airport and pay $5 for a flight in a Piper Cub aircraft. Eventually, he learned to fly. He didn’t graduate from high school, because in 1942 when he was in the 10th grade he joined the Navy. His parents signed a letter granting him permission to join before he was 18.

“They told me ‘don’t tell the Navy anything, don’t volunteer for anything,’” Win said of when he first joined the service. His father and uncles told him that if he voluntarily told the military that he knew how to drive a truck, they’d put him on duty with a wheelbarrow, or other nonsensical assignment. So Win didn’t tell the Navy that he could fly an airplane. “And I never saw a wheelbarrow,” he said laughing.

Instead, the Navy determined that Win had the aptitude to be a mechanic – specifically on aircraft. He was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago, Illinois, where he was trained in aircraft mechanics. While there, his folks lived in the Detroit area. He would hop on a train and go home for a weekend visit. He had nine weeks of boot camp and training before being shipped out on the aircraft carrier.

After the war was over, Win married a woman he knew in high school, Marjorie Hobbs. Her family lived in Ferndale. They were married on April 6, 1946. They lived in Troy, Michigan, until 1980, when they moved to Petoskey. When Win was growing up, his grandfather had a farm on Blackbird Road near Petoskey. His grandfather passed away before Win was born. He is named after his grandfather. While camping at Clear Lake near Atlanta, Michigan, on the eastern side of the state, Win told his wife he’d like to drive over to Petoskey and see if they could find his grandfather’s farm. Win’s father, Howard Sluyter, had grown up in the Petoskey area, but had moved downstate for work and raised the family in Royal Oak.

After touring the family farmland, Win asked his aunt if he could buy their farm when they passed away. His aunt’s husband told Win that there was flatter land nearby that would better accommodate Win’s airplane (he still owns the plane, an Aeronca 1942 high wing two-seater). Win and Marjorie eventually purchased the farm land off Stump Road where he still lives. The farmhouse on the property was 130 years old when they bought it. Win rebuilt it one room at a time. Win said he can hang wallpaper, dig out the basement, and everything in between.

“I like to work on things,” Win said with modesty. “There’s not much I can’t do. You gotta want to do things to do a good job.”

Marjorie and Win had three children; his son, David, and his family, lives in the Harbor Springs/Conway area, and his daughter, Jennifer, and her family, live in Charlevoix. His other daughter, Janet, lived downstate, before she passed away. They have 11 grandchildren.

Over the years, Win was a commercial artist, “graphic illustrator,” for the auto industry, mainly General Motors and Ford. He said he never really studied to be an artist, he simply drew anything they wanted. He’s also drawn many images of nature and houses and buildings. Besides flying, sailing was Win’s other love. He had an aluminum Pram boat that he turned into a sailboat by building custom lee boards for it. He taught their children to sail.

1942 Aeronca
Win Sluyter’s plane, an Aeronca 1942 high wing two-seater.

Sadly, Marjorie passed away on Oct. 27, 1991. A dear friend of hers, Rosemarie, lived nearby and used to do sewing projects with Marjorie. Rosemarie was born in Germany and came to the U.S. in 1952 as the bride of an American soldier. Her first husband died in WWII. Her second husband, Richard Schwartzfisher, died in 1980. Marjorie looked out for Rosemarie over the years, tricking her into staying for dinner by getting Rosemarie to come over to the house on false pretenses. After Marjorie died, Rosemarie returned the favor and looked in on Win.

On Sept. 4, 1992, Win and Rosemarie were married. Rosemarie had five children with her second husband. Rosemarie passed away on May 26, 2016.

Of his two marriages, he said they were exceptionally good ones.

“Some people say they didn’t even get one good one,” Win said laughing.

As the only son in his family of five sisters, Win was the next to oldest of his parent’s children. Today he is the last remaining member of his family.

“I guess that makes me the patriarch,” said Win.

Win keeps busy by working on his house and plane, which he still flies. He drives to the Friendship Center every day for lunch and to meet up with a group of veterans each week.

At 94, he said he’s had a pretty good life. “I made the best of it,” said Win.

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