CHATHAM — At age 93, Ivan Bassett looks back on many happy Independence Day celebrations, and never misses the parade in Chatham. This year, as grand marshal, he’ll be watching from the back seat of a vintage Ford Phaeton convertible, part of the parade’s salute to veterans and members of the military. It’ll be a memorable experience, but perhaps not as memorable as a Fourth of July he spent 75 years ago, off Iwo Jima.
Many locals know Bassett as the town’s first permanent firefighter, joining the department in 1963 and retiring as deputy chief in 1977. A member of the town’s rescue squad, Bassett was popular with his neighbors, some of whom wouldn’t let anyone else bring them to the hospital. Others remember Bassett’s service as first aid instructor, school custodian or highway department worker; in all, he served the town for more than 32 years before retiring in 1982.
But when he was just 17 years old—with permission from his parents—he answered the call to war by joining the U.S. Navy. The choice had nothing to do with the fact that his father was a well-respected member of the U.S. Life Saving Service. Bassett had read stories of soldiers and Marines being wounded and left for dead on battlefields, and decided that wasn’t for him.
“I joined the Navy figuring, if I got hurt, I’d drown before I’d lay there two or three days,” he said. If some of his new shipmates joined the Navy to see the world or to impress women with a snappy uniform, Bassett was more pragmatic. “I had no fancy ideas that I wouldn’t get hurt,” he said. After eight weeks of training in Newport, Bassett was sent to signal school in Chicago, but flunked out when he couldn’t learn to decipher messages sent in Morse code by flashing signal lights.
He was assigned to the brand new USS Boston, a 673-foot heavy cruiser that was launched from Fore River Shipyard in Quincy in 1942. As a crewman when the ship was commissioned, Bassett is known as a plank owner; he spent the rest of his naval service on the Boston, riding from one end of the Pacific to the other before anchoring in Tokyo Bay on the day after Japan’s surrender.
There were plenty of stops along the way. Assigned as part of various task forces, the Boston saw action in the Marshall Islands, in New Guinea, at Marcus and Wake Islands, and in the Philippines at Mindanao and Luzon before supporting operations near the Japanese home islands. At first, Bassett found himself assigned to the ship’s butcher shop, but still showed promise as a signalman, and was recruited for that duty. One day he was on duty on the bridge when a flashing light signal came in. Bassett had just returned from a few hours’ leave on a nearby island called Mog Mog, where he’d enjoyed a lavish treat: a swim and a few warm beers. Now back on the ship, he had to act, and decoded the message instantly, without error. He never had trouble with flashing light signals again.
“It must’ve been the beer. It relaxed me, I guess,” Bassett said with a chuckle.
Life aboard the Boston wasn’t all bad. Sometimes the men were allowed to go over the side for a swim, while Marines with rifles stood guard against sharks. There were regular movies and amenities like a barbershop (though if you didn’t give a 25-cent tip, you ended up with a crummy haircut). And as it was on most large Navy ships, the chow was good. The Boston endured a series of typhoons that battered the ship, once heeling her over a hair-raising 46 degrees, and couldn’t be resupplied with fresh food for nearly a month.
“Thirty days, we had beans, Spam and rice,” Bassett said. But even that was far better than the food enjoyed by the Marines and infantrymen on the beach.
There were many frightening times. The Boston came under air attack several times, once while in the very vulnerable position of towing a disabled destroyer. Bombs regularly splashed close, and the ship was under the constant threat of attack by kamikaze planes and small submarines that functioned as suicide bombs. The entire crew felt the strain of that never-ending danger. One night, with the ship completely blacked out and under enemy attack, a hapless crewman opened a door, shining bright lights that were visible for miles. The goof endangered the entire ship, and the offending crewman got a thorough dressing-down.
“I can’t believe they didn’t throw him overboard,” Bassett said, still miffed at the man, three-quarters of a century later.
As part of the multiple rings of protection for aircraft carriers, heavy cruisers were prime targets for air attacks, and every pilot knew to aim for the ship’s bridge.
“That’s where my battle station was,” Bassett said.
The antiaircraft batteries on the Boston downed more than their share of enemy planes, and the three massive eight-inch guns battered many shore emplacements.
“We had decent firepower. We were very lucky,” he said. And it was lost on no one aboard that those guns were wreaking death and destruction. But in time of war, that’s part of the job, Bassett said.
By 1945, the Boston was readying for its most daunting assignment ever: assisting in the expected invasion of the Japanese home islands. With Japanese forces and civilians ready to defend their homeland at almost any cost, the allies knew the final chapter of Pacific war promised to be the bloodiest.
“We had a crew aboard who were ready to go ashore,” Bassett recalled. The ship found itself off the island of Honshu, her guns battering major cities, including Tokyo. With the invasion apparently imminent, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands and ushering in a new, terrifying age of warfare. And Bassett has a clearer understanding than most about the horror of nuclear weapons.
“I had the opportunity to go to Hiroshima,” he said. He and other members of the crew visited the city in the months after the bombing as part of their mission to oversee the dismantling of the Japanese military. “It looked like a burned-out dump,” he said. Bassett was shocked and saddened by the loss of so many lives, but like nearly every other serviceman, he feared the alternative even more.
“If we’d not dropped that thing, we would’ve had a million more men killed in the invasion of Japan,” he said. “A lot of us were not born killers,” he said. “We did whatever we could to survive ourselves.” Was he afraid?
“Any goddamned fool who wasn’t afraid was stupid, in my book,” Bassett said. Sometimes as far away as five miles offshore, the Boston was nonetheless within reach of shore batteries and aircraft, which posed a constant threat.
“The Fourth of July in ‘44, particularly,” he recalled. Starting in mid-June, the Boston was in the waters around Iwo Jima, taking part in the bombardment of various enemy emplacements. On June 17, Bassett’s battle group was diverted to an area west of the islands, where it engaged and defeated a major Japanese task force. Six days later, the Boston was back bombarding emplacements on the Pagan Islands, before focusing its fury on Iwo Jima.
The famous battle for the island, culminating in the flag raising on Mt. Suribachi, was still almost a year away, and allied forces were struggling to gain a toe-hold. To that end, on Independence Day, the Boston joined a long line of powerful warships that blasted the island, trying to rout the enemy from deep tunnels while, at the same time, trying not to hit the Marines who had already landed there.
“That was hell on wheels,” said Bassett, staring out his back window across Emery Pond, seemingly gazing across the decades. “When we put the shells on them, we could see the explosions,” he said. “That was the Fourth of July parade of ships.”