Pearl Harbor Survivor Chronicles Service in Book
by Tim Unruh
Salina (Kansas) Journal, May 31, 2004
But as the laugh lines on his face attest, the old sailor clings to the positive points of his 83 years.
“You gotta enjoy life, and understand it could be a helluva lot worse,” Simmelink said. “I’ve had so many good things happen to me.”
The retired farmer, television repairman and motor home dealer speaks openly of his war experiences and chuckles away most dreary memories. It’s all in the book he wrote and paid to have published, From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay.
Through it all, Simmelink’s worst injury was from a bar fight in San Francisco.
Ernest Gist Simmelink was born in Downs, Osborne County, Kansas on March 5, 1921, to John and Mary Simmelink. The promise of a steady paycheck, an education for a trade and living expenses sent the 18-year old to Salina, Kansas on December 26, 1938, to enlist in the military.
His first wheat harvest in a partnership with his father, John Simmelink, had left the young Ernie $80 in debt and disenchanted with the family business.
“l saw an ad by the Marines for 21 dollars a month with room, board and clothing,” he said “I said to Dad, ‘This beats farming all to hell.’”
But at six feet tall and skinny as a stick, Simmelink soon learned he didn’t have the physique for the Marines.
“They sent me down the hall. The Navy was dropping its standards,” he said.
“I signed up for six years.”
After nine weeks of Navy Camp and 21 days leave in Salina to see his sweetheart, Matilda “Tillie” Riedel, Simmelink reported to San Diego, where he was assigned to the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia, where the young sailor eventually became a carpenter’s mate.
A Narrow Escape
He and a friend named Cromwell – It was common not to learn first names – were preparing to play chess at 7 that morning in the carpenter shop. The hit on the ship was just above the ship’s water line on the main deck.
Chess pieces and men flew all over the deck when the first torpedo hit. Cromwell was killed in the attack, Simmelink initially thought one of the battleship’s boilers had blown.
He went to his battle station three decks below the carpenter shop, where the ammunition was stored.
“The lights went out, communication went out and we didn’t know what was going on,” Simmelink said.
After an hour, and being knee-deep in water, he and a sailor named Vester figured it was time to leave.
“I could see Vester in the background with sea water spraying through the cracks. He seemed to glow, like there was a candle burning in the background.” Simmelink said. During occasional nightmares, he finds himself back on the West Virginia in that compartment, staring at Vester.
The sailors opened the forward hatch and water began seeping in. They went to the back hatch which opened up dry. It was their path to safety.
“We went aft through a 10 foot-wide passageway, to go to the other side of the ship,” he recalled. “The ship was listing. We were going uphill. We got to the other side and somebody turned a battle lantern in our faces.”
It was Lt. Rickets, who informed the two men that the “abandon ship” order had been passed 45 minutes earlier.
“He said to get to topside, that this damn thing’s going down fast,” Simmelink said.
The ship was on fire, he said, and there were likely Japanese aircraft overhead, but all he remembered was the noise and the humorous vision of a fellow sailor grabbing a fire extinguisher.
Simmelink said he “walked the line, hand over hand” to the U.S.S. Tennessee, which was tethered to the West Virginia. They were ordered to a quay, a concrete pad where the ships were tied.
“All I could think about was to save my ass,” Simmelink recalled. “There were guys crowding onto the quay and some were jumping into the water to swim.”
Kicking an Officer
There was oil in the water, and he figured it was risky to paddle 200 yards to the Ford Island beach. Simmelink opted to make his way to a pipeline where there were men walking across.
Ten feet onto the pipe, he noticed a man walking on his hands and knees at the same time there were machine gun bullets hitting water nearby.
“I kicked him in the ass and said, ‘Get out of my way.’” Simmelink said. “When we got to Ford Island, we both turned and saluted the flag on the ship, and I noticed three gold braids on his shoulder.”
Instead of being put on report for striking an officer, the commander thanked him.
Once on the beach, Simmelink noticed hordes of wounded and burned soldiers there. Some were dead, and hundreds of others were withering in pain. Someone handed him a container shaped like a shoebox filled with small glass tubes. Inside were needles and vials of morphine.
He was instructed to administer morphine shots to the wounded, and to keep track by painting X’s on the foreheads with mercuricome.
Meanwhile, back home in Kansas, Simmelink’s family waited and wondered. It was more than a month before they learned he’d survived the attack.
“That’s why I won’t give to the Red Cross,” he said. “They charged 25 cents to send a telegram, and they never sent it.”
By nightfall, Simmelink rode a boat to an arena that the military had just built. He slept on the bleachers for two nights, wearing only a pair of cutoff Navy shorts.
Simmelink then was taken to stand guard at a Navy camp where civilians lived and worked.
“We weren’t sure if the Japs were going to come out of those cane fields,” he said. That night, he heard a shot in the distance.
“I grabbed a Jeep and a couple of guys and headed to the end of the area,” Simmelink recalled. They found a young sailor named Adams who had loaded his rifle into the sugar cane field, claiming he’d seen something moving.
“We doubled the watch for the night, and the next morning we searched the field, and sure enough about twenty feet inside was a tomcat blown to pieces,” he said.
Years later, while recounting the “Tomcat Adams” story at a reunion of Pearl Harbor survivors in Hawaii, Simmelink wrote, “a follow from the rear of the room yelled, ‘That was me,’ and there was Adams. We had a good time talking over old times.”
Simmelink next was assigned to the repair ship Medusa. It spent two years in Hawaii, then went island-hopping through the South Pacific.
The crew occasionally worked under enemy fire. He wrote of the “good liquor” some sailors made of canned fruit on the ship and how he traded favors to get ice from an officer’s club to chill beer.
“The sailors would pay $7 a bottle . . .” he wrote.
The Medusa was docked in New Guinea when Simmelink said he shot a Japanese sniper out of a tree. It is one of his more difficult war memories.
Simmelink visited Guadalcanal and other exotic points in the South Pacific before getting 30 days leave. He returned home to Osborne, borrowed the family car and drove to Salina and proposed again to Matilda Riedel. She agreed to post-war wedding.
He returned to duty September 27, 1944, and was assigned to the U.S.S. Tucson, the ship that took him to Tokyo Bay. Simmelink said he was 900 yards from the U.S.S. Missouri on September 2, 1945, where the Japanese surrender ceremony was staged.
Job. wife. 3 kids
Simmelink was honorably discharged January 6, 1946. His father borrowed gas rationing stamps for enough fuel to pick him up in Norman, Oklahoma. He and “Tillie” were married February 29, 1946, in Salina.
His bride worked as a nurse at St. John’s Hospital (now part of Salina Regional Health Center), and Simmelink was a night clerk at the former Lamer Hotel, off the corner of Santa Fe and Ash in Salina. He also worked as a Moorman’s Feed salesman, a receiving clerk at Sears & Roebuck and a door-to door Jewel Tea salesman.
Their three children, Lillie Marie, Linda and John, were born in Salina.
When his father died in 1951, Simmelink returned to the farm, eventually buying the land from his stepmother, Lillie (Remaley) Simmelink.
Tragic times were ahead. Their daughter Linda, 12, died in 1962 of a mysterious illness that resembles West Nile Virus, Simmelink said. Tillie died of leukemia in 1990. Their firstborn, Lillie Marie Odle, 39, died in 1996 in a car crash southwest of Beloit, Kansas, leaving a husband and four young children.
“They’re just things that happened,” he said. “You have to accept it and go on. You can’t let it eat on you.”
Not long after Tillie died, Simmelink said, the walls of his house “were shrinking up on me. I had to get out.”
From Vera’s Cafe in Hunter, Kansas, where he had driven to in his motor home, Simmelink phoned his boyhood love, Mildred Ulin, who had been widowed for three years.
They rekindled old feelings and were married in April 1991. “We just click together,” Ernie said.
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Post-Story Note: Ernie was still farming 2,000 acres at the age of 75. He also worked in television sales and service. Ernie was a member of the Veterans Foreign Wars; a past grand knight of the Knights of Columbus; a faithful navigator of the fourth degree of the Knights of Columbus; a past Kansas State Chairman of the Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Association for seven years; the Order of Shellback 1940; and the Order of Golden Dragon, April 15, 1943 and again June 5, 1945.
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Ernie Simmelink passed away on March 30, 2005, and was laid to rest with honors in the St. Aloysius Cemetery at Osborne, Kansas.