OLIVER TOWNSHIP — Stephen Fairman was a high school junior in 1941. “Everybody had radios,” he recalled when asked how he learned of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on that infamous Dec. 7th of that year.
He remembers thinking that the war, what would become World War II, would be over before he ever graduated and he’d never see any of it.
Those thoughts were miles from him on Sept. 2, 1945, when the ship upon which he was serving, the USS Holland, was positioned within sight of the signing of the surrender of the Japanese on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Fairman’s moment of history found him with little more than the uniform on his back, his personal possessions lost when another vessel upon which he was stationed was torn apart in a typhoon.
The wooden-hulled USS Ocelot, built in the early 1900s for the Japanese but never transferred to that nation, was little match for the ammunition ship that rammed into it in the chaos of the storm. Fairman spoke of ships being tossed about like toys in the fiercely churning waters of Buckner Bay at Okinawa. He escaped that melee unharmed.
His path from thinking he wouldn’t see any of the war at all, to being present at its conclusion, began for Fairman following his graduation in 1943 from Saints Cosmas and Damian Roman Catholic High School in Punxsutawney.
“I had a pretty high draft number,” he said of that time; he was 19 years old. Called before the Draft Board, there was a representative of the Army, Navy and Marines on hand.
When asked in which branch of the military he wanted to serve he answered, “Army,” and was promptly assigned to the U.S. Navy.
Although born in Walston, Fairman’s parents had moved the family to Punxsutawney where they remained as he headed off by bus and train for the Navy’s training base at Great Lakes, Illinois.
He was taught to work aboard a submarine tender, repairing damaged items on those and other vessels so that they didn’t have to be brought into docks.
Another train took Fairman from Great Lakes to San Francisco, California, where he boarded a troop transport on June 6, 1944, “D-Day.”
There was a one day layover at the Hawaiian Islands and he could see some of the damaged vessels still lying in Pearl Harbor, including the USS Arizona. Then it was on to the Marshall Islands.
Between that June day and the formal surrender ceremony, Fairman was stationed aboard the ships USS Prairie, Louisville, Ajax, Cascade, Ocelot and finally the Holland. Those vessels were essentially floating machine and repair shops for all types of surface ships but his duties were mostly focused on submarines and aiding them to return to service as quickly as possible after sustaining damage.
Kamikaze attacks by the Japanese were not uncommon, but Fairman survived those as well.
He resolutely recalls, “We were preparing for the invasion of Japan,” throughout much of his time in the Pacific. The dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki “saved thousands of lives,” and brought the war to an end.
News of the surrender of Japan came on Aug. 15, 1945, but Fairman said there was no celebrating among the crew; it was more relief that they would not have to face the invasion.
The ships were not allowed within 40 miles of Nagasaki because of the threat of radiation. However, the debris and damaged vessels from the typhoon made it impossible to even go ashore in Tokyo for about a week after the winds subsided.
Fairman recalled that the Japanese people were very fearful of U.S. personnel. “They had been told we were monsters and that we were going to eat their children,” he said. The Japanese people quickly came to find that those falsehoods generated by their leaders were not at all true.
Although he lost his personal possessions aboard the Ocelot, Fairman said he always had one thing with him. “We carried our caskets with us,” describing the canvas hammocks that were where they slept but which also doubled as body bags for burial at sea, if necessary.
Back home, there were times when his family had no word from him, but he said after the surrender the mail service was good and letters would traverse the distance in about a week. That was how he got word to his family that he had survived the perils of the storm and shipwreck.
Finally headed for the U.S. in January of 1946, after serving aboard the Holland those last months at sea, Fairman was aboard an aircraft carrier converted to a troop ship for the trip across the Pacific. Coming into San Diego, California, he remembers looking up from a distance and seeing the big “HOLLYWOOD” sign on a far hill.
He doesn’t recall the name of that converted carrier but he does recollect an order from the captain. So excited to finally see “home” again, the troops on board had hurried to one side of the deck, their weight actually tilting the vessel. The captain ordered half of them to the other side to right the ship.
There was a job waiting for the Navy veteran, returning to work at the A&P grocery store in Punxsutawney where he had been employed before his enlistment. He would remain there until it closed in 1982.
On Oct. 5, 1954, he married the late Anna Jane Thomas, who passed away in November of 2017. They had five children and settled in Oliver Township.