John Copeland wipes tears from his face at times while talking about the U.S.S. Heywood, a former World War II cargo-passenger liner he served on for three years.
To Copeland, the Heywood was more than a ship in the military’s amphibious forces.
Copeland speaks about the 507-foot long vessel with as much emotion and admiration as he would reminiscing about an old friend.
The Heywood was not a battleship with big guns or torpedoes. It was a 9,000-ton transporter that hauled troops and cargo to enemy-infested beaches.
Copeland, 82, boarded the Heywood in 1943. He said he was prepared for his duties on the converted luxury liner.
“We trained with the boats, and we knew we were going to the beaches,” Copeland said. “We had to go through enemy fire, the surf and other hazards.”
The Heywood could transport about 2,000 soldiers to Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. Along with the troops, the ship had about 1,000 men serving as its crew.
The Heywood crew would take troops to the beach and unload supplies and machinery. The crew would be at one island for days at a time.
The Heywood was also used to transport Japanese prisoners when needed.
Copeland said there are too many stories to share about his time on the Heywood. But he remembers one victory that called for a little deception.
Military forces were closing in on the islands of Saipan and Tinian. The two-mile island was heavily fortified by Japanese forces.
“We devised a fake invasion,” Copeland said. “We pulled out for a fake like we were going to hit, and we started into the beach.”
Copeland said battleships were firing alongside the Heywood.
“Then their artillery starting tearing us up,” Copeland said. “Our other forces landed at the other end of the island with no opposition because we had pulled them all down there.”
The fake invasion was intense, but the transport to Tarawa, located in the Gilbert Islands, was one of the few battles Copeland will never forget.
Many troops were killed before they left the Heywood. Mortar shells, sniper fire and grenades landed on the Heywood boats that were trying to get troops on the island. After five attempts, the Haywood successfully landed on the beach, surrounded by dead and wounded soldiers.
Copeland was only 18-years-old at Tarawa.
“You grew up pretty quick,” Copeland said. “It was war. We were all gung ho because the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.”
Copeland said falling asleep on the Heywood could also be a difficult time.
“You would go to sleep sometimes and wake up to people shooting at you,” Copeland said. “But all of us were on that ship, and we were staying together.”
That same togetherness is evident when Copeland talks about his fellow soldiers.
“Some of these people, I was with the whole time,” Copeland said. “It was like family.”
The most difficult time for Copeland was when the Heywood was considered to be too old for military action. The ship was inactive for a time as officers and crew members grew bored, watching new modern transports steaming past them.
“We were old, and they were going to send us to the rear because we weren’t a modern ship,” Copeland said, with tears forming in his eyes. “Our admiral said, ‘No, they started. Let them finish.’”
The Heywood did take part in more invasions, including the invasion of Luzon, which many considered the most ambitious operation in the history of the war in the Pacific.
The Heywood also pulled into Tokyo Bay on Sept. 8, 1945 after the Japanese forces surrendered to pick up troops, Copeland said.
Copeland said he is proud of his time spent on the Heywood and the seven Battle Stars it received for service in WWII. He recalls his experiences as if it all happened yesterday.
Copeland even smiles a little when he thinks about the fate of the Heywood.
“People have been shaving with her,” Copeland said. “They made razor blades out of her.”
Copeland moved to Yazoo County after WWII. He and his wife, Mary, have been married for 58 years.