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76 hours of battle: Dyer WWII veteran recalls invading Tarawa
Times - 3/24/2020
DYER -- Joe Bomersback had been a pretty regular patron of the library.
Until the COVID-19 outbreak, he'd go almost every day.
"Since I lost my wife, I'm kind of a people person, I like to be around people," Bomersback said.
The World War II veteran, who turned 96 on March 14, has lived in the Region his whole life.
Bomersback, a motor machinist mate 2nd class, is one of the few WWII veterans left in the Hoosier state. By September 2020, there will be 5,354 WWII veterans in Indiana, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2015, there were 16,833.
Before serving in World War II, Bomersback was a student-athlete and a paper boy for The Hammond Times.
A call to service
In 1942, before he was a spry 96, Bomersback was another man answering Uncle Sam's call.
The Hammond native and graduate of Hammond High School went to work at Pullman Standard when they were making tanks. He was there for two months.
By that time his brothers had been drafted, Bomersback said. So, when he was 18, and still had black, curly hair, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to help serve his country.
He spent three months in Great Lakes, three months at the University of Illinois diesel school and two more months at diesel school at U.S. Destroyer Base, San Diego. When he graduated, Bomersback was put on the USS Sheridan (APA-51).
The USS Sheridan would head to Wellington, New Zealand, before making its way to the Gilbert Islands for the Battle of Tarawa.
One morning before the battle, Bomersback recalls an armada of American ships as far as he could see on the Pacific Ocean.
"We're going to Tarawa. We're going to take back the Gilbert Islands that included Tarawa and Makin," he said. "I was 19 years old, and I had enormous pride because this is America."
In November 1943, Bomersback found himself on Tarawa, a stretch of land about 2 miles long and a half-mile wide. When the Navy and the 2nd Marine Division made it to atoll, the landing craft, vehicle, personnel (LCVP) hit the reef "at full speed and wedged on it," Bomersback said.
"When we hit the beach, my job was to drop this ramp ... enabling the troops to get off," he said. "That boat weighs about 3 tons, and when you put 20 people on board, not only with maybe 170 pounds a piece, but they have 60-pound packs. So that was an awful lot of weight. I don't it must be 7, 8 tons."
As soon as Bomersback, who was an engineer on the boat, dropped the ramp, the soldiers came under immediate fire.
"It was directly ahead of us. To the right of us, and to the left. It was machine gun fire and sniper fire," he said. "As soon as I dropped the ramp, my coxswain got hit on the shoulder."
After his coxswain, Howard Noblitt, was hit, Bomersback got the ramp back up. Then, he had to get Noblitt back to the ship. They were under fire the entire time, but the pair finally made it back after about 30-45 minutes.
The battle lasted for 76 hours, and two days later, Bomersback's ship received emergency sailing orders and headed to Pearl Harbor.
"I have a lot of pride and being a part of an effort by the World War II. There are not many of us left anymore," Bomersback said.
Life after the war
Bomersback was discharged in February 1946 and began taking classes at Purdue University Northwest, he said.
He then accepted a job at U.S. Steel, where he worked for four-and-a-half years. He also worked at American Steel for one year before accepting a job as an industrial engineer at Inland Steel Co., where he worked for 33 years.
"I finished getting my degree from Northwestern University when I was 42 years old, but again to show them (my children) the value (of education)," he said.
In the meantime, he got married to his wife, Dorothy, in 1950. The two would go on to raise four children, James, Gail, Alan and Laura.
In 2001, the Bomersbacks moved to Dyer in the house that he still lives in.
During his free time, Bomersback still enjoys riding his bike and lifting 5-pound weights. He's a 60-year member of the St. John VFW Post 717, where he currently serves as the chaplain. He also is a member of St. John Evangelist Catholic Church.
Though his kids visit often, and he remains active, getting older is lonely and a bit bittersweet, he said.
"It's wonderful growing older," he said. "The sad part is that you lose so many friends like all my buddies that I went to war with, they're all gone.
"I've been blessed, and I thank God every day for that."
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