This is the first in a two-part series on Tigard resident Art Crino. Part one covers Art’s combat experiences in the Pacific theater in World War II. Part two will cover his life in peacetime America in the 1940s, and subsequent civic activism beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the present, which were heavily influenced by his experiences in Asia during and after World War II.
In the bloody World War II battle to take Iwo Jima Island from the Japanese, a group of Marines had been cut off from the US forces and were surrounded on three sides by Japanese soldiers bent on their complete annihilation. Behind them was the ocean. Their deaths were all but certain.
It was the dark of night, and the brass had come up with a daring plan to rescue the Marines.
Moving silently through the water, its low draft allowing it to clear the treacherous reefs, a sub chaser – at 110 feet and built out of wood the smallest ship in the U.S. Navy – positioned itself offshore directly in front of the Marine’s position, and within line of sight fire of Japanese artillery.
Then, in an act of heroism that could have meant certain death, the three officers and 24 enlisted men turned on their ship’s running lights. Lit up like a Christmas tree, they were a sitting duck. But while the Japanese could see them, so could a small flotilla of U.S. Navy landing craft. These small boats sat two low in the water to find their way to shore at night. However, using the little wooden ship as a homing beacon, the landing craft headed straight to the shore, picked up the Marines, and carried them to safety.
On the deck of that little ship, facing death every second they set there with their lights on, was Tigard resident Art Crino.
Now 92 years old, on December 7, 1941, farm boy Art Crino was a senior at Milwaukee High School. While American teenagers rushed to enlist in the military as soon as they graduated from high school, Art was handed a free pass to stay home without serving.
“Farm boys: Be patriotic and stay here,” read a headline in the local paper. Oregon was much more rural in those days, and its rich soil, temperate climate and frequent rains made it a major source of food production for the country.
Art could have applied for a deferment, but he had other plans.
“I never did want to be a farmer all my life,” he recalls with a laugh. Upon graduation he enlisted in the United States Navy and in short order found himself on a 110 foot wooden sub chaser, which Art describes as something of a mini destroyer. It was armed with six depth charges, machine guns, a small deck gun, and a single rack of rockets.
“It was the smallest ship in the Navy,” says Art. “Anything smaller was considered a boat, like the PT boats. Our maiden voyage took us straight to Pearl Harbor, and we initially worked out of Pearl. Then we worked our way westward as the Japanese were pushed back across the Pacific. We were at Saipan, Iwo Jima and Tinian.
“I saw the flag flying at Iwo Jima.”
In 1945, with most of the small islands captured and now being used as airbases for B-29 bombers to hit at the Japanese main island, the ship was given a new duty: Rescuing the crews of bombers either damaged over Japan or suffering mechanical problems which made it impossible for them to get back to their bases.
In a war zone, ships operate at night in a complete lights-out scenario. Even a single light can guide an enemy aircraft or vessel – be it torpedo boat, destroyer or submarine – directly to its location.
But as they had done previously at Iwo Jima, the men of the little sub chaser made the decision to turn on every light on their ship, even spotlights and searchlights, which they aimed straight up into the air, when they knew crippled B-29s were overhead. In the vast Pacific Ocean, they were a beacon of salvation for Army Air Corps crews who otherwise faced almost certain death in the ocean.
On one night they had rescued almost an entire crew. Only one man was missing. The little sub chaser was traveling in a search pattern grid looking for that last man. The ship’s commander told Art to check with all the men on deck and asked if they had seen or heard anything that might indicate they were near the downed airman.
“The stern of our ship was a really noisy place,” explains Art, “that’s where the big fans and blowers were located. The lookout stationed there told me he thought he had heard someone yelling, but just as soon as he said that he contradicted himself and said there was no possible way he could have heard anything over the noise. He told me to just forget about it.
“Sure, I replied, and headed back toward the wheelhouse. Then I had the strangest experience. My sea legs went out from under me and I staggered, catching myself on the rail of the ship. I felt nauseous, and my head was swimming. It was like I was in a stupor. I don’t know how long I clung there.
“Suddenly a single thought came into my mind: That flyer is alive. I do not know how, but I knew this with absolute certainty. That man was alive and our lookout had heard him crying out for help.
“With this certainty whatever had afflicted me suddenly vanished. I sprinted to the bridge and told our captain I believed the lookout had sighted the downed B-29 crewmen. The captain immediately gave orders for a 180 turn and asked me how far back this happened.
“This really put me on the spot. I really didn’t know how long I’d been out of it, but I made the best guess I could and told the captain it was 20 minutes, explaining the lookout told me to ignore the report, which is why I did not tell him earlier.
“The captain did not question my hunch, and took the 20 minute time frame I gave him as the gospel truth. We headed in our reverse course for 20 minutes exactly, then turned off the engines and began looking for the flyer.
“It took no time at all. The man was in the water no more than 50 yards from the ship, and we took him on board at once.
“That was divine Providence,” adds Art. “There is no other way you can explain it.”
The war was winding down, and after spending the entire duration in combat in the Pacific Ocean, the little wooden ship was ordered to return to Pearl Harbor for upgrading.
When they sailed into Pearl Harbor, they had barely docked when they saw three officers walking toward their ship. The full complement of 27 men assembled on deck.
“We asked to be notified as soon as you arrived at Pearl,” explained one of the officers. “I want you men to know something: What you accomplished in this war, and your personal courage, is exceptional.
“This ship and you men are legends in your own time.”
Next month in part two: Art talks about his peacetime activities in the 1940s and 1950s and ongoing activism with his wife Sally.