As Charles Sewell sits in his coastal Delaware home these days, the realization that his memory has begun failing him is crystal clear. There are many things he no longer remembers about his time fighting for his country during the later stages of World War II — but there are other recollections that remain crystal clear, moments he’ll likely never forget.
Serving aboard a destroyer converted into a minesweeper in the Pacific Theater of Operations, Sewell had more than one scary moment in the mid-1940s as Japanese kamikaze pilots continuously circled overhead and typhoons often seemed around every corner.
But the scariest moment of all came one day as the Baltimore native was simply gazing over the side of his ship. He and other sailors aboard the former U.S.S. Knight were pulling up anchor when they looked what they felt was certain death square in the eye — stuck to the anchor chain, as clear as day, was an unexploded Japanese mine.
“When I looked over and saw that mine, it scared the hell out of me,” said Sewell, who today makes his home in the coastal Delaware town of Fenwick Island. “I thought I was a goner for sure. We were real lucky it didn’t damage the ship; we just left it there, then went out far enough and blew it up.”
Growing up in Charm City, near the city’s famous harbor, Sewell enlisted in the United States Navy in March of 1945, at the age of 18. He had known since Dec. 7, 1941, that at least a short stint in the military was in his future.
“I was working at a local grocery store when I heard on the radio about the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor,” he recalled. “I knew then that I was going into the service. After the attack, I just wanted to go in the service and help my country.”
After completing basic training, Sewell was assigned duty on the former U.S.S. Knight, a destroyer that had participated in the invasions of North Africa a few years earlier. Most recently, the ship had engaged in five Atlantic convoy runs from New York to ports in the United Kingdom.
In the summer of 1945, the U.S.S. Knight was converted into a high-speed minesweeper at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and reclassified as DMS-40 (DMS is the designation for destroyer minesweepers).
The ship departed Norfolk on Aug. 12, heading for the Pacific with a full crew, including one very anxious young sailor from Baltimore.
“It was exciting when we left Norfolk. I had always wanted to go in the Navy and serve aboard a ship, and now I was finally getting that chance,” recalled Sewell.
DMS-40 steamed for the Pacific via San Diego and Pearl Harbor but first passed through the Panama Canal, one of the world’s manmade marvels. It was a sight to see for a teenage boy from the East Coast.
“I really liked the Panama Canal,” recalled Sewell. “It was exciting going through the canal because I realized it was something I’d never seen before and may never see again.”
The men of the former U.S.S. Knight reached the Japanese city of Okinawa on Sept. 28, 1945, and were assigned to Mine Squadron 21. From mid-October to mid-November, the ship swept for mines in the Yellow Sea, continuing operations in the Pacific Theater until Feb. 24, 1946.
Hundreds of Japanese mines were sought out and destroyed by the men of DMS-40; day upon day was spent once again making the waters of Southeast Asia safe for passing ships.
Sewell worked mainly in the wheelhouse of his ship, often steering it through dangerous waters. Most days, Mother Nature cooperated — when she didn’t, however, things often got interesting.
“I remember one day the first lieutenant put me in charge just as the ship tilted and nearly capsized,” said Sewell. “We almost went over, but I all I could do was hold it until we started going the other way. I was definitely scared we were going to capsize.”
As was often the case for men serving at sea during World War II, Sewell was seasick for much of his time aboard DMS-40. When he did eat, he would devour quite a bit, but he said he only ate once every few days, as his stomach was continuously uneasy.
He likes to joke about that fact today.
“Since I was steering the ship, I really had no one to blame for that but myself,” he said with a chuckle.
One of Sewell’s most vivid recollections of his World War II service came in early 1946, months after the fighting had ended and things in the world were slowly returning to normal.
He and the men of his ship were anchored near the Japanese city of Kobe, one of the largest cities in the Pacific island nation.
Sewell had been taken with how friendly the Japanese people were, despite the fact that they had just endured many years of a war they eventually lost. One person stands out in particular for him, an elderly woman who couldn’t speak a word of English but whose message came through loud and clear.
“The Japanese people were all so nice to us, but I remember this one lady because of how well she treated me,” he recalled. “I met her when I was taking a walk and I had climbed to the top of this hill. She wanted to feed me, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to try the Japanese food. But I stayed with her all day and we walked all over the place, even though I couldn’t really talk to her.”
Sewell returned to the United States and was discharged on July 11, 1946, fulfilling the commitment he made when he signed up for a tour of “18 months or the duration of the war.”
He had joined the military toward the end of the war, but that was because of his age more than anything else. Ready to fight at age 14 after the Japanese attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, he had to wait his turn.
When he finally was able to enter the service, he jumped at the chance and served his country with pride until the threat posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had been neutralized.
“I felt like I served my country and helped out the best way I could,” he says today from his home near the Delaware beaches. “I feel real good about what I did during the war.”
After returning to Baltimore, Sewell went to work for the Westinghouse Electric Corp., where he taught himself the skills that allowed him to work for more than 40 years as an accountant.
He and his wife, Arlene, have been married since 1973 and retired to coastal Delaware in 1988. Sewell has three children with his first wife and also has seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
He still wears his United States Navy hat nearly every day, and he wears it with pride.
“To me, serving in the navy was more than a job. I enjoyed the time I was in the service and I would definitely do it again,” he said.
Sewell’s story is one of 50 that will be featured in “World War II Heroes of Coastal Delaware,” to be released in 2013.