It was a time and place in history like no other: the South Pacific during World War II. And one East Texas Navy veteran saw nearly every combat zone there serving on the medical ship the USS Bountiful. And while there were palm trees, and grass skirts, and nights full of entertainment they were only a brief respite from the horrors of war.
Pharmacy Mate Second Class Doyle Simmons was in the middle of nearly every combat zone in the South Pacific during World War II but he never carried a weapon. That's because he served on board the medical ship the USS Bountiful. "That was a new concept for a hospital ship to be inside a battle zone," Simmons said.
Each time the allies fought for control of a Japanese held island working their way closer to Japan itself the crew of 1,000 took on the wounded. At his first battle, the Battle of Guam, that included 400 Marines. "We went to the shore and picked up the Marines and brought them to the hospital ship and they operated on them all night long," he told us.
Simmons was just 17 when he left Wills Point and enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He trained in San Diego to work in the pharmacy on board the Bountiful then shipped out on a series of missions. And what he saw changed him.
"One night I was on duty, you had to watch the patients. And four of them died that night," he said, "that was probably the most important thing in my life."
Simmons' distributed medication on board the ship and rescued the wounded from islands often in the middle of battle. He and his crew would ferry them back to the ship and hoist them up to the deck in wire baskets. While the Japanese didn't generally target the Bountiful it got caught in the middle of battle more than once. They were often hit by debris from explosions.
Simmons also witnessed allied atomic bomb testing with his own eyes in the Pacific in 1945. He'll never forget what he saw, "like a mushroom, big mushroom," he described, "you didn't know what was going to happen."
He even fell into the contaminated water shortly after the atomic detonation. Fortunately extensive blood testing proved he was ok.
But the lighthearted side shown by the film South Pacific wasn't totally off base. "We had parties see, on this little island," he told us, "they wouldn't let you drink on the ship but on an island they would."
And a choreographer who served on board the Bountiful even taught some men in the crew how to put on shows. He said, "you just forgot about the war."
Simmons finally got to finally got to come home to Texas in 1946. He often thinks about the men he served with, the close calls, and those who never made it home. "We buried a lot of people at sea," he said.
But he did it for his country. And while times have changed his patriotism is stronger than ever. He said, "I'd do the same thing."