Clark Jess Tyler, U.S. Navy

Word War II – 133rd Sea Bee Battalion (Construction Battalion)

Tactical Area of Responsibility- Iwo Jima, Japan; Guam

Medals/Honors – World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic Medal, Navy Unit Citation, Presidential Unit Citation

Early life

On Oct. 3, 1925, Jess and Winnifred (Baker) Tyler, of Charlotte, welcomed a new son into the world. The baby was named Clark Jess Tyler, and like many babies during those days, he was born at home.

New father Jess was a heavy equipment crane operator, working for various companies that chose their operators from the Union Hall. Companies like AC Wahl, the Dunkirk U.S. Radiator Co., the builders of the Fourth Ward water tank located off of Roberts Road that was built in 1934, the Chautauqua County bridge building project – they all contacted Jess Tyler for his expertise in heavy-duty lifting.

Those early construction days came with few rules and regulations. Today, cranes come computerized, with controls that keep operators and loads safe from accidents. But back then, the only “safety feature” an operator could count on was his experience, gained by years of hard work. To complicate matters, companies wanted not only an experienced operator but a fast one. The faster the job got done, the less money the company had to spend on labor. Therefore, Jess Tyler had to walk a fine line between being safe and being efficient.

Winnifred also had a tough job. She was at home raising a passel of children. Aside from Clark, she also had Roger, Floyd, Robert and Mary to look after. She spent her days getting the kids out of bed, feeding them and getting them off to school, then doing housework all day, cooking and putting them to bed. That daily routine is tiring.

While Tyler was still young, his parents decided to move to Arkwright to a small dairy farm. This was a wonderful place for children to grow up. The family had their own homegrown vegetables to eat, fresh air, dairy products and room to run.

But a farm comes with chores, and all five children had to do their fair share. Tyler swept the barn and helped with small things, even at five years old. As he grew, he took on field work, drove a tractor and learned what it took to maintain the equipment so that it started when they needed it to!

Tyler started his schooling in a one-room schoolhouse, sharing the space with other children in kindergarten all the way up to eighth grade. The teacher knew all the subjects at all the levels, and children were not held back because they had “learned what they needed to for now.” Students progressed at their own rates, entering the next level when they had mastered the previous. One thing Tyler and his schoolmates never had to worry about was dozing off in class in the winter. The heat from the potbellied stove often took three or four hours to reach the back of the room!

Tyler and his siblings spent a lot of their free time outdoors. They played baseball, hunted, fished and trapped in the winter. They didn’t have televisions sets, video games or iPods, but they had wonderful and healthy childhoods. Parents back then didn’t have to wonder if their children were getting enough exercise or eating too much junkfood.

In 1939, Tyler was off to high school. He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, and he knew that the only way to do that was to get educated in the trades. The city of Dunkirk could provide just that, with their School 10. This was Dunkirk’s newest school, built to teach high school students the trades. They could then take that knowledge with them to find jobs after graduation, much the way BOCES functions now. The city called the school “Industrial High School.” It taught English, history, mechanical drawing and mathematics for half the day, with the other half devoted to trade shop. Trade shop options included wood, electronics, mechanics or automotive.

The school had a great program in which students would try all of the shops, then get to pick what interested them the most. Tyler decided that the auto shop felt right for him. He loved working on cars, engines, transmissions and other essential components that make a car run.

For hands-on experience, people could bring their cars to the school and have students work on them for free. The car owners only had to pay for the parts. Transmissions were easier to repair back then, as they weren’t automatic. Everything was either a three- or a four-speed. When Tyler and his buddies heard a rumor that a three-band, automatically-shifting transmission was being invented, they all laughed.

Tyler spent time hanging out with friends Harry Sysol, Johnny Michalak, Ross Conti, Mike Pacos, Ed Glapa, Johnny Cybulski, Pottsy Roslulski and Castle Sam. They played baseball and basketball between going to school and working odd jobs, like picking fruit in the summertime at local farms. The Woodbury, Jakuboski and Joy farms often hired Tyler along with friends Ed Urbanik, John Gureski and the Goss brothers.

To amuse themselves when they were bored one day, Tyler and his friends made up a new game. They didn’t have any sporting equipment, so they got a stick and a soda can and concocted a new version of ice hockey they named “Cheeny.” The game drew more and more players until teams were formed, with the Madurski boys, the Sysols and the Kuzaraus joining the fun.

Tyler’s father began getting more and more jobs in the city of Dunkirk. It made sense, then, for the family to move to Dunkirk’s Fourth Ward.

Joining the Navy

Tyler’s schoolmates began dropping out. They felt they could serve their families better by leaving school and getting jobs to earn money, or serve their country better by entering the service. After some deliberation, Tyler made the decision one day that he, too, would join the military. He informed his school that he would be leaving and told his parents. He visited a Navy recruiter, but not before his best friend Harry Sysol heard his plans and wanted to join, too. The boys were only 17 at the time, and had to get their parents to sign off on their enlistment. They were relieved to get the adults’ permission, and the two young men were soon off to boot camp after saying their goodbyes and boarding a train to Virginia.

Since both Tyler and Sysol were trained at a vocational school, they were both sent to Camp Peary in Williamsburg for 13 weeks of training. This wasn’t the “regular” boot camp that most recruits were sent to; the camp in Williamsburg focused on more specific training. From there, Tyler went to the Navy’s heavy equipment school in Gulfport, Miss., where he worked with cranes, bulldozers, high lifts, graders, and more. After that, Tyler was sent to the base maintenance equipment department. The responsibilities of the personnel there were to maintain all of the base’s trucks, cars, buses and heavy equipment. All was going well for Tyler, but as a young man with visions of battle glory, he wanted to see some action. He heard that the Navy was forming a new battalion called the 143rd Sea Bee Battalion. Tyler signed up and was accepted.

Within days, his new orders came and Tyler was off to Camp Peary, back in Williamsburg, Va. He trained more extensively on heavy equipment and was sent to Camp Endicott in Rhode Island to learn about the equipment being used specifically in the Pacific. From there it was back to Gulfport, and it was the new unit the 133rd Construction Battalion that he became a part of.

Tyler’s new battalion was sent to Port Hueneme in California. A train transported all of the men and equipment to Pedro, Calif., so that they could prepare themselves for overseas duty. The 133rd boarded a troop transport, ready and able to perform any construction work that may be assigned to them. The men watched the coast of California disappear and stared at miles of blue ocean until the Hawaiian Islands came into view. Their ship sailed into Pearl Harbor and the men saw real signs that their country was at war.

Not long after they landed at Pearl Harbor, they disembarked for Maui, another Hawaiian island that few had heard of. The island was beautiful. For a few minutes, the sailors forgot why they were there. But the captain’s voice over the intercom reminded them and soon they were unloading the ship to prepare for the coming weeks of training in 100 degree heat.

In that weather, even the equipment ran differently. The men of the 133rd had to adjust themselves to the heat and learn how to operate their machinery in the new climate. The men trained around the clock, often being put on night patrol. It was a time of uncertainty. Tyler and his fellow sailors didn’t know where they would have to go next, or what awaited them there.

Overseas duty

“The Stars and Stripes,” a military newspaper, kept mentioning a place with a funny-sounding name: Iwo Jima. But while the sailors laughed at the name, they also thought it sounded scary and far-away. When they heard rumors that they may be sent there, they told themselves that it must be a quiet old Japanese Island and there was probably a simple reason why they had to go there. The rumors were confirmed, but the men still nervously laughed it off – until the first official meeting about their newest mission. The commanding officer told them that Iwo Jima may be the single-most important island to win when it came to who would ultimately be the victor in WWII, the Axis or Allied powers. Iwo Jima wasn’t some silly little island. It wasn’t a place to laugh off.

If the Marines could take Iwo Jima, then the U.S. could send their heavy bombers to hit Japan’s mainland. If the Allies could build an airstrip there, then damaged planes could use that island to land instead of plummeting into the ocean. The gravity of the situation really set in when the commanding officer told them that an estimated 2,000 young Marines would lose their lives in the battle for landing rights on Iwo Jima.

At 0400 the next morning, the Navy transport was loaded with all of the equipment and supplies it could carry, while still leaving a little room for the men. There was to be no mention of their destination. It was clear to all of those sailors that the fight would continue until the U.S. flag was flying on that contentious island and the Allies had claimed victory. Tyler and his fellow Navy men set their jaws in grim determination, steeling themselves for what they would meet at Iwo Jima.

Included with the first wave of those troops landing was the 133rd Sea Bee Battalion. The Japanese let most of the landing force onto the beaches before they opened fire, hoping to take out as many Allied troops as possible. As the Marines cleared the island, the 133rd was busy clearing the airstrip. Parts of that battalion were busy making the crusher plant, which crushed stone to make concrete. A black top plant was also hurriedly built. Running water was established, sewers were put in, and makeshift hospitals were constructed in just days. It wasn’t long until these Herculean efforts paid off: An Allied war plane landed for the first time ever on Japanese soil. Tyler won’t ever forget the drama of that moment. It was a damaged B-29, one that had been hit by enemy fire, that struggled onto the new airstrip that day. Had Iwo Jima not been taken, that plane and her flight crew would have crashed into the Pacific, joining so many others in that watery graveyard.

The U.S. troops won the island on Feb. 23, 1945.

With Iwo Jima secured, part of the 133rd was sent on to Guam. Tyler was a part of that group. He had become qualified to operate all Navy equipment and it made him an invaluable asset to his battalion. On Guam, Tyler was given a somewhat coveted position: he was assigned to mail pick-up and delivery. This was a far cry from the hardship he experienced on Iwo Jima, which included sniper fire, bombed-out caves, torrential rain that led to rot and malaria and the sight of death and disease all around.

The danger the 133rd and other troops faced on Iwo Jima was very real. Sixty men from Tyler’s battalion never made it off the island. Sixty Sea Bees lie buried there, dead because of the harsh rules of a world at war. Of the sixty, four were close friends of Tyler’s. Tyler, along with his fellow battalion members, mourned the dead men until and after his discharge in 1946.

Coming home

Tyler didn’t waste time when he returned to Dunkirk after the war. He married his wife, Eleanor “Tilly,” at the Lutheran Church of Dunkirk on Sixth Street. The newlyweds moved first to Fifth Street, then to Hamlet Street in Fredonia. But the couple missed the more rural life, so they moved again to Mixer Road in Forestville, where they raised horses and had a grape vineyard. The couple eventually had two children, Tim and Beverly.

With his extensive military and heavy equipment training, Tyler was quickly hired by Dunkirk Ready Mix, located where the Chadwick Bay Marina is today. There, he drove a bulldozer and a dump truck, delivered concrete and did whatever else the company needed related to heavy equipment maintenance and operation.

But Tyler was an intelligent man in addition to a hard worker. He started his own construction business and named it the “C.J. Tyler Construction Co.” His business included the operation of dump trucks, bulldozers, trenchers, cranes and trailers – the machines that he had become so familiar with in the Navy and on Iwo Jima. Tyler’s company specialized in local excavating, working for plumbers when they needed trenching for new water lines, hauling stone and topsoil and more. Tyler’s hard work and business sense earned him a much-deserved retirement in 1987, but this Navy veteran couldn’t sit idle. He kept busy by working on old cars as a hobby and doing carpentry work to pass the time. He also has four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren to keep tabs on!

Clark Tyler’s story is another one I can relate to. I wasn’t in WWII, but I understand the service and the sacrifice of the Sea Bees. When I was in Vietnam, I saw evidence of the Sea Bees’ hard work all around me; they are responsible for building every outpost that service members come across. One of my first assignments in Vietnam was to wait for helicopters to fly in Sea Bees so that they could build bunkers as part of Operation Niagara, which caught Viet Cong and NVA infiltrating from the north. When the Sea Bees landed, they went to work building the bunkers as calmly as if they were constructing a house in Fredonia, but with a quickness and efficiency I hadn’t seen before. When I got back from patrol, I was amazed to see how much work they had done in just a short amount of time. When it comes to the Navy, I take my hat off to the Sea Bees; the Corpsmen, who are trained to give first aid and medical treatment, especially in battle situations; and the Chaplains, or as we called them, the “sky pilots,” clergy persons who served the religious needs of the troops.

Many heroes were made at Iwo Jima. The most famous photograph from WWII was taken at Iwo Jima by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. Referred to as “Flag Raising at Iwo Jima,” it shows six Marines planting the American Flag on Mount Suribachi a short time after the island was secured. The image has since been turned into a statue for the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial and has been reproduced as a victory stamp, in addition to showing up in many other forms. There were rumors that the photograph was staged, but it was absolutely authentic. The Marines planting the flag did so under the threat of Japanese snipers, who were still all over the island. It was the son of one of those Marines who wrote “Flags of Our Fathers,” about the Marines involved, their service up to that day, the famous photo and their lives after the war.

Tyler still thinks about the men from his battalion whose remains still lie there on that far-off island that was the crux of Allied victory in WWII. Some may wonder why the remains of those men have never been brought home. The answer is complicated and involves many factors. First, with the fires of battle stoked and raging on Iwo Jima, the military couldn’t always immediately notify families that their loved ones had been killed. So, the bodies may have been buried for months before the families found out. Also, transportation of remains wasn’t a priority during the war; the war was. Ships had to prioritize transport of things like ammunition, fuel, supplies, food, water and medical equipment. When the war ended, the government offered to bring back what remains they could, but many families decided to let their fallen heroes rest in peace, alongside the very men they fought and died with. As the families saw it, those men – soldiers, Marines, sailors, seamen, Airmen and officers – rested in the very best of company.

Heroes like Clark Jess Tyler are the only ones who can truly tell us what Iwo Jima was like during those hectic days of battle. The movies only tell you the Hollywood perspective. Ask a man like Tyler and you’ll get the real story – the story of how he and the other Sea Bees constructed an airstrip, plants, hospitals and water lines on an inhospitable island made of hard rock and deep ruts; how they made it possible for damaged B-29s to land safely instead of crashing and dying in Pacific water; how they, the Marines, and other Allied troops gave our bombers access to Japan’s mainland and how that access ultimately helped defeat the Axis powers and win World War II.