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MEMORIAL DAY | Surviving hostile waters: Local man looks back on long, fortuitous career in the Navy
As a young Navy machinist caught in the coils of World War II, Tony Mola looked his terrifying enemy in the eye more times than he cares to remember.
At every turn, danger, dismemberment and death seemed to await Mola and his shipmates.
But that day in 1945 aboard the USS William Seiverling, a destroyer escort positioned off the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1945, that day is in a class of remembered terrors all of its own.
Heading to the bow of the ship to effect some repairs that morning, Mola was startled to hear a buzzing in the skies right overhead. He looked up.
"A kamikaze was coming at me. I could see the pilot. He was that close. Someone then yelled, 'Look out, Tony, look out.' ... But fortunately, he didn't hit us. He swerved and hit one of the destroyers ... we were lucky," Mola said.
"I'm no hero," Mola said after a pause. "I'm lucky. I'm alive today."
Assigned to support vessels on many missions over many seas throughout his 40-year Navy career, Mola has a trove of wartime experiences to remember.
He is grateful to be where he is today – retired but still active at his shop, Utilities Service Co., Inc. He established the family-owned-and-operated business more than 45 years ago off East Marginal Way South in Seattle.
Belying his 89 years, the affable Kent man is fit and sharp. He stays busy answering phones and managing operations, just as he did in the service as a chief machinery repairman skilled in mechanical and electrical engineering. As if it were a sea-going machine and electrical shop, Mola's company handles all types of repairs and installations for pumps, compressors, motors and drivers.
Like a machine that keeps on running — in good shape, thanks to a few repairs, Mola has survived his share of heart and other operations.
"I've had a good life," he said. "It was interesting. I enjoyed the duty, the camaraderie."
Mola, an Easton native, was raised in Ravensdale and wherever the railroad took the family. His father worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad for 30 years. His mother worked for Boeing on the first B-17 assembly line during the war, later joining other women on the railroad, replacing the war-bound men.
After graduating from high school, Mola worked in a machine shop. When the Navy drafted him it tapped into his skills, sending him to the University of Kansas to study engineering.
Off to serve
Sent to the war's Pacific theater, Mola was stationed off the coasts of many countries and islands, including Australia, New Zealand, Guadalcanal, Fiji, the Philippines and Okinawa.
Carrying out their mission to support ground troops or the Navy's larger warships, Mola and the men often were under attack.
Off Guadalcanal, Mola was aboard the cargo vessel USS Zebra when a Japanese torpedo slammed into the ship, but it refused to sink.
Off New Caledonia, Mola was assigned to a ship that installed anti-submarine nets around the harbors to protect ships from Japanese torpedoes. They encountered mines, and even towed one out of harm's way.
Mola and his mates also came under frequent fire at Okinawa while the USS Seiverling performed picket duty around the island to keep the enemy from landing. By laying down a smokescreen so the Japanese couldn't spot American ships, the Seiverling also protected U.S. troops.
Nighttime bombing raids were common.
"They were like bees," said Mola, "there were swarms of them. If you were scared, you really didn't know because you had a job to do."
One night a Japanese bomber swooped and dropped a flare on Mola's ship, its target. The enemy made another pass to drop a bomb but it missed the ship. Once the first flare went out, the bomber made another pass to drop a second flare.
"He was going to get us that time, but something happened," Mola recalled. "The flare hooked onto its tail. Isn't that something? We were lucky."
Illuminated by its own flare, the bomber was an easy target for the ship's gunners, who shot it down.
With the island secured, the USS Seiverling did patrol duty before joining the large Naval fleet as it entered Tokyo Bay to meet the surrendered Japanese. Mola and the ship were in the harbor alongside the USS Missouri on which the peace treaty was officially signed on Sept. 2, 1945.
After the war Mola decided to stay on. He served but was never called to arms during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He served until he was 60.
He went on to marry, helped raise two children and opened a business. He stays close to his fellow veterans, visits Auburn for Sons of Italy meetings and plans to rejoin his friends this summer in South Carolina when the crew of the USS Seiverling celebrates their 49th reunion. Mola is one the few veterans alive today who served on the ship during WWII.
He treasured his life in the Navy and wouldn't change a thing.
"The Marines got the glory, the Army did the work, and the Navy had the fun," he grinned.
"The minute I joined the Navy, it was frightening. Let's put it that way," he said. "But I enjoyed it. ... All kinds of duty."
And all kinds of experiences worth retelling.