Florence resident, WWII vet has been there, done that
FLORENCE, S.C. — Florence resident Keith Allen served with the precursor to the U.S. Navy SEALS in WWII, worked for the organization from which developed the CIA, flew The Hump, mastered the art of fighting in an insurgency, helped blow up a radio station, gamed the system to get his twin brother into the U.S. Navy, ate dinner with Gen. and Madam Chiang Kai-shek, played football for Phil H. Bucklew and served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War — most of it before he was 20.
“My journey has been good,” said Allen, a West Virginia native who moved to Florence out of Raleigh, North Carolina. “I learned a lot. I became a man that day at 17.”
Allen, who will turn 92 in December, is one of 26 surviving members out of 2,500 who served in the Sino American Cooperation Organization in World War II. The organization was composed of U.S. Navy seamen, U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers who fought in China against the Japanese.
Their mission wasn’t declassified until about 1970, Allen said.
Allen’s story started in rural north-central West Virginia when, at 17, he took the Navy V12 test for officer training school and passed it. Allen’s twin brother, from whom he had been separated, didn’t take the test.
Together they decided to join the Navy in 1944.
“We went through Richmond because we figured it’d be better to go through Richmond than anywhere else, because we wanted to go through Bainbridge boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland,” Allen said.
“My twin brother had a bad left eye, and we weren’t sure he could pass the test. His last name, since we were separated, was Lowe and my last name was Allen, and we were all lined up alphabetically,” Allen said. “I took my eye exam and went back and talked to him, and he took my place and I took his eye exam for him.”
Recruiters eventually figured out they were twins, and then they were on the radio and in newspapers, Allen said.
Orders were cut for the pair, and their boot camp destination was Great Lakes, but after the pair threatened to join the U.S. Army instead, that was changed to Bainbridge. A similar threat got them seven days of leave before they were sworn in and ordered to report for boot camp.
Before boot camp, it became obvious they would be separated, so when there arose the calls for volunteers for a secret mission, they volunteered along with 50 others. Thirteen of them were selected, including Allen and Lowe.
Their next stop was the Washington Navy Yard.
“It was a living hell. ... We spent a lot of time in the Anacostia River at night pretending we were going to blow something up in the middle of the river,” Allen said.
From there he took a train to the West Coast, a boat to India and a DC 3 over the Himalayas (The Hump) and into China. That flight was at night to avoid being shot down by the Japanese.
His first stationing in China was Kunming, and his first mission was a 10-day trek to blow up a Japanese radio station.
From there he went to Chungking (now Chongqing).
“Two weeks later my twin brother flew over, went on a raid and got dysentery and ended up in a hospital in Kunming, China, when an officer there on business had a friend of his in the hospital,” Allen said.
He said that was how the twins were found out by military leaders.
Because of the Sullivan Act, the two were not supposed to serve in the same unit so they were transferred to serve as aides to Admiral Milton Miles, who was overseeing American participation with the Chinese against the Japanese.
“We were probably the only military organization anywhere to take orders from a foreign government,” Allen said. The contract that formalized the military arrangement probably is still in a safe, somewhere in China.
“Each one of us had a personal bodyguard, a Chinese commando bodyguard. We didn’t know who he was, and I still don’t know who he was,” Allen said, noting the value of the Americans against the Japanese. “Admiral Miles had a $3 million bounty on his head, so I don’t know if being his assistant was the safest place to be in the first place. I’d probably been better off in the jungle somewhere, out in the mountains.”
Allen’s unit was credited with killing 70,000 Japanese during the war, secured 500 miles of Japanese-held Chinese shoreline, operated 40 radio stations, trained approximately 70,000 Chinese commandos and provided crucial weather data that was used by U.S. Navy aviators who flew missions against mainland Japan off aircraft carriers.
Portions of Allen’s unit specialized in rescuing downed allied aviators who crashed in China.
That was accomplished by 2,500 sailors, 300 Marines, several Army officers and roughly 50 OSS (the precursor of the CIA) agents, Allen said.
Allen’s unit did underwater surveying to make sure ships could get into two Chinese deep-water ports that had been liberated.
Because of logistical challenges in getting supplies from the United States into China, Allen said, his unit — in one instance — resorted to building its own mines.
“We had a mine plant in India — made our own mines out of 50-gallon drums, flew them over the mountains to Kunming” where the First American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers) were based, Allen said. “They would take our mines and drop them in the ocean off the coast of China. That would force Japanese ships out to sea, and our subs were waiting for them.”
When the war ended, Allen’s return trip home was delayed by weather, and he ended up playing football for Bucklew as part of an impromptu Army/Navy football league in China. Bucklew, known as the “Father of U.S. Naval Special Warfare,” also was a football coach at Xavier University and offered Allen a football scholarship there.
It was while there that he got to eat dinner with the U.S. Navy leadership and the leader of the Nationalist Chinese Army — as a third-class U.S. Navy petty officer.
Once he mustered out, Allen played football at West Virginia University, where he’d been offered a scholarship before joining the Navy.
While at WVU, to help a friend out he joined a U.S. Army reserve unit that needed 50 participants to become active. He was the 49th to sign up, and there never was a 50th, Allen said.
With seven credit hours to go before graduation Allen got called up to active duty for the Korean war.
Though he arrived in theater, he never saw combat.
Allen reported to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, and from there was sent to Japan.
“I was sitting on a train with a rifle between my legs on my way to Korea, and before the train pulled out, this guy got on the car and said, ‘Is there a Keith Allen on this car?’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he said, ‘Get off this train as fast as you can.’” Allen said. “I left my rifle there, which probably would have court-martialed me, and went out the window of the train.”
Allen stayed in Japan, where he worked in the physical therapy department of a hospital for 11 months before he was discharged again.
He arrived home too late to finish his degree and take a coaching job that was waiting for him and instead went to work for an electrical utility.
Over the years, he attended class at Davis & Elkins College, moved to Morgantown and, at 45, completed his degree in business administration from WVU.
The remaining members of SACO still gather for reunions, though Allen said he is getting too old to attend any more.
And he remains in contact with those he served with in China, now in Taiwan, though, in emails, he cannot refer to them by anything but alphabetical designations. No names.
It’s still not safe.