Oscar has hundreds of stories about his war experiences, and he loves to tell them. Just about any word or phrase he hears triggers memories. Simply asking him to pass the butter may elicit a response like, "Speaking of butter, there was a man in my outfit who..." My sister and their two children can recite his stories along with him--word for word. I, on the other hand, almost never think about my World War II experiences in the Pacific.
On the TV program 20/20, Barbara Walters interviewed some of the former showgirls gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Latin Quarter, the famous Broadway nightclub owned by her father. The program featured the most glamorous entertainers of that era, including a set of twins. Barbara asked the twins, "When you look back on those days, what do you think?" In unison they said: "We don't look back on those days. They're over!" Those are my sentiments exactly.
I was in college about to be drafted when the war started. Since the army paid privates only $27 a month, I applied for midshipman training and was accepted. In spite of the fact that I did not know a conootin' valve from a galloping pin, I was dispatched to Columbia University for training to become an engineer officer. My assignment: the USS San Francisco, a heavy cruiser in the Pacific.
For the first few weeks at sea, my thoughts were of the world I had just left. Did Ann and Clarence get married? Did Kate get that job in Memphis? And, of course, there were some young women... Gradually my life began to relate more closely to what was going on shipboard. But, like the 20/20 twins, I don't dwell in the past.
A long distance call from a former shipmate confirmed how differently we veterans regard our military experiences. The caller, who had seen an article I wrote for the St. Petersburg Times, said, "I've been trying to find you for ages!" "Who is this?" "This is Ray!" He told me his last name. Silence. "Don't you remember me?" "I'm sorry, Ray, I don't." "I was in your division on the San Francisco." "Ray, maybe it would help if you would tell me a little about yourself." Ray did, but I still could not place him. I am not a deceptive person but I did not want to embarrass him, so I said, "Oh! You're that Ray," which was all he needed to embark upon a twenty-minute monolog. Ray told me that not a week goes by that he does not communicate with former shipmates. He went on to say that he had gone to Nebraska recently to see a man he did not know, the brother of one of our fallen comrades. What's wrong with me? I believe I was as close to my shipmates as any man on my ship. I served aboard that ship three years, a long time in the life of young man just out of college. She had become my life, my world. Her record was spectacular. Except the carrier Enterprise, no ship in the Pacific saw more action than the San Francisco. We took great pride in her. Some, like Ray, now consider her almost holy, a feeling shared among the survivors of other ships. Emotions run high. Ray and many other veterans enjoy reliving the past. They attend reunions, publish newsletters, and collect voluminous material--historical articles, photos, newspaper clippings, and all kinds of lore.
Recently I read an Associated Press newspaper article by Duncan Mansfield that reminded me of those days. It started:
Fifty years after trying to kill each other in a war, a kamikaze pilot and the American sailors who shot him down embraced, exchanged mementos and forgave each other. "The enemy yesterday can be your friend today," 71-year-old Kaoru Hasegawa told the surviving crew of the USS Callaghan." Hasegawa spent a year researching war records to find the men who shot him down and plucked him from the water. Two months after Hasegawa was shot down, another kamikaze made it past the gunners and sank the 2000-ton ship, killing forty-seven of her crew. It was the last of 32 ships sunk in the last battle of World War II: the 11-week invasion of Okinawa.
Mr. Hasegawa's plane, which was carrying a 1,760-pound bomb, was shot down on May 25, 1945, seconds before he was about to hit his target. To jeopardize the lives of the whole crew under battle conditions to save one man, even one of ours, is not consistent with navy regulations. But the Callaghan's captain chose to rescue the unconscious pilot. One day, much earlier in the war, while catapulting one of the San Francisco's planes, a line became entangled with the leg of a tall redheaded sailor and dragged him overboard. I can still see his long arms making overhand strokes as the disappeared in our wake. Top speed is required to launch the aircraft, and momentum carries a big ship a long way before it can be stopped. Yet our captain ordered the ship turned around and the sailor rescued. For that he was called before a board of admirals and sternly reprimanded. He was asked, "What would you do if it happened again?" "With all due respect, sir, I would do the same thing." After the war, our captain told me that the young man's parents visited him in New York to thank him. "For me," he said, "that was the most rewarding experience of the war."
Sometimes I wonder what that young man is doing now. Mr. Hasegawa heads Rengo Company, Ltd., a worldwide paper conglomerate with 3,600 employees. The survivors of the Callaghan invited him to attend their 1999 reunion at Pigeon Fork, Tennessee, and become an honorary member of the crew. They made him feel so welcome that he plans to return to the meetings here every year.
In the epitome of understatement, one of his rescuers said, "I think now that he survived, he is glad his suicide mission was not successful." I know I am: his target was the USS San Francisco. The USS Callaghan was named for Admiral Daniel Callaghan, who had been killed, along with all of his staff, on the San Francisco, during the night Battle of Guadalcanal in late November 1942. She was hit by one of the war's first kamikaze attacks, which killed 167 and wounded more than 200. During that night action, a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-26, meant for the San Francisco, missed, and hit the light cruiser Juneau. Badly damaged, the Juneau tried to escape from the battle zone, but was hit by a second torpedo. That one hit the powder magazine, causing the ship to explode in a great ball of fire. The Juneau sank, taking the lives of her Captain and 687 crewmembers. Only 10 survived. The five Sullivan brothers, George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert, who had enlisted together, were on that ship.
Writing this caused a flood of memories to come rushing back to me. Would you like to hear about some of them? If not, you had better stay away from me. I may write about them. If so, I'll tell you more about how I won the war than you want to know.
Writing this caused a flood of memories to come rushing back to me. Would you like to hear about some of my experiences? No? Then you had better stay away from me. I'll be telling war stories, too.
Uh oh, here's one now (blessedly, a short one):
D-Day at Okinawa was April 1, 1945.
It was Easter Sunday, April Fools' Day, and our captain's birthday. During a lull in the action, I was surprised to see our big guns trained on one of our own ships, a hospital ship! Then I remembered that those guns were equipped with telescopes. The men, who had not seen a woman for a year and a half, were looking at the nurses!
Speaking of nurses...
Hey, what's wrong with me?