A memoir for Veterans Day

Posted: Wednesday, November 09, 2005

My mother's brother Anton was in the U.S. Navy during WWII and after four years joined the Marines; after four years in the Marines, he died eight years into his army enlistment in May 1960. I never knew him, but I heard a lot about him.

My father, Mark, and his older brother, Harvey, enlisted in the U.S. Navy immediately after Pearl Harbor. Neither one attended basic training and were immediately put in uniform and to work on "picket boats" in Southeast waters. While running picket boats together, they only communicated in the Tlingit language.

After a stint in the Aleutians on a battleship, my father was sent to Tillamook, Ore., for amphibious training. A quartermaster, he was assigned to an amphibious assault ship. His brother was a machinist mate and was assigned to a destroyer.

In the fall of 1944 they were on their separate ways. My father wound up seeing action from Saipan to Okinawa, and was part of the occupation forces in Japan after the war. It was his memories of combat, though, that stuck in my head through the years, even names of shipmates he was still in contact with. The most memorable of his stories were of being at Iwo Jima. He saw the U.S. flag raised on Mt. Suribachi and recorded it in his ship's logbook. He witnessed the raising of the larger flag as well.

He remembered William A. Childers' heading to the landing craft and yelling at my father that he (Childers) forgot his helmet. My dad threw his helmet to Childers and then found his helmet and wore his. He said he never forgot the look as they looked at each other, knowing that he would die on the first wave on the beach; he wore Childer's helmet throughout the rest of the war. All those troops he saw go ashore, knowing most would not be coming back. The blood-shed, and the bodies coming back to the ship. Twenty-four landing craft were sent ashore, two came back. The ship carried 1,500 troops.

He saw the USS Bismarck Sea get hit, and eventually its magazines exploded; 318 crewmen were lost on that ship. It was the daily routine.

He tried to help the wounded as they were brought back to the ship but couldn't bear to be around it. Even after the war when the horn on a buoy would sound he would panic, thinking of groaning, wounded men. For three days after I took him to see Saving Private Ryan, he was still shaken by reliving the combat he had seen.

Okinawa was the worst. He said from April 1-18 was "round-the-clock" anti-aircraft fire. He was in the after steering station under a 5-inch gun mount. On April 7, Tokyo Rose was on the radio telling them the IJN Yamato, on a suicide run to beach itself, was heading towards them to "destroy them off the beaches." Sailors panicked, knowing it was the largest battleship afloat; many wondering why they stayed on the beaches when the ship was closing in. It was sunk less than an hour-and-a- half from gun-range.

He told of a kamikaze attack when his entire crew fled the aft steering room, leaving him alone. The plane veered off suddenly and hit the ship next to them. Later I read about this on the Internet from a crewman on the ship that was hit and showed it to my father. He retold the story, again.

He had to record sea burials in the ship's log. Some of the burials were made right over the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. They had so many casualties they ran out of flags. They had to use the same flag over and over as the bodies sewn up in canvas bags and weighted with a 5-inch round were buried at sea. As they say, "They're still on duty."

The worst time he had though was when his brother's ship was sunk, hit by five kamikazes off Okinawa. He said he pleaded for information and could only go hide by himself and cry for his brother. Later he learned his brother had been taken off at Midway and missed that sailing. He received a letter from is brother saying, "My ship was ___________." The word "sunk" was cut out by sensors.

I found a website of a woman looking for her 18-year-old brother who had been on my dad's ship. I called her twice. Eventually one crewmember remembered him; he heard a call for medic and ran to help and got caught in an ambush when an ammo dump blew up. His sister was so thankful someone remembered him. I remember her words: "He was only 18."

There are so many more stories my father told me, and how I wish I could hear them again. My brother Mark was in the Navy during the Vietnam era; he didn't wear his uniform off base due to hostile anti-war protesters. Now my nephew Mark is in the Navy, carrying on a family tradition.

My father was discharged from the Navy on his 22nd birthday, November 28, 1945. A tried combat veteran. I've seen so many leave us over the past several years, not even knowing of their experiences, only getting to read about it "after they were gone."

On January 13 of this year, my father received another honorable discharge when he left this world and joined others who had gone on before. I wonder if Childers was there to greet him.

I can still see the flag on my father's coffin, a symbol of a free country, a country he fought proudly for and would have died for, and saw others die for. A Navy color guard knelt in front of my mom, his wife of 55 years, and as he handed her the flag he thanked her for my father who served this country "during its darkest hour."

Just last week I read an online obituary of another crewmember who had died last month and at the end of his obituary was a flag, showing his service to our country.

This Veterans Day, stop a veteran when you see one, and say "Thank you!" If it wasn't for them I probably wouldn't be writing this, and you probably wouldn't be allowed to read it.

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