Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thanksgiving: The Eyes of a Survivor

"When a great ship cuts through the sea, the waters are always stirred and troubled. And our ship is moving--moving through troubled waters, toward new and better shores."
-Lyndon B. Johnson

While not about Thanksgiving Day, this story embodies the spirit of thanksgiving and is befitting the decorum of this site. It's the story of a survivor thankful to be alive so that he can give to others. I'm thankful that he chose to share his story with me.

In 1993, I was working as a security guard at the Shriner's Burn Institute in Boston. I don't think I need to elaborate about the wonderful work the Shriners do providing medical care for children, especially those who have been severely burned. Their work is well documented, as well as are the miracles performed at their burn hospitals across the country.

Thanksgiving Day of 1993 was the only Thanksgiving on which I ever had to report to work. My holiday wasn't ruined however, as I was able to partake of a turkey dinner with the fixings from the cafeteria, and was able to join my family later for desserts at home.

After making my rounds, I sat down to eat my Thanksgiving meal during the last half hour before the cafeteria would close. I was joined by one of the Shriners who had just arrived at the hospital.
(It should be noted that the Shriners volunteer their time at the hospitals to make themselves available to help the staff. They might be asked to drive parents of the patients to and from housing provided by the hospital, for example.)
We wished each other a happy Thanksgiving and chatted a bit. He noticed the U.S. flag and Navy anchor badges on my jacket, which were still there after I had donned them for Veterans Day.

"So, you were in the Navy too. When and where did you serve?" he asked.

After I answered I said to him in return, "And you must have served during WWII. On a ship or land-based?"

He grew quiet and didn't answer for a few minutes. I thought I must have struck a nerve and that he didn't like to talk about his war experiences. (My dad was like that.)

He said that it was difficult for him to talk about. He said he sometimes had nightmares from his experience, even though (at the time) it had been 48 years before. Then he smiled and said that ever since he'd been dedicating Thanksgiving Day to help others.

He had served on a cruiser, CA-35, (pictured) for most of the war in the Pacific. Then in July of 1945, they were given a top-secret mission, a mission so clandestine that only a handful of high-ranking officials in Washington and high-ranking officers in the Pacific theater were privileged to know about it.

I gasped in fascination. I didn't recognize the hull number of his ship, but before he mentioned her by name I knew he was talking about the U.S.S. Indianapolis!

Even though he was an Ensign assigned to the communications shack he was not included among those who knew what secret cargo she was transporting to the air base at Tinian. From the moment she'd set sail she'd been on complete radio silence, with orders not to break that silence under any circumstances.

On July 26, 1945, the U.S.S. Indianapolis had delivered to Tinian the component parts including the uranium projectile which would be used to assemble Little Boy, the first of the only two atomic bombs to ever be used in anger on mankind.

I saw tears in the eyes of a survivor. He was unable to talk in detail of what happened four days later on July 30, 1945. At 0014 hours, two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine slammed into her. It took only 12 minutes for her to sink, taking 300 of her crew of 1,196 to the bottom of the sea.

Even though he would say nothing of the crew's ordeal over the next four days, I understood. It has been well documented in books and on film of how 896 sailors faced exposure, dehydration and shark attacks. Of those 896, only 317 of the sailors survived to be rescued from the sea. He was one of them.

It would be eleven days after they'd off-loaded the cargo at Tinian before he or any of the surviving crew would learn of the details of their mission. On August 6, 1945, a B-29 Super Fortress, the Enola Gay, let loose the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima, Japan.

So top secret was the mission of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, that she wasn't even reported overdue or missing. It was only by accident, four days after she'd been sunk that a PBY Catalina on patrol spotted the small clusters of men adrift in the sea.

Yes, I could understand why he didn't want to talk about those four days he and his fellow survivors endured. I don't believe I would be able to do so either.

He wiped a tear from his eye with his napkin and ended his story with these touching words:
"I'm thankful to have survived and ever since I've dedicated my life to giving of myself to others more needy than I."
I promised, at his request, that if ever I repeated his story, I would not reveal his name. He wished this to honor those who didn't make it.

This I learned from the eyes of a survivor: That Thanksgiving is made up of two words. May we all give thanks even while giving.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


From one veteran to all other veterans,
I salute you with a bit of humor.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Refueling At Sea

Unless one has actually witnessed the process, it isn't easy to describe the operation of refueling at sea. It is a carefully choreographed exercise between the crews of two ships. Obviously, maintaining matching course headings and speed are of the utmost importance.

The three photos below were taken by myself during one such operation. The first picture at the left shows my ship approaching a refueling tanker. In the middle, the fueling nozzle (referred to as the "donkey dick" by sailors) can be seen at about the halfway point between the two ships. In the third image the the nozzle has been secured to the refueling station and pumping by the oiler is underway.

To begin the process, lines are passed between the deck hands of the two ships. Usually a smaller line was fired by gun by a Gunners Mate onto the deck of the other. This line was attached to exceedingly larger lines until a large rope (hawser)attached to the refueling hose itself would be pulled to the receiving ship.

(Not pictured) a long line of upwards to fifty or more crewman would be on deck on the opposite side of the ship manning the rope, literally pulling it across the expanse of churning water between the two vessels. Depending on the conditions of the sea the exercise could be a daunting and backbreaking tug of war for the men on the ropes. Meanwhile, a petty officer, usually a chief, would be somewhere above shouting to the men to keep them pulling.

I don't know if the operation of refueling at sea has been changed or has been improved in the modern Navy, but this was the way it was done in my day.

On January 22, 1971, I wrote the following description of refueling at sea in the form of a poem. It was inspired by such an event in the midst of a sudden storm. While the rhyming lines may be light in nature, the actual event was anything but.

Coming of the Tempest's Rage
Heave ho! Heave ho!
Put your backs into it!
You can rest when we sit!
Heave ho! Heave ho!
The ship had set sail near to a week ere,
And it seemed she was a burning air;
The crew all knew we needed the oil,
Lest we sit dead, we needed to toil.

The sea, she was in a bad mood,
And she took our efforts as rude;
For she slapped hard at our craft
Showing no mercy forward or aft.

But our diligence kept us in pace,
For not fuel-less would the sea we face.
Inch by long inch the hawser creeped,
Inch by inch the perspiration seeped.
Heave ho! Heave ho!
Put your backs into it!
You can rest when we sit!
Heave ho! heave ho!
I, at line's end kept the rope from fouling,
While those ahead continued their pulling.
My muscles weren't as strained as much,
But I too was weary from the rope's touch.

Intermittently, the fingers of Lady Ocean
Grasped at the men with angered emotion;
And they cursed under their breath
As they were drenched salty and wet.

I, however, received only a salty spray
That the maritime breeze blew my way.
Above all the groans roared that voice,
One that irritates, the kind that annoys:
Heave ho! Heave ho!
Put your backs into it!
You can rest when we sit!
Heave ho! Heave ho!
Why don't you put your balmy hand
By ours and pull from where we stand?
For if you don't appreciate our health,
Damn you, come and do it, mate, yourself!

Alas, the overseer stood fast upon his perch,
Cried again, "Heave ho, or on you I'll lurch!"
And the angriest tempers in the men arose,
Their strength increased despite their woes.

Ever so slowly the rope-drawn fuel line
Crept across the churning ocean brine;
The white-capped arms kept lashing out
But the ocean's roar couldn't still his shout:
Heave ho! Heave ho!
Put your backs into it!
You can rest when we sit!
Heave ho! Heave ho!
I could almost feel the mens' strength
Though the line was stretched at length;
Somehow, I felt the surging of their power
Flowing like water into a blooming flower.

But it all seemed of so little use to me,
It all appeared nothing but abuse to me.
What need would I have of all that brawn
When the others kept the line tight-drawn?

I peered for a moment at the tug of war,
Wondering what on earth I was there for!
For even the weakest of those men up there
Would compare to me in a manner unfair.
Heave ho! Heave ho!
Put your backs into it!
You can rest when we sit!
Heave ho! Heave ho!
It was then that all hell broke loose,
And it threatened an end to our cruise!
Lady Ocean, she seemed to leap skyward,
And the men, their screams were heard!

Below, Neptune must've been wearing a grin
As a great wall of sea swept down upon the men.
I don't really remember all that occurred
Or even what sounds I thought I had heard.

I felt myself being swept off of my feet
And dragged aft with the water's retreat,
Only to finally stop at the unmanned line
In a torrent of the draining salted brine.
Heave ho! Heave ho!
Put your backs into it!
You can rest when we sit!
Heave ho! Heave ho!
I know I heard him as I lie there prone,
But I somehow felt that I heard it alone;
At first there was a terror unrestrained
That it was only I who still remained.

But unto my ears were moans from beyond;
The rope tightened as one we did respond.
The men, although stunned were much alive,
Somehow all of us had managed to survive.

Some of us hurt, glad to be among the living,
Cursed at the ocean for being so unforgiving.
Life was something for us to keep and love
And was heard by us a voice from up above:
Heave ho! Heave ho!
Put your backs into it!
You can rest when we sit!
Heave ho! Heave ho!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Letter

It must have been the summer of 1969 when I found myself standing alone upon the fantail of the Destroyer that had been my home for the past eleven months. The U.S.S. Warrington (DD-843), a re-fitted WWII Gearing-Class "Tin Can" was one of the steamingest ships in the Atlantic Fleet at the time.

We were somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean, a single vessel visible upon the vast sea. Our churning wake disappearing behind us was the only indicator as to from where we'd come. The bow slicing through the waters offered no evidence as to our destination, but the pair of dolphins riding the waves it thrust aside did not seem to mind.

Call it the horizon if you will, but there is something forbidding about a straight line stretching 360 degrees around you comprised of only sky and water. There is a sense that you are surely looking at the distant rim of the world's edge. Was it any wonder that ancient sailors thought they would surely sail over the precipice to their deaths and into oblivion ?

My silent vigil was not borne of the fear of the unknown or what lie beyond the horizon. I was not concerned with the unknown beyond that point where the stars in the heavens met and merged with their reflections upon the smooth surface of the sea. I was more attuned to the world that I knew was in existence beyond that barrier.

Somewhere, a half a world away in a hostile eastern land there was a horizon much different than that which I contemplated. How might he have looked upon his horizon? Had he lie awake in silent reverie trying to see beyond his? Had the same stars decorated the firmament before his eyes?

The spray of the salty mist in my face could not divert my gaze from the featureless line that separated sea and sky. I turned to face what I thought must have been the west to gaze in the direction of that land we had called home. Choking back tears of private remorse wrought by the crumpled envelope in my hand - I saluted him.

Franklin D. Ashley, Jr., was both my first cousin and best friend. We were the same age and had grown up to young manhood together. He lived on a sprawling farm, while I lived in a small town ten miles away. Thanks to visits every weekend and stays at my grandparents' home on their neighboring farm during the summer, we were seldom apart during our informative years and early teens.
FD, as he was called , and myself played and frolicked on the farm, up in the surrounding hills and woods and down by the ponds and streams in a seemingly endless slate of adventures and misadventures for several years. The memory of some of those adventures had been lost with the passage of time, but others had become a legacy to the innocence of our youth.

As long as I live, I shall never forget those days when a girl our age would show up at one the ponds while we would be skinny-dipping. She lived on her parents homestead about two miles down the hillside below. She would jump in the water even as we scurried to get into our underwear. (In time, we would see her climbing the hill and would purposely wait until she was pond side before we would dash for our underwear.)

Judy, I'll call her, was heavily blessed with bosom even at the age of twelve. Although she would keep her blouse on when she joined us in the water, FD and I had a game trying to see who would be the first to tug at her blouse until her bare breasts were exposed. She knew the game, and played along. Once one of us had succeeded with our goal, she would leave them exposed and made no attempt to hide them until she was ready to go home.

Judy had a game of her own as we learned one day. Although FD and I tried to stay submerged below the waist, she was well aware of the projections behind the fronts of our shorts. Offering her breasts as bait before our eyes, she would grab at us below the water. More times than not she would manage to dash from the pond with our respective pairs of underwear in her hands. I cannot honestly say that we'd put up much in the way of resistance.

In time, in order to keep our clothes clean and to spare the wrath of our parents, the three of us began to strip before hitting the water. Whether we were splashing in the water or simply lying next to each other on the bank, our mutual nudity was shameless. The erections that FD and I often sported fascinated her and she would at times "inspect" them. I being circumcised and FD not, she was intrigued by our differences.

Of course, her differences were no less intriguing to us. Her large breasts not withstanding, the eventual advent of pubic hair soon drew our attention more and more "south of the border." By the time we were each 16 years old, we had all begun to sense those feelings and stirrings deep within us.

The water games never went beyond those playful acts of exposure. In time, the visits to the ponds came to an end. The three of us remained friends for years to come, well after the innocent days of skinny-dipping had passed.
Perhaps my fondest memory of FD, ironically as it seemed when I was standing beneath the stars, was when we played soldier and war games. Now our war games weren't like the typical war games the other kids played. Quite the contrary, our games included an actual live enemy with which we would engage in acts of combat.
Benny wasn't the best of adversaries, but he quite literally gave us a run for our money. Although trench warfare wasn't his favorite game he never backed away from the battles. He might have been faster and stronger than the two of us, but we always proved to be smarter.

We learned one day however, that Benny was not stupid! That was the day that our war games came to an end forever.

Our weapons of choice were hand-made slingshots. Our ammo usually consisted of un-husked horse chestnuts. After gathering our ammo we would sneak upon the unsuspecting Benny and let loose with a salvo of well-aimed chestnuts. Once under siege he would then turn and charge headlong after us.

We would run as fast as our feet could carry us with Benny nearly catching us. Then we would jump into a three-foot deep trench and watch as Benny would go sailing over the trench. About two feet lower in elevation and beyond our trench was a large perpetually wet mud hole. It was in that mud hole that the unfortunate Benny would splash into, usually up to his knees. It would take Benny a few minutes to get out of the mud, and by that time we would be long gone.

Then there was the day that Benny showed us just how smart he could be. It is here that I would be remiss not to note that Benny was FD's father's billy goat!

The chase was on with Benny hot on our heels. Benny did not take kindly to being shot with chestnuts. As we had done countless times before, FD and I dove into our trench and waited for Benny to pass over us into the mud hole. However, this day we did not see Benny leaping above us over the trench !

We waited in surprise. What happened to Benny? Surely he didn't give up! After several minutes, FD's curiosity got the better of him and he raised his head above the rim of the trench to see what had happened to our adversary.

Benny had proven to be much smarter than we'd ever given him credit. He had stopped short of the trench and was standing there waiting. At the very moment that FD's eyes cleared the edge of the trench, old Benny lunged forward and smacked my cousin with a powerful headbutt square in the forehead. Benny then waited by the trench for nearly an hour before he finally gave up and walked away out into the pasture.

FD would experience a massive headache and had to face a barrage of questions from his parents when they later inquired about the swollen lumps on his forehead.
Years later, in the height of the war in Vietnam we would both answer the call of Uncle Sam. I would enlist in the Navy and he would be drafted into the Army. There was a rumor going around that our old friend Judy was pregnant and that FD was the father of her baby. I never found out if it was or wasn't true.

One fateful day, somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, I would open a letter informing me that FD had been killed in Vietnam. It was his last day over there and he'd only minutes earlier boarded a helicopter to be flown to an airbase to catch a flight back to the States. With all he'd seen and all he'd survived over there, it took but small arms fire from a band of guerrillas on the ground to end his life as well as the crew of the chopper.

I never got to talk to him about his horizons.

I dropped my salute. Gazing upon the western horizon, I placed a few coins into the envelope for weight and then I let the letter slip from my hands. I knew I would not be able to attend his funeral and I watched in silence as the envelope disappeared beneath the churning wake of the ship's propellers.

Symbolically I had buried FD that day beneath the waves and before the eyes of God.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Traffic Citation

Thanks, Frank G.

Frank was the commander of a helicopter unit that supported the combat troops in Viet Nam. Among the helicopters in the unit were the Chinooks. They are the large banana shaped birds with rotors on both ends of the aircraft. They are used to transport troops, equipment and ammunition.

Now for the story:

Frank was in his office one day when a couple of MP's (Military Police) came in. They wanted to know who the pilot was of a Chinook flying over a specific site at a specific time. That probably wouldn't be too difficult to discern, if one had the time. Prior to expending the time and energy, Frank wanted to know what the story was.

The MP's said that a Chinook had blown over one of their 3/4 ton trucks with its rotor blast at that site and time. Because there was a "traffic" accident they had to issue a citation to the pilot for his part in it. Say what? Frank told them it would be nearly impossible to find the pilot. Since he was the commander, they should just issue the citation in his name and he would take care of it. The MP's did and left. The MP's hadn't cleared the are and Frank was in the air. He flew to the location of the Provost Marshal (PM) who had the responsibility for the area and the MP's.

He and the PM had a good working relationship. He asked Frank, "What was up?" Frank told him and asked him if he could fix it. The PM said no problem. It was news to him that a Chinook had such power. They both laughed heartily and agreed that there was no way such a thing could happen.

A few days later, Frank got a call from the PM. Apparently, the MP's had a vehicle accident through their own misdeeds and were trying to get out of trouble. The PM took appropriate action and Frank's dubious citation disappeared.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Trusting Soul

Thanks, Chaplain Sam.

Chaplain Sam's first duty assignment was the Chaplain at the stockade at Fort Leonard Wood. As a young Lieutenant he was filled with trust of his fellow man. After having served for about three months, he had been able to talk to each of the inmates. He decided it was time to have a discussion with the Commander of the stockade.

The Commander invited him in and asked what he wanted to discuss. Sam was greatly concerned about all of the inmates. To a man they had convinced Sam that they were innocent. To a man they convinced Sam that their Commander or First Sergeant were really the guilty party. The Stockade Commander did not roll his eyes or burst out laughing. The Commander suggested that Sam contact some of the "guilty" parties. Sam did just that. The gist of each conversation went something like this, "Did he tell you he had done this?
Did he tell you he had done that? Did he tell you he had done the other thing?"

It didn't take long for the word to go out, tell the Chaplain the truth. He is going to check out your story.

Sam is glad that he had the Commander he had. It was one of his first valuable lessons as a brand new Army Chaplain.

He went on to become a first-rate Chaplain. Even in his retirement, he still serves soldiers.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A D-Day Story

Bill T. is a member of the Old Bastards. He is one of the few who is a veteran of WWII. He tells this story with great humor. It is one he would tell when old Army buddies would get together at his home. He would wait until his late wife was in earshot.

There is some truth and maybe a little bit of a stretch.

He tells that he was dropped into France 10 days prior to D-Day. As a member of an advanced party he had a great number of duties. The one he tells that used to rile his wife was this one. One of his primary duties was to help the French women learn how to greet and treat the US soldiers. He did indicate that he showed them how.

Whenever his wife heard him tell it, she would throw something at him. I don't think he has any scars from it. It is funnier when he tells it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Christmas 1971, Saigon, RVN.

I was working as a Narcotic Staff Officer in the Provost Marshal’s office at MACV Headquarters in Saigon. There were about ten of us assigned to the office and that included Vietnamese clerical folks. In an effort to maintain some semblance of normalcy we agreed to enter into a Secret Santa gift swap.

It was a nice way to celebrate the season with our friends and compatriots. For the life of me, I cannot remember whose name I got or what I purchased for that person. I do know what someone got for me.

It is a simple hand carved wooden statuette made in Thailand. It represents Madonna and Child. I have no idea who thought that I would like such a gift. For that very reason, I treasure it. If memory serves me right, we had a very low dollar limit on such gifts, so it was the thought that counted. That, along with the simple beauty of the statuette and the season give added meaning for me. It has a place of honor in our bedroom.