Memories

By Alvin Kernan

Another recalled the Depression years, how hard life had been then for young people growing up, and how the Navy had offered what seemed a good life at the time.

Briefly-prior to the Navy-I left home at age 13, learning very quickly the world did not owe me a living. It was tough. The jobs were an olio-shingle mill, dairy farms, plus two years in the Three "C" [Civilian Conservation Corps]. For some reason, unknown the origin, I believed then as I do now-in the worst of times, if I survived some good will always come from it. As another old man once said, "I have had many troubles-most of which never happened."

Still another gave a good description of just how my memories worked on his:

As a former [World War II sailor and] G.I. Bill recipient I want to attempt to tell you what your book Crossing the Line has meant to me. I am reading it for the third time in four months. Every paragraph jumps out to me. I treasure the description, the selections of words, the tone, the calmness. You have put it all in a narrative where I, growing up in outer Cape Cod as a lonely youngster in, at times, isolation, and then signing up in the Navy can relate to everything you describe right down to the dog welcoming you home.

In these and the hundreds of other letters I received I was pleasantly surprised by how well people wrote, as you will see in my excerpts from their letters, and how well they had done in the world. I suppose that the Vietnam veterans have made us think that all servicemen end up homeless, in hospitals, or on drugs, and have never been issued regular uniforms, but if the letters I got are any indication, the 12 million people who served in World War II went home and did pretty well. I heard from insurance men, bankers, professors, publishers, and lawyers, as well as men who had worked at a trade all their lives and raised families whose pictures they were pleased to send me. One of my correspondents, by way of example, was John Kenefick, former head of the Union Pacific Railroad:

After that I was transferred to the USS Devosa [AKA-27], an A(uxiliary) K(argo) A(ttack), the last a little ironic because the only armament we had was a three-inch gun on the fantail, and to attack anything, we would have had to back up. Anyway we hauled cargo and sometimes some Marines around the Pacific, always very careful to stay out of the way of any real action. Our gallant captain, who had been head of the school bus system in Sacramento, looked forward only to resuming those responsibilities as soon as possible when the war was over. If I had been an English major instead of an engineer, I could have written Mister Roberts.

Not everyone found my memory so good as these kind people did. I described the morning that the Doolittle raiders in their B-25 Army bombers took off from the Hornet (CV-8) to bomb Tokyo, and the failure of one of the escorting cruisers, the USS Nashville (CL-43), to sink the Japanese pickets that spotted us about 500 miles off the coast. The Nashville poured about a thousand rounds of six-inch shells into these wooden boats without sinking a one, and I, like everyone else at the time, called the gunnery "disgraceful," and reported, wrongly, that the ship had been sent back to the States "for further training." Inevitably came a letter from one of the officers on the Nashville that morning, now a retired Vice Admiral.

Although I was in the AA battery and not involved in the main battery I take exception to the term "disgraceful" applied to Nashville's gunnery as I do not believe it was, nor did CinCPacFlt, who selected Nashville to be the first cruiser in the North Pacific. The egregious error of Nashville being dispatched back to the States with those ominous orders, "For Further Training," must have been conjured up in your friend Murph's head as he was sipping an extra powerful version of moosemilk.

Murphy was the chief of the ordnance gang in which I worked on the Enterprise (CV-6) and the Hornet, and he passed his days drinking a mixture of coffee and bombsight alcohol, 198 proof, that he called "moosemilk." Admiral William D. Houser added that he had also sent a copy of Crossing the Line to his friend, Rear Admiral Harry Mason, who just happened to have been the fire control officer on the Nashville that day. Admiral Mason replied that the whole thing sounded as if it had been written by Sinbad the Sailor.

Other questions about accuracy were raised by people who were enough concerned to take the time to write long and detailed letters.

I am troubled most [wrote someone whom I guess to have been either a code breaker or an intelligence officer on the staff at Pearl Harbor at the time] by your comments on page 47 about enlisted personnel knowing all about the Japanese coming to attack Midway and details of how the Navy planned to fight the battle. And that enlisted personnel knew all about our having cracked the Japanese J-25 code. Until Halsey brought Enterprise into Pearl harbor [just before the battle of Midway] he knew nothing about the Japanese coming to Midway. No communication of that kind had been sent to Enterprise. Fletcher, on Yorktown (CV-5), likewise knew nothing about it. No such communication had been sent to Yorktown. And as for how the Navy was going to fight, Nimitz asked Spruance where he would place his carriers. He selected NE of Midway, and Nimitz approved.

I wrote a long letter back telling him that my memory was firm on this particular point, because I remembered not only being told all about the code and the plan before the Enterprise came into Pearl Harbor, prior to going out to Midway, but that I also remembered realizing as the battle developed how accurate the scuttlebutt had been, which gave me a double lock on the memory. Then came a letter from an old shipmate on the Enterprise backing up my own experience:

An intelligence officer who wrote you that the scuttlebutt about Midway a month before the battle was untrue simply did not know what he was talking about. Just before leaving Pearl Harbor [to go to Midway], I chanced to meet on Ford Island an old friend from Olympia. His name was Bill Phillips and he was then flying rear-seat in a TBD attached to VT-3 on the Yorktown. The gist of the conversation was the upcoming battle in the Midway, Johnson Island area. So much for the best kept secret of the war. You were 100% correct. Of course, Bill did not make it. I've thought many times since that every rear-seat man, as well as the pilots who flew in the Battle of Midway in TBDs, were sacrificial lambs. It certainly turned out that way.

Some of the mail was more amusing. Early in the war one of the planes in my squadron, Torpedo 6, got lost and the three crewmen spent 30 days in a small rubber raft, having lost their rations and water, before they washed up on an uninhabited island. After they were rescued, the pilot, Harold Dixon, collaborated in a book, The Raft, about the experience. I wrote that "the book made its way out to the squadron where everyone hooted and traded foolish quotes" like "if there are Japs on this island, they'll not see an American sailor crawl. We'll stand, and march, and make them shoot us down like men-o'-wars-men." This belonged in the old New Yorker feature, "Words we doubt were ever spoken," but my publishers asked me to tone down my criticism of the book a bit since they had just published The Raft as a naval classic. They were not the only ones I heard from:

I knew Harold Dixon quite well. He wasn't too happy over The Raft, either. His ghostwriter (Robert Trumbull) shoveled it pretty thick. By the way, that raft is located in the museum at the Naval Academy. Harold died here in San Diego on June 26, 1987 and is buried (with his Navy Cross) at the National Cemetery at Fort Rosecrans on Point Loma.

The detail about the raft in the Naval Academy Museum is what got me; what a strange weave of things memories and events are.

A distinguished historian of the Pacific war in the air, John Lundstrom, wrote me that he had in the course of his research for a book on Butch O'Hare, now published as Fateful Rendezvous, been able to read the log of the Japanese squadron of Bettys [Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine, land-based bombers] that was trying to sink the Enterprise on the night O'Hare, flying a night fighter, had been killed, alongside my own plane.

The Japanese records are sparse, and my notes are rough, but here is a summary of what they and the Japanese official history volume on Naval Operations in the Central Pacific (published in 1973) say. On the evening of 26 November 1943 two Bettys from the 752 Air Group served as the contact planes against Task Group 50.2. The actual strike was made by 15 Bettys from the 752 Air Group; three failed to return (assumed to have fallen to fierce AA fire). The report states that during the torpedo attack "more than three" enemy night fighters were seen to turn on their lights. These enemy planes tried to intercept, but there was no fighting between them and the bombers. No surviving Bettys claimed shooting down any enemy planes. The survivors did claim sinking at least two carriers and one battleship!

These Japanese official memories are not mine; not even a destroyer was sunk, let alone two carriers and a battleship, but it was one hell of a mix-up, and how strange it was after all these years to look through Japanese eyes and see three night fighters, in one of which I was flying, turn on their lights, which we did only for an instant when we tried to join up after being separated.

Some stories came as a real shock, voices from the dead, as it were. On the first night-fighter operation from a carrier, off Tarawa in late 1943, the radar operator in my plane was hit in the foot by a Japanese machine-gun bullet, and was taken off to sick bay after we landed back on the Enterprise. I never saw him again. Then came a letter from his son saying that he had read the book and liked it but could not write himself since he had just that day had a triple bypass. But the story the son had to tell was strange and riveting, though told in the language of a later time:

Hazen went to San Diego Navy Hospital where they dressed his wounded foot hourly. Each medical Doobie anxious to garner Brownie Points for treating a genuine War Hero with an honest to gosh Japanese bullet wound had a shot at Hazen's foot. So it didn't heal. Orders were posted to stop dressing Hazen's foot. Hazen's foot festered. So the Navy sent Hazen, Hazen's foot, Hazen's wife Bernice and his son Chris to Saint Simon's Island, Georgia. Georgia-the Bane of the 20th Maine. Hazen plotted to disappear. At 129 pounds they stuffed him into his dress whites, got a Navy Cross from an Old Salt who had one and pinned it on Hazen for the benefit of Admiral Blimp who was visiting. Then they took the Cross away, sent Hazen back to the hospital, and a man with a pipe in his mouth observed Hazen's Foot. Hazen rammed the pipe. Hazen was transferred to Boston where they put him in a drum of potassium permanganate because he was covered in fungus. Hazen dyed purple from the waist down. Hazen's brother and his cousin and his friends wrapped him in swaddling clothes and took him to the family hunting ground in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. On Strawberry Point Hazen walloped a mallard with a string of sixes from a 12-gauge Knox A-eleven. The mallard went into the Atlantic with Hazen after him followed by an off-shore wind. A wave broke over them and Hazen's brother pulled them out. He began to freeze on the bleak shore in February and the hunting party stripped him and each man contributed a piece of clothing to Hazen's survival. The fungus came away with his clothing and never came back.

A whole world was out there, I began to realize, just waiting to be called into being by my book. No event was too strange or far away not to have someone else who had been worrying it over in his head ever since. Fifty years after the event, I opened an envelope and began to read,

I write this letter because I am convinced that you and I were shipmates in Torpedo Squadron Six on the Enterprise [and on the Hornet when she sank in October of 1942]. I recall, while in line [to abandon ship], you asked me if there was anything I wanted from my locker. I said, "Kernan, I wouldn't go back below for anything." You insisted on going-you came back with a pillow cover with my gear [and with my own]. To this day, I have admired your courage. A thousand memories come flooding back these years. I will write no more, hoping you are the Alvin Kernan I remember. In my book, there can only be one Alvin Kernan.

There was another voice literally from the dead. One day off Okinawa one of our own bombs exploded in a plane landing on the deck. By the time I reached the flight deck the three bodies of the pilot, the radioman, and the gunner were laid out on the deck, and I understood that the pilot was already dead and the two crewmen died later. Then there came another of those eerie letters.

You know, even today I am not absolutely sure just what happened to our plane on that day??? From the info that I had received later, they told me very little. What I remember is that we were hit by flak and the bomb bay was damaged. I assume that the 100-pound bombs must have dropped from their shackles and pulled out the arming wires. The flow of air rushing in the bomb bay must have spun the arming propellers and when we caught the arresting cable the plane stopped and the bombs slid forward and hit the fire wall behind the engine!!! At that moment, I had no idea what had happened until the flames began to burn me.... I remember releasing the turret window latch and fell out landing on my back.... I got up and then fell again.... Now this may sound strange to you, but I remember the words I uttered while attempting to get out of the plane. I kept yelling "Mama," "Mama" for my mom. Funny the things that follow you from childhood when your Mom was your protector?

I also remember hearing over the ship's loudspeaker "Taps" at the moment Obie [the pilot] was being buried at seat ! Jim [the radioman] was still hanging on at that time. Then, while on a landing Barge or whatever (My eyes were bandaged and I couldn't see) I heard a Medical Corpsman exclaim that Jim Joyce's tongue was swollen and he had passed away!!

The letter writer was the gunner, who, though full of holes, miraculously survived to spend his lifetime as a singer and the leader of a fashionable dance band outside Detroit. He said he was glad to get the book because it would make it possible for him to prove to his skeptical friends and family that he really had had the adventures he told them about.

But it was not only a matter of old memories begetting other old memories, deep answering unto deep, as it were. There were also letters where the memories were absent and survivors found that my book provided something of what was missing. This was particularly the case I found of sons whose dead fathers had been unwilling to say more than a few words about the war. One wrote:

I felt compelled to write you almost immediately after I completed reading your book, Crossing the Line, A Bluejacket's World War II Odyssey, as I felt as if I'd just read a journal of a close friend of mine, my father's, or both, which is what my father was to me. Particularly telling to me, amongst many things, was your final section on what compelled you to put what your memory allowed you to print. I often attempted to prod my Dad into doing just the same thing, but very unfortunately he never did. He was a 30-year veteran who enlisted in June of 1941, served on the Wichita in the North Atlantic during part of the War before he applied for sub duty in 1944, where he served out the duration in the Pacific Theatre. He told me many stories, but not near enough-I only wish he'd set them to print, thank you for doing so with yours.

He passed away a little over two years ago, and I miss him still.

A few of the fathers actually had been shipmates of mine, one of them I must have looked in the eye on the day the Hornet sank and I helped carry wounded to the after end of the flight deck, just past his antiaircraft battery on the starboard side. His son wrote:

My father, Norman Bronyan, was a gunner on one of the starboard aft 5" guns on the Hornet. I gather from your book that you were not very far away from him. Unfortunately, my father was not the type who liked to talk about his experience in the war. He was very proud of it in his own quiet way, but he told us only a few details about his service. My father died on January 29th of Alzheimer's disease, so what little we know is all we will ever hear directly from him.

I even heard from former students at Yale who had trouble recognizing their professor in the young man of the book, but did contribute memories of a later time, some complaining, some not. Here is one type:

There's absolutely no reason you would remember me but I was one of the laggards who took your seminar on modern drama at Yale, 1955-1956. You were good to me and when I needed a character reference to enter naval Officer Candidate School you provided it, pausing only to ascertain whether I made a habit of spitting on the flag. I assured you I didn't even do so occasionally.

And here is another from a young man who described himself as one of only three "Yalies" who served in the Vietnam War, all the others having had, he believed, student exemptions. He lives alone now, up in the woods of Minnesota, totally soured on the world. My own view of life in the service during wartime was much like that of most of the contemporaries I have met: that it was hard and dangerous, but that it was honorable work, and also the greatest of adventures. But to this Vietnam veteran my pictures of what World War II was like seemed a view of a lost older world, far better than what he had experienced. He, too, had taken a course with me, but he didn't like that much either.

I dimly remember Kernan from the semester of the year-long Shakespeare lecture course he taught. He seemed like a congenial sort, I guess; I really didn't have that much of an impression of him. He did not seem to me to be dispensing nuggets of eternal wisdom about the Bard, I must say.

One image from [his] book that does strike home is the one of the carrier leaving San Francisco Bay, going beneath the Golden Gate, and having all the other ships in the harbor blowing their horns in farewell, a powerful symbol, he said, "of a nation united in war." Or, even more basically, of a nation united, period. This was the America I grew up in, and that to me is normal.

But it was not the America, he went on to say, in which he went to war, a country bitterly divided, and it was not the country in which he has lived since in angry isolation. And I suppose that most of us who were in World War II do remember that critical feeling that everybody was in this together. Nothing, in my opinion, could be more important when you are doing so terrible a thing as fighting a war, with all the sacrifices that everyone has to make, all the time taken away from lives, all the losses, all the cruel things that have to be done.

But the unity did not last. In the liberal atmosphere of the universities where I spent most of my teaching life, the Hiroshima bomb was regularly treated as an act of American barbarism. Though I held my tongue then, I wrote in Crossing the Line:

. . . each of us felt that those bombs had saved our lives, not lives in general, but our own felt, breathing lives. No one who was not there will ever understand how fatalistically we viewed the invasion of Japan. It had to be done, and it would be, but each of us felt that survival was unlikely. I had, I felt, lived through a lot, miraculously without a scratch, but my good luck could not continue on into still another year of war.

Debate on the bomb made its way to the Internet when a web site was set up to give people a chance to exchange views on the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian in which the Japanese were portrayed, at least at first, as the victims, the Americans as the aggressors, and dropping the bombs a crime against mankind and another instance of American racism. A historian quoted the passage I have just read about my own feelings on the bomb, and made these comments:

Having spoken to many other veterans of the war in the Pacific, from varying services, walks of life and political views, I can tell you that, given a choice, none of them would change that statement a jot! What we are dealing with here, then, is a debate not about history, per se, but of memory. And the issue appears to be who shall have control of the collective memory. This is why the issue [of the bomb] resonates in the nation at large.

Let me end with two letters that made me realize how very critical it is to have the right memories of things that are important to you, not only on the national but on the personal level, how very hard it is even to have the emotion without some substantial memory. The first letter is self-explanatory:

I am the widow of John Wiley Brock, who was in your squadron at one time. He was in VT-6 on the old Enterprise, and was killed in May of 1942 at Midway. There is a picture of him with the squadron in your book. What I would like to know, is do you remember him? I have never found anyone who did. I would like this info for our son Jerry Allan Brock, who never knew his father. It's very important to him, and to me also. I know that all the years that have passed, dim memories. I am a classic example. But if you remember anything on a more personal level, I would greatly appreciate it.

How terrible, one of our heroes who had died trying to put a torpedo into a Japanese carrier at our greatest naval battle, Midway, and yet no one remembers him, no one could tell his wife, carrying his son, what had happened, what it looked like, what he said before he took off. I did my best and wrote what I could, but I couldn't remember very much either. And then came a letter from another old shipmate who did know Brock and knew some details that gave the memory that patina of reality that makes it so much more satisfactory: "Your mention of the 'touching' letter from the wife of John Brock really struck a chord with me. Remembering well when John first appeared in his dress whites as a brand new Ensign. [He had been an enlisted pilot, an Aviation Machinists Mate First Class, naval aviation pilot.] How very proud he was of that uniform. A squadron beer party was held sometime in August or September(?) of '41 in the vicinity of Koko Head Beach. I took my old Eastman Kodak box camera, and among the pictures was one of John Brock."

The second letter is of the same kind, but the death was in circumstances that I was able to describe in considerable detail. Day after day at the end of the war, flying through a light mist, with several storms over the green water and shafts of sunlight in between, my squadron flew down to bomb some small islands north of Taiwan that the Japanese were using to stage kamikaze planes out of China to attack our fleet at Okinawa. Our job was, regular as clockwork, to bomb the airstrips and make them unusable. Day after day the Japanese filled the holes up, and day after day we went back carrying 12 100-pound bombs to drop in a string across the dirt strips. And day after day, somebody would get shot down. One day it was this crew:

I do have a request to make. On page 146 of the chapter, "War's End," you describe sorties against the Sakeshima Islands. You state that among the casualties were Collura, Powell, and Stewart. I had an older cousin named Frank Collura, who was a TBF pilot killed during the war. I never was able to find out any particulars about his death. Was this man's first name Frank; could this have been the same man? If you could write me about him, I would be pleased. His parents are deceased, but he does have a sister living in this area. However, she is unaware of any particulars of his death.

The letters don't come as frequently as they did in the beginning, nor do the royalties, alas, but from time to time I still hear from someone who remembers "stern sheets for officers only," and other details of what one calls "those swab-jockeying, paint-chipping, watch standing, chief baiting, cribbage playing, Mog-Mogging" times. Mog-Mog, I should explain for those who do not remember, was a swamp at Ulithi used as a recreation area for the fleet just before the assault on Okinawa, where the sailors fortified with two cans of warm beer, ground the mud to slop while relieving themselves into funnels placed in pipes driven into the ground. No one who saw it ever forgot it apparently, for no detail in my book was mentioned more regularly, unless it be the warm memory that these were hard times but they were also great times.

 

More by this Author

CROSSING THE LINE
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CROSSING THE LINE
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