Friday, June 5, 2009
Midway Memories - From the Mouths of Veterans
It's been a damned long time since I posted here - it's been a damned long time since I brewed any beer but I'm moving in under two months so I don't need the hassle of gallons of beer to pack and move. So I'm going to take this opportunity to make a small comeback and talk about the "other" topic (and even more neglected than brewing!) of this blog, naval history.
On June 4th, the United States Navy observed the 67th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. But I'm not going to write about Midway - at least directly. There is plenty of outstanding information about Midway put out by the Navy and in the Naval Blogosphere this year. Just look here and here for two outstanding examples. The second series was put together by this guy whose blog I read fairly often, and even comment on once in a while.
I did, however, participate in a commemoration ceremony in Boston today. You can see some pics of the ceremony and cake cutting here. Two Midway veterans attended the ceremony where they were honored, and afterward I had the chance to speak at length to both of them.
The two gentlemen (and their wives) were a pleasure to speak with, and at the same time a study in contrasts in a social situation. One was gregarious, quite extroverted and very willing to share his experiences as a gunner aboard a PBY Catalina at Midway, as well as the rest of his experiences in the Navy. A proud WWII veteran who loved to share photos and memories. The second was definitely more reserved; he moved a little slower, and did not want to speak during the ceremony - I had initially been told that he did not remember much of Midway, so my assumption was that this gentleman may be beginning to suffer from memory loss. It turned out that his hearing is failing, he had developed some speech problems, and he didn't want to run the risk of embarrassing himself or become a distraction. He was a radioman on a cruiser - USS MINNEAPOLIS - during the battle.
Both were a pleasure to be around and speak to, and during the ceremony the first gentleman addressed the audience for several minutes (I remember "Pardon me for saying this but...we blew the Hell out of the Japanese there" as a highlight.). In a slightly more private setting, the second gentleman warmed to much of the conversation and began sharing a little bit with us. It was great to see him let his guard down a little and become more engaged, not worrying about his speech issue as the conversation became more friendly. He remembered MINNEAPOLIS, being on the gunnery range on December 7th 1941, 20 miles from Pearl Harbor as the Japanese were attacking and staying at battle stations for 3 full days after, how many men were in the radio shack (too few to man everything they needed to) and a few other experiences. He wasn't very forthcoming about Midway though...I was stumped at how he could not remember anything. Eventually the conversation turned to the all too familiar plight of junior enlisted personnel - having to do things without really knowing what is going on.
The first gentleman spoke up "Really, unless you were an admiral, you didn't know what the big picture was." As far as he knew, they were flying around looking for the Japanese because they were told to. He recalled spending long days after the battle flying around looking for downed aviators. He remembered looking at the water, without binoculars, for hours on end, until he thought he was going blind. I believe he then turned to the second and asked, "How about you - where were you?"
"I really don't remember much about Midway," he finally began. The rest went something like this:
"We went to our battle stations in radio, which was near the outside of the ship, and all of a sudden we heard the big 8-inch guns start firing. I was wondering why they were using them as the Jap ships were nowhere near us, and I later found out that they used them to make splashes to try and throw off incoming Jap torpedo bombers. Shortly after that we hear the 5-inch guns open up, and there was one of those right outside radio, it was manned by Marines, and it was loud as heck. Soon we hear the 1.1's start going off, and then the 20-millimeters because they're getting closer and closer and all this is really loud. Soon the .50-calibers start firing, and they're not so loud. Then I think, 'Whoa! They're really close!' By the time the little water-cooled .30's started shooting we're thinking 'What the Hell is going on here? How close are the Japs gonna' get?' So we had this little porthole in radio that opened up to the outside, and one of us opened it up. He looked out and said 'Yup, the carrier's still there!' and shut it. I think we opened it up two or three times, and each time the carrier looked okay."
He paused for a second.
"And that was the Battle of Midway for me."
I almost started laughing at my ignorance. It wasn't that the guy was losing his memory, it's that the most memorable experience for him was just a really loud (and I'm sure pretty frightening) ten minutes or so in the radio shack.
I don't think it hit me until just before dinner time that night what I had been witnessed earlier that day. I wonder how long he had kept that story, when was the last time he told it, if at all. And even though we look at Midway as this great and inspiring epic (which it is) it is still the sum of thousands of individual experiences, from the radioman who looked out the porthole of radio central while the guns blazed to the pilots and air crews that delivered the fatal blows to Kido Butai to the petty officers who strained their eyes staring at the endless surface of the Pacific trying to find the ones that didn't make it back "home". Every one of those experiences counts, and every one should be treasured. I consider it a gift to have been told these stories.