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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Aftermath of the First Wave

PBY wreckage at Kaneohe NAS on December 7th 1941

Silence settled over Kaneohe as the sound of the departing Zeros faded into the distance.  Dick leaned tiredly on the machine gun, his eyes still on the sky.  I sat slumped in the hatchway, my bloody hands still gripping that last belt of ammunition.  Acrid burned gunpowder fumes swirled about us and the empty hot brass cartridges filled the bilge to my ankles.  Almost in slow motion, I folded the belt into an empty magazine and placed it in the rack.  Our dungaree shirts were soaked with sweat and a mixture of sweat and angry tears streaked my cheeks.  Incongruously, in the sudden total silence, except for the guttering of flames in the burning airplanes and hangar, I heard a bird start to sing in a small tree across the road.
Many chaotic thoughts flashed through my mind as the rush of adrenalin subsided.  I recall ironically thinking that this was not the way war should be.  During my young years in the Ozark hills, I had thought of war being a glorious experience—charging into battel with flags flying and destroying the enemy.  This was not that way.  This war was a mélange of incalculable noise, dirt, fire, blood, and dead shipmates laid in a row on the concrete ramp.  I stared dully at the hands resting on my dugareed legs.  They were bloody.  One of them was still oozing dark red blood.  I wrapped my handkerchief around it and heaved a tired sigh.
Dick stirred and spoke over his should, “You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m all right—you?”  He nodded and I went on, “Down to our last two magazines—we gonna need some more ammo if they come back.”
“What’s the matter with your hands?  They’re bloody.”
“Nuthin’ much—cut ‘em a little on the ammo cans.  Be all right.”
There was movement outside as people started coming out of ditches and moving around to assess the damage.  One of the squadron CPOs hailed us from outside the airplane, “Hey, how many dead and wounded in there?”
Dick’s voice was hoarse and he had to clear his throat, “Nobody dead or wounded, chief,--just me and my brother up here.  Need some more ammo.”
“For Christ’s sake,” the CPO said angrily, “get the hell out of there and find a protected place for that gun!  They’ve shot that airplane to pieces around you—lucky you ain’t both dead!  That aluminum skin is about as much protection as tissue paper!  What the hell did you get in there for?!”
Dick answered him, “Dang it, we needed a gun mount!  Can’t fire a fifty from the hip, you know.  What’s the score, chief?”
“Don’t know yet, but I reckon it’s the Japs one—us nuthin”.  Guess they pounded Pearl pretty good.  Heard a rumor that they got some battleships and the OKLAHOMA turned over.  Lots of people killed.  The bastards may be back any time—we don’t know.”
The CPO shook his head and his gaze travelled over the shot-up airplane again.  I heard him mutter as he turned away, “Dumb sons a bitches—got more guts than good sense!”
(In retrospect, the chief was absolutely correct.  All we had thought of was that the airplane had no gasoline and would not burn around us.  What the Japanes saw after all the rest of the airplanes were burning—only three Kaneohe PBYs survived and they were out on patrol that morning—was one airplane not on fire and tracers were coming from it.  That is why they kept strafing us repeadedly and it no doubt frustrated them.  We were truly a couple of dumb country boys and I have always thought that Somebody Up There had a hand on our shoulders that morning.)
“Well,” Dick finally said, “we might as well stretch our legs and get some fresh air.”  I followed him down the short ladder to stand in the shade of the wing.
The wing shadow was not solid.  I looked up and saw that the fabric trailing edge of the broad wing had been shot to ribbons.  The whole airplane except that narrow area where we had been was literally a sieve.  The big beaching gear wheels on that side were flat so that the airplane listed drunkenly.  I later stood directly in front of the gun mount and stretched out my arms.  Dick counded thirty-six bullet holes within the span of my arms.
It was inconceivable that neither of us was wounded.  The nearest we came was that Dick spotted two holes in the slack of my shirt.  The tug I had felt when I bent over to pick up the magazine had been a bullet passing thought my shirt.  Had I been sitting upright the bullet would have gone through my chest from side to side.
[I have to pause here as the above sinks in.  Weather you think it was dumb luck or divine intervention that saved my father that day, it is powerful to think of all that would have never happened, including me, and how my grandmother would have suffered if he would have been sitting up.  Of course, as news of the attack reached the states, she would suffer, not knowing if her two oldest were dead or alive.]
Reaction set in now that it was over for a while.  We started to light cigarettes from a crumpled green pack of Lucky’s in my shirt pocket.  It took both hands to steady a match and get it to the tip.  I do not know how I looked, but Dick’s face was grim and his blue eyes were bleak.  Our world had suddenly and traumatically been turned upside down.  We would never again be the same as before.  (I was to realize later that something in my young mind died that morning. Never again would I have sudden surges of joy and carefree ebullience.  I may have even lost he capacity to truly love.  In the future I would accept events good and bad almost phlegmatically instead of with beating heart and soaring spirits for the good and quick anger for the bad.  It is trite and banal to say that we had aged in a short hour from boys to me, but I guess that is true.)
While we waited for further instructions about what to do with the machine gun, I walked out away from the airplane in the direction from which the Zeros had come.  The brass and belt links from their wing guns just fell free.  I picked up three 7.7 casings and belt links.  Later, in the bilges of Number Four, I found two spent Japanese 7.7 bullets, one a bent, soft-cored brass one and the other the steel core of an armor-piercing bullet.  I still have them.

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