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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Reflection and Return

USS PYRO - American ammunition ship
"I contemplated the events of the past two years and how they surely must have changed me as I passed from youth to manhood."
Now the long part of our voyage on SEA VITCH began.  It would take us twelve days to cover the vast expanse of the pacific between Bora Bora and the Golden Gate.  After a little more than a week we were getting out of the tropical latitudes and the nights became cool to those of us who had been two years in the warmth of Hawaii and the South Pacific.  Our deep tans began to show goosebumps.  We dug into our sea bags for navy blue wool jerseys and peacoats that had rolled and stowed for two years.  We also dug out, brushed and ironed our dress blue uniforms and flat-hats in anticipation of liberty in San Francisco.
As the prospect of being back in the states neared, I often thought of all that had happened in the past two short years.  On my birthday on 3 March 1943 when I turned 21, I sat alone on the fantail as darkness fell and watched the ships wake that led off toward the last vestiges of sunset.  I contemplated the events of the past two years and how they surely must have changed me as I passed from youth to manhood.
All of a sudden, so it seemed, I was a Navy petty officer first class and a “blooded veteran” to whom laughter still came, but without the abandon of before.  I was an “old salt” and had been informed at Ile Nou that I rated three campaign bars—the American Defense ribbon with a gold star for having been in Hawaii on December 7th, the Asiatic ribbon with battle stars for Midway and the Solomons, and the American theater ribbon.
Now, I thought, I am almost phlegmatic—I seem to take things as they come and almost as a matter of course.  I wondered again just what is was that seemed to have died during that bloody hour on December 7th, 1941.  Oddly, it crossed my mind that perhaps I had lost the capacity to love.  My physical needs were still there, but there was something in my emotions that seemed to be lacking.  The thought of sailing into San Francisco in the next few days did not increase my pulse.
I still had occasional nightmare about that bloody hour when the Japanese attack came out of nowhere.  Even awake the images of the row of bloody bodies under the wing of the shot-up PBY, the grinning face of that Japanese pilot who had circled overhead looking down ast the fires of burning airplanes, the head-on view of enemy Zeros diving at us with wing guns winking fire and streams of bullets walking across the concrete ramp toward us were all too clear in my memory.  It would be a long time before the snarl of diving enemy airplanes, the chattering of machine guns, and the dull “WHUMP!” of exploding bomb could almost be heard.
Then, unbidden, the rather corny words my father had said to me at the bus depot when I left for the Navy came back to me—“A man goes where the hand of the lord leads him,” Dad had said, “and he does what he has to be done when he get there.”  I suddenly felt very proud of my brother Dick and myself.  When the chips had gone down, we had not hesitated.  We did not run for cover and hide as a few had done.  We got a gun and fought back as best we could.
It was not bravery.  We were just a couple of mad old country boys that were dumb enough to get into that airplane that the Japs would be strafing trying to set it on fire.  The Lord had led us there, we did what had to be done, and He looked after us as the enemy shot that airplane to pieces around us and left us unscathed.  Fear?  Yes, we felt fear for our lives, but we knew what had to be done.  It was after the battle was over that the reaction had set in and we went weak in the knees.
I was saddened by a sense of loss that I was no longer a part of, and probably would not be gain, Patrol Squadron Eleven.  The spirit of VP-11 is difficult to explain.  It went far beyond the normal camaraderie of shipmates.  In fact, it was almost as if we were a “family” and were all brothers.  That bloody Sunday had a large part in drawing us together, I suppose, but somehow it went beyond just that.  I longed to be back there with them once more on a combat flight crew; however, that was not to happen.  I sighed and flipped my glowing cigarette butt into the wake of SEA WITCH.
(The spirit and sense of family of VP-11 did not die in the war.  Today, fifty years later, we have regular reunions of those old VP-11 shipmates and many always attend.  We retell the old sea stories and often there are new ones—sometimes confessions of long ago midsdeeds or mistakes that once were idle scuttlebutt.)
It was full dark and the stars were bright overhead with the glory of the Southern Cross having slipped for the last time below the horizon when Hook touched me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, sober-sides, let’s go get a cup of coffee and hit the sack.  It’s getting pretty cool.
The most noteworthy event of our voyage on the SEA WITCH occurred on the morning of the day 8 March 1943, still an hour or more out, somewhere west of Seal Rocks we were in a solid fog bank.  The fog was so thick that it was not possible to see form the bow of the ship to the stern.  Unfortunately, the SEA WITCH did not have radar and we were traveling alone.
Since it was chilly and damp in the fog on deck and our mess cooking duties were over for the lat time, Hook and I were at a table in the mess compartment playing a few hands of cards.  I was just dealing when there was a sudden violent jar in the ship and what sounded like a dull boom forward.  An alarm started going on the loudspeakers.
Our first thought was “Torpedo!”  The cards went flying as we came up from the table.  My lifejacket was on my bunk tow compartments away on the mess deck.  I shot through the hatches, snatched up my life preserver, went up to ladders and out onto the main deck in a matter of seconds—probably the fasted I had moved in my entire life.
We had not been torpedoed.  SEA WITCH had collided with another ship in the fog.  I moved fast enough that I got a glimpse of the stern of the ship we had hit just disappearing into the fog off our starboard bow.  I saw the name of the ship in black letters on the stern as it vanished.  Of all the ships in the United States Navy the one we had to hit was the USS PYRO, at that time the largest ammunition ship in commission!
We found later that PYRO was loaded to the Plimsol marks with every high explosive in use.  If the collision had set it off, there would have been bare fragment of the two ships and all souls on board drifting to the bottom of the ocean.  Such an explosion would have wiped out a good share of that convoy.
The bow of SEA WITCH had hit PYRO just at the port five-inch gun platform aft.  The big gun had been ripped loose and two men died on PYRO.  Inspection of SEA WITCH revealed a hole in the starboard bow about six feet vertically and fifteen feet long; however, it was well above the waterline so we were in no immediate danger of sinking.  SEA WITCH lay dead in the water until the foghorns of the convoy receded then we proceeded at a reduced speed.  The fog started to lift as we passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.  Two painters on a scaffolding beneath the great span waved welcome.
USS SAN FRANCISCO passing under the Golden Gate

We docked in San Francisco bay in the early evening of March 8th.  All of we Navy passengers were on deck in our dress blues and with our baggage as the ship eased alongside the pier.  There was no brass band to greet the rusty freighter; however, there was a USO coffee stand on the pier tended by American girls—the first we had seen in two years.  I recall that Hook said to me, “Migawd—look at those wahines!  They are all as white and pale as if they just got out of the hospital or something!”  In comparison to the brown girls of the South Pacific to which we had become accustomed they did, indeed look a bit sickly, however, it did not take long for us to adjust to that!”
We did not get to talk to the USO girls.  A boat laid alongside SEA WITCH and we Naval personnel were transferred to the Navy Receiving Station on Treasure Island.  It was after dark by then and everything on the base was secured; however, as soon as we had been shown to a barracks, Hook and I dropped our seabags and headed for the ODD’s office.  It took some talking to the officer, but soon, armed with special liberty passes, we were headed for the Oakland Bay Bridge to catch a trolley into Oakland (it was a bit nearer than San Francisco).
As I recall, it was by then around ten o’clock.  We simply headed for the first bar we saw to celebrate our return.  By the midnight closing time, both Hook and I were gloriously drunk.  We weaved our way out to the street, singing bawdy songs.  Hook insisted on treating us to a taxi back to Treasure Island.  We decided that the next night would be our real return celebration.  We would go into ‘Frisco, get a hotel room, and really live it up.

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