Saturday, December 6, 2014

My grandpa's war stories

My grandpa didn't talk much about his time in the war.  When my dad and I took him to the Great Lakes Naval Memorial Museum in Muskegon MI 5/17/09 (the USS Silversides) he opened up a little bit, pointing out to me where he stood on the ship to fire his guns when looking at a replica that was on display there.  We really enjoyed the trip here but his ultimate goal was to see the LST-393 that is docked in Muskegon.  We were able to take him there the 6/9/11 and then he really opened up.

 We walked the deck of the LST after having explored the interior of the ship.  As mentioned in a previous blog he was insistent on getting into the engine compartment.  He was on oxygen, borrowed a wheelchair, got quite winded and sat down often but he really enjoyed the day.  In this picture he's pointing to the area of the deck where the deck gun he manned was located.  The guns are gone but there are large circular steel plates in their place.  It's unfortunate because we would have loved a photo of him with the gun. 
At the end of our tour a local reporter happened to be on the scene and asked if he could interview my grandpa.  My grandpa had gotten over into a chair so I took his wheelchair while the museum curator and my dad looked on and I videotaped the interview (other than the first few seconds before I realized what was going on).  It's a 24:38 interview that I wish I could post on here.  The audio quality isn't great because it's on a regular camera and there is a lot of background noise, especially given that my grandpa wasn't speaking very loud but it's irreplaceable.

A couple of stories stand out (not necessarily from the interview - stories he'd told me also):

The most vivid story involved the kamikazes.  The repeatedly told the story of a kamikaze that flew into the ship next to theirs.  As he retold the story he added details that he hadn't previously told.  During the visit to the LST in Muskegon he told us again about the kamikaze.  He said the plane was diving right towards their ship.  He said they were firing on him and it seemed "at the last second" that he pulled up, went over their ship and crashed into the ship next to his.  The way he described it and the motions he demonstrated my guess is they shot the kamikaze which caused him to jerk back on the steering wheel.  As he was standing their telling the story he said "I can still see his eyes" as he's flying towards us.  At one time I had found a picture of that LST (he had told me the number).  When I googled it there was a picture of the ship on fire and what I believe was my grandpa's ship in the foreground.  If I can find it again I'll post it here.

The thing that I think haunted him the most was the image of the sailors jumping off the burning ship, many covered in oil and on fire themselves.  He described the charred bodies floating in the water.  It was obvious when he talked about this that it really bothered him.

On a lighter note he'd always giggle when telling the story of his shipmates using the ships crane to steal a Jeep from one of their island stops.  They simply hoisted it onto their ship and down into the hull and then used it to drive around future stops.  He always laughed at the thought of how the person responsible for the Jeep was to explain how it vanished from an island!

He and his shipmates walked the streets of Nagasaki a couple weeks after the bomb was dropped.  He described it as "leveled."  He said there was absolutely nothing alive left, not even a bug.  The only recognizable items were the foundations of the buildings and the heavy duty safes.  When they got into a city where they encountered the Japanese he said they were nothing but friendly to them.

One time his ship took a hit and he recalled the smoke being so thick that he was certain he was going to die.  He said he got on the deck and smashed his mouth around a crack in the deck and breathed the air from below.

I wish I had more stories but he really didn't talk about it.  I remember in the fall of 2009 the History Channel was playing "WWII in HD."  I went over to my grandparent's house to see them and my grandma was at Bingo.  I could hear that he was watching the show in his room.  He came out and sat at the dining room table with me and I told him I'd also been watching it.  He started talking about the kamikazes, started to shake, pulled out a handkerchief and nervously worked it in his hands and then just stopped talking altogether.  It was obvious that he could still see some of the horror and for the most part he just bottled it up for 70 years.  My grandma said it affected his sleep as well but I'm sure he'd never have admitted to it.  So many stories going to the grave........too hard for the storyteller to tell.  

As a sidenote:
I got him added to the Naval memorial:

I also got his picture of the ship he served on onto the Navsource website: