My maternal grandfather only shared one story with me about his experience in the Second World War. Growing up I rarely asked him about his time in the Navy, he would only share things like the ship he served on, which was a tugboat and the largest class of ship the Navy only gave numbers to instead of proper names; or the phonetic alphabet the Navy taught him. He had a Japanese Type 30 Arisaka rifle that I presume he bought off some Marine or Corpsman since he was a sailor and I figure did not have a chance to pick it up from the battlefield. I heard from other family members he did not like to talk about what happened; the only detail I ever heard was a third hand story about how while off Iwo Jima he looked over the side of the ship and saw body parts floating by. But he did volunteer one story; a comedy of errors he witnessed in some atoll somewhere.
The boat he served on was towing a section of dry dock into an atoll. In order to get into the atoll, where the Navy had ships loitering in-between deployments, ships had to make a 90 degree turn to get into the bay. The Navy, then and most likely now, drilled it into their sailors to do exactly as they are told and nothing more. And sadly their skipper or some other officer made a mistake: as they turned he forgot to order the towline to be brought in as they turned. By not bringing in the towline as they turned the dry dock section swung wide out… and proceeded to drift into the side of a US carrier.
The way my grandfather described it all hell broke loose. The dry dock dragged itself along the side of the carrier, causing the balconies with the Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft guns to pop off. The crew of the carrier scrambled to deploy collision mats and try to do anything to mitigate the damage. On my grandfather’s boat all the officers were terrified as they had just made a spectacular mistake; the sailors on the other hand were besides themselves with laughter: they had done exactly what was asked of them and thus couldn’t be punished for this mistake. After the dry dock finished dragging itself along the entire length of the carrier, the carrier’s captain was not unreasonably incensed that this tugboat had just found a new and exciting way to remove all the paint of his ship. He sent a boat over to summon the tug’s officers over to dress them down.
Sadly there is a second half to the story that has faded from my memory. I believe it involved the dry dock floating off again and the tug having to chase after it while under the command of some unfortunate Ensign in charge as every officer above him was busy being yelled at. This was the only war story my grandfather ever shared with me. I remember he, my brother and I were sitting in his living room in Madras Oregon laughing as he recounted the story. He had trouble getting through the part about the AA guns, he kept cracking up. Over a year later when I was back at college I would get a phone call from my mother telling me to call him now; he is near the end and they were going to drive up to see him. I called him and we talked about plans for a visit after I graduated; we would go for a drive through the high desert and scrubland of eastern Oregon. We never had a chance to do that, a few days later he lost the ability to speak and died shortly after that. I may have been one of the last people to talk to him.
After he died I went through a boxes of documents he had kept throughout his life, mostly letters between his brothers; and I found a remarkable letter. In 1939, when he was only 14, he and his brothers tried to talk their father into letting them go to Spain to fight in the Civil War there against Fascists, lead by Franco and supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Their father refused to let them go, saying they were too young to fight. When I found this letter I was stunned that even in rural Oregon that these farm boys were conscious enough to even have an opinion about the Spanish Civil War. And I suppose I am grateful my great-grandfather refused to let them go: even if they had made it to Spain it was unlikely they would’ve made it home.
He was always happy to hear from me and about my studies. He loved to talk history and politics with me; my father half-joking would say his father-in-law was just to the left of Lenin. His nickname for President Bush was “Shrub” and did not hold him in particularly high esteem (in some ways I’m glad he’s not around now to see the current crop of Republicans). My mother says he was also sensitive about the world, a trait I share with him. It bothered him that we were all too eager to use violence as a tool to solve our problems. He was particularly bothered whenever people suggested using nuclear weapons; he knew what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and didn’t want to repeat those horrors. My mother only recently found out he was awarded a Purple Heart; according to my uncle he said the Navy doctor who patched him up did more harm than good and that’s why he got the medal. I would describe him as a New Deal progressive, he wanted to be treated fairly but expected to work hard. While I was on my foreign exchange in Chile he sent me books and copies of The Nation for me to read. I miss him greatly and remember him fondly. I’m glad that the one war story he did share with me was this one. I hope you enjoyed it too.