Recollections of an august night


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Recollections of an august night

  1. 1. Recollections of an August Night 1945By Octavius N. DeMollEdited by Dave Marti nFriday, July 15, 2011The passing of the years invariably colors the events we have lived and experiencedwith a hue of exaggerated luminosity – the day we got that first two-wheeler, thehysterical joy of the last day of school before the summer vacation, and of course, thatmost masculine of human endeavors, participation in a war. My war ended fifty years ago and in memory becomes with each passing year atime of close comradeship, and the feeling of being part of a great and nobleundertaking. This is, of course, something less than true. In my more rational moments Ialso remember the boredom, the fear and, indeed the limitless inconveniences thataccompany the wearing of any uniform. There is, however, one experience that defies embellishment because it is one ofthe outstanding memories of my life, for it is to me a moment in time of drama and highadventure: it was the night the war ended. During the month of August 1945 I was a member of the Marine Detachmentaboard the U.S.S. Lexington, the “Blue Ghost” sunk by Tokyo Rose at least twice. Wewere part of Task Force 38 conducting air strikes against the home island of Japan. The 1
  2. 2. force had assembled in Ulithi, an exaggerated sand bar in the Pacific Ocean sometimein late June and had not been in sight of land since. The usual shipboard routine under combat conditions was, of course, the order ofthe day, with general quarters daily at six-thirty in the morning and the launching ofplanes at thirty-minute intervals. The attack groups were termed “strikes”, and theintervals between them were scheduled because of the aircraft’s fuel capacities and tolimit the danger that air strikes on returning to the ship would not be hung up in alengthy circling pattern waiting to land. I remember more than one plane forced to ditchwithin sight of the ship while waiting to come aboard because of an empty gas tank. Thenights, of course, were something else – magnificent sunsets, occasional thunderstormsoff on the horizon with flashes of lightning silhouetting the gray ships with Wagneriansplendor, and the drone of the ship’s engines broken only by the shrill whistle of theboson’s pipe over the intercom closing out the ledger of the day’s work. I often went up to an area of the ship known as defense aft. It was to the stern ofthe island or control structure of the ship, high above the main gun batteries and justbelow the radar screen. The view commanded the entire task group with ships of allshapes and sizes scattered about a 360-degree area. The whirling of the radar screenand the flapping of the flag induced a sense of wellbeing and purpose; God was indeedin His heaven and we were doing His work on earth. It was a time of unquestioning andunashamed patriotism. But there also was during that period of the war an unspoken uneasiness aboardthe ship. The pilots on debriefing reported very little ground activity and no air opposition 2
  3. 3. at all. This news, of course, reinforced our conviction that the Japanese were girdingtheir loins for the expected assault on their sacred soil by the western savages and, ofcourse, all of us were aware of the part we were scheduled to play in that drama. Wewere resigned rather than anxious, but determined to end the issue victoriously, firmlybelieving in the justice of our cause and acutely conscious of the humiliation of PerlHarbor. As I said, it was time of strong moral conviction; our nation had not yet becomeinfected with the virus of self-doubt and irresolution. Sometime during the first week in August the ship’s mini newspaper, aptly namedthe Sunrise Press, flashed a banner headline, “Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japan”. Nowsomewhere on the ship, indeed somewhere on any ship in the entire task force, I haveno doubt that there was at least one man who knew exactly what an atomic bomb was,but I am here to say that I did not meet him. This momentous event in the history ofmankind made absolutely no impression on any of us and the atomic age was usheredin aboard the Lexington with all the pomp and circumstance usually reserved for thebirth of a stray kitten. On the evening of August 13th at about 10:30 p.m. I was seated in the largeuniform locker adjoining the marine compartment. The locker was employed as astorage area for those items of uniforms too bulky for the small bulkhead lockersassigned to each marine. It was also used as an unofficial social center by the localinsomniacs and on this particular evening was doubling as a water hole for eh few of usenterprising enough to commandeer, secure and otherwise concoct those ingredientsso necessary for a well-disposed disposition; in short, we were enjoying a belt or two ofmedicinal alcohol liberally spiked with grapefruit juice. 3
  4. 4. There was, if my memory has not completely congealed, Sam Baker from NewHampshire, Robbie Robertson from Indiana, A.J. Ray from just about everywhere andone or two others basking in the conviviality nurtured by strong drink and all lyingoutrageously about our amorous exploits. I think Robbie was the oldest at twenty-eightand I was all of nineteen going on forty. Although the conversation centered around theladies we had known and loved, at any rate in our rather vivid imaginations, there wasalso some speculation, given no credence whatever, that we would “Make the GoldenGate in Forty-Eight”, the meaning being obvious. But the end of the war looked a longway off. Feeling the need for some fresh air, I stepped out of the locker into the darkenedcompartment illuminated only by the red battle lanterns used after lights out t preventskinned skins and broken arms and ostensibly to accustom our eyes to the darkness inthe event of general quarters. An excited whisper caught my ear as I made my way tothe hangar deck ladder leading topside. “The Japs want to give up if they can keep theiremperor”. The voice imparting this rather startling piece of information belonged to asomewhat agitated sailor hurriedly passing through the compartment. “Where the hell did you get that scuttlebutt?” I inquired. “No Scuttlebutt, it’s on the level. It just came in from fleet headquarters and I’mon my way to the old man’s cabin to give him the message.” I stood for a moment watching him move off. I couldn’t make up my mind whetheror not I was being had. I knew our brief conversation had had an audience when 4
  5. 5. “Chicken” Cummings, an appellation descriptive of his years and not his intestinalfortitude, sat up in his bunk and asked, “Did that guy say that the Japs want to give up?” The information conveyed by the messenger, although possibly questionable,might be worth another hour or two of pleasurable speculation-or so I thought. I steppedback into the locker. “Hey guys, guess what I just heard,” and I proceeded to relay theevents of the last two minutes. Sam was the first one to speak, “Well, there’s only oneway to find out for sure; let Robbie take a walk up to the radio shack and ask “Sparks” ifit’s true.” I should say here that Robbie had contacts all over the ship-cooks, bakers,corpsmen, any and every rate that might prove useful at some future date wascultivated, conned and otherwise maneuvered by Robbie. I learned a lot form him. The suggestion was received and agreed upon and Robbie reluctantly got to hisfeet. “You damn well better not be giving us a snow job, Nick,” the voice soundedominous. “I’m only telling you what I heard, Robbie.” “Well, there better be some juice left when I come back.” As Robbie moved off into the darkened compartment the rest of us sat quietly fora few moments each with his own thoughts and afraid to verbalize them. The war over-wouldn’t that be something. Home. Always thoughts of home. No one spoke, but we allknew what the others were thinking. “Well, I don’t know what the rest of you jarheadsare going to do, but I’m going to hit the sack,” said A.J., breaking the pall of silence. 5
  6. 6. None of us were kidding ourselves. We hoped and silently prayed will all thereligious fervor we could muster that the Japanese had had enough. God knows wecertainly didn’t relish the idea of forcing the issue on their home soil. The Japanesewere a courageous, tenacious foe, fanatical in their loyalty to the Emperor and almostparanoid in their devotion to their homeland. An assault on the Japanese home islandswould be met by a resistance that would make the D Day landings on Normandy seemlike a day at the seashore in comparison, and anyone who survived that brawl knows itwas anything but that. Primed with the hope that the end of the war in the Pacific was imminent,however remote, eliminated all thoughts of sleep and the mellowness induced by therecently ingested liquids was rapidly being replaced by a feeling of cautious anticipation. We had all stepped out into the compartment and were making our way to thelighted passageway leading to the head just as Robbie came down the ladder. I don’t know what’s going on up there, but you can be damn well sure it’ssomething big. Hell, I couldn’t get near the radio shack and the bridge is loaded withbrass.” This news generated further speculation and all attempts at whispering indeference tour sleeping shipmates were forgotten. We all started to speak, if not loudly,in somewhat excitedly normal voices. “Hey you clowns, knock it off,” came a voice from the compartment. “We’re tryingto sleep.” 6
  7. 7. “Stuff it, Mac, the war’s over.” “What the hell are you talking about?” “Get out of the sack and come in here and we’ll tell you.” Within minutes there were at least ten men standing in their skivvies, mouthsopen, eyes bulging, listening to the events of the last half hour. No one slept that night. The news relayed to me earlier in the evening somehowreached every division about ship. Every communication received in the radio shackgave birth to a spate of rumor and speculation, all of it true beyond question and most ofit emanating from no less an authority than the Commander-In-Chief himself. As the night of August 13th slipped into the day of August 14th, the tensions of thepast two months were beginning to become apparent. A casual bump in a darkenedpassageway was reason enough for a string of choice Anglo-Saxonisms directed by thebumpee to the bumper, casting doubts no only on his own legitimacy, but that of all hisantecedents clear back to Noah. No official word had been forthcoming from CINPAC (Commander in Chief,Pacific) and the unusual activity on the bridge during the early morning hoursnotwithstanding, it seemed to the crew that it was business as usual. The pilotsscheduled for that morning’s air strikes were in the ready room being briefed on themission when I relieved the communications orderly at 6:00 a.m. The forced joviality,normally during these pre-mission briefings, was conspicuously absent this morning.This, of course, was easy to understand for it was these men, the pilots, who risked the 7
  8. 8. most if indeed a cessation of hostilities, was pending; no one wants to be the lastcasualty in any war. As I stepped out onto the flight deck, a brisk breeze and scattered clouds weregreeting the sun as it edged up over the horizon. The port and forward elevators werebringing the planes up from the hangar deck and the “Airedales,” sailors whose job itwas to spot the aircraft on the flight deck, were jockeying them into takeoff position. An aircraft carrier is a magnificent accomplishment in nautical engineering. Likeall ships, it remains little more than steel, rivets, pipes and boilers while gestating onthe construction ways, but becomes miraculously endowed with a soul at the instant oflaunching, a pulsating vibrant entity with a character and disposition all its own. Thoseof us who served aboard the Lexington during the months and years of the SecondWorld War, came to regard her with an affection usually reserved for those terrestrialareas we normally call home-a city, town or farm. For she not only represented thesecurity associated with those more familiar surroundings, but also served as themeans by which we, her sons, could carry the battle to the enemy, minimizing thepossibility of that enemy endangering our homes and families. General Quarters was sounded at 6:30 a.m. and I rapidly made my way acrossthe flight deck to my assigned gun group which was directly opposite the ship’s island.Within minutes, the guns were loaded and manned. Although it was difficult to concealour disappointment, we accepted the situation. After all, we were no worse off than wewere twenty-four hours ago, and who in all honesty expected the Japanese to capitulate 8
  9. 9. with a docility that was so alien to the ferocity demonstrated by their military and navalforces up to this point in the war? At 6:45 a.m. the ship’s intercom blared, “Now here this, now here this, pilots manyour planes, pilots man your planes.” The men of Air Group 94 briskly made their way tothe waiting Corsair fighters and Douglas bombers and climbed into the cockpits. Withinminutes the voice of the Air Officer was heard on the intercom, “Pilots start yourengines, pilots start your engines.” Seconds later our ears were assailed by the drum-splitting roar of twenty-four superbly machined aircraft engines and as the pilots warmedtheir motors the two fighters positioned on the forward catapults were launched into thebrightening sky. Once the forward flight deck was cleared, the launching officer, flag held high,motioned the lead plane to taxi to takeoff position. This point on the flight deck was on aline with my assigned gun group. I never quite conquered the fear that a carelessmechanic would one day forget to tighten a key bolt on the propeller shaft and on somebright morning while revving up the engine for takeoff, a loosely attached propellerblade would come hurtling toward the gun mount like some spectral scythe, effectivelyending the naval careers of every man in the group. As each plane in its turn was launched to join the circling strike force, the eventsof the previous evening faded into the realm of never was. Indeed, the idea of a suddenend to the war seemed rather foolish in the bright reality of the day and to dwell on thepossibility of such an occurrence would only make the days ahead even more difficult. 9
  10. 10. When the last plane had soared into the air, our gun group secured from generalquarters and proceeded below for breakfast. I find, in retrospect, that I was something ofan oddball relative to naval cuisine, for in three and one-half years of service, except forthose times when K rations was all that was available, I genuinely enjoyed the mealsserved and invariable did them full justice. I am certain, however, that my appetite wassomething less than ravenous on the morning of August 14, 1945. After breakfast of three or four cups of coffee, I reported to the marinecompartment and proceeded to carry out my assigned housekeeping duties.Conversation was almost exclusively on the events of the previous evening andspeculation ran the gamut of “It was all a Japanese trick to get us off guard,” to “Somescrewball fouled up a message from fleet headquarters.” But how could such a rumor get started if there was no substance to it? Just whatwas all the activity on the bridge and in the radio shack? Did the Japanese indeed offerto surrender only to have their offer rejected for whatever reason? These and a hundredother questions were asked with no one really expecting an answer. At 8:00 a.m. the second scheduled strike was launched and this was furtherevidence that the war was going on as scheduled. I completed the housekeeping dutiesassigned to me and returned topside to the gun group to load magazines just as the lastCorsair was winging toward the end of the flight deck; the second strike was airborne. I stepped into the ammunition locker where I found Sam and A.J. already loadingmagazines. “Well, Nick, I guess that’s that!” Sam was speaking. “This damn was willnever end and we might as well get used to the idea.” 10
  11. 11. “Bull____.” A.J. answered. “All wars end sooner or later. This one’s just a later.” I didn’t feel much like talking because in a way I felt responsible for what hadhappened, as though my being the first to relay the story had somehow broken a spelland had jinxed the course of events. At about 9:30 we had completed loading the magazines and had gone out ontothe gun deck. The planes scheduled for the third strike were being moved into positionand prepared for takeoff. It came so suddenly, like the breaking of a fever, that most of us could not graspthe monumental significance of the order. After a moment or two of stunned andpuzzled silence, a crescendo of sound broke through the crisp morning air engulfingevery man on board, for the order “Secure all strikes, secure all strikes,” had blaredthrough the intercom as triumphant as a blast from Gabriel’s horn. The tensions of the past twelve hours were completely forgotten as the joyousrealization that the most destructive war in history was over. It penetrated theconsciousness of each of us. Rank and discipline were completely forgotten as officersand enlisted men slapped each other on the back, shook hands and generally behavedcompletely un-militarily. The war was over and we had kept the faith with all our fallenshipmates, from Pearl Harbor and Corregidor to Bataan and Iwo Jima, whose sacrificeshad made this day possible. At some time after 11:00 a.m. Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, “Bull Halsey” tothe American people, addressed the officers and men of Task Force 38 via fleetintercom. I can’t remember all that was said, but I do remember his closing words, “Well 11
  12. 12. done!” Those words are my most cherished decoration of the war because then, asnow, I believed with all my heart that the forces of right and justice prevailed. The world is much changed since that balmy day in August. Empires have fallen,nations been born, monumental social and economic upheavals have taken placesrivaling those that followed the Industrial Revolution, whether for good or evil only timewill tell, but as thatAugust day recedes into the mists of time, I cannot help but feel a sense of awe andpride that I was present when the good guys won. 12