So, Dad, what was it like when you first arrived at the PT base in the Mediterranean during the summer of 1944? Do you remember what your first day was like when you and the other raw PT sailors showed up to join the battle-tested crews of Squadron (Ron) 15?
I posed the question as my father and I drove north to Philadelphia after he had spent the weekend visiting us in Baltimore. It was in mid-June in 1994, the summer of the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Dad had taken the bus down to Baltimore so we could make our annual trip to Camden Yards to watch the Orioles play baseball. We loved going to ballgames together and it was always a high point of the summer for me.
He paused before answering and he seemed to be lost in thought. It was the first time in years (decades, actually) since I had asked him about his life in the Navy during WWII. My question was prompted as we drove past the Navy Yard in South Philly on our way up 1-95 on that bright summer day. The sight of all those mothballed Destroyers and Cruisers got me thinking about Dad’s career on the PTs.
“When we got there, it was all business,” he said. His words were slow and very deliberate. “They told us to stow our gear and report to the mess hall.”
You mean they put you on KP first thing? I said, trying to make a joke. They didn’t even give you guys a chance to get in trouble.
It was as though he did not even hear my words.
“When we got to the mess hall, they told us to put on aprons and dish out the food to the crews that were going out on night patrol,” he said in a voice that was almost flat.
Wow, so you were serving the seasoned vets–the guys who had seen some action. Did they tell you what it was like? Did you get a chance to sit with them after you served the meal? How was it to talk to them? I had so many questions and they were all tumbling out together.
“Those guys didn’t talk to us; they didn’t even look at us,” he said. His words came slowly and the tone of voice was one I had never heard before. “They all sat together and they hardly spoke among themselves,” he said. “That mess hall was one quiet place.”
Oh, I said. What happened then?
“Nothing,” he answered. “When we finished serving, they let us eat, then we washed all the pans, dishes, and other stuff. Then they told us to report back to our barracks, get squared away, and report back to the mess hall at 5 hundred hours for breakfast.”
So…how did breakfast go the next day?
“Well, that’s when we found out,” my father said.
Found out what?
“Both those PT crews caught it the night before,” he said. “They were strafed by German fighters. One was blown out of the water, all hands lost. The other crew was pretty torn up and their boat was in shreds.” His words came out just above a whisper. “I put food on the plates of some guys who were eating their last meal on earth,” he said.
My throat went dry and I can still remember holding on to the steering wheel with a grip so tight that it hurt my hands. It felt like my father was talking to me from a far away place, a place filled with threats, danger, and fear.
“That was when I realized we were really in a war zone and that each day might be my last.” he said. Then he paused and inhaled deeply. It was several moments before he resumed speaking.
“From that day until the Japanese surrendered in 1945, I was scared stiff. I knew that this was no game. On any day, from the air or the land or on the water, the enemy could show up and kill us,” he said. “And we would have to try to kill them.”
For the rest of the trip, the only sound in the car was the radio broadcast of the Phillies’ ballgame. I’m pretty sure they were playing the Chicago Cubs. I was so glad to lose myself in the details of that game–it was a moat welcome distraction.
As we observe Veteran’s Day 2016, let us pause to remember the sacrifices of all who have worn the uniform of the Armed Forces of the United States. And let us remember that we owe them a debt that can never be repaid. They represent the best that we are as Americans.