Donna Hartley: He can call me anything he wants to

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My father-in-law passed away in 2002, and like so many war veterans, said very little about his naval service in the Pacific during the brutal days of World War II.

He was, as far as we knew, an ordinary sailor among the thousands on one of so many fighting ships that passed into the history of the time. He seldom broke his silence except on very few occasions when he'd remember some funny anecdote or quip that someone had passed around to lighten the daily hardships.
One amusing little anecdote he occasionally spoke of turned out to have a startling story from a much larger tapestry, which we only fully realized years after his death.

It seems his ship was on rescue duty one day and the crew was pulling men out of the oil-soaked water after a sinking. Dad had asked one filthy man he had tugged aboard, "Are you okay, buddy?" The man replied that he was alright and someone else immediately snapped at Dad with, "That's the ship's captain you just referred to as "buddy." The captain snapped back, "He can call me anything he wants to; he just pulled me out of the water."
First of all dad's ship was an LCS, a small shallow draft craft or Landing Craft Support known as a fighting amphibian or a "mighty midget." The ship was tasked with an assortment of odd and dangerous assignments which we read about fairly recently.

I never remembered hearing the words Iwo Jima or Okinawa pass his lips, although his ship, LCS 56, was there in the thick of the fighting on both occasions. They cleared mines, engaged kamikazes on a picket line intent on targeting the large battlewagons and carriers, fired at anything and everything in their path and did rescue work whenever necessary.

Our own sons grew up with the navy and when our older son joined the naval reserve himself, he developed an interest as an amateur naval historian with a primary focus on World War II's Pacific Theater. He began to pull information out of his reluctant grandfather after he had convinced him of his interest.

After Grandpa's death, our son continued to dig into the history of LCS 56, and the rest of the anecdote from that day turned out to be a mere thread in the brutal battle for Okinawa.

The destroyer USS Drexler was hit at Okinawa by two kamikaze aircraft on May 28, 1945 and she sank in a horrible time frame of 49 seconds, killing many of her officers and men. LCS 56 moved in with another vessel while its crew worked frantically to pull every oil-soaked body out of the water. Dad grabbed the captain along with other men that day, and it seems one who would remember him years later.

Our son began to hunt on the Internet for information on the USS Drexler and her survivors and soon found their Web site. A small group of Drexler's survivors is still alive and they maintain contact with one another.

Others don't want to be reminded of the horror and keep quietly out of touch so each man deals with the incident differently. John's inquiries on the Internet took him to the USS Drexler Survivors Reunion Association and introduced him to Gene, an alert and elderly survivor from the group who came onto the Internet to converse with him.

"Who are you and who was your grandfather?" he asked. "I am the grandson of a crewman who was with the LCS 56," our son replied. "What is your name and what was your grandfather's name?" came the next query. "I am John Hartley's grandson and I have the same name," our son answered. The next words sent tingles down our spines when we heard the news. "Your grandfather pulled me out of the water and I would like to meet you. Can you come to the survivor's reunion?"

Our son went to the first reunion in 2006, taking time he had made from a business trip. For the second reunion he did the same, and we joined him in Philadelphia where we met Gene, a small, vibrant man with twinkling eyes and a cheery face, in spite of his years.

It was a sad remembrance and the attendees were families and friends of the deceased as well as the survivors. We watched the small group of elderly men in awe as the Retired Marine Color Guard saluted them aboard the Battleship New Jersey, now at permanent anchor as a memorial in New Jersey's harbor, that chilly summer day in May of 2007.
Ship's reunions are unusual events as they bring crewmen together from different generations who may have served on a ship in the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and/or up through the present. Many have never met before, but they have a mutual bond as they all spent time in a confined society at sea on the same vessel sailing on different oceans at different times, whether in war or peace. Sometimes widows attend to visit with other widows of men who have passed away.

The Drexler had no such history. She was 7 months old when she sank, a youngster by ship's standards. 158 men died and 52 were wounded in the attack including the commanding officer. 199 survivors were picked up off of Okinawa.

The WWII men are a fast-dwindling lot and their ships are long since decommissioned, but families and friends of the crew make these gatherings memorable and comforting. There were seven survivors left at this reunion in 2007, and these are truly our national treasures, men our son will remember meeting long into his own old age.

In the end, I asked our son if Gene was actually pulled out of the sea by his grandfather. He said he didn't know and there must have been frantic confusion amidst an ongoing battle. My husband, a retired navy chief, said that you always remember the man who pulls you out of the water. Every rescued and rescuing crewman was a hero that day. As the Drexler's captain said: "He can call me anything he wants to, he pulled me out of the water."

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