Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day: My father's war

My father, Ben McCulloch, died a year ago, shortly before his 84th birthday, without ever telling any war stories. At least as far as I know. I never heard any. I had to do some research to find out that he did have some to tell.

He had 2 young children at the time he went into the Navy in early 1944. I suspect he was about to get drafted. I'll have to ask my mother about that. After boot camp and being trained as a quartermaster--which in the WWII Navy, I don't know about nowadays, was a steersman--he shipped aboard the USS St. Louis, a light cruiser which had put in for repairs in San Diego after heavy damage by a bomb.

After a brief stop in Hawaii, his ship was immediately sent, part of a huge fleet, to support MacArthur's Philippine invasion. Admiral Nimitz had opposed the invasion as unnecessary, and ordinary sailors like my father considered MacArthur a showboat, and a threat to their well-being. Evidently this sentiment had percolated down from the Navy high command. Anyway, the Japanese fleet and whatever air power the Japanese had available engaged the American fleet at Leyte Gulf. The Japanese fleet was destroyed, but with considerable American losses.

You can read about Leyte Gulf in Wickipedia. It's very complicated; the sort of thing that military wonks love to rehash and argue about. Admiral Halsey apparently made some serious errors. But one thing is obvious, and that is that from the POV of a sailor on any individual ship, the battle was confusing, prolonged, and terrifying. It went on for days (for the St. Louis, from the 16th to the 28th of November, 1944), in and out of the maze of islands between Luzon and Mindanao. The Japanese first used kamikaze attacks here. My father's ship was attacked by air 33 times, by kamikazes and air-launched torpedos. It was hit twice, by suicide attacks, on the same day, November 27th. This was about a month after he had walked up the gangplank in San Diego.

The St. Louis, though listing seriously, did not sink, but was put out of action until extensive repairs were done. Sixteen men were killed, twenty one were wounded badly enough to be sent home, and twenty two men were wounded but continued on board. This was of about 800 men on the ship.

This incident was a minor event in the Second World War, of concern only to the crew. And my father never mentioned it.

The St. Louis came under fire many times from then until the end of the war, especially off Okinawa, but none of her crew were killed.

My father did not come home when the war ended, a matter of some distress for my mother. The St. Louis did patrol duty for several months on the Yangtze River in China, and ferried part of Chiang Kai-Shek's army to Taiwan, then known as Formosa.

The only part of my father's war I ever heard him talk about was the part after the war ended, in China.

He brought back some hand carved chests and wooden statues he bought in Shanghai. My mother still keeps mementos in the ornate wooden chests smelling of tung oil.

USS St. Louis at the moment it was struck by kamikaze, Leyte Gulf, from Navy archives

My father and his brothers, all at home on leave, 1945. My father is the one in the white cap

No comments: