Thursday, November 1, 2007

My Dad Was a Hero

“Well hello there, my it’s been a long, long time…” Thanks, Willie, for giving me a nice lead-in today. I’ve been away from this space doing the final mixes for Kimmie Rhodes’ next CD “Walls Fall Down” and I finally got it mastered and in the mail to the pressing plant this morning, so it is time to hit the keyboards again.

Whilst I was off in Musicland, I have been thinking about a lot of different things. We watched all of the Ken Burns series on WWII, which I thought was riveting and brilliantly done, and it set me to thinking about my father. He fought in that war, so the PBS series was very personal for me. When I was a kid I became very interested in war, in guns and tanks and ships and planes. I read Sergeant Rock comics and built models of all the WWII ships and planes and was really just all ate up with it, I know not why. I still am, I guess, and have several large sections of my bookshelves lined with books about it.

I used to ask my father about the war, not being old enough to realize that it might be painful for him, but he would tell me about his experiences in a low-key manner, never exaggerating or playing the hero. He was a gunnery officer in the U.S. Navy on the destroyer USS Helm. When war broke out, he realized he was about to be drafted and, not wanting to crawl through the mud holding a rifle, being shot at like many of his buddies already were, he opted to join the Navy instead, and being a recent college grad, they made him an officer. When they found out he was an avid hunter and a great shot, they sent him to gunnery school at Notre Dame. There he learned the ranges, types, and various abilities of the guns aboard the U.S. ships, and how to man the gunnery tower on a large ship, which coordinated targeting and set the ranges on the ship’s weapons.

This little enclosed perch, like a gun turret, sat on top of the central tower of the ship, over the bridge, and was the topmost thing. It rotated 360 degrees and contained the Gunnery Officer and his sights and rangefinders. The anti-aircraft weapons were literally hooked up to him, so they all fired in unison at the same target. He also calculated the ranges and angles for the big guns that lobbed heavy shells, some as big as a small car, into enemy targets many miles away. This made him a very important part of the ship’s ability to shoot, and so all of the enemy planes would aim for him and his little rotating box.
The USS Helm underway. You can see Joe Gracey, Sr. perched on the roof of his Gunnery Turret, inside of which were his sights and rangefinders. You can also see the depth charges sitting on the rear deck, ready to be rolled into the sea.

He shipped out of San Diego for the Pacific and was assigned to the destroyer USS Helm. He would spend the next three years fighting in every major battle from Coral Sea to Okinawa under Admiral Chester Nimitz (a Fredericksburg Texas German). A destroyer, relatively small and fast and lightly armed with only 5-inch cannons and 40-millimeter antiaircraft repeaters, had several duties in the fleet; one was protecting the outer perimeter of a battle group, headed by a cruiser or battleship, and usually containing at least one carrier. Enemy subs were always prowling around the groups, like giant silent steel sharks, looking for a way in to sink a carrier, so they had their sonar on looking for subs all the time. Several times, he told me, they thought they had a sub detected. A sub which thinks it has been located would generally dive to the bottom and sit there, engines off, silent, hoping the stalker will move on. The Helm had 60 gallon oil drums filled with TNT and a depth sensor on it, so they would set the depth sensor to go off at the depth they thought the sub was at. They’d roll these things over the side of the ship, where they would sink silently through the cold and when they reached the programmed pressure, the dynamite would blow. He told me that several times they did this and soon after, bits of flotsam floated to the surface, along with pieces of human beings, usually lung tissue because it floated. He said it made him feel sorry for the men down there who died. They pulled in some bodies, too, and had to bury the Japanese submariners at sea. They did this many times with American boys too. When a man was buried at sea, they strapped the body to a 5-inch gun shell for ballast and slid him over the side into the icy sea. I never heard my father utter words of hatred for the men he had to fight and kill. I heard him express sadness at their deaths. I don’t think he was particularly fond of the Japanese, or their prewar culture, but then most Americans of that era felt the same way, for good enough reasons. But he didn’t go to war out of hatred but rather out of desperation, literally to save his homeland from evil.

He said that towards the shank end of the war, the Japanese were sending out Kamikazi planes, dedicated suicide pilots, who would make of themselves a flying manned bomb and fly into the decks of our ships. Twice he managed to

Kamikazi plane attacking the Helm

cripple a Kamakazi plane and the pilot attempted one last dying crash into his tower perch, but the planes sailed mere feet away, over the deck, and into the sea. He could see the look on the pilot’s face as he went by, just kids really. He was only 22 himself.

He was there all the way to the end, when they went ashore in Okinawa harbor. He brought back a Japanese officer's sword and a liking for Aussie mutton, and a disdain for shipboard cooking. He and his mates said that “chicken soup” on the menu "meant hot water that the cooks had let a chicken run through once…"

I realized years later that my father suffered from depression, related no doubt to post-traumatic stress disorder, but nobody called it that in those days and he just suffered and we all suffered too. But, he was a hero. A genuine, no-bullshit hero, who just had a terrible job he had to do and he went and did it. He often took us bird hunting and fishing and he was an ace shot because he had such good hand-eye coordination, which I seem to have inherited. Sometimes he comes to me in dreams to tell me things and I know now how much he really loved and admired me, even though he was too frozen to ever say it to me. He was a good man, and a good father, and I wish I had managed to tell him I thought so before he died. I guess this is me telling him now, wherever he is.

So, a toast to Lieutenant Junior Grade Joe Gracey Sr., and Walter Caven and Bostelman and Crimp!, and all of the men who went off to fight in the most honorable war this country has known, if there is such a thing. They were just boys, but heroic boys, and they paid a terrible price that nobody else ever truly understood. Good men all, may you Rest in Peace at last.