Their hair was white and thin, their skin wrinkled and spotted. Their hands shook, their joints were rheumy; their eyes watered. Some were soft-spoken, some loud. They couldn’t always hear the questions we asked; they couldn’t hear each other. But at the end of the day, they stood arm in arm – brothers in arms still, though the war ended sixty-five years ago.
I imagined another in their ranks: one who might have stood by their side. I like to imagine that he would have stood by mine. I don’t know. He was my grandfather. He died in 1984, but forty years earlier, he was in the Navy, playing his part in the largest amphibious attack during World War II. It was the battle of Okinawa – Operation Iceburg -- an 82-day-long operation that would result in the highest number of casualties in the Pacific Theater. The Japanese called it the Rain of Steel.
I was thirteen when my grandfather died. He had suffered several heart attacks during the past year, strokes too – each one sending him to the VA hospital. We lived in Northern California at the time. Each time, my grandmother called and told Dad: this could be it. He would get in his Sentra and drive all night to be by his father’s side.
But we were all home the night the call actually came. It was the middle of July and my sisters and I were watching a movie on TV. I remember being concerned because the phone rang so late. I tip-toed into the kitchen to eavesdrop. My dad was leaning against the counter; my mom was by his side.
“Oh, he did,” Dad said into the receiver.
I crept back into the living room, feeling a little better. That’s not what someone would say if his dad had died, right? I didn’t understand death then, having no experience with it. I imagined immediate acceptance, audible grief. I didn’t understand shock, denial or stoicism. Not until my parents came in later to tell us that Grandpa was gone.
I don’t remember what everyone else did after that. I went into the bathroom and sat on the floor, crying into a towel. I didn’t have a lot of memories to console me – or add weight to my grief.
I remembered visits to Arizona and the boredom I felt as my parents and grandparents sat, talking, talking, talking. My sisters and I struggled to entertain ourselves. There were books we had already read and well-worked Madlibs and Fun Pads; there was a porch swing and lizards, if you could catch them. Not much else.
But memories of Grandpa in particular?
I remember very little. He liked to tease grocery store clerks, eliciting smiles. He held my grandmother’s hand. He wouldn’t pass by her in the house without touching her shoulder.
They visited us once when we lived in Northern Idaho. I got a kick out of them because they showed up wearing Nikes. I didn’t even have Nikes. They got in a fender bender after church that Sunday. I had been watching them from the back window of our car and saw the whole thing. My parents were oblivious, chatting in the front seat.
“Dad!” I yelled.
“Jennifer, don’t interrupt,” he said.
“But Grandma and Grandpa just got in an accident!”
When I was very little, I sat on Grandpa’s lap, playing with his belt buckle. “Why do you have a belt,” I asked him. “You don’t have any little girls.” (I thought belts were for spankings, not for holding up pants.) But that memory isn’t really mine – just one repeated so often, I imagine that I remember.
As I sat on the bathroom floor, these thoughts passed through my mind, but mostly I thought about memories I hadn’t made. At thirteen, I was just old enough to start thinking outside myself. There were things I wanted to ask Grandpa. Things I wanted to know about him – about his life. Now I would never have the chance.
As I got older, my grandmother helped me fill in some of the blanks. My father did too. But Grandpa, like many of his generation, didn’t spend a lot of time talking about his service. The horrors of war were left on the battlefield, or in his case, in the depths of the Pacific.
After boot camp in San Diego, my grandfather became part of the crew of the USS Shelikof, a seaplane tender that was built in Houghton, Washington, and commissioned in April of 1944. My grandfather would be aboard her for seventeen months. Before he sailed, he wrote my grandmother poetry on Naval stationery:
…When I am on the deep blue sea,
Your love and prayers will protect me…
They sailed to Eniwetok, where the Shelikof’s ability to repair aircraft radars was enhance, and then to Saipan, where the crew went ashore daily to help clear away debris, transforming a former Japanese base into one that could support U.S. planes. For three months after that, they shuttled spare parts and supplies between Saipan, Guam and Ulithi Atoll.
In March of 1945, they sailed to Okinawa to participate in Operation Iceberg.
Seaplane tenders were the first aircraft carriers. The Shelikof was one of the smaller ones: it could lift one seaplane (PBY) at a time aboard for service, maintenance or repair. That may not seem impressive, but the PBYs were instrumental in winning the war: used to find submarines, patrol, escort convoys and perform search and rescue. A PBY could fly twenty hours on one load of fuel – fuel that was highly explosive and stored aboard ships like the Shelikof.
My grandfather’s job wasn’t glamorous. He worked as a fireman: a dirty job, shoveling coal in to furnaces that kept the engines running. He spent most of his time below deck, often unaware of what was happening above. The Shelikof and other seaplane tenders were under constant attack during April of 1945. Grandpa would only hear about the countless kamikaze attacks later from other seamen.
Allied forces suffered 50,000 casualties during the Battle of Okinawa. Amazingly, only two of them were recorded aboard the Shelikof, when two men were wounded from friendly fire.
The Shelikof returned state side in October of 1945. My grandfather suffered no physical injuries, but he came home wounded on the inside. He was angry that he had missed so much time with his wife and children; angry that his little boy didn’t recognize him.
He was too angry to worship God, he told my grandmother.
I don’t know how long his anger lasted. I imagine the Rain of Steel had seeped into his bones, fired by the furnaces he fed for seventeen months. But I also imagine the soothing showers he returned to: My grandmother’s tenderness and patience, the love she felt for him and God slowly washing it all away.
…Sweetheart, bear with me while I am away,
And with God’s help, I’ll return someday…
Maybe Grandpa remembered the words of his own poetry too, and the prayer that had been answered.
Grandma told me with pride about the day Grandpa marched forward from the back of the church building to be baptized. He was a faithful Christian for the rest of his life, eventually becoming an elder in the church. I still hear from people who learned about God from my grandfather. It amazes me: the genuine joy I’ve seen in their eyes when someone introduces me, saying: “This is Cliff and Mattie Boyer’s granddaughter.”
When I sat listening to those men at the Warhawk Museum, I thought not only about the time they spent in service, but of the lives they lived afterward. I looked at the kids sitting in front of them, listening to their stories. Do they understand? Did I?
On this Memorial Day, I still don’t understand what our servicemen and women go through. I know some suffer more than others, but I’ve also learned that even those who come home unscratched bear scars that do not show. So please: love them, pray for them – and be kind and patient with them when they return with war still heavy on their shoulders. God bless them all.