Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Bygone Era

*Reprinted from October, 2008

I have observed that the further behind one’s back military service becomes, the more fondly it is remembered. I suppose, given this line of thinking, I will be ready to reenlist when I am approximately 73 years old, at which point I would be more suited to simply wear a VFW hat on July 4th and wave a small flag. The point is that the unpleasantries of war itself and the day-to-day slowly fade away and all we are left remembering is our part in something far greater than the individual and frequently one of the most exciting things we’ve done.

Though he has been involved in innumerable exciting things in his time, my great uncle Lindsey still vividly remembers his Naval service with deep satisfaction. He did well, and had fun doing it.

In 1942, in college in Detroit and not intending to join the service, he received his draft papers. Regardless of his interest, it was coming. As did so many draftees in his position, he took the opportunity to choose his own path as best he could. In October, he enlisted in the Navy, rather than the inevitable Army draft.

Though perhaps he had no prior knowledge of his skill, the Navy designated him an technical engineer and sent him to a base in Oakland, California for extensive training in the young, bourgeoning field of military electronics. More than six months later, he was assigned as a Technical Engineer, 3rd class (E-4) to a still-incomplete vessel, the USS Abercrombie, a destroyer escort.

Similar in purpose to a destroyer, the smaller, slower destroyer escorts had a few minor disadvantages but the ease and lower cost of production greatly increased their popularity and frequency. During the course of the war, the Navy built more than 450, and they were assigned to slow, vulnerable carrier groups where they served mostly as anti-submarine patrols and radar picket duty.

The distinct advantage of being assigned to a ship prior to its being put into service is that the panels are off, inner workings are exposed, and capable engineers are everywhere ready to explain the electrical operations of the vessel. Capitalizing on this opportunity, my uncle Lindsey learned as much as he could. On May 1st, 1944, the USS Abercrombie was commissioned and put into service on the Pacific, sailing almost immediately for the islands of the Philippines.

As best he can explain in it to me, uncle Lindsey’s purpose on his ship was maintenance and repair of the sonar and other sensitive detection equipment. Oddly, he was the only one aboard the vessel with that skill. Being best described as essential personnel, they mostly left him alone.

“I really didn’t do much until things broke, and then they’d come get me and I’d wake up and go fix it. Most of the repairs I could do in about 15 or 20 minutes. I’d get it working again, then I’d go back to bed.” Interestingly, this lone duty assignment seemed to be a relatively common placement for technical engineers. As an E-4 performing a technical position, he shared with great thankfulness that he never had to wash dishes. Good thing. I’d rather clean bilge pumps than get slammed with mess duty.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a few photographs if Lindsey, always smiling impishly, like the photographer pulled him away from a hilarious prank and he’s grinning because he hasn’t been caught yet. Maybe he never was. He fondly remembers his time aboard the Abercrombie, and there are pictures of him relaxing with other young men, hats perched ridiculously far back on their heads, playing with somebody’s personal dog snuck aboard the ship and somehow permitted to remain. Always grinning madly.

While in the Philippines, the USS Abercrombie was quickly caught up in what is now generally accepted as a gross military blunder for the sake of General Douglas MacArthur’s enormous ego. Having left a few years back solemnly declaring that, “I shall return,” he took the nearest opportunity to return to the same area to prance around declaring, “I have returned.” THAT, by the way, is not a fond memory for anybody, and I would be curious to see how many men are dead as a direct or indirect consequence of that man’s arrogance. The reality is that the Navy had little operational interest in the Gulf of Layte, but MacArthur pushed so hard that Nimitz eventually relented and MacArthur got his wishes.

The details of the naval engagements are exceedingly complex, but revolve around a decoy Japanese surface force luring a number of the US escort vessels away from their charges. Those that remained, the carriers, the slower ships, destroyers and destroyer escorts, were left extremely vulnerable to attack, which the Japanese did with two other surface groups. While not directly under attack during that battle (the Battle for Layte Gulf is often considered the largest naval battle in history), the Abercrombie had the misfortune of watching the advancing Japanese fleet approach ever closer and destroy a number of her sister vessels. Uncle Lindsey quietly pointed out that “it could have been terrible.” He has no fondness for MacArthur. The Layte Gulf battle, incidentally, was the first time the Japanese forces used coordinated kamikaze attacks against the Allies.

Later during Uncle Lindsey’s tour (in 1945), his ship served radar picket duty off the coast of Okinawa in support of the campaign to finally wrest it from Japanese control. These destroyer escorts on picket duty bore the brunt of the Japanese forces desperate attempts to keep the Allies from their shores, and the USS Abercrombie tangled with enemy planes (conventional and suicide attacks) on at least 16 documented occasions. She logged two confirmed kills, and at least two assisted. I cannot imagine being on a floating ordinance magazine and watching a crazed, similarly ordinance-packed plane dive on my craft. My uncle didn’t talk about this much. Nor can I particularly blame him.

No more than two months later, the bombs were dropped and the war quickly came to a close. Personnel and ships were quickly slotted for return to the United States. After nearly his entire enlistment overseas, I imagine my uncle had enough points to return fairly quickly.

To quickly plot the story of the ship (which now disconnects with the story of my uncle), the USS Abercrombie arrived in San Pedro, California in November, 1945. Work was commenced to mothball her, and she was soon thereafter towed to San Diego and parked. She was decommissioned on 15 June, 1946, merely two years and fourteen days after her commissioning. Sometime later she was towed to the coast of Washington and anchored again. In May of 1967, she was struck from the Navy’s list, and the next year towed off shore and sunk during extensive naval target practice. It’s rather an inglorious and insignificant demise for a vessel that was home to hundreds for a pivotal time in their young lives. But she is by no means unique in her departure. There were many others.

I have noticed that while enlistment dates are always remembered well, discharge dates are fire off with perfection – consistently. In January, 1946, Uncle Lindsey, now an amazingly senior Technical Engineer 1st class (just below chief), returned to civilian life and made his way back to Detroit to finish his economics degree. A short time after graduation, he would apply to and be accepted to UC Berkley for a masters degree. It was there that he met my great aunt Emogene. That, however, is another story, and one probably much better told by the lovely woman he romanced rather than he. I shall save it for another day.

For more information on the Battle of Layte Gulf, click here.
For more information on the USS Abercrombie, click here.

A Lesson In Commitment

*Reprinted from October, 2008:

As I have promised already, and as I have very much wanted to do myself, I finally sat down with my aunt Em and heard the story of how she and uncle Lindsey met. It was time every bit well spent.

When aunt Em moved into a women’s boarding house in Oakland more than 50 years ago, the mistress that ran the establishment virtually kicked out her charges on the weekends to “go find husbands.” Well, okay… how?

Em and her friend and fellow boarder Ula May dressed to the nines and went to a local dance hall called the German House. It boasted a large dance floor and excellent music, and at times also served drinks – presumably fine German beers, hence the name. Years later, my uncle joked that he picked up his wife in a beer joint, yet I imagine he received a dark look for it and quickly rescinded the remark.

As was the awkward custom of the day, the women would line up on one wall and suspiciously eye the men doing the same on the far wall across the dance floor. The women wished the men would come over, and I suspect the men stood over there at great lengths before summoning the courage (perhaps with the help of the German beers) to stride across and ask a lady to dance.

Em and Ula were uncomfortably standing there when a tall gentleman and his short counterpart (fraternity brothers) sauntered across the room. There was no question of who was going for who. My aunt Em, being quite tall and elegant, was approached by the tall man, and the shorter man went for Ula. Asking Ula to dance, they wandered onto the dance floor. Aunt Em accepted uncle Lindsey’s request and they, too did some dancing.

Ula, who wore glasses and was virtually blind without them (and of course not wearing them) quietly asked Em, “what did the guy I was dancing with look like?” “Oh, he was cute,” remarked Em. Before the evening was out, Lindsey had extracted Em’s phone number.

Always the gentleman, he inquired if he could give them a ride home. “We were taught to NEVER accept a ride home on the first date, so Ula and I walked home.” It was late, the buses had stopped running, so they took off their shoes, wrecked their nylons, and strolled the few miles home alone. A few days later Lindsey called her. They had met on her birthday.

By August, “I had decided that we were going to get married, but Lindsey didn’t know that yet,” she said with a straight face. I stole a glance at my uncle and caught a smirk.

At the time that the two of them met, he was working on a graduate degree in economics, and intended to teach the subject at some college or another. In order to fit in with all the other distinguished professors in the field, he took up the habit of smoking long cigarettes, always dangling from the corner of his mouth. Whenever he spoke, it waggled frantically and it was all my aunt noticed. A mouth with a shaking cigarette.

In late August, I guess he had reached the same conclusion that aunt Em had reached earlier in the month. This was the woman he wanted to marry. He took her out to dinner at a swank restaurant and proposed.

“I THOUGHT he asked me to marry him, but I didn’t hear him clearly. I was afraid to say, ‘YES, I’ll marry you,’ because I wasn’t sure that’s what he had even asked, and then I’d mess it all up. So I had him repeat himself.” Sure enough, he had asked, and she excitedly said yes.

She kept talking, but I wasn’t listening much anymore. I was busy watching, and relishing what I saw. Throughout this conversation I had been intently paying attention to the story, but at some point, the words became unimportant. Of far greater interest was the storyteller.

As she told me how they met, she rested her chin on her hand and, with a small smile, looking unwaveringly at my uncle, she pulled up 59 year old memories as if they were yesterday. My uncle, little smirk still on his face, listened quietly. The attraction that brought them together, the handsome tall guy with the waggling cigarette, the elegant young woman shooed out of the house to “go find a husband,” the love they clearly shared and continue to express, is every bit as strong today – quite likely stronger.

They were married on September 3rd, 1949, in Reno Nevada, at Ula May’s sister’s house (Beulah Ray). After the ceremony, they drove to Lake Tahoe for their honeymoon. As she told me the wedding date, uncle Lindsey interrupted and finished for her. They both remember it fondly.

Though they intended to stay a while in Tahoe, uncle Lindsey, always a shrewd manager of his money, had arranged a house for them in the bay area, and they eagerly returned early to buy new furnishings. Four lovely daughters and fifty-nine years later, they are considering a 60th wedding anniversary party next September.

Aunt Em raised a finger: “We’re still on a trial basis, though, and a year is a long time, but if we’re still together, we’ll have a party. We might get tired of each other, so we just take it one day at a time.” She smiled broadly and he returned the gesture.

When my aunt came home yesterday from running some errands she interrupted herself and blurted, “I’m going to go kiss that old guy on the couch now, if you’ll excuse me.” I know he liked it.

"His sister Ruth said the smartest thing he ever did was marry me. So I like Ruth."

As I read this to them both, it was the same thing again. Aunt Em watching him lovingly. When I finished reading, I asked if it was okay. Aunt Em said it was. Uncle Lindsey feigned bewilderment: “I don’t even know what this is all about.” He gets another dark look. “No, it’s good,” he quickly adds, laughing. “What do you think I was thinking about? The dog?”

I’m confident they’ll continue to work things out, and next year I hope to be there to celebrate with them. After sixty years, sweethearts don’t just share a house, a bed and a life anymore, they share souls. And I enjoy watching that.


Today (12 August, 2009):I wrote these pieces when I spent some time with Uncle Lindsay and Aunt Em in California last year. It is with great sadness that I report that Uncle Lindsay lost his battle with cancer early this morning. He was one month from his 60th wedding anniversary. He is survived by his wife, Em, four daughters, and more grandchildren than I am able to count.

To Uncle Lindsay;

The chivalry, patience, and character exhibited by the Yates boys is
something I have long wished to emulate, and you have my deepest thanks
for the example you have set. You have influenced more than you may
realize. You have four beautiful daughters whom you have reared and
loved superbly, and a saintly wife whose hand and heart you long ago
captured and gently held. You have modeled love well.

I regret not hearing more of your stories, Uncle, for I know you had
scores to tell. But love is a legacy of far greater import, and I have
seen that first-hand. That's what we will all remember.

Go with God, Uncle Lindsay, and I'll see you in the morning.

Copyright © 2008, 2009,
Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Uncle Caesar said...

Amen. It gives me a lump in the throat. I knew him and loved him.

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