My father’s side of the family hails from Newark, Ohio – or as they say in south central Ohio – Nerk, Ahia. My grandmother, Kay, was the oldest of four children, followed by my great uncles Bud and Bob, and great aunt Jean. She moved to Toledo and married my grandfather. They had my father then my uncle Rick and started living the classic American life of the 1950s David Lynch is so obsessed with. My grandma would bring my dad and uncle back to Newark for a few months every summer when they were young and my dad loved it. He got to play outside with his cousins and friends in a town that was not as rapidly growing as his hometown. It was everything an American kid in the ’50s would love, like Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix in Stand by Me every day. Family was the reason they would return to Newark, and my dad loved his grandparents, and uncles and aunt. By the time I came around into this world, my great-grandparents, grandfather, and great aunt Jean had all died, and the others my dad loved to see every summer in his youth were not as present in my life. I have only been to Newark a handful of times – the last few for funerals for my great uncles. In fact the only person I’ve mentioned who is still alive is my uncle Rick whom I am not at all close with and see maybe once every five years. Since my dad died, uncle Rick’s attendance at Christmas has sharply dropped off.
I’m not here to complain about my drunk uncle and the inevitability of death though. I provide this introduction to my father’s family in order to jump back into their youth and talk about how my great uncle Bud was a badass as well as a lucky son of a gun and how it relates to an event that touched us all and shook the world.
Back in the late 1930s my grandma was in high school at a Catholic institution that may or may not exist anymore. At the time such schools were exclusively staffed and ran by nuns and priests. Furthermore, being within the period known as Vatican I, things were strict and that’s an understatement. My mom has horror stories of the proficiency that nuns at her schools had with rulers and how they would discipline students they deemed unruly (hehe, pun intended) for one reason or another. Thankfully things had mellowed a bit by the time she was in school, and they were downright chill when I was attending Catholic schools. But again, we’re focusing on the way back when.
One day my grandma and her younger siblings were at school and somehow a ruckus was raised. During recess my grandma was cornered by a nun for some silly reason or another and the situation was overblown to the point where the nun was literally in her face. My great uncle Bud didn’t like the berating invasion of his sister’s personal space and did what any good brother who happened to be holding a baseball bat would do: he swung at the nun like she was a fastball screaming across home plate. His home run freed my grandma and knocked the nun sideways onto the ground. Not surprisingly, Bud was not welcome at school anymore so he dropped out. However, no nun ever pestered any of his siblings ever again.
My grandma was so affected by this event that she turned away from the Church and refused to raise her children to be religious. My dad and uncle went to public schools their whole life because my grandma was so afraid that they would be tortured by nuns. My dad would have been all right, although he very well may have done something similar to his uncle Bud. He greatly admired his uncle who went on to be a mechanic, a Boy Scout leader, and a veteran of the United States Navy. In fact, after leaving school, Bud joined the Navy and was stationed on a destroyer in the Pacific. At the time his decision to join the military was not viewed as a concern by my family, despite the conflict breaking out in Europe. There were tensions with the Japanese too, and he was in the Pacific, but back then it was no biggie.
We know now that 74 years ago today was that “date which will live in infamy” as FDR declared the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by the Japanese Navy. The event caught the United States by surprise and brought the country into World War II. As awful as it was for those stationed at the naval base who were killed or injured in the attack, strategically it did little for the Japanese. Firstly, even though 2403 military and 68 civilians were killed, more could have died were the ships taken unawares at sea. Pearl Harbor is relatively shallow – it has an average depth of 45 feet – so it was easier to save sailors and eventually the ships they were on that sank than it would have been were the ships caught unawares in open ocean. Of the eight battleships that were the focal point of the attack four were sunk, but only the U.S.S. Arizona was unable to be raised and salvaged. Six of the eight were repaired and sent back out into service during the war. In total, only three ships were lost without being repaired. The Arizona, the U.S.S. Oklahoma, and the U.S.S. Utah. Arizona was too damaged to salvage, but the other two were considered too old and not worth fixing.
One of the biggest strategic problems for the Japanese forces was that the three U.S. aircraft carriers, the Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga, were all away from Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. The Japanese Navy actually knew this, but opted to go ahead with the attack anyway. Had the ships been present and damaged, then the U.S. Navy would have been severely crippled as it would not be able to bring small aircraft across vast stretches of ocean. As unfortunate as the calamity at Pearl Harbor was, America really dodged a bullet from a potentially much worse attack.
My great uncle Bud also dodged a few literal bullets. His destroyer was one of five (I confess I do not remember which) that was sent to accompany the U.S.S. Lexington carrier and some cruisers en route to Midway Island. As ordered, they departed Pearl Harbor on December 5, 1941, a mere two days before the attack! It seems that while in spite of him taking out some rage on a nun a few years earlier, someone upstairs was looking out for my great uncle after all. Much like how decades later my dad’s helicopter was turned back from Hamburger Hill in Vietnam (as I previously featured in a post with excerpts from his memoirs), my family had a lucky knack for avoiding major conflicts in wartime.
Today the U.S.S. Arizona is a memorial for not only its crew but everyone who was killed or wounded in the attack on Pearl Harbor. If you find yourself on Oahu in Hawaii, be sure you take some time to visit the site. It’s eerie to see the ship so clearly below you and with pieces still sticking out of the water, yet the memorial is solemn as still seas.
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