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Memorial Day Part II – Remembrance.

May 30, 2011

We have a neighbor in Key West – her name?  Snow Philip.  The daughter of a Navy captain, she spent time on Guam immediately after the war.  Her father was George Philip, and he went down with his ship in the battle for Okinawa near the end of the war.  Snow was kind enough to share an article she wrote about her experience, and I’ll do the same.

*****************

Okinawa is the southernmost of the Ryukus, a chain of volcanic islands

that dangles from the southern end of Japan. It is shaped like a python

digesting a meal:  sixty miles long, only three miles across at its

narrowest point, and fifteen at the widest. Okinawa is the site of the

only land fighting that occurred on Japanese soil during World War II.

My father died there, three miles off the coast, when the USS Twiggs,

the destroyer under his command, was torpedoed and rammed by a kamikaze.

 

The Battle for Okinawa, which raged – really raged – for three months

in the spring of 1945, was one of the longest sustained land and sea

battles ever fought. By mid-June, it seemed to be over. The Japanese

admiral had committed suicide on the island on the thirteenth; and at

noon on the sixteenth, my father’s ship received orders to begin the

long trip home the next day. At 8:30 that night, when the officers had

already plotted their course for the next morning’s scheduled departure

and most of the crew were already in their bunks, a plane came

screaming out of the night toward the ship. Within fifteen minutes, the

ship had been broken in two by an explosion in her magazine, 162 men

had died, and I no longer had a father. My mother, 27 years old, was

left a widow with me and my nine-month-old baby brother.

 

I am one of millions of people whose fathers were killed in action

during the long and awful course of the Second World War. Like many of

my fellow semi-orphans, I have experienced greater feelings of loss and

abandonment in my fifties than ever before. No one seems to know why

this phenomenon of delayed grief is happening, but it is happening all

over the world. Newsletters, support groups, and Web sites have sprung

up as means of helping bewildered adults cope with a lifelong grief

that is only now manifesting itself. Some of us are simply looking for

information about our fathers – who were they, what made them laugh,

who were their friends, did they ever talk about their families left

behind in the States? Some of us are looking for closure — that

over-used buzz-word of the 90s — an end to the restless yearning to

know a parent who lives only in other people’s memories. Some of us

simply want to compare notes on what it was like to grow up as the

child of a war casualty.

When I had an opportunity earlier this month to visit the place where

my father died, I knew immediately that this was something I had to do.

I knew that “closure” was beyond my emotional reach; but I felt that by

going to Okinawa, I would be able to round out my own mental picture of

my father’s last days. Twenty-one years ago, the Navy named a Guided

Missile Frigate for my father. I christened the ship and ever since

then have felt a special bond with her. Now she was planning to deploy

on a Pacific cruise that would include a stopover in Okinawa, the site

of her namesake’s death. A number of the survivors from the Twiggs’

sinking planned to be aboard the USS George Philip in Okinawa. I

planned to be there too. The youngest of these men had been only

seventeen the night in June, 1945 when the Twiggs was blown apart. For

all of the survivors, that night remained a pivotal experience in their

lives, the most vivid and important thing that had ever happened to

them.

 

My brother and I met in San Francisco and flew together to Okinawa. The

island lies on almost exactly the same latitude as Key West, and

stepping outside the airport into the warm humid air gave me a peculiar

feeling of never having left home. The island was decked out in summer

finery: royal poinciana, plumeria, bougainvillea; and the night skies

were the same as Key West’s. But for the first time since 1968, when I

went to Finland, I couldn’t read the local language. The street and

shop signs alone were enough to make me realize that I was very very

far from home.

 

The next morning, the first person I encountered was one of the

survivors. He said to me, “You know, we are all here for your father.”

Our eyes filled with tears and we embraced. He told me that after the

war, he — a South Dakota boy — had gone to my father’s home in Rapid

City to visit my grandparents. He had spent the night in my father’s

childhood room and had never forgotten the experience.

 

Throughout that day, there were reunions. Some of the survivors were

seeing one another for the first time in fifty-four years. Others had

been together in 1995 in San Diego for a fiftieth anniversary memorial

service aboard the USS George Philip. There were laughter, tears,

smiles, handshakes, hugs; but always the somber realization that we

were meeting on this tiny island in the Pacific Ocean in order to

commemorate a long-ago tragedy that had had great significance for all

of us.

 

The USS George Philip steamed into the harbor on the thirteenth, and

the next day we all gathered aboard for the trip out to sea, to the

spot where the Twiggs had been sunk so many years before. Old friend

and comrades, three children of casualties — all of us now in our

fifties — some wives and a grandchild of survivors — all of us were

now together on a ship moving to a tiny point on the globe where a

certain group of men had fought and died.

 

Although the United States Navy knows how to put on a great show,

Neptune gets the credit and thanks for the perfect weather that day —

warm and still with spectacular clouds towering over a calm sea. The

gem-green island receded behind us as the Philip sped over the water at

28 knots, leaving a wake miles long across the gem-blue Pacific.

When we arrived at the place where the Twiggs went down, all of us —

the ship as well as those of us who sailed in her — seemed to retreat

into a quiet place. We gathered on the fantail to honor and remember an

event that had in one way or another shaped all of our lives. A Navy

chaplain opened the service with a bried and reverent invocation. The

skipper of the Philip spoke movingly about George Philip, a man whom he

had never known, but whose namesake ship he was proud to command. The

executive officer gave a brief history of the USS Twiggs, whose history

was indeed brief: she was fated to have a career that lasted just

seventeen months. One of the survivors had prepared a list of names of

the casualties, and my brother and I and four others took it in turns

to read aloud the names of those young men who had perished at sea that

terrible night in a long-ago June. Seven seamen discharged rifles three

times for a twenty-one gun salute; and then the survivors, old men now

in their seventies and eighties, carried a wreath to the stern and let

it fall into the sea to honor their friends and comrades who had come

to rest in that place. A bugler played Taps, and the chaplain gave a

beautiful benediction, and it was over.

 

Except for my brother and me. When the group had dispersed, he and I

went alone to the stern and threw overboard a handful of our mother’s

ashes. Together we watched the little container sink into the still

blue water. After fifty-four years, our parents were in some way

together again. And we were with them.

*************************

The photos are of Asan Beach, where landfall was made to re-occupy the island of Guam.

Each flag represents a story…

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Len Bloom permalink
    May 30, 2011 8:12 am

    Great story, thanks for sharing.

    • dangerboyandpixie permalink*
      May 30, 2011 3:36 pm

      Len –

      Glad you liked. it. Snow’s a neat lady; when we stood amongst the field of flags it dawned on me each one had a story – each story spanning generations.

  2. May 31, 2011 1:04 pm

    Well done, Chuck (and Snow).
    Well done, indeed.

    Greg P. In WV, who took his hat off as the C-130 flew over our house yesterday, headed for the Memorial Day celebration at our carbon-copy of the Arc De Triomphe about 200 yards from our house. Chilling, I tell you.

  3. dangerboyandpixie permalink*
    May 31, 2011 3:53 pm

    Age does change one’s perspective on such things.

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