(A group of very youthful bluejackets sunbathing on USS Iowa)
My husband and I sent a copy of Captain McCrea’s War to Elmer, my husband’s 90-year-old cousin who, after 20 years of farming, had recently moved to a retirement community in Nebraska. Some years ago, we attended a family reunion at the farm that Elmer and his wife ran in northeastern Nebraska. At the time, Elmer expressed great interest in my wok editing John McCrea’s memoirs because he too had served in the navy during WW II, although at a far lower rank, he hastened to add.
I was moved and intrigued by Elmer’s letter about our gift. He was amazed by the book’s pictures and was thrilled to have this “lesson in history.” He signed off as “a swabby Electrician’s Mate second class,” and I sensed his pride in the role he had played in defending our country and his powerful emotional connection to that important time.
With his note, Elmer enclosed a recent article written about him when he and his wife moved to their retirement community. Entitled “Brookdale resident fondly remembers his days in the Navy,” the article offers a glimpse of Elmer’s WW II experience, which was very different from John McCrea’s, but important service none the less:
“I was drafted into the Navy. When we went to the induction place, they said ‘Army, Army, Navy, Marine,’ I happened to be the third one so I was in the Navy. This was in 1944.”
[Elmer] graduated from Lincoln High on May 19, and headed off to boot camp in June. He worked on a ship where they delivered ‘frog men.’ These ‘frog men’ were guys dressed in rubber suits, fins, goggles and had good swimming ability. They would set charges out for ships.
Specifically, he was an electrician on an amphibious personnel destroyer, and received his training as such up north in the Great Lakes. [Elmer] said that his most memorable Navy experience out of his two years was WWII’s ending.
“We saw that little boat come up by our ship. We were tied up to the [USS] Missouri, and the Japanese Generals and Admirals were going up the ladder on the Missouri to sign the surrender. We watched, and when it was over, they came back. That was the highlight of my life in the Navy.”
The worst experience [Elmer] remembers about the Navy is a typhoon that came up while his boat was docked at Tokyo Bay. This typhoon ended up destroying two ships and killing 46 men.
I was struck by two features of Elmer’s story. First, his description supports the impression I have from photographs that the lower ranks in Navy ships were full of teenagers and very young adults. It must have been an enormous challenge for commanding officers such as John McCrea to mold these youngsters into an effective fighting team and to maintain their morale when many had never been away from home before. Second, was the randomness that shaped wartime experience. Many battle veterans have spoken of the randomness of death–how some died and others, right next to them, survived. Not only was the draft random, but pure chance determined that Elmer went into the navy and not the army or the marines.
Courtney Upah, “Brookdale resident fondly remembers his days in the Navy,” in “Golden Years,” Wayne Herald (Wayne, NE), December 13, 2016, p. 2.