As an amateur student of history, I try to understand all I can about the whys and hows of each historic event I study. Sometimes I can reach a better understanding of these events; sometimes I just find that I develop more questions. Sometimes I even put a human face on these events and their impact on ordinary people. This is a story of one of those times.
Back when I was a young pup, in my first year of High School, I fell in love (or lust, I don’t think I could tell the difference back then) with a young lady I went to school with. I started spending a lot of time around her house trying to impress her with my charm, wit and good looks. I wasn’t that successful, but I didn’t get run off either, so I figured I had at least a fighting chance of doing myself some good with her. I got to know her folks fairly well; her mom was an invalid with some kind of breathing problem, her dad was a retired Navy man, who was a maintenance supervisor of a couple of apartment complexes. The dad, who’s name was Dallas, was also known as “Shack” short for Shackman. He dearly loved to pull a cork as we say in North Carolina. Now this wasn’t too big a deal to me since I came from a family where both my father and grandfather were alcoholics (As well as a bunch of kin folk on my mother’s side of the family) and I considered it as being somewhat normal to be around people drinking. Shack was for the most part a happy drunk, he didn’t try to fight anyone or act the fool, and he would sing, tell jokes and try to be the life of the party.
There were a few quirks about ol’ Shack however. He never liked to grill out and didn’t even have a grill out in the yard. (Something almost unheard of here in Carolina) If any thing ever got burned in the kitchen he would leave the house. He would also get sick to his stomach if he ever ate or smelled pineapple. He also would get very quiet and really start drinking around the last part of November, first part of December. There were quite a few times around that time of year when I would have to help get him in the house and put him to bed to keep him freezing to death while passed out in the yard. He didn’t like to watch a lot of historical shows on TV and also would not ride in or ever buy a Japanese car. Like I said, just little quirks.
Late one night, Shack and I got to talking. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and I asked him why he had gone into the Navy. He told me that he had joined up at 16, lying about his age to get in because he came from a poor family and the Navy offered him basically “three hots and a cot, which was a lot better that what he had at home with his folks. He told me that he thought he was in tall cotton with a big bowl of pinto beans and some corn bread on the table at home, but the Navy was feeding him meat, white bread, and almost everything else he could ever want. He also told me that he got to see the world, places that he would have never seen if he hadn’t gone in. Shack had been drinking when we started talking and continued drinking as the night got longer. Shack told me that he had served on submarines, the Silent Service as he called it. He said that he was based at Pearl Harbor and was there on December 7th 1941.
Shack said that the sub was having some engine work done, some kind of over haul he thought so they were just hanging about, with nothing to do. Most of the crew was off base since it was the weekend. He remembered that the weather was gorgeous as it was most of the time in Hawaii, One for the tourist as the sailors would say back then. Shack said that he though he had died and gone to heaven while he was in Hawaii. He said he would get a orange maybe once a year at Christmas if he was lucky, but they were eating fresh pineapples and other fresh fruit every day in the navy mess halls.
Shack said he didn’t notice the explosions right away, he said that they were always doing construction all over the harbor and island and had to blast the coral and lava to build stuff. He didn’t also didn’t notice the aircraft either, since they always had some flying over, but soon it dawned on him that the number of airplanes and explosions were out of the norm. That’s when he got scared. (Or as he put it to me, his asshole started puckering) For some reason, the Japanese didn’t take much interest in the area where the subs were based. But Shack had a ring side seat to the interest that the Japanese had in everything else in the harbor.
The sub he was serving on had all its weapons secured so they couldn’t do anything to fight back so they just sat there and watched. He said that several times aircraft flew so low over where he was that he could clearly see (in his words) “the little yellow bastards” flying them. He said he even saw one of the pilots grinning as he flew by, as if the pilot was having the time of his life. Shack told me that he wasn’t sure he would have shot at them even if they had the weapons available since a sub sitting on the surface isn’t one of the best platforms for fighting against what looked to him like every airplane in the entire Japanese Navy flying overhead. He may have said that to me, but I got the strong feeling that he felt really guilty that he didn’t do anything to fight back. After the attack was over, they detached some of the crews of the various ships that were not damaged to serve as fire and rescue parties. They took Shack and a bunch of the other sailors not needed to get the sub up and running to help up with the clean up.
Shack said that they spent most of their time picking up a lot of dead bodies out of the harbor. By the time they got out on the water to do the rescue work, most of the wounded had been picked up, or had made it in on their own. So they couldn’t even say that they were looking for wounded to make themselves feel better, only collecting the dead. They were floating in a thick, heavy layer of bunker oil that was on the surface of the water. Most of them so badly burned that when you would try to pick them up, that the skin would come off in your hands. Like a well cooked chicken according to Shack. He said that his hands were totally covered at times with a slick, slimy coating of cooked meat. There were some so bad that they needed to put a canvas stretcher into the water to place under the body so they could lift it up in one piece. They also tied bodies together to tow them into shallow water so they could recover them. As our talk continued I noticed that he had gotten a far off look in his eyes and was starting to tear up a bit. The level of the bourbon in the bottle he was drinking from was also going down faster and faster. He told me about going near the hulk of the Arizona and the heat from the fires being so bad that they had to take wet cloths and place over their heads so as not to be burned. In a short time he said that the cloths started putting off steam, it was that hot. The small rescue boats they were on had their paint blistered and some of the sailors in the recovery parties looked like they were sunburned from the heat. The uniform he was wearing was so stained with the oil, and so permeated with the smell of burnt flesh that Shack just tossed it in the trash rather than try to get it clean when they were done. Shack told me that he made it a point not to look at any of the faces of any of the bodies that he recovered, since he didn’t want to know if any of them were buddies of his.
Three days later, they sent Shack’s sub out with a full load of torpedoes on its first war patrol with orders to sink anything Japanese they saw. He said that they weren’t sure that the engine would hold together for the entire patrol, but they sent them out anyway so they could maybe get a little pay back. He told me that it was a cold feeling to know that you were going out on a mission like that, but the thought of being considered a coward and having your shipmates look down on you, was a bigger fear than not coming back. He also said that not too many people know today that the torpedoes that Americans used in the early part of the war were bad, and were more dangerous to the Americans than the Japanese, but that would be a story for another time he told me with a little smile.
By that time, Shack was pretty tore back, and couldn’t stand by himself, so I helped him get up from the table and got him to bed. We never talked about his memories or war experiences again. At least at that point I understood his little quirks. The aversion to the smell of burnt flesh, the heavy drinking around Pearl Harbor day, it all made sense then. Unfortunately, this was a time before the knowledge of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, survivor’s guilt and other issues were recognized. Real men didn’t talk about such things, and were considered weak or punks if they did. So Shack, no doubt tried to self medicate himself and tried to “suck it up”. I often wonder how I would have reacted if when I was 16, I had gone through the same thing. Looking back at it now after so many years, I am surprised that I was smart enough to figure all this out and to want to help ol’ Shack, but I didn’t know how, and I too, was caught up in the John Wayne “get over it” mentality. So I never asked him about it again. So that was the story of a man who faced personal demons each and every day, and in the end was finally wore down by them. No heroic tales of valor or glory, just a scared man who tried to do the best he could in the situation he was placed in. I am just a little sad that the only person that he could share his story with was a kid like me, who couldn’t help him with dealing with it. I still wonder today why he confided in me on that long cold winter night so long ago.
Shack ended up drinking himself to death a few years later. I sometime wonder if you couldn’t consider him as just one more casualty of that attack on that beautiful December morning.
Since he had honorably retired, and was a survivor of the attack, by his request, he was cremated and his ashes were sprinkled over the water at Pearl Harbor.