On this Memorial Day, let me tell you a story about my family, war, death, and remembrance.
My mother kept a scrapbook, a loose-leaf binder with transparent pages slotted to hold photos and such. In it are pictures of her with a teammate in their high school basketball uniforms, her and Dad in some formal and some frivolous poses, me as a youngster, and my son, Jonathan, as a toddler.
Also in it is a letter from my father, written in pencil on lined paper and dated Oct. 25, 1944. He was a seaman second class aboard the U.S.S. St. Lo. Wartime restrictions didn’t permit him to say where.
With both Christmas and my third birthday coming up, he wondered what gift I might like – an electric train, maybe, or had I entered the cowboy phase? He guessed that his 18-year-old brother Bud, a ship’s cook on the submarine Shark, might be somewhere near him.
After a couple of pages he said he couldn’t think of anything else to write, so he assured Mom he was OK and bade farewell. The letter was postmarked Oct. 30.
He must have been wrong about the date, because on Oct. 25, 1944, the St. Lo was off the coast of the Philippine island of Samar engaged in the largest naval battle in history – the four-day Battle of Leyte Gulf, fought over 100,000 square miles of ocean and involving more than 1,800 airplanes and 800 ships, including the largest warships ever built.
Japan had massed its naval forces for a desperate effort to repel Allied efforts to liberate the Philippines. The effort failed. After taking heavy losses, the Japanese fleet retreated to its home waters and saw little action for the remainder of the war.
The St. Lo was an escort carrier, a class of ship called a “baby flattop” because at 498 feet its flight deck was just over half the length of the faster, better-armed fleet carriers.
For their “extraordinary heroism in action against powerful units of the Japanese Fleet,” the men of the St. Lo received a Presidential United Citation. But the battle had ended in disaster for the St. Lo. As the Japanese fleet was retreating, it launched the first kamikaze attacks – pilots flying their planes to crash into American battleships.
The St. Lo was the first ship sunk by a suicide attack. It went down a half-hour after a fighter crashed onto its deck, igniting massive explosions. Of the 889 men aboard, 113 were killed or missing and some 30 others died of their wounds. Dad was among the survivors.
Dad had been right. Uncle Bud was in the area. On Oct. 24 the Shark torpedoed the Japanese freighter Arisan Maru, but then was destroyed by depth charges from a Japanese destroyer. All 87 men aboard were lost.
On Memorial Day, I think of my Dad, who barely escaped death, and my Uncle Bud, who was lost at sea.
Bud is among the more than a million Americans who have died in military service since our nation’s founding. Looking back, some of the conflicts they fought in seem just and necessary, and others misguided, even foolish. But regardless of how history judges their wars, they gave their lives for their nation. On Memorial Day I honor their service.
Ed Williams retired in 2008 after 25 years as editor of The Observer’s editorial pages.