Friday, August 10, 2007

One of my Heroes

So my mother, sister and I, and sometimes my father, have been watching the miniseries adaptation of Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance." They focus on WWII from the late 1930's to the end of the war in Japan. The movies focus around a naval officer and his family (played by Robert Mitchum, who was a bit old, but good in these films nonetheless). From what I've heard they're not 100% historically accurate, but what I like is that they really take time to deconstruct the beginnings of the war on the European front and the ethics of getting involved in the European front from the American perspective. Though the main character starts out as an attache in Germany and later he and his sons serve in the Pacific most of the nitty gritty details of what leads us to the Pacific front are left out - I think because the attack on Pearl Harbor is a pretty blatant reason for immediate action rather than a drawn out ethical discussion as happened with the European front.

Anyways, it's been a good history lesson so far. Since my grandfather is on the young side (born in May 1931 and therefore too young to serve in the war) and my other grandfather died in 1955 I don't really know much more about the war than what I learned in school and what my grandparents could tell me from their perspective, which is still incredibly interesting since my grandfather grew up in Quincy beneath the shadow of the Fore River Shipyard which employed thousands during the Depression and probably even more during WWII as it cranked out aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, thus making his family live better than say my grandmother's family, whose parents lost their jobs in the beginning of the Depression thus forcing them to live on the income they earned by making bread and selling it. Obviously things changed in the 40's because I think my grandmother's father got a job in the shipyard too. Because of the significance of the shipyard, these men kept their jobs there and did not join the military. I know that other family members did serve in WWII, but I do not think they survived the war, or if they did, they were not living when I was born, or I am too young to remember them.

Which brings me to Mr. Lawton. Mr Lawton and his wife went to my church, but we didn't formally meet them until Mr. Lawton hit my dad with his car while my father was crossing the street. He rolled up on the hood and got a good look at the guy then rolled off. Mr Lawton went into a parking lot while my dad kind of laid in the street. Some lady freaked out and ran out of the car and wanted to call an ambulance, but my dad just shook it off (as he often does, it's kind of sick that he shakes off getting hit by a car or cutting his hand open, yet whines like a baby about having a cold. Deranged). My father walked into our church kinda pale and my mother says "you looked like you just got hit by a car" and laughed. My dad just said "I DID!!!" and we went upstairs to thank Baby Jesus for not summoning my father to the heavens that day.
After the service Mr. Lawton and his lovely wife came up to us and apologized PROFUSELY. Then they gave us their insurance information "In case you want to sue us" he said, and Mrs. Lawton bought a jar of homemade jam from another church lady as an apology gift. Luckily my father was gifted with a healthy sense of humor and made a joke of it, saying that you couldn't just "buy him off with a jar of jam." The Lawtons were clearly shaken up over this so we talked to them to calm them down a bit and to reassure them that everything was fine. This was the beginning of a great friendship, actually.

One day my father noticed Mr. Lawton wearing a hat that said "USS Bismarck Sea CVE-95" My father asked "were you in the Navy??" and Mr. Lawton pretty casually was like "yeah. I was a pilot in WWII. The Bismarck Sea was a carrier." My dad gets off on planes. Make it a plane that lands on a boat in the middle of the ocean, sh*t you're golden. My dad was awestruck. "You served in WWII on a CARRIER in the PACIFIC????!!!!!" "Yup" said Mr. Lawton. He was always so casual about it. Later my father said "I'm pretty sure that the Bismarck Sea sank during the war" I was sort of like "yeah ok" but never paid too much mind to it. A few years later, after Mr. Lawton's wife had died and I started landscaping for him, he was sitting on a lawn chair watching me plant impatiens, listening to a big band AM radio station. He said to me "Did I ever tell you about the time my ship sank??" Sh*t I thought. This is gonna be good. There's nothing I like better than learning a bit of history and hearing first hand narratives about stuff like this. I mean I enjoy listening to my parent's stories of growing up in the 50's and 60's, but it's not too often you meet a WWII vet willing to tell you the story of how his ship sank. I had been in Mr. Lawton's house and seen pictures of the ship and the pictures of him, very handsome in his uniform and pilot's gear, but had yet to hear any stories. Cool. I sat back on my heels and said "No, but I'd love to hear it." This is how I remember it:

"Well," began Mr Lawton, "let me I was a pilot in the Navy and I flew planes off the Bismarck Sea in late 1944. In early 1945, we got ready to back the invasion of Iwo Jima. It was February, and the fight was in full swing. On the 21st I took off for some action. I went out and came back in, landed safely. I had just taken off my gloves when I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye. It was a Japanese plane. We got kamikaze-d. The men on the ship tried to put out the fire, but then a second plane hit us. The ship was a loss, and we were ordered to abandon ship. I remember looking for a way off. I knew my only option was to go overboard into the water, which wasn't the best thing for me because I'm a bad bad swimmer and the seas were rough, but the fire left me with no choice. I was grateful I wasn't injured in the attack because it would've made getting off the ship much harder and more dangerous. My only injury in the end was rope burn because after I got out of my plane, I had taken off my gloves so sliding down that rope did a number on my hands. So overboard I went. Now the swells were just unreal, right over my head. Luckily there was a piece of wood floating by and I grabbed it. For hours and into the night I kept that board under my left arm and took big sweeping strokes with my right - did I tell you I didn't really know how to swim? Probably silly when you think about it, working on a ship and all. But luckily I knew enough to stay afloat and ride the swells. The good thing was was that there were two destroyers with us, and I knew they'd pick us up...eventually. I just focused on them and kept paddling along. Sure enough after a while, someone came and got me right out of the water, just like that. Then we watched the flag being raised on Iwo Jima. It was a proud moment. " He sighed, remembering a lot of things, I imagined. Then he straightened up and said "after the war I came home, and Edwina and I moved down to Providence so I could go to Brown on the GI Bill. We lived in married students housing and had a little baby, she was so patient while I studied. Though of course there were other military wives with children so it wasn't so bad for her. Then I worked at the bank. And now here I am."

He smiled at me. I just sat on his driveway in awe of this incredible and incredibly nonchalant man. Sure Mr. Lawton was but one part of a much larger force that fought in WWII but to me he's a living legend and an incredible hero. I feel so blessed to have met him and to have had the privilege of listening to his story first hand. I wish I could capture the wonder of hearing that account first hand in this blog, but I know I can't. I captured in though, not just because "War and Remembrance" made me think of Mr. Lawton, but because Mr. Lawton is in a nursing home now. He sort of lost his will to go on after his wife died and he declined after that, to the point where living on his own was no longer an option. Though I haven't visited him there, my mother says his memory seems to be fading a bit, maybe he's just getting older, maybe he has the first touches of Alzheimer's, I don't really know. What I do know is that I wanted to write down the story of this extraordinary man for the world to see if they like. I've thought about putting his name on one of those websites that's out there, for survivors of the Bismarck Sea, but I don't know if that'd be appropriate or how his family would feel about it, but they can't do a damn thing about my personal blog. So there it is world, there's the story, a story which to me is nothing short of legendary.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My father was on the Bismarck Sea. He died in 1986, however. Interesting story. I wonder if they knew each other.