Van Christo at his home in Brookline, MA
The morning was bright and sunny, as I pushed briskly through the revolving glass doors of the Boston VA building, I noted a small group of men standing inside. Seated a bit closer and slumped in their chairs were two older men wearing faded baseball hats and jackets, looking straight ahead, not speaking to each other. I studied them for a brief moment, guessed that they were probably waiting for ride, but thought to myself that they both looked really old.
Then, it occurred to me that they were both probably WWII veterans just like me. But, I didn’t feel old as I was wearing a suit , tie and sporting a new straw hat, that my wife, Jane, had given me on our 40th wedding anniversary. I figured that the two seated men and me – the three of us – probably served in WWII . Impulsively, because, I guess I felt proud of them, I turned to them and snapped a military “hand salute” as I walked by. Both men seemed startled, attempted to rise, but fell back in their chairs while slowly raising their right hands to return my salute.
About an hour or so later I left my appointment with a VA Audiologist who had fitted me with hearing aids, and, as I approached the front exit door and passed the still-waiting small group of men, one of them yelled, “Attention – Officer on Deck!” Then, four of the standing veterans quickly stood up at attention and saluted me as I passed.
I returned the salute, smiled and walked outside to the VA parking lot. I smiled because I was not an officer.
February 10, 1944
The whole country was behind America’s war effort, because, WWII was clearly a battle between the good guys and the bad guys.
I finally enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 16. Back then, the minimum age to join U.S. military services was 18, however, because the U.S. Navy had suffered heavy losses at Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea where many American ships were either sunk or damaged, only the Navy had lowered its enlistment age to 17 and a half.
Because I was born in Albania, I was unable to produce proof of birth because of the war then raging in Europe. I desperately wanted to join the U.S. Navy although I was only 16, and, for weeks, I badgered my mother, and, especially, my father, to swear in front of a Notary Public that I was 17 and a half years old ,the legal age to join the Navy. My mother, often tearfully, always resisted my entreaties insisting that I was much too young. She even brought in a heavy-gun uncle who pointed at me shouting NO! NO! NO!
Gradually, I wore down all resistance. My parents relented so my father and I went to a Notary Public where, right hand raised, my father swore that I was17 and half years old. I felt a bit smug because I believed I had put one over on the Navy recruitment officer. I was only slightly disappointed that he barely glanced at the notarized paper as he swore me in to join the U.S. Navy.
Because of America’s urgency to push recruits into the fleet as soon as possible, I was given only five and a half weeks of Basic Training – instead of the customary 12 – at the Sampson, NY, Naval Base. After a 5-day leave – barely long enough to show off my new Navy uniform to family, friends and, especially, a couple of girls that I hoped to impress, I returned to Sampson and was immediately shipped by troop train to Charleston, South Carolina, to attend pre-commissioning school where I learned I was to serve on board a new destroyer escort to be commissioned on May 23, 1944, as the U.S.S. Chaffee, DE 230.
January 23, 1945
I was standing Quartermaster Watch during American landings in the Philippine Islands to regain control from the Japanese, where my ship was patrolling Luzon’s Lingayen Gulf. At 11:15pm, a squadron of three Japanese “Betty” torpedo bombers was spotted by the Chaffee’s radar.
The battle stations alarm was sounded as the Chaffee readied for an attack. Two of the Japanese bombers, or bogies as we called them, disappeared over the horizon, but the third plane made a wide turn in the direction of Lingayen harbor where other U.S. Navy ships including the battleship USS Pennsylvania were anchored.
The Chaffee’s skipper, A.C. Jones, ordered the ship to turn towards the oncoming Japanese bomber, but, too late, as the “Betty” dropped its torpedo and struck the Chaffee in the bow below the waterline. Although the Chaffee sustained damage, there were no fatalities, and the Chaffee sealed off forward compartments filling with water.
On most military vessels over 1500 tons, there are two locations from which the ship could be guided, steered and propelled. The primary location was the Pilot House, or Bridge located at the top front of the ship. The secondary location, used in an emergency, was a facility called After Steering, located below decks in the stern of the ship.
After hearing a loud horn signal from the Bridge, the helmsman at the After Steering station – immediately engages a clutch, and after a momentary shudder of the ship, he assumes both steering control and compass course directions of the ship. This feature proved to be critically important during the war in the Pacific corridor, as the pilot house was invariably the primary destination and target of all Japanese Kamikaze suicide pilots. I was proud that the battle station chosen for me on board the Chaffee was the helmsman at After Steering, as I was then only 17 years old, and the youngest sailor on the Chaffee.
During the attack, I couldn’t see the action from below deck, but I could feel the torpedo hit as the ship heaved up slightly in the bow and then rolled sideways for a few moments until it righted itself and proceeded steady on course.
On the morning following the torpedo attack, two officers from the Chaffee boarded the battleship Pennsylvania, seeking to acquire spare parts to make temporary repairs to the bow. But when the Chaffee officers came aboard the Pennsylvania, they were greeted like royalty since the crew of the Pennsylvania believed that the Chaffee intentionally intercepted the Japanese torpedo in a heroic effort to sacrifice itself to protect the Pennsylvania that represented a huge and easy target.
But that was not really the case since the Chaffee got hit by the torpedo because it couldn’t get out of the way fast enough! Had the Chaffee not received the hit, the torpedo would certainly have struck the Pennsylvania in its Forward Boiler Room thus causing serious damage, or maybe even sinking!
When our two officers returned from the Pennsylvania to the Chaffee, they brought back 6 gallons of ice cream from the grateful crew of the Pennsylvania. For this actual wartime encounter between the Japanese torpedo bomber and the Chaffee, our crew was awarded the Philippine Liberation Medal with Bronze Star.
August 6, 1945
I was standing Quartermaster watch in the Chaffee’s Pilot House when a radioman bounded up the stairs from the Radio Shack just below. He rushed by me, jumping up the 3 steps leading to the Flying Bridge where he handed the skipper a radiogram stating that an American bomber had dropped a single bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, causing massive destruction and enormous casualties.
As the skipper read the message aloud to those standing on the flying bridge, we were all quiet – there were no cheers, no shouts of joy, just a single voice that said, “I think it may be some kind of a radio bomb.”
My buddy said, with a certain amount of fear in his voice, “Just one bomb, what the fuck is that?”
September 2, 1945
The Chaffee was anchored in Buckner Bay, Okinawa, when it was announced over the PA system that the Japanese had surrendered. The shouts of “Hooray”, “Wow!” and Holy Shit, sounded everywhere aboard the ship .
For me, there was a moment of disbelief as it slowly began to sink in that the end of the war would mean going home!
The Chaffee, was anchored in Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines. when we received orders to depart for Pearl Harbor, and, then, on to San Francisco, where I would receive final orders to proceed to a Receiving Station – the Fargo Building in Boston – to be processed for final discharge from the U.S. Navy.
Entering Pearl Harbor, we cruised by in total silence as we witnessed the U.S.S. Missouri and other sunken U.S. Navy ships bombed during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. We were also aware that there were thousands of American sailors still entombed in the sunken battleship Arizona. The crew quietly saluted as we passed by.
After we tied up, most of the Chaffee’s crew was given liberty ashore where we wore our long stowed-away dress white uniforms, and headed to a highly recommended restaurant, where we ordered big steaks with all the trimmings, along with drinks, drinks, drinks.