In the spring of 1994, I joined the U.S. Naval Reserves. In June of that same year, we remembered the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings, called D-Day. It was a very memorable year for me. As I reflected on the individual sacrifice of the D-Day events and World War II in general, it dawned on me that I hadn’t asked a one very important question. I realized that if I didn’t ask this question soon, I may never get a chance to do so.
A few weeks later, I was sitting across from my grandfather at his favorite local diner. While we were waiting on our meal to be delivered to the table, I took the opportunity to ask my question. As I brought a cup of coffee to my mouth, I said, “Got a question for you?” He looked at me, a bit more focused and said, “Sure”. After downing my sip and returning my cup to the table, I looked at him and said, “Where were you on December 7th, 1941?” After I asked that question, you could see it caused him pause. His normal demeanor had changed to a much more focused stare that could only mean, he was mentally going back in time with my words. With a slight smile, he raised an eyebrow slightly and said simply, “I was in a guy’s car”. Then he took a sip of coffee and went on to describe the events that followed. My grandfather was stationed at Pearl Harbor but had left December 1, 1941. He had just begun what was supposed to be a thirty-day liberty and was headed home for some much needed vacation. My grandfather had arrived at Naval Air Station, Corpus Christie, TX and had begun to “thumb” his way toward Houston. He said, “I was sitting in this guy’s car and we were driving. The windows were down slightly and we were just listening to the radio. Then the announcement came over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
I asked for a more specific location. He said, “We were about in Victoria when we heard the news. I said, “What did you do then? He replied, “I continued on to Houston. I got there and kissed your grandmother and your mother. We said our goodbyes and I started working my way back to Pearl. Your mother was only 11 months old at the time.”
My grandfather reported back to his command at Pearl. A few months later, a couple of men showed up at my grandfather’s house in Houston. They were there to arrest him for failing to sign up for the draft. My grandmother said, “You’ll have to speak to his commanding officer. He’s serving on a destroyer in the Pacific.” After taking down a little information, they tipped their hat and went on their merry way. You see, my grandfather lied about his age when he joined the Navy. I believe he was 16 at the time of his enlistment. He had been in the Navy for about four or five years by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked.
My grandfather was a surface torpedoman on a destroyer. After Pearl Harbor, my grandfather petitioned his command for a release from the Pacific fleet so that he could go fight the German U-Boats in the Atlantic fleet. His repeated requests were denied. During one battle in the Pacific, my grandfather was manning a machine gun on the deck of his destroyer when Japanese Val (dive bomber) dropped a bomb down the stack of his destroyer which exploded and sent shrapnel flying. Luckily, it didn’t sink his ship but it severely crippled it and injured my grandfather. I asked him what happened next, he said, “Well, no one was running toward me to help me, so I figured I’d better just keep firing the machine gun until I was relieved.” I was soon relieved and then sent stateside for some medical attention. While I was in the hospital, my transfer for the Atlantic fleet was approved. After I healed up, I reported to my command in the Atlantic fleet. I produced my orders and my packet to my commanding officer. He was seated at a large table with many other officers. The skipper of the boat looked at my paperwork and then said, “Gentlemen, meet the luckiest man in the Navy. Petty Officer Denson, you missed Pearl Harbor by only six days and the Battle of the Coral Sea by only 10.” My grandfather said, “Yes sir.” The Skipper looked at him and said, “Son, when you leave…bad things happen. You’re never getting off my boat.” With that statement, my grandfather was attached to his commanding officer’s boat for the remainder of the war. He would fight many U-Boats in the north Atlantic as they protected shipping lanes between the United States and Europe. He was even responsible for the sinking of one U-Boat in particular. The boat in question was sitting shallow but submerged. They had dropped a lot of depth charges on it. At one point, they saw some items floating to the surface. He said that it was apparent that the boat was “playing dead”. He remembered from his earlier training manuals that you could steer a torpedo downwards by simply removing the tip and hand tightening the large hand screw that was beneath the cover. My grandfather presented that option to the skipper who approved that procedure to be undertaken. They tightened up that screw and fired another torpedo. This one his its mark. He said that it was very apparent that it was a direct hit and that it wasn’t them “playing dead”.
My grandfather remarked that he often had nightmares like many men returning from battle. I doubt his generation ever sought any kind of mental health care to treat the post traumatic stress. They just dealt with it in their own ways. I’m happy things have changed in this regard. I’m sure there were many who could have used that support had it been available.