Focal Point: Keeping a promise

Published on Thursday, 22 May 2014 11:10 - Written by

 

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Robert Frost

By DAVE BERRY

dvberry@tylerpaper.com

It was a promise.

I kept it, quiet and alone in the musty control room of the old World War II submarine, remembering the man it honored.

I sat awhile in the gauge-filled engine room and tried to imagine the comrades he loved.

And, as I squeezed through a tiny hatchway into the forward torpedo room, I knew why he was so devoted to this boat – the USS Batfish.

Tyler veteran Jim Callanan had confided during our tour of the Navy Museum last year that he didn’t believe any of the submariners who served with him aboard SS-310 in World War II would make another reunion. He was right.

Jim didn’t make it back either.

He had already been gone four months when I wrote about him and made that pledge in November. Now, only two wartime crewmembers remain, both too frail to travel to Muskogee, Oklahoma, for the annual gathering.

But like an extended naval family, others followed in their wake, populating the Batfish crew after the Second World War, crewing the boat during and after the Korean War. They will continue the annual gathering, joined by another larger, younger group of sailors who manned a nuclear-powered sub of the same name, the Batfish (SSN-681). During the Cold War, the 681 lurked silently beneath the waves, monitoring, watching and waiting. When their nuclear boat was decommissioned and scrapped in 1999, the crew rallied around the old diesel-electric boat.

I joined them on a Friday night, an Army draftee amid a rowdy group of sailors, toasting their missing comrades, shedding tears, enjoying their stories and sharing their jokes.

The next day, we assembled again for the “Ringing of the Boats” at Muskogee’s War Memorial Park, where the Batfish now resides. There, we saluted the flag and stood at ease as the ship’s bell rang twice for each of the 65 submarines lost before, during and since the war, leaving more than 4,000 sailors “still on patrol.”

After the ceremony, I slipped away to explore the mysteries of Jim’s old boat, to stand where he stood, to imagine what he thought as death and depth charges rained down from enemy destroyers above… and say goodbye to the heroes of the Navy’s “Silent Service.”

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As Memorial Day approaches, it’s fitting to run a few comments I’ve received from veterans about some of my recent columns:

Joe, an Army veteran from Lindale, responding to the April 23 column, “Thanks, Bob Hope, for Remembering,” said he too attended Bob Hope’s 1972 Christmas show in Long Binh. “I was there, stage right and close,” he said. His company, A/1-12th CAV, was patrolling north of Bien Hoa looking for an NVA base camp when they were selected to attend. “This meant a shower and fresh fatigues, the first in quite awhile. I thought it would be cool for all the folks back home to see us with all our war stuff – rucks with bandoliers, grenades, claymores, rifles, etc.” Flown to Long Binh in a CH47, they were marched to a warehouse and grounded their gear. “A lonesome MP guarded our gear while we watched the show.” He chided me for omitting one celebrity. “Martha Rae made a ‘surprise visit’… well, that’s show business. The rest of my tour was pure infantry, yet the Bob Hope show was pure joy.”

Buck, a captain in the Marines during the Vietnam War, said he got to see Martha Rae perform in 1965. He loved the Nov. 3 column, “Saigon, Sweat and Spades,” saying it brought back memories of his Vietnamese interpreter. The Tyler attorney wonders often if his friend survived the war.

Art, a Navy veteran from Tyler, who served aboard PT boats in the Pacific, liked my column about the hysterical woman who flagged me down along a dark country road (Feb. 23: “Ships That Pass in the Night). Yes, he would have helped her… and worried about the consequences later. Another Joe from Weatherford said he would have done the same thing and made sure she got home – but not without a pistol hidden away.

Art also liked the column on Jennifer Young, a “Donut Dollie” in Vietnam. “Her adventures took me back to November 1945, when I returned from Okinawa and some Red Cross ladies came aboard the APA (attack transport) and passed out donuts and half pints of (real) milk.”

Larry wrote that he liked my column on Capt. Michael Davis O’Donnell and his poetry, (March 16: “Letters from Pleiku”). He was reminded of Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy. Larry said most don’t know the famous Texan was also a composer of poetry and song lyrics. Larry sent Murphy’s most popular poem, “Dusty old helmet, rusty old gun,” which I’ll share with you next week.

Chuck, writing from Austin, said he was moved to tears by the O’Donnell piece. “Thanks for such a moving article,” he wrote.

Cliff, a veteran from Noonday, had his own Bob Hope story. “He was the only Hollywood star I got to see during my two years in Alaska (during the Korean War). Unfortunately, the truck from the “boonies” to Elmendorf AFB was late, and I missed the first half of the show. I did stay around after Hope’s appearance to see the movie “Niagara,” starring Marilyn Monroe. “It was projected on a large outdoor drive-in type screen,” Cliff wrote. “During the scene in which curvy Marilyn is walking away from the audience swinging that lovely rear, a guy in the front row couldn’t stand it anymore. He jumped right through the screen, ending the movie for the rest of us.”

Cliff was also concerned I wouldn’t write about the Korean War, so I asked him to write, which he did in April. His “My Story” contribution was a good one, and the former reporter said it was the “first time in 50 years I’ve had a byline story in the right-hand column above the fold on the front page of a newspaper section.”

Fred, a history buff, liked “Milk Run on the Nine-O-Nine,” my column about a B-17 flight. So did Rita and Hattie, who said the “Nine-O-Nine” gave readers an insight into those airmen who worked together as a team in those cramped quarters. The former English teacher had to point out her favorite sentence: “One by one, the others joined in a chorus of pounding pistons, churning propellers and choking exhaust.” Thanks, Hattie.

And, to the great folks who invited me to speak to the Dogwood Chapter, Vietnam Veterans of America in Palestine, thanks to you all. A special thank you to Jim and AJ, who made it happen. I hope to see you this weekend at the Texas State Railroad’s “16th Annual Salute to the Armed Forces,” where the Palestine Vietnam vets serve as round-the-clock sentinels for the traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall and Cost of Freedom Tribute, set up at the Palestine Depot Friday through Sunday. I’ll be there to honor those on the wall and take a short ride on the Patriot Train. Join us. Look for details atwww.texasstaterr.com .

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Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears on the front of the My Generation section every Wednesday. To everyone who has written – good and bad – I enjoy the notes. To all of you, thanks for reading.