Friday, April 15, 2011

And The Last Shall Be First

Everyone on board ducked instinctively as the plane roared in at rooftop level, so close that the shipboard gunners could see the facial features of the Japanese pilot as he tried to maneuver his disintegrating, burning aircraft into the ship’s superstructure. The plane narrowly missed and cartwheeled into the sea on the other side of the light cruiser Vincennes, throwing up a terrific geyser of water.

Another Japanese plane hurtled towards the ship as Marine and Navy personnel brought their guns to bear on it, while behind it two more Japanese planes streaked in low off the horizon. In 1945 my Uncle Harry, the officer in command of the Vincennes’ Marine-manned anti-aircraft batteries, received the bronze star for his resolute actions on this day of hellish combat filled with swarming enemy encounters similar to this. (Right: Me and my Uncle Harry, on the right, in 2010.)

Admiral Halsey’s Fast Carrier Attack Group had just conducted a devastating carrier-based bombing raid against Japan, and Uncle Harry’s light cruiser and another one were left behind by the departing task force to defend a damaged aircraft carrier as it limped away from the Japanese mainland at a speed of only a few knots an hour. All the subsequent day the lonely trio of ships fended off numerous enemy attacks before the Americans got safely out of range of Japanese land-based planes.

Uncle Harry passed away last night at age 87, the last of the many World War II veterans that I used to know. His daughter, my cousin, and her family were with him at the end just before he joined the rest of his family and his brothers in arms, to live on forever in our memory.