Friday, September 01, 2006

AWOL And Ice Cream

My Granddaddy Mayrant has always been my idol. He was, first of all, the most positive male role model in my early life. He was also a war hero, at least to me, part of “The Greatest Generation”. In World War II he went into the Navy. The United States Navy assigned him to a submarine and he told them flatly that he would serve on anything but a submarine. People from Sweetwater Texas don’t tend to like being under water.

The Navy, not being used to sailors who disobeyed orders, pushed back that he would serve on the submarine. He loved his country but he wasn’t getting on that thing. He is probably the only sailor in history to go AWOL and leave a forwarding address. The Military Police picked him up at home, where he said he would be when they got ready for him, and returned him to the base where he was promptly reassigned to a pocket sized aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Gambier Bay. He may have wished he took the submarine.

In June 1944 General Douglas MacArthur was busy cashing in on his “I shall return” promise to the people of the Philippines. In order to do that the United States Navy had to locate the Japanese Navy. Locate it they did, not with big carriers and battleships but with Task Force ??, a group of pocket sized carriers and their destroyer escorts. One of those small carriers was the Gambier Bay.

“Finding” the Japanese Navy meant heavy damage to the carrier group. One saving grace was that the Japanese thought they had found a major task force. They literally thought they were firing at Lexington or Yorktown or some other major carrier. This meant the Japanese sent heavy Cruisers, large, heavily armored ships into what they thought was the opportunity to turn the tide of war back in their favor. The difference this made was that the Japanese were firing heavy armor piercing shells that were literally going all the way through the relatively unarmored carriers without exploding. The shells would come through one side of the ship, fly across the hanger bays and exit the opposite side of the ship.

Many of the ships took heavy damage but none more than the Gambier Bay. In a very brief time the call to “Abandon Ship” was sounded and the U.S.S. Gambier Bay became the first, and only, United States Aircraft Carrier ever to be sunk by Naval gunfire. My Granddaddy actually had the advantage of being in the line of communication coming down from the bridge so he heard all the reports the Captain and Staff officers were giving and receiving during the battle.

In addition to his wartime duties he was busy being “industrious”. Granddaddy is a tea-totaler and has been all his life, including the times when “Liberty” would be declared and beer was somehow made available. Each sailor was rationed a certain amount and Granddaddy, having no use for the ale was glad to sell it for cash or other negotiable items, and there were a lot of negotiable items!

In the midst of the battle there was one funny note. He had a small business up and running aboard ship where he would take scrap metal that was not going to be recycled and form it into jewelry. He would sell it to other sailors who found it very useful as either an exotic gift to send home or a nice gift for a local “girlfriend” in some port of call. Just before he was about to abandon ship he remembered his store of jewelry and turned back to see if he could retrieve it. A Japanese shell exploded and hit the place where he had been standing, the blast had occurred under the side of the ship but the section where he had been was gone. He decided two things: to forget the jewelry and to jump into the water.

He describes the time from when he went under the water until he came back to the surface as the longest time of his life. Shells were exploding in the water and he was temporarily deaf when he finally came back to oxygen. It was a bad situation. The life preservers many of the men had on were now useless, as they had taken so much shrapnel, small bits of flying metal. The holes in their life jackets made them take on water and as a result they were weighing the men down more than they were helping them float.

Granddaddy and a few others found a cargo net with small buoys around edges and somehow, a small raft. There was a man who had had most of his legs shot off and they were able to get him on the raft. Miraculously he survived. They rest of the men took turns exchanging places on the small buoys to keep as many of the men alive as possible. Some of the sailors who went into the water that day died from their wounds, some from hypothermia or fatigue, and some from the sharks. Granddaddy does not like to talk about that part of the story.

His rescue, and the rescue of many others is a miracle itself. The men were in the water for a long period of time. Granddaddy told me 68 hours one time though that seems almost unbelievable. Whatever the time was they were rescued by an American Navy vessel whose Captain disobeyed orders. The ship was running silent, no communication and no lights. The Captain later said that he “felt like God wanted him to turn the lights on”. He did and found himself surrounded by hundreds of men in the water. The men of the Gambier Bay were saved!

I am thankful for that because if he had not been saved there would have been no Mom and no me. And of course I would not be able to tell you about the ice cream. Granddaddy was diagnosed as a diabetic many years ago. He went on medication and “Doctors Orders” to avoid sweets. Once again he showed his penchant for disobeying orders and doing things his way. The only problem was that this time he faced a more formidable enemy than the United States Navy; he faced Granny.

She made sure he “towed the line” in many aspects but he was sneaky. They had a barn out back of the house that had electricity run to it. Inside the barn was a deep freezer where they kept all the food they could not store in the inside freezer. Granny did not venture to the barn very often, usually sending Granddaddy to retrieve whatever she wanted to fix for dinner. Here he saw his opportunity.

His favorite treat has always been strawberry ice cream. He would buy strawberry ice cream and hide it in the freezer. He also was wise, and sneaky, so that along with the cream he hid a spoon. He being Granddaddy and I being the only grandchild at the time a second spoon was soon added to the freezer. Yes, Granddaddy taught me to be sneaky, hide things from others and disobey orders you were not willing to follow.

I guess I can forgive him because he also taught me some great lessons about hard work, sacrifice and integrity, ice cream lying strategies not included. Years later he was no longer diabetic and in his seventies we feel like we “saved” him after surgery by hiding Ensure in an ice cream milk shake. The lesson about sneakiness was well learned! He is now eighty six, is not a diabetic and still loves ice cream; you just have to watch him.

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