Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In Which They Served

The destroyer USS Luce in 1944.

The USS Luce was launched in March 1943 and sent to the Pacific theater, where the ship participated in several important naval engagements against the Japanese fleet.

The Luce was sunk by Japanese kamikaze planes on May 4, 1945. The Luce slipped beneath the surface only thirty minutes after one of the planes involved in the kamikaze attack struck the ship’s magazine.

Of the 312 men of the Luce crew, 126 went down with the ship. Of that number, most died instantly upon the explosion of the magazine—but a few were attacked by sharks only minutes after jumping in the water.

By the late stages of the war in the Pacific, sharks had acquired a taste for human flesh and routinely followed ship movements, having learned that a meal might be within easy reach.

My mother has a distant relative who served on the Luce. He was one of the survivors, although he lost an eye as a result of the explosion of the ship’s magazine.

He still lives.

He soon will be 95 years old.

He still drives, and he and his wife still fare for themselves (his wife, for decades, worked for various intelligence agencies, and knew—on a first name basis—many legendary intelligence figures from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s).

The elderly couple goes out for a few hours almost every day. The two remain active in their church, and enjoy visiting their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (One of the granddaughters, like her grandmother, works in intelligence.) They also enjoy dining out at restaurants, which they do several times a week. On occasion, they will dine out more than once a day.

For decades, the U.S. Navy sponsored annual reunions for survivors of the Luce. The reunions were first-class affairs, a fitting tribute by the current armed forces to the bravery and dedication of the fine sailors of the 1940s.

A few years ago, Luce reunions were discontinued. Too few Luce survivors remained living to warrant continuing the annual tributes—and, of those still alive, only a handful enjoyed sufficient health to be able to travel to the reunions.

My mother’s distant relative is now one of only six or seven living survivors of the Luce—and one of only two not living in some type of care facility.

Andrew’s father has a distant relative—also still living—who served in the Merchant Marine during the war. He was assigned to several ships, three of which were sunk in the Atlantic by German U-Boats.

Of the three ships that were lost, most sailors survived one sinking, about half of the crew survived the second—and only three merchant seamen lived to tell about the sinking of the third.

Andrew’s father’s relative is now 89 years old. Although still living at his home, he has suffered from sharply failing health the last two years. He had to stop driving, he is losing his hearing, his kidneys are beginning to malfunction and his mind is weakening. He soon will have to be placed in a care facility.

Neither my mother’s relative nor Andrew’s father’s relative has ever talked about their horrific wartime experiences, not even to their wives.

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