Casualties of war not mere statistics

Reader Input
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In reference to the Auburn Journal’s Reader Input, (“Twist of fate reunites men 66 years on,” Nov. 11), wherein it was reported three men sitting at the same Navy League meeting table (in Auburn) discovered they each, while serving on separate ships, participated in the battle of Leyte Gulf involving the loss of the light carrier, U.S.S. Princeton, I would like to add an emotional comment. In January 1944, preceding my enlistment in the Navy, I was 16, and an apprentice on Mare Island Naval Shipyard. I was assigned to install and test all stop-fire systems on the dual and quad 40mm guns on the cruiser U.S.S. Birmingham. This assignment resulted in a very close relationship between the ship’s crew and me. A chief petty officer (CPO), when I showed interest, invited me to attend his daily Marlinespike Seamanship (ropework/knot tying) classes. The CPO was a natural leader and someone I would later try to emulate if I found myself in a leadership position. He didn’t issue orders. Everyone happily did whatever he suggested. He was the source of good morale and happy attitudes in his division. The sailors in that class were typical, happy young men of the era — one or two years older than me. They became the best friends of my life. I took two or three of them home with me on nights and weekends. They liked my mother’s cooking and she liked their visits. We visited soda fountains in town and I introduced them to high school girls I knew. They said it was like going on leave in their hometowns. They sailed on Feb. 18, 1944. On Nov. 17, I heard the Birmingham was returning. I went to the cruiser docks to welcome my friends. Assisted by tugs, the cruiser sailed past the cruiser docks toward a dry-dock, and I noticed the starboard side and main deck area had suffered heavy battle damage: turrets caved in, main deck strewn with wreckage and destruction, aluminum aircraft propellers sticking into and dangling from the steel hull. I went on board the ship and could find none of my friends. I talked to a young sailor who was sitting on the aircraft catapult. He had a shell-shocked, 40-yard stare, and could hardly communicate. Through suppressed tears he said on Aug. 24 the light carrier, U.S.S. Princeton, had been hit by a single bomb, and the whole ship erupted into an enormous gasoline-fed fire. Destroyers began rescuing survivors and the Birmingham was ordered to fight the fires. The ship had to make direct contact with the burning carrier for hose handlers to transfer between ships. The Princeton suddenly exploded. He said he had been to hell, adding that all of my friends were killed in the explosion; blood gushed out of the deck scuppers with fire hose volume; bodies were everywhere, on and under each other; the CPO I admired was on deck with the lower half of his body missing, flailing his arms yelling for someone to kick him over the side. The Birmingham suffered triple the casualties of the Princeton. It remains my psychological handicap. What I’m saying is battles and casualties are not just ships, ship movements, ship’s crews and statistics, but happy, handsome, young Americans at extreme risk, who give their lives for our country. Don’t forget. Don Hulse, Auburn