Charleston welcomed us with a smothering, suffocating, hellish warmth and remained faithful to my misery and discomfort until the perfectly beautiful, mid-70-degree day of our departure... (The equivalent in my mind of a rainy weekend at the beach with the sun coming out shining as you're packing up your crap to head home.) Determined to make the best of the gorgeous day before leaving, we walked about downtown, gorged ourselves one last time on delectable food, and decided to ride out for a brief visit to the USS Yorktown, a WWII aircraft carrier.
Having been aboard the USS North Carolina battleship on numerous occasions and having limited time, I figured the insides of one WWII era ship probably looked pretty much the same as another and so not wanting to get lost for hours in her bowels, I stuck to the upper decks. The flight deck presented a wonderful opportunity for harbor photographs and so there I was shooting away when I overheard a family, an elderly couple and their beautiful grown granddaughter, discussing how to take a picture of the three of them. Needless to say, I turned to them and offered to do the honor.
Little did I know what an honor it would be...
The handsome elderly gentleman turned and handed me his camera with soft trembling hands and I snapped two shots of the smiling threesome against the flight deck's railing, overlooking the harbor. As I returned the camera to its owner, I noticed his navy blue cap read, "USS Yorktown CV-10"... and a small chill of excitement overcame me as my eyes landed upon his veteran's badge.
"You served on this ship," I said, more of a statement to myself.
With a proud smile and a twinkle in his eyes, he replied, "Yes ma'am I did."
"So I am looking at history..."
"I bet you can tell some stories."
"How much time do you have?" his wife interjected with a chuckle.
And I listened to him as long as he would talk...
His name is Dick and he was a Navy musician aboard the USS Yorktown during WWII. He played the woodwinds and only just retired in 2000 -- played everywhere but the White House.
He met his wife on a blind date and it worked out pretty well; they were married in 1944, during the war.
He told me about the time a kamikaze attacked the Yorktown and had circled around for a suicide dive... The gunners were ready and opened fire; when the smoke cleared, there was nothing left of him.
He told me about a time in 1944 when they were stationed somewhere in the South Pacific and were caught in a typhoon with waves crashing over the 80 foot flight deck.
And he told me about watching the USS Lincoln burn for hours and hours from miles away.
His wife recalled the day she found out the war was over and ran into a restaurant shouting, "The war is over!" Complete strangers were hugging and kissing one another, dancing and laughing she said with tears in her eyes. She remembered it like it was yesterday so overcome with emotion. We all stood for a moment wiping our tears. --I cannot begin to imagine what that moment must have felt like...
I said to Dick, "Must have been a big party on the ship that night?"
"Not really," he said, "the Japs didn't believe the war was over and we had to keep fighting 'em for two more weeks."
I learned that Dick and his wife have six grandchildren and each one has gotten a personal tour of the USS Yorktown by their grandfather. This was his last grandchild and his last tour.
I wondered if their granddaughter, a recent college graduate, had any idea how very fortunate she was and recognized the value in the knowledge and history that was given to her on that day... But when I was her age, I didn't. --I wish I had listened more to my grandfather, Sgt. Archie Johnson, Jr., on the rare occasion he talked about his time in service. He was a tank commander in WWII. I wish he had still been alive when I was stationed in Germany so I could have asked him about the places I visited and traveled - where he had been and the things he had seen? Wish I would have recorded him and wrote it all down. Wish I would have talked to him more.
When I decided I had monopolized their time long enough, I asked Dick if I could take his photograph. He kindly obliged.
I got their address and plan to send them prints. I really hope they like it.
As I turned to leave, I did something that I had never done before, and I'm not sure exactly why I haven't; I thanked him for his service.
Perhaps because I never thought to thank my grandfather...
He smiled a humble smile and nodded.
"This extraordinary war in which we are engaged falls heavily upon all classes of people, but the most heavily upon the soldier. For it has been said, all that a man hath will he give for his life; and while all contribute of their substance, the soldier puts his life at stake, and often yields it up in his country's cause. The highest merit, then, is due to the soldier."