Are you ever...can you ever...be the same after you have looked the demon of death, in all his dark violence, in the eye? I say with certainty that the ghostly images never stop haunting you, the terrors never pack up and vacate your memory, the wounds of mind and heart never quite heal. You are changed, different forever.
May 8, 1945--V-E Day--for many a time of celebration, tears, and prayers of thanksgiving.
For me, however, a sailor in the Pacific Theatre off Okinawa , there was no time to savor the Allied victory in Europe. For us, the war still raged with a desperate vengeance. My morning began routinely enough, and later I sat my shift in the radio "shack" , taking down Morse Code messages that came in. My destroyer escort, the USS England , was busy with "screening duty" to detect lurking Japanese subs . The day was sunny and cloudless, which intensified the possibility of air attacks, especially by kamikaze pilots. The shipboard atmosphere was tense, with several air alerts. Near dusk, while I was still manning the radio, we received reports that Japanese planes were heading our way.
Only a year before, I'd been sitting in classes as a college freshman. I still lived at home with my folks and earned my tuition with a part-time job. On weekends I hung around with my neighborhood buddies and played with our dog Frisky. My birthday February 26, '44, changed all that. I enlisted in the Navy, ending up on a ship far from home with its familiar daily round. A hard bunk replaced the soft mattress in my bedroom, dehydrated potatoes and powdered eggs were substituted for "real" food, and the Chief Communications Officer stood in my parents' stead as the one in charge.
There were six of us radiomen, working in pairs, twelve hours a day, in our cramped little room in the ship's front section. Between receiving messages, we shared jokes, stories of home, letters and care packages, and dreams of "after the war." Off-hours were devoted to sleep, meals, and limited recreational activities. I didn't have time to befriend many of my shipmates, but the six of us "code takers" bonded like brothers.
That May evening, with an air strike imminent, we were called to "general quarters stations," our battle posts. I handed my headphones to another man and headed for the "20 millimeter clipping room" under the gun mounts amid-ships.
My battle position had originally been forward with the others in my group, but at some point, a fellow radio man asked me to switch with him. I agreed, unaware that this simple decision would save my life but cost Wayne his.
Now a Japanese bomber had targeted us, and despite evasive action tactics and a repeated antiaircraft barrage, the kamikaze hit its mark, detonating its bomb-- destroying the bridge and ...the radio shack.
The ship's lights went black, and I sat in the dark , seeing nothing but hearing too much. Soon someone came and opened the hatch to my "bomb shelter," and I emerged into the chaos and destruction.
Oh, dear God! Men jumping from the burning bridge into debris-strewn waters below! The very smoke and fire of hell with its torment and death!
I raced with others to the door of the radio shack. It was too hot to touch. Someone used a hatchet to turn the wheel and pull it open. Then we wished we hadn't. A rescuer reached out to pull one of the victims from the doorway, but the body crumbled to pieces in his grasp--the skin fried crisp like crumbly toast or bacon. The stench of my mates' burned flesh, the horrific sight of their charred bodies --I had to vomit. All five of them dead. I alone survived.
Due to censorship, I wrote these cryptic lines home: "I am fine at present, physically at least but not always in my other senses...Did many people celebrate the victory in Europe? I hope they're not forgetting the war out here because I never will. I didn't get a chance to celebrate that victory. I'll tell you my reasons when I get back home again... Keep knowing that I will be all right, Mom. I believe your faith has helped me so far. I am looking to God more than I ever did. With Love..."
I had awakened that morning a "raw" 19 year-old boy; but by day's end, I'd aged a million years.
My dad, Frank W. Esselbach (1926-2007), was the surviving radioman. Thirty-seven shipmates died and forty were wounded during this tragic event.
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