Saluting Our Veterans
Fighting Battles in War and in Life
The Japanese torpedo hit the engine room of the U.S.S. Quincy in the very early morning hours between August 8 and 9, 1942. The Quincy, part of Task Force 18 allocated to the invasion of Guadalcanal during WWII, was on patrol off Savo Island.
Ernest Wacker, a machinist’s mate, was on watch that night. General quarters had sounded, but “a man on watch, stays on watch,” so rather than return to the engine room, Wacker stayed on deck as the Japanese naval fleet commenced a surprise attack on the Quincy and her sister ships, the Astoria and Vincennes.
The monolithic cruiser, trapped in the crossfire of three Japanese cruisers, suffered a barrage of gunfire and three torpedo hits, two from the Tenryu and one from the Aoba. Less than half an hour later, the Quincy was sinking. As those still alive began to abandon ship, Wacker made his way to the side, stopping to help a shipmate who, he quickly realized, was already dead. He jumped into the water, putting his faith in his “Mae West” life vest since he didn’t know how to swim. But the life vest and Wacker’s meager attempts to paddle clear of the wreckage were no match for the sinking hulk, and he was sucked beneath the dark water.
Years later he told his son-in-law, my father (also a Navy man), that your life really does flash before your eyes.
At some point, either the ship halted its descent or my grandfather–lungs bruised from the excessive change in pressure–somehow broke free of the force and rose back to the surface, hitting his head on some empty canisters. Tucking one under each arm, he used them to buoy himself until a struggling shipmate with no life vest swam near, and my grandfather pushed one of the canisters toward the man.
He recalled floating in the water amidst fire, wreckage, the dead, the wounded, and the living, eventually hearing the screams of those who had escaped the enemy only to fall prey to the ocean’s predators. About four hours later, my grandfather and hundreds of other survivors were rescued by the U.S.S. Ellet.
By the following November, he was aboard his next ship, the U.S.S. Charles Ausburne, a 2100-ton destroyer. The Ausburne was the flagship of Squadron Commander Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke’s
Little Beaver Squadron and would come to earn that name in the latter part of 1943 in the Solomon Islands campaign. A yellowed, hand-illustrated “news release” in my grandfather’s mementos notes that it was during those operations that “Destroyer Squadron 23 [consisting of the Ausburne, Claxton, Dyson, Spence, Converse and Stanly] earned her name of the ‘“Little Beaver Squadron.”
Those mementos also include a stack of communications sent by other ships, captains, and one famous general after various operations over the three years my grandfather served on the Ausburne.
“The Little Beavers, have once again beaten the enemy in their own waters. The squadron commander congratulates all hands and is proud to belong to an organization of such brothers-in-arms. Well done, Beavers, well done.”
“Please express to [Commander Destroyer Squadron] Twenty-Three and his officers and men my admiration at their splendid accomplishment. It was a magnificent victory, for them.”
–General Douglas Macarthur
My grandfather served on the Ausburne until he was honorably discharged in October 1945.
Like many veterans did after their service ended, he headed home to find work, start a family, and eventually teach his children and grandchildren the same values and love of country he and thousands of his fellow soldiers and others had risked–or lost–their lives to protect.
Affectionately known as “Lefty”, my grandfather and my grandmother Adelyn settled in Chicago, working hard to build a solid home, raising one daughter; and in later years, enjoying watching my brother and me grow up and have children of our own.
My grandfather rarely talked about his service during WWII, except to share memories over the years with my father and with his surviving Navy buddies during rare, but long, phone conversations. These veterans may have been separated by hundreds of miles, but they were forever part of each other’s stories.
But my grandfather wasn’t finished fighting battles. In 1990, as stealthily as any enemy fleet operating beneath the cover of darkness, brain cancer struck this otherwise healthy and hearty man. So began a seven-year battle, longer than the years he had served in the Navy.
By the time my brother and I were older and truly grasped the importance of family stories, our grandfather wasn’t well enough to remember many of them. Over the years the disease and its treatments turned his mind into a war-torn world unto itself. He passed away in 1998, a shell of the man he had been, but loved, respected, and missed no less.
Amanda Cleary Eastep is a freelance marketing writer for businesses and universities at Word Ninja. She believes words should not only inform, but also offer encouragement and hope. She blogs about faith, family and life change at “Living Between the Lines.”
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