Friday, August 10, 2012

Letters from my father and a terrible war long ago

My father, David Richardson
SACRAMENTO – I am enjoying being back in my native state, reconnecting with friends and family, enjoying California food and wine, and the sunshine.

A few days ago, Lori and I spent an evening with my sister, Janet. We opened two boxes my sister had rescued from my parents’ house before it was sold. The boxes contained letters written by my father to his parents. He wrote one letter every week, starting in 1937. Hundreds of letters were in those boxes.

We barely made a dent in reading the letters; it was an emotionally draining experience.

My dad wrote letters through his college years and World War II, and on into married life after the war. He wrote one letter a week for the next half-century until his dad died in 1987.

My father died seven years ago after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s.

I would like to give you a snapshot of a few letters from World War II – they give glimpse not just of my dad but also of the era in which he lived and the challenges he and his shipmates faced.

A little background will help. In 1942, my father, David Richardson, enrolled in a Navy officer training program (“V-12”) while a student at the University of California, Berkeley. The V-12 officers were known as “Six-week wonders.”

He was 20 years old.

APc 38, similar to my father's APc 16
Upon graduation, he finished his midshipman studies in New York, was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy, and shipped out to the Pacific War.

He had been trained to be a PT boat skipper, learning to run the fast boats on the Hudson River.

But when he got to New Guinea, there were no PT boats available. So he became the executive officer on a small patrol ship, the APc 16. It had three anti-aircraft guns: fore, aft and amidships. The ship had no other name than its number, and it was slow. It was made of wood.

My dad and his crew spent much of their war patrolling islands looking for downed American pilots. In the invasion of the Philippines, their ship escorted landing craft full of Marines and Army soldiers into the beaches under the fire. To add firepower, the crew of APc 16 supplemented the forward anti-aircraft gun with an Army field piece they had obtained by trading mattresses with an Army unit.

In his letters, my dad complains of being sick much of the time. He couldn’t keep food down for long, and most of what he ate was bland and out of a can. His skin turned strange colors after eating food he got ashore. He lost a lot of weight, and photos at the time show him very, very thin.

He and his shipmates looked for any excuse to go ashore. In one letter he describes how they spent an entire day getting the laundry done.

Japanese occupation money
found in Manila; my father mailed
home these bills
He repeatedly implored his parents to not send him food. It rotted before arriving. They apparently ignored him and keep sending food.

In several letters he obsessed over his Time Magazine subscription expiring. It was his one connection with news of the outside world. You would think Time might have sent the magazine free to the troops, but it did not.

In one letter, he describes being under air attack. The anti-aircraft gunners on his boat shot down a plane but he did not feel triumphant. He described the experience as “awful.” In a letter a few weeks later, he wrote that censorship rules now allowed him to describe what had happened – his patrol ship had been under attack by a Kamikaze suicide plane. He says the airplane was “almost as big” as his ship.

In another letter, he describes a friend who was severely wounded when a faulty hand grenade went off accidentally. “We threw all our grenades overboard.”

After the invasion of the Philippines, my dad explored Manila, devastated from war, burned by the retreating Japanese. Phillipinos gave him occupation money – “centavos” – that the Japanese had issued to them. My dad mailed home a few Japanese bills in one of his letters.

Finally, the war ended, and he mailed home a newspaper page from the Philippines, dated 15 August 1945, with a big stenciled headline in all capital letters:


He wrote this in a letter three days later:

“There must have been quite a celebration in S.F. when the Japs announced their surrender, but you should have seen the one out here. The word came over the radio the morning of the 15th at 8 o’clock, and by quarter after eight every ship in the harbor was blowing its whistle and siren, shooting off flares and colored smoke bombs, and displaying various signal flag hoists. What a sight! There may be some more excitement on the actual V-J day but this spontaneous one was the real thing.”

He and his skipper were ashore when the news came of the end of the war. When they got back to their ship, the crew had thrown everyone overboard “except the skipper and me, so in we went!” In his letter, he described the newspaper and what it meant to him and his crew:

“The newspaper I am enclosing was distributed ashore half and hour after word was received that the Japs had surrendered. I was kind of interested to notice that nobody says ‘We’ve won the war’ or ‘we’ve licked the Japs;’ The only phrase you hear is, ‘The War is Over.’ That shows how the main thing that the boys out here were interested was having the war end.”

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux


Bu Quarles said...

Excellent piece, Jim. Good writing by father and son and, man, did you two strongly resemble one another in photos or what?! Thanks, for the share.

Harry Allagree said...

Thanks so much, JIm! What a treasure trove you & your sister have in those letters. Having lived as a young boy through those years, I can definitely relate. I still remember Mom & I cheering from a 2nd story window on V-J Day! Harry