TITLE: Year Nineteen Forty-Two
DATE: 11/16/2004 08:52:00 AM
Year nineteen-forty-two, fifteen November,
That day I will always remember--
A hero laid in his watery grave,
The hero my beloved son, so brave.
Every family has its own catechism. Every family has its own Apostle's Creed. Today's the day for one of mine.
The story is this: My great-uncle, Earle Cross Johnson, was a machinist's mate first class aboard the U.S.S. Gwin, a destroyer escort for the carrier South Dakota during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. His ship was torpedoed by a Japanese cruiser, and the torpedo pierced the hull near Engine Room 2, my great-uncle's assigned station. It ruptured a steam valve and huge jets of steam shot out into the ship's interior. The ranking officer in the room, my great-uncle ordered everyone out, then went and shut off the steam valve that had been damaged.
In the process, he sustained fatal burns over his upper body, and inhaled the boiling steam, effectively cooking his lungs. He lived another seven hours before finally succumbing to his injuries and being buried at sea off Savo Island in the South Pacific.
His mother, my great-grandmother, lived to be 97 years old. She started keeping a diary the year before Earle was killed. It's not a diary in the conventional sense, where you record chatty updates on your daily life, but rather a series of books full of records of births, deaths, marriages, anniversaries, and occasional updates on the weather. It's like a Farmer's Almanac backwards.
From the year after Earle was killed until the year of her death--1989, forty-seven long years--my great grandmother would note the anniversary of Earle's death in her diary, as well as his birthday. The last entry remembering his birthday would have made him 72 years old. When he died, he was 25. My age.
Now she's gone, and my grandmother, Earle's sister, is gone, and even Ralph, the brother he was closest with, is gone, as is Ralph's son Earle, named after his uncle, and God only knows where Earle's son Little Earle is, but wherever he is, he has the medal Earle was awarded posthumously, the Navy Cross--the highest honor bestowed on military members besides the Congressional Medal of Honor. He also has most of the pictures ever taken of Earle, although two fading, sepia shots of a young blonde sailor managed to leak into my grandparents' collection, and I have them now, along with a photocopy of Earle's Navy Cross citation sent to me by a very nice man at the Pentagon.
But little by little, the memory of Earle is melting away. When I was doing a research paper on Earle for a freshman college writing course, it was fairly easy to at least find his name listed online. Today a Google search yielded next to nothing. Finally, some creative manipulation of my search string produced a link to the New Hampshire Marine Memorial, which lists his name. I was surprised by my relief when I saw his name listed; I actually reached up and touched the screen, thinking, He does exist. He does exist.
But what remains of him is growing fewer and farther between.
Still, I'm here, and though I never knew the man, I knew his mother, and his sister, and they were two of the most important women in my life. As I remember them, I remember him. I want my great-grandma, wherever she is, not to worry. I remember.