by Willie Lagarde
We were together on gun watch night and day four hours on and eight off, then on our battle station sometimes for a day or more. It was inevitable our little group became “family”. Nobody complained about the watches because if we were not on watch during the day (and occasionally at night) we would be working somewhere.
I don’t remember ever a time when we were on watch or battle station we were required to do anything but just be there and be ready. On night watch two men stayed alert with one wearing the phones, the rest of the crew could sleep on the gun deck. In the day time the men could read and write letters, work on little personal projects like making knives and scabbards, ID bracelets and rings from half dollar coins. For most of us though, it was playing cards and our favorite game was pinochle usually played with two and sometimes four decks.
While playing the game we discussed any and all topics. Even though we were close as brothers and confided with one another on many things, the one thing I never heard discussed was the possibility of being killed. If anyone had any fears of dying the only time death was mentioned was when it was offered as a better option than returning home a basket case, literally.
We sensed a loyalty to one another in the group and it sometimes seemed we had always been in this situation together. I believe the foundation of so called “unit cohesion” is the respect we had for one another and fear of losing this respect is greater than any threat posed by the enemy. I believe it is this fear that won’t allow men to run from a fight. “Death Before Dishonor” may have been the most common tattoo of the time.
You realize the strength of the bond made during those two or three years together when you meet one of the group after any number of years, no meeting of brothers is anymore heartfelt.
When the kamikaze attacks began in late 1944 they had a profound effect on our men. We still didn’t discuss it but for many of us the thought of dying began to nag at us. For the first time our war became personal. As with all naval combat we never knew who we were shooting at or who was shooting at us, they were just objects. With the kamikazes, even if you couldn’t see your enemy’s face you could see the weapon he is controlling and intends to die with trying to kill you. I know of no words to describe whatever it is you feel when you see a bomb laden plane about to crash on top of you. I can say I have an idea of what those police and firemen on the streets around the WTC must have felt in the last seconds of their lives when they saw that building crashing down on them. I may know what fleeting thoughts were going through their minds.