Personally, I prefer to spend as few of my days as possible in Waikiki—or anywhere on Oahu, for that matter—but it was Spence’s wish to revisit the Arizona memorial and old Honolulu, if any of it was still recognisable from World War II. In those far off days, he trod these streets as a scared and very young navigator with the U.S. Navy. Of course, the place is no more familiar to him now than his grizzled muzzle would be to one of his shipmates from the Lexington, had we run into any of the old geezers at the ritualised visit to the memorial to the sunken Arizona yesterday.
The presentation proved as tedious and self-serving as my last visit to a church. Its only entertainment value was the barked instructions of the young lieutenant or whatever he was, dressed head to toe in traditional white and gold, to the women visitors to cover their bare flesh—Show some respect, Ladies! I stood off to the side with MJ, who was seething with teenaged fury as much over being told what to do with her body by some male as by the glorification of the American past pouring into her ears, wondering if allowing this smarmy version of history into our lives was really a good way to celebrate Spence’s birthday. Dion and Lili weren’t impressed, either—“I’m terminally bored,” as Lili put it. It was no surprise the kids opted to hang out at the hotel this morning while Spence and I ventured into the wilds of Waikiki, telling ourselves we were open to the new while really looking for the past.
He’s never let a public light shine on his life in the American navy. I am one of the few who know enough to form a picture of the skinny twenty-year-old who found himself a navigator on the USS Lexington—the first Lexington, CV2, not CV16. It was an early aircraft carrier, built for the first world war, eventually sunk by the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea. He’d signed up as soon as he’d cleaned himself up from the weeks of freight-train rides to San Francisco.
A farm kid from Missouri with no prospects during the Dirty Thirties, he’d decided to take the burden of his upbringing off his grandparents and go see the world. He said goodbye to the farm dogs and hopped a freight train one day, equipped with nothing more than youth and a yearning for something better. It didn’t take long for him to tire of his new life as a penniless hobo, nor did it take long for the US Navy to recognise his native intelligence and enroll him in more than combat training. Mensa didn’t exist in those days, the Age of the Individual not quite having dawned, and the intelligence of Spence’s brain had never been measured, but he must have show himself to be a quick study. He’d always wanted an education; so he took to navigation eagerly. Perhaps even then he anticipated how a stint in the armed forces could support him right through a PhD, should he desire it.
Those early days in San Francisco must have been exhilarating. Spence was so confident of his new life, he married somebody. Every other sailor and soldier was getting married—it was the thing to do when you had no assurance your next assignment would not be your last. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Get in there while the gettin’s good. Get a little livin’ done while you’re above ground—or, in the Navy’s case, while you’re not drowned.
Then he arrived on the Lexington, along with hundreds of men, only men, young to old, and reality hit.
The cook, noting the short, skinny new junior navigator who had so obviously never before been to sea, invited him into the kitchen for some extra gourmet goodies to fatten him up a little. Aware of knowing looks among the seasoned sailors, Spence never made the mistake of accepting the invitation a second time. Others, however, did. He claims, in fact, that the Lexington was far from sex-free—it more or less rocked its way through the waves aided and abetted by much personal motion below decks. Steering clear of these personal relationships proved a constant battle. Spence soon acquired a reputation for stand-offishness but found a new appreciation for the combat training he had initially resisted, assuming that in the Navy he would never be faced with personal combat, anyway. At the end of his training, his hands had been registered as deadly weapons, and everybody onboard knew it. His instructors had never mentioned this could come in handy against anyone but the Japanese.
For years I didn’t know why Spence goes quiet and keeps to himself each eighth of May. Especially in the evening, company is not welcome on that date. At first I thought it might have something to do with his lost marriages, but one day I came across a brief history of the Lexington:
“On the morning of the 8th, a Lexington plane located the Shōkaku group; a strike was immediately launched from the American carriers, and the Japanese carrier was heavily damaged. However, Japanese planes penetrated the American defenses at 11:00, and 20 minutes later Lexington was struck by a torpedo to port. Seconds later, a second torpedo hit her portside directly abeam the bridge. At the same time, she took three bomb hits from enemy dive bombers, producing a 7-degree list to port and several raging fires. By 13:00, skilled damage control had brought the fires under control and restored her to an even keel; making twenty-five knots, she was ready to recover her air group. Lexington was suddenly shaken by a tremendous explosion, caused by the ignition of gasoline vapors below, and again fire raged out of control.
“At 15:58, Captain Frederick Carl Sherman, fearing for the safety of men working below, halted salvage operations, and ordered all hands to the flight deck. At 17:01, he ordered “abandon ship” and the orderly disembarkation began. He contacted the Yorktown and told her the magazine had blown, salvage operations were secure and that all hands were on the flight deck, and that he gave the order to abandon ship. The Yorktown replied back, saying that they copied, and said, All vessels away; rescue parties. Many of her crew went over the side into the warm water and were almost immediately picked up by nearby cruisers and destroyers. Unfortunately, as many as three hundred men were trapped below decks and, although herculean efforts were made to save them, they remained unreachable because of the raging fires.
Captain Sherman and his executive officer, Commander Morton T. Seligman, having done all they could to save as many as possible, then left the ship. Lexington blazed on, flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air. Despite those trapped on board, to prevent enemy capture, the destroyer Phelps closed to 1,500 yards and fired two torpedoes into the Lexington’s hull. With one last heavy explosion, Lexington sank on an even keel at 19:56, May 8, 1942.”
I left the page lying open on the table when I went to bed, and found Spence reading it the next morning, coffee mug in both hands. I said, “May eighth. Every year.”
He nodded. The good eye closed its folded lid as he let his chin sink to his chest, the glass eye following suit. I persisted. “Where were you?”
“On the bridge, of course. With Sherman and Seligman. On duty, where a man’s supposed to be when he’s fighting to keep a ship afloat.” A historic sigh escaped him. “She was just too big. Too slow. Too awkward. A sitting duck. We’d taken two torpedoes and three bombs and there was more coming. Still, we might have made it if the magazine hadn’t blown. I’ll never forget the sound of that.”
“How’d you get off the ship?”
He didn’t want to answer. “I was a junior officer. I had to follow captain’s orders and get into the damned whaling boat.”
“You didn’t want to abandon ship?”
“Not like that!” Suddenly he was fierce, both eyes up and impossibly bright. “I belonged on that bridge—all the officers did!—until the last man was up on deck! Hell’s bells! Everybody knew it was game over for Lexy as soon as the magazine blew! By thirteen hours the smoke was so think even on deck that there was no hope of getting our planes back! But that stupid bastard…! He wastes four hours before giving the order to abandon ship. By that time we can’t get to some of the boats. Not that there were enough lifeboats for all of us, anyway. Men are sliding down lines to get to the water and swimming for their lives while the rest of us are fighting the fire—which we were never trained to do! Why not?” He was almost yelling. “They send over a thousand men out on the sea in a box full of explosives with no fire-fighting skills or equipment and not enough boats to carry them all? Why? I’ll tell you why! Because if she blew, we weren’t expected to survive, that’s why! We were worth something only as long as there was a ship under our feet! Cannon fodder—that’s all we ever were!”
“I don’t get how the captain could report all hands on deck.”
The sudden silence is a small bomb flung through the window of our time, now lying on the scarred table between us in its last instant of wholeness. “He lied.” The knuckles on his left hand were visibly white, gripping the coffee mug. I opened my hand and reach for the mug as if to offer a refill. It worked. His jaw relaxed along with the hand. “To get permission to abandon ship, Captain Sherman lied. The hardest step I ever took was putting a foot into that damned boat to escape the Lexy, when I knew damned well there were hundreds of men still under the deck.” He reached for his tobacco and rolling papers, patting the table and his chest pocket before remembering he doesn’t smoke any more. “And then it took those sons of bitches three hours to finish off the poor bastards. I just hope the smoke got them before they drowned.”
My eyes filled with tears, and he was not too proud to let me see the suspect wetness beneath his own eyes. “They had to do something with us leftovers; so they sent a bunch of us to the Saratoga, Lexy’s sister ship. I spent the rest of May in Honolulu and then, June 6, it was gang-busters aboard Sara for the rest of the War. The old girl survived the War. Almost a hundred thousand landings on that carrier. And you know what the sons of bitches did with her? Used her for target practice for an A-bomb test, nineteen forty-six. Sara’s lying in a radioactive watery grave just off Bikini atoll.” He smoked his non-existent cigarette. “And people wonder why I left that godforsaken country!”
“The Navy ruined me,” Spence sometimes says. He doesn’t apportion the ruin to the cook of the Lexington, the registration of his hands, or the events in the Coral Sea. All of it played a part in shaping my beloved, who believes himself a lesser man than he might have become.
“Some ruin,” I reply. We smile at the little joke. Some chicken…some neck, as Churchill famously said of England. Both England and Spence proved tough old birds.
Revisiting Honolulu is not so easy as it sounds. I felt him stiffen as the guide at the Arizona memorial unspooled a politically correct spiel of America’s war history and could swear I heard him mutter something like, “Half a century of bullshit.”