Stories are what make us human. Our personal stories make us unique. And, during this time of discord and resentment, I believe that curiosity about one another’s stories can heal us.
On Veterans’ Day, we look to the past—recent and distant—honoring those who have fought, bled and died for our country. We celebrate their stories—some of which we know by heart and some we can only imagine—because they are part of our national identity.
Here is a story about a story: my encounter with a man, a World War II Naval Veteran, whom I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. I don’t know this man’s name, though I wish I did. I should, given what he and his crewmates did for our country and its allies.
I met him while I was vacationing in San Francisco with my husband and children a year and a half ago, visiting the USS Pampanito (SS-383). A World War II Balao class Fleet submarine, the Pampanito is now an experiential life museum and memorial, docked at Fisherman’s Wharf. As you walk up the gangplank, there’s a sign that says something to the effect of:
80 men, 1 shower, 600 feet beneath the sea.
Beside this is a photograph of the crew circa 1944, all smiling and bearded.
I descended by ladder into a past far removed from anything I’ve experienced. Inside the Forward Torpedo Room, full of bolts, switches, dials, torpedo tubes and a handful of bunks, I tried to imagine this room full of sailors focused on their mission, far from home, hundreds of feet below the surface. My husband and kids were heading for the next room, so I followed through a narrow, circular opening into the Forward Battery Compartment, where mild claustrophobia set in.
There is a reason the spaces on a submarine are called compartments rather than rooms. Conditions were cramped to say the least. I felt it and I am a small woman. The eighty men must have had constant neck cricks from crouching and ducking. They must have known one another by smell, had no secrets whatsoever.
The Mess and Galley compartment was a bit more spacious, with four booths and a radio playing ballads from the early forties. Sitting at a table beside a framed photograph of Betty Grable, was a man, a veteran sailor. Eighty-something, I’d guess. Sparse, white hair, round, wire-rimmed glasses, deep smile lines around his eyes and mouth. From the badges on his uniform, I knew immediately that he was one of the few surviving members of the crew. He sat, listening to the music, nodding slightly, glancing up now and then as people passed by en route to the After-Battery Compartment. Other tourists, my family included, seemed too fascinated by the well-preserved machinery and living conditions to pay him much attention. But I wanted his story.
“How were you able to do this?” I blurted, startling him. “There were eighty of you in these tiny little compartments!”
“Sometimes more than eighty,” he said, and shared the story about rescuing seventy-three British and Australian POW’s who had survived the sinking of a Japanese ship. On that mission, the sub was filled to almost twice capacity.
I wanted to know if he’d been scared of being on a submarine. I wasn’t even thinking of the enemy, of the bombs–only the pressure, the close quarters, the implications of being surrounded by seawater.
“Did you ever find yourself thinking about all that water?” I asked. “How far you were from the surface?”
“Never gave it a thought.” He told me how each crew member had been selected, how they were tested in comparable conditions—even in isolation tanks—to make sure no one had the potential to panic under the stress. I asked more questions and learned more from him than I would from any guided tour.
I nodded at the photograph of Betty Grable, in her famous over-the-shoulder pose.
“We always had a pin-up on board,” he said with a sideways grin.
I smiled at that, though on some level maybe I should have found it sexist or objectifying of women. I didn’t though. I knew that Betty Grable and other glamorous movie stars helped guys like him get through their grueling missions. The days with no sun or moon. Betty and girls like her were pieces of their hearts, their homes. She made them feel human when nothing else did. She was part of their story.
Now, I cannot romanticize entirely. I have no doubt that there were other stories aboard the Pampanito, stories of crewmen who might have chosen Clark Gable over Betty Grable, who had to keep their true longings, their true selves locked up for fear of abuse. Nor was it lost on me that, in the photograph of the crew, I saw not a single sailor of color. (There were integrated submarine crews during WW II, however, including the mostly-black manned USS PC-1264.) But I was there to see this surviving vessel of the Second World War. I was there to appreciate this veteran’s story for its own sake.
Before moving on, I thanked the man for speaking with me and for his service to the country.
To my surprise, he thanked me. “Most people don’t stop to talk. A lot of them don’t know why I’m sitting here.”
To me, the most valuable treasures on board were this man and his stories. I feel so lucky to have met him, because a year later, I went back and he wasn’t there. I hoped it was his day off.
Wishing you and your loved ones a peaceful Veteran’s day.