When “Max” was admitted to the psychiatric unit where I worked as a nurse, he was mute and making peculiar signs with his hands. His face was blank, with no sign of the thoughts that were churning in his brain. During the admission conference, the psychiatrist said the patient was a journalist’s dream, having experienced an historical and horrific event while serving on the USS Hornet during WWII. Two Kamikaze (suicide fighters) planes hit his ship, crashing first into the stack and then into the Hornet’s deck. One of the bombs it contained didn’t explode; it hung there torturing the men with anticipation of destruction as they fought fire, water, and enemy aircraft. During the battle, fire broke out all over the ship and many of Max’s shipmates were killed. When the call came to abandon ship, two large destroyers huddled close to the Hornet to receive the survivors. The survivors were taken to shore by the USS Russell. Max signed up for a two-year extension and got land-based duty.
Max went on with his life. He married, had two daughters, and got a job at the plant. A few years before he was admitted, his youngest daughter contracted leukemia. Hoping for a cure, Max carried her from doctor to doctor until she died.
Then his fragile mental defenses failed. During a thunderstorm, Max saw a fallen tree on top a downed powerline. Sparks were shooting everywhere. Images of fire, crackling, destruction and death churned in his brain until he retreated from reality. He was then admitted to the psychiatric unit where I worked as a nurse.
The doctor felt it would be therapeutic if someone could write an article about Max. I volunteered immediately. The goal was to reconstruct the events of Max’s life, put them back in chronological order and gain some self-esteem from seeing them in historical perspective and perhaps in print.
When I asked Max if I could write an article about his experiences, he nodded and said, “Not too many are interested.” He gave me the information in bits and pieces over the course of about six interviews.
“We boarded the Hornet just after Pearl Harbor. It was a floating city; that’s all you could call it.” Max did not look directly at me as he spoke, and didn’t volunteer any more information. I set out to the public library to research “USS Hornet,” “Kamikaze,” and “Pearl Harbor.”
From the day she steamed out of the shipyard at Newport News, V A, the 22,000 tonner was marked for a special mission. In Alameda, California, she took on 85 “Wildcat” fighter planes, 16 bombers and a large number of Army airmen.
During my next visit with Max, I asked him if he remembered any of this. “They were B-25s. Part of the Doolittle Operation.” Max raised his hand from the chair, held it in midair for a while and then put it back. “None of us knew where we were headed. Max returned to his silence, and I went back to the library and looked up “Doolittle.”
Lt Col. James H. Doolittle, a former peacetime stunt pilot, had specially trained the group of Army pilots that boarded the Hornet. By practicing on land with chalked lines, Doolittle taught the pilots to lift the bombers off the Hornet’s short flight deck. The Doolittle operation was vital to the Hornet’s secret mission. Max was on the ship that would launch the first retaliatory strike at Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor. As they inched their way into enemy waters, the crewmen studied maps and pictures and prepared for battle.
During the fifth “interview” Max told me about October 26, 1942. “It was a nice, sunny day. Suddenly we saw a lot of enemy planes coming. We weren’t too surprised; we knew we were in their territory.” He was silent, and I waited. He had to bring the memories back at a pace his mind could accept. One of the dreaded Kamikaze squadrons circled overhead. The suicide commander climbed into the sun, turned and dove past the blinded gunners, crashing first into the stack and then into the Hornet’s deck. It carried 2 two-hundred pound bombs and a third weighing 500 pounds. One of the two hundred pounders exploded when it hit the stack; the other when it crashed into the deck. But the big bomb lodged itself in the wood and didn’t explode. Max squinted and grimaced as if he were in pain. “We tried to get hoses and put the fire out. We finally did, but it left a big hole. I could see the Kamikaze’s hands and face – black and burned.”
Torpedos chased each other into the Hornet, crushing and splintering man and metal until the vessel listed far to starboard. Six large fires were burning. Another Kamikaze smashed into the deck. And the big bomb hung there, waiting. Then came the call to abandon ship. “The ones that got it the worst were the gunners on the starboard side,” said Max. “They got their heads blown off.” What must it be like, I wondered, to see a man get his head blown off. Regression, blessed forgetting, may be the healthiest way to cope.
Max looked out of the window, then laid his head back against the chair and closed his eyes. I asked him how he felt. “This country was bought for a price,” he said. He looked sad, but somehow less strange. We talked about lighter topics for a few minutes before I left.
The next day I went back to see Max again. He smiled and me and said, “I’ve been thinking about it. About you and me, writing this article.” It was a peak moment tin both my careers.
Without mentioning where I met Max, I wrote the story from a purely historical perspective. It was published on Memorial Day in a local newspaper. Max’s picture was taken, and he felt proud. He knew where, and when, he was and that his story was a part of history.
But the story is so much bigger than that. It’s the story of a human person who felt hungry and scared during battle, who witnessed a terrifying historical event and can say, “I was no hero or nothing.” It’s the story of the horror of war and the frailty of the human body and mind. Though we remember the dead yearly, we forget the living who are still paying the price long after the guns are silent. As Max would say, “not too many are interested.”