Grandpa Joe wasn't even old enough to join the Navy. But so many young men found a way to make it happen. At 17, having never seen the ocean, and without the ability to swim, Grandpa Joe joined the Navy. Within the year he was aboard the USS Mississinewa (AO-59) an oil tanker, making friends, planing pranks, and doing all of the fun things that young sailors did. Commisioned May 18, 1944 this new ship would be Grandpa's home for only a few short months before it, and many of it's crew, were sent to a watery grave at the bottom of the Ulithi Atoll.
Aboard the ship, Grandpa Joe was learning to be an electrician. Already a "jack of all trades" kind of guy, he quickly found that tinkering with things and making them work was his specialty. The mentoring he received here served him well through the rest of his life including giving him the background to enjoy his passion of restoring and touring antique cars.
But the USS Mississinewa wasn't going to be his home for long. On November 20, 1944 the ship was hit by a Kaiten (Japanese suicide torpedo.) Knocked out by the blasts more than once, Grandpa Joe was soon faced with a tough decision. Stay aboard the fiery ship which seemed to be exploding like firecrackers, or jump overboard despite his inability to swim. He chose the latter.
With a strong desire to survive, Joe was able to dog paddle and stay afloat long enough to get some needed air, but also sank enough times that he was able to avoid the flames that burned along the surface of the water from the oil that was now pouring from the belly of the ship. And somehow despite all the odds, Grandpa was able to keep afloat, grab a rope from the rescue planes, and was tugged to a nearby boat and safety.
Sixty three people lost their lives that day, including the Japanese human torpedo. One of grandpa's best friends Mitch didn't make it. And the events of this day make for a hard story for him to tell. He doesn't talk about it much. And when he does he is often overcome with the emotion of it all even after more than 60 years.
My favorite part of the story though is when Grandpa Joe told his young grandson Josh (my husband) about how he survived that day. At such a young age, Josh really didn't know or understand the whole story. All he knew was that grandpa's boat sank. So his innocent question of "How did you make it back to shore if you couldn't swim?" was met by an equally innocent answer of "Well, I just drank all the water in the ocean and we all walked out."
To learn more about the USS Mississinewa you can read Mike Mair's book titled "Oil, Fire, and Fate" and visit this site for a quick peek into the history of the ship and the life of the crew. Thanks Mike for all of the hard work you did in getting in touch with the survivors!
I hope you all have a wonderful Memorial Day tomorrow and enjoy a BBQ with your family and your friends. And if you have a chance to share this story or another one to remember the intent of this holiday, then I send you my thanks!