Today’s story is a personal one. On April 27, 1993, my Dad went on eternal patrol as a result of a long struggle with heart disease and its many complications. Dad was 66 years old, having just turned that age on April 19. Both days have been significant in my life ever since. His Grandfather also passed away from Heart disease at the age of 66 on April 27. Needless to say, as I get closer to the age of 66, I am watching that date with come amount of caution.
But seventy five years ago today, Dad (John) turned eighteen years old. He was in Boot Camp in Camp Sampson near Geneva, NY preparing for his role as a sailor in the Second World War.
Up until that day, John had lived a fairly normal life during some very interesting times. Born in 1927, he would grow up during some of the hardest times this country had ever seen. The great depression was the biggest influence on America all during his formative years but our family history tells us that they did not suffer as much as others. The family home in Little Boston was paid for and Grandpa Mac stayed employed all through the hardest years. When he had returned from the Frist World War, he got his old job back at Westinghouse Air Brake and eventually left to become a worker at the National Tube Works in McKeesport Pennsylvania.
Grandfather rose through the ranks and became a superintendent in production. He would have that job for the rest of his natural life. His position made it sure that the family would have enough money and food to weather the hardest parts of the depression. They also had large gardens for food and rumor has it chickens as well. They were faithful members of the Boston Presbyterian Church and Grandpa Mac was the Fire Chief for the volunteer fire department.
John’s life would also be affected by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. As a fourteen year old, he would still be too young to go off and fight the war. But he watched as one after the other, his older friends enlisted or were drafted and sent off to war.
Grandfather Mac had been very active as a leader in the Sea Scouts during the interwar years. He had been a Coxswain on a coastal monitor during the First World War that patrolled the navigation lanes between New York and Norfolk.
His coal powered ship was a holdover from the Spanish American War and not very navigable in the open oceans. But his job as Coxswain was an important deck seaman role. It was part of our growing up to hear tales of his ability to handle small boats, tie knots and use the signal flags with no need to refer to notes or training aids.
The many young men from Little Boston probably all had exposure to Grandpa Mac.
They were well prepared to accept the discipline and training that came with their service assignments when the war began. Some would go into the naval forces including the Seabees and merchant fleet. Others would be inducted into the Army.
One of those men was Bud Rupp. Bud was Grandpa Mac’s favorite. He was a hard worker, a fast learner, and especially skilled. Bud went into the new Army Air Forces and became a gunner in a bomber. The letters and stories we had talked about the close relationship the two men had and the sorrow when he was shot down and taken prisoner. The Germans were very good about documenting everything and we had letters from Bud and copies of his capture documents.
I was very happy to return those documents to Bud’s family after he passed many years later. He and I were very good friends when I met him in California in the seventies.
One thing that I learned over the years however, was that my Dad was not ever as good as Bud in Grandpa Mac’s eyes. In some ways, John was almost like a second son despite being Grandpa Mac’s only son. Dad was not an over achiever in school and was sometimes sickly growing up. He could get into trouble from time to time and had a very active imagination. For someone like Grandpa Mac, this must have been mildly disappointing.
So in retrospect, John deciding to go into the Navy at the age of 17 in March of 1945 was not a surprise. Too young to be drafted, he had to have made a conscious choice to join the Navy. Although he never said so, I always suspected he wanted to get in the fight before it was all over. Our family served all the way back to the Civil War after all.
March of 1945 was a month of successes in the European front. The Germans were collapsing on both the eastern and western fronts. The Allies were making massive gains and the horrible days of the Battle of the Bulge were in the rear view mirror. The end of the war against the Nazi’s was in sight.
The war was coming to an end. Or was it?
Beginning in March of 1945, the Navy became involved in the biggest and most dangerous times in its entire history. The island hopping campaign in the Pacific was bearing fruit and the two big battles were focal points of how heard the end would be. The names Iwo Jima and Okinawa would forever be written on the roles of historic battles. The sacrifice of the Marines and Army members would be tremendous, but it was the Navy that would find out what it was like to be in the cross hairs of death.
Just as John was preparing for his role in the Navy in April of 1945, the Japanese increased the ferocity of new weapon that caused so much destruction.
The kamikaze attacks on ships participating in the invasions of these faraway islands would strike a harsh blow against the allied naval forces that was stunning. The training in boot camp was already being adjusted to adapt to this new threat. Ships were being modified with scores of smaller caliber machine bunds and cannons that were there for one reason only: Try and destroy the Jap aircraft as they came at the ships like missiles.
The Commanders put a brave face on the new form of attacks:
The Commander in Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, has authorized the following, statement:
For some months the Japanese have been employing aircraft on a gradually increasing scale in suicidal attacks upon our forces in the Western Pacific. These aircraft were initially piloted by a group of pilots who were known as the “Kamikaze Corps” by the Japanese. The enemy has made much in his propaganda of this “sure death‑sure hit” suicide technique which is simply an attempt to crash planes on the decks of our ships.
The enemy has expended a large number of planes and personnel on missions of this nature with negligible effect on the continuing success of our operations. Some major units of the fleet have been damaged, but no battleship, fast carrier or cruiser has been sunk. Some smaller ships have been sunk, but in the great majority of cases they have remained in operation after being struck by one of these suicide planes. This reflects considerable credit on our officers and men and also on the designers and builders of our ships.
Effective methods of meeting and destroying suicidal attacks have been developed and will continue to be employed to increase the toll of Japanese aircraft shot down by our aircraft and by our antiaircraft guns.
The “suicide attack” and the so‑called “Kamikaze Corps” are the products of an enemy trapped in an increasingly desperate situation. Pushed back upon heir own inner defenses the Japanese have resorted to fanatical methods which, from a purely military viewpoint, are of doubtful value.
The “Kamikaze Corps” is apparently being used not only to attempt to damage our ships but also to stir the lagging spirits of the Japanese people. Although these “sure death‑sure hit” pilots are reported to be volunteers, many have very willingly become survivors of “suicide” missions and are now prisoners of war.
The enemy claims for the accomplishments of “suicide swimmers, human torpedoes and suicide speed boats” hardly need comment. In the majority of such attacks up to this date these personnel have failed completely in their missions but have been successful in committing suicide.
The “suicide” technique is continuing at the present time. Although it is always considered and prepared for as a factor in estimating the enemy’s capabilities it cannot prevent our continuing success in the war in the Pacific.
The actual damage to the American and allied forces was significant but not fatal.
“There was a hypnotic fascination to the sight so alien to our Western philosophy. We watched each plunging kamikaze with the detached horror of one witnessing a terrible spectacle rather than as the intended victim. We forgot self for the moment as we groped hopelessly for the thought of that other man up there.”
— Vice Admiral C. R. Brown, US Navy
By 1945, the U.S. Navy was large enough that damaged ships could be detached back home for repair without significantly hampering the fleet’s operational capability. The only surface losses were destroyers and smaller ships that lacked the capability to sustain heavy damage. Overall, the kamikazes were unable to turn the tide of the war and stop the Allied invasion
All this was still in the future for Seaman MacPherson.
Letter from John C. MacPherson to his parents Wednesday Morning April 18th
Dear Mom and Pop
Well, today’s another day. Last night was another night of guard duty. I’m getting used to it now. Well, I’ll be eighteen years old tomorrow, boy I feel older already. It’s a swell morning. The sun is shining like a million dollars. Tuesday we go to Geneva. Boy, big time. My shipmate and I thought we saw a prowler last night, and chased him but we were disappointed there wasn’t anybody. We are wearing white hats now. Some of the kids look like salts that have been in the Navy for about twenty years including myself. (Squared white hats you know Pop). Boy are we salty. We have a jazz session every night about nine o’clock and everybody in the unit moons. Boy, what singing. Well, I can’t think of much more to say. I’m glad you both are feeling better and I feel good too so everything s hunky-dory.
Your son Butch
Letter from John to his Aunt Miss Elizabeth MacPherson on Smithfield Street in Boston Pennsylvania dated April 18 1945 (postmarked on April 19 at 9 AM)
Well, I’ve finally got around to writing. I hope you forgive me. I really have been very busy. I know you are keeping up the old school (ha-ha) How’s that principals job anyway? Gee, that candy was swell, boy I really enjoyed it very much. In fact it kept me awake all night. I was on guard duty from 0230 till 0800 or 8 o’clock and we got about two hours of sleep last night. Well Aunti, it won’t be long before I am home for a couple of days (hot days) The food is better and I am feeling great I hope the same for you.
Love your nephew,
This is one of my favorite items from the collection of letters. It was a birthday poem from his Sister Isabel.
John graduated from boot camp in May of 1945 and did get home for a visit before shipping out. He would never see action on a fighting ship. His seat on the USS Indianapolis was given to another sailor when a medical condition forced a change in his orders. He would eventually end up in the Philippines where he and his fellow sailors were preparing for the invasion of Japan when the war ended.
He returned home a year later and lived a full life that included marriage, five children, lifelong service to his community and the Navy he would come to love and eventually a death that came too soon.