Thursday, December 24, 2015

The War in the Pacific

Good News! is up and running if you would like to buy a copy of Wenonah’s Story on line.

With this post, I’m going to go back to the story of my dad’s brothers, Boyd and Everett, during WWII. Sorry for jumping around like this. If you’d like to review Everett’s escape from the sinking Battleship Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, see my post of September 20, 2015.

Both my uncles served in the Pacific Theater. I did some reading about the war, and by knowing that Boyd was in the 161st Infantry Regiment, and that Everett was on the USS San Francisco, I was able to follow them through the war, and also to fit together what I know about their personal experiences. I didn’t get much help from Don’s older brother Boyd. He never talked about his war time memories with Don, and his son, my cousin Tom Gunning, told me that the whole subject of the war was off limits in their house. On the other hand, Don’s younger brother Everett seemed to enjoy recounting his experiences. He told my parents several stories, and while on leave, he was interviewed by the local newspaper and radio station in his home town of Enid, Oklahoma.

To give you a little background, the Japanese rapidly followed up their victory at Pearl Harbor by taking Hong Kong, Guam and Wake Island. Then they marched through French Indochina and Thailand into Burma, and down the Malay peninsula toward Singapore, sweeping British and Dutch troops and naval vessels aside as they went. By mid-March they had taken Singapore, defended by 85,000 British troops, and the Dutch East Indies with their rich oil stores. In April 100,000 American and Philippine troops under General Jonathan Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese on the Philippine island of Luzon. By the time I was born in May, 1942, many began to think the Japanese were invincible. My mother Wenonah was terrified.

After Wainwright’s surrender, the American and Filipino prisoners, exhausted after 4 months of fighting, and suffering from malnutrition, malaria and dysentery, were marched 80 miles up the Bataan Peninsula by their Japanese captors. The stragglers were beaten and even bayoneted if they failed to keep up. 600 Americans and 10,000 Filipinos lost their lives during the ordeal, afterwards known as the “Bataan Death March.” Boyd’s unit, the 161st Infantry Regiment, was on its way to the Philippines at the time of the Japanese attack. If he had been there, he would have been among those on the Death March. As it was, he was sent to the island of Guadalcanal instead.

The first American successes in the Pacific war were the result of intelligence efforts.  On April 28, 1942, about the same time as fall of the Philippines, the Japanese sent a fleet of transport ships carrying troops to establish a base at Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea. From there they hoped to launch attacks on Australia, America’s main supply base. Orders for the movement were decrypted by American Intelligence, and the Japanese convoy was met in the Coral Sea by planes from two US aircraft carriers, the Lexington and the Yorktown. Although the Americans were overmatched by superior Japanese planes and torpedoes, they managed to turn back the Japanese troop transports and Port Moresby was never taken.

The next move in Japan’s strategic plan was to take Midway Island, about half way between Japan and Hawaii. It was then held by a small US force, and had the Japanese been able to take it, they could have again  threatened Hawaii, the Americans’ main naval base in the Pacific. Again US naval intelligence deciphered the Japanese orders, and on the day of the attack, June 4, 1942, the Americans took the Japanese by  surprise and sunk four of their six aircraft carriers. The Americans only lost one carrier out of their four, reversing the balance of naval power in the Pacific war in our favor. 

Jonathan M. Wainwright.jpg

General Jonathan Wainwright remained a Japanese prisoner in Manchuria until the end of the war. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Te Ata

Unfortunately the Chickasaw Press web site is blocked again but you can still get books by calling them at 580-436-7282. Wenonah’s Story is still on sale for $20, and you can also buy the other newly published books: Chokma-si, the book of photos from around the Chickasaw Nation by Branden Hart and Stanley Nelson; the reprint of the first Chickasaw Dictionary by Vinnie May and Jesse Humes, first published in 1973, with comments on pronunciation by linguist Josh Hinson; a new cook book, Ilittibaaimpa’, Let’s Eat Together, by Vicki Penner and Joann Ellis, a reprint of Richard Green’s biography of the Chickasaw performing artist and preserver of Indian culture, Te Ata.

Now that my book has been published,  I've had a little more time to read, so I picked up the new edition of Te Ata. I have long been a fan of the author, Richard Green, who became our tribal historian while my mother was on the Chickasaw Historical Society Board back in the ‘80’s. Since then he has done a lot of research, both reviewing documents and doing interviews with tribal elders, which I think is so important.

Frankly, I didn’t pay much attention to the first edition of Te Ata. I knew was that she was a performer, and I didn't bother to read the book, thinking she must have just taken advantage of her Chickasaw heritage to draw a crowd, but she was so much more. First of all, she did really know about her heritage. She was related to the Colberts, and also to Douglas Johnson, the last Chickasaw governor before statehood. Her father spoke Chickasaw just like my grandfather, and she went to the Chickasaw boarding school, Bloomfield, like my mother.     

A shy but talented actress, Te Ata began presenting dramatizations of Chickasaw legends that she had been told as a child while attending OCW, Oklahoma College for Women. From her school performances, she attracted the attention of the Chatauqua Institute, an organization supported by philanthropists to spread culture to small towns, and she performed on their circuit for several summers. My mother describes the Chatauqua performances in Wenonah’s Story.

Anyway, Te Ata, continued to perform to an advanced age. She was a student of Native American culture, visiting tribes across the country, even into South America, learning the traditions, legends, dances and songs of many tribes, and presenting them to audiences around the world.

We are greatly indebted to Te Ata for being an ambassador for our people, promoting a greater understanding and appreciation for our culture and heritage.

By the way. Don’t think I’ve ruined the book for you. Mr. Green has done a masterly job researching the details of Te Ata’s life. The book is full of stories and it’s only by reading it in its entirety, that you can get an appreciation for Te Ata’s dedication and spirit. Also even if you already know about Te Ata, this latest edition of her biography has a large section of pictures not included in the first edition

Friday, November 13, 2015

Chickasaw Festival

Old Chickasaw Capitol in Tishomingo

I had never been to the annual Chickasaw Festival before this year. I was either away from the state, or too busy with my work, but this year I was invited to participate in a book signing there on the release of the book, Wenonah’s Story, that I wrote with my mother.

When I was a child there was no festival. We went to the annual Indian Exposition in Anadarko instead. It’s only been in later years, after the Native American tribes won their sovereignty, the right to organize their own governments, and the right to provide for their own people, that the Chickasaw Festival has come about.

My mother Wenonah lived to see it, and she and my father used to be regulars at the annual meeting and festival. Being there myself was a moving experience, and made me proud of our tribe, and what we’ve accomplished. I say that as if I had something to do with it, but that’s what tradition and heritage can do for you. It can make you feel part of something bigger than yourself.

The celebration was held September 25 through October 3 with events held all over the nation, from Ada, the current site of the Chickasaw government, to “Tish,” or Tishomingo where the old capitol is located, to the Culture Center in Sulphur, to the old Chickasaw community of Kullihoma, to Emet, the home of Douglas Johnston, the last Chickasaw governor before statehood. There were stickball games, a 5-K run, tours of the many Chickasaw facilities around the state, storytelling, craft demonstrations, an art show, a rodeo, cooking classes, the annual princess pageant.

My daughter now has both Chickasaw cook books, and she is an expert in cooking pashofa and corn bread.

Thursday night there was a ceremony recognizing the achievements of outstanding citizens, and the release of the new books published by the Chickasaw Press, the only native American press in the country.

Saturday began with a speech by Governor Anaotubby on the state of the nation. The list of programs and accomplishments was long but the governor has an easy going, engaging way of speaking that kept it from being boring. After the governor’s speech there was a parade – my cousin Homer, as one of the new Hall of Fame inductees, got to ride in it, and then an art show, food, stick ball, book signings, and other activities too numerous to mention.

It’s really awe inspiring what the nation has become: the health programs, the educational programs, the projects to discover and preserve our history, from the archives in Sulphur to archeological projects in Mississippi. Classes to learn to grow traditional plants, cook traditional dishes, to make baskets, stick ball sticks, arrows, to learn Chickasaw legends and tradition, and to even speak our own language. The legal struggle to obtain compensation from the US government for the debts owed the tribe from the time of the removal and statehood is continuing. The tribe is a billion dollar business now, and employs 14,000 people in the state of Oklahoma.

I’m not very well versed on the many government projects and programs, but I know they benefit all of us. My cousin stayed in the nation’s retirement center in his last year, and died in the old Carl Albert hospital. Another cousin has gotten hearing aides and glasses through the tribe, and my grandchildren have received excellent medical care at the new Chickasaw hospital in Ada, and scholarships for college. One of my cousins is able to get meals from the local Chickasaw community center, and the tribe is even going to pay to pave the driveway out to her house.

Chickasaw social services sent a visiting nurse out to see my mother and provided her with some of her medicines during her last years, and some of her friends in Ada even cooked her some pashofa when she became ill for the last time.

You ought to go to the festival next year. It will make you feel proud

Monday, November 2, 2015

Don's "Diaper Trouble"

Wesley Hospital, Wichita, Kansas

Since my dad worked for Boeing aircraft, which was considered essential to the war effort, he managed to avoid the draft during WWII, but two of his brothers served in the Pacific Theater, and they carried on a steady correspondence with him throughout the war. Don’s youngest brother, J.E., was in the navy, but he didn’t have to go overseas.

Letters from the front were all read by a military censor, so Boyd and Everett couldn’t say anything about what they actually going through, so they chatted about superficial things, and commented about the things Don told them in his letters.

The following is one of the letters Don got from his younger brother Everett, who had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor (see post of September 20, 2015). The letter was written in October of 1942, from the Pacific, where he would soon be embroiled in the Battle of Guadalcanal – but more about that later.

Oct 21, 1942, USS San Francisco. To Don Gunning 3112 E 3rd, Wichita
Dear Don, Your letters have been coming with every mail. You won’t have anything new to tell Jimmy’s Mother from this letter. Your letters are always full of good news tho. Your diaper trouble sounds critical. My girlfriends have all decided out of sight out of mind. They never write. It is comforting to know someone is concerned with my welfare, sometimes I am disturbed about my outcome also. Tell everyone hello.
Your Bud, Everett.

In his comment about “diaper trouble,” Everett was teasing Don about a rectal fistula he developed about the time I was born. A rectal fistula is basically an abscess of the buttocks that drains pus through a hole in the rectum, leaking onto your underwear, hence the diaper reference. My dad would kill me if he knew I was telling this story. Maybe he’s looking down on me right now, saying, “wait ‘til I get my hands on him.”

Anyway, in addition to the nuisance, it must have hurt pretty bad, and it might have caused a fever too. My parents always attributed the fistula to my dad’s having to sit out on the hospital steps waiting to get in to see Wenonah after I was born, but I doubt if that would have caused it.

After Wenonah brought me home from the hospital and settled into a routine, Don went to the doctor to see about his fistula, and was referred to a proctologist, a doctor who specializes in that sort of thing.

The proctologist told Don he would need to open the fistula, and he admitted him to a hospital for the surgery, probably Wesley Hospital, where I was born. After the procedure, he kept him there for several days, to observe the wound, and to have the nurses change the dressings.

Don’s roommate in the hospital was a professional roofer who had been hospitalized for a back injury. Apparently he had backed up to admire his work and accidentally stepped off the roof. Don enjoyed listening to the roofer’s stories. He had had a lot of falls, and seemed to consider them just part of the job. The roofer had a large family, all involved in the roofing business, and in the evenings they would all gather around his bed, and laugh and talk about their experiences. Don entertained the family for years with stories about the roofers.

Don had only one problem with his roommate. On the first evening after he was admitted, his family brought him a bowl of grapes that was infested with gnats. Don spent the rest of his hospital stay swatting gnats.

When Don came home, the doctor instructed Wenonah on how to treat the wound. Since a fistula is an infection, the wound can’t be closed, so it was left open, and Wenonah was to apply a sulfonamide paste every day. Preparing the paste was a complicated process involving heating the sulfonamide powder to liquefy it. The result was a caustic mixture that caused Don to “rise up off the bed in pain” according to my mother, whenever she applied it.

The other story my dad told about his experience was going in to see his doctor for follow up visits. Apparently the doctor wasn’t a people person, and couldn’t recognize his patients when he met them, so when would enter an examining room, his nurse would prompt him by saying something like, “Dr. Brown, this is Mr. Gunning.”

Well, one day when my dad went in for his visit, the nurse forgot to make the introduction. Unfazed by the omission, the doctor went right to work, asking Don to pull down his pants and to bend over. When the doctor looked at my dad’s butt – he swore this is true – he said, “Oh, Mr. Gunning.”

Friday, October 23, 2015

June 2, 1942

Wenonah, Don and me, with Don's best friend, Bud Bickford (L)

In spite of my mother’s prodigious memory, she always saved things that reminded her of people and events. She started as a child, with a little box of keepsakes: the little red donkeys off of Grandpa’s chewing tobacco wrappers, the little crucifix that Pappa sent her from San Antonio, and the string of beads she bought with the dime Pappa gave her to spend when she went to the district meet in Ada, Oklahoma.

When Wenonah was older she began to take an interest in politics. I guess that was natural, since her older brother Snip, short for Homer, was a state senator. She saved newspaper clippings that mentioned him, and also stories about other prominent people and notable events. She must have got that from Mama, her mother, who had newspaper articles dating back to 1910.

Anyway, Wenonah’s dedication to preserving memories has been a wonderful thing for me, because I’ve inherited her keepsakes, pictures, letters and newspaper clippings. She started making memories for me on the day she brought me home from the hospital, by buying a newspaper and saving the front page.

It was Thursday, June 2, 1942, and it makes fascinating reading.

There were no less than twenty stories related to World War II. For example:

Midwest Warned to Expect enemy Air Raids: Wichita Cited Among cities Now in Danger.
Assassins’ bullets Thursday brought death to Reinhard Heydrich, No. 2 man of the Gestapo, whose ruthless tactics gained him the title “Der Henker” - the hangman.
British Dislodge Rommel from Libyan Stronghold
Nazis Stalled on Red Front
Senate Votes Balkan War: Resolutions Passed Against Bulgaria, Hungary, Rumania
Gas Rationing Ires Congress
Commemorate Pearl Harbor In Celebration Here Sunday: Six Months Anniversary

There were only two front page stories that didn’t concern the war: The news of Charlie Chaplin’s divorce from Paulette Goddard, and that of an unruly elephant which had been banished from the Wichita zoo and relocated to a nearby farm.

It seems remarkable to me that Wichita, Kansas, would be expecting an air raid. The long range bombers of the day had a maximum range of 2000 miles or so. Neither Japan nor Germany had an airfield close enough to even bomb our coasts, let alone Wichita, 1500 miles inland, but this is the degree of panic that gripped the country at the time.

The second page of the paper had several stories that concerned our family more directly. Property owners were protesting the freezing of rents, which had risen to outrageous levels because of the shortage of housing for workers at the aircraft plants, and the renters were protesting being evicted on flimsy grounds so that property owners could raise rents. Wenonah’s landlady used a different tact. She burned her trash next to the clothes line where my diapers were drying. Wenonah wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper about her:

The World’s Meanest Landlady

A Home Town News reader writes that she has just discovered the “meanest landlady.” The woman burned her trash in the incinerator directly beneath the clothesline where a line of baby’s diapers were hanging. The baby’s things had been carefully washed with a mild soap, boiled, rinsed over and over again, and finally disinfected. “To a mother,” the reader writes, “that was nothing short of a crime.”

Still getting no cooperation, Wenonah told Don she that she couldn’t take it any longer, that she had to get away from that woman. So Don and Bud looked for us a house. We couldn’t afford to buy one, but they located a little house for rent in a nice neighborhood, and we moved. The house was on S. Bluff. There wasn’t much of a yard, but there was no incinerator next door either.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


(These last few posts continue Wenonah’s Story from the point where the book ends, and so they’re bound to raise questions – questions about all these characters: Boyd, Everett, Kaliteyo, Oteka, Lahoma, Lacquanna, Dr. McNeill, Bud Bickford, Mr. Pepper, and there will be more. I’ll explain as best I can, without giving away the story told in the book.) 

After Pearl Harbor, Uncle Boyd, my dad’s older brother, joined the army. He was put in the artillery and made a lieutenant because of his ROTC training. Within six months he had been promoted to captain and was in the middle of the fighting at Guadalcanal. I think my dad would have volunteered too except that my mother pleaded with him to stay with her. She had missed a period and believed that she was pregnant.

Wenonah didn’t get much support for her diagnosis at first. Dr. McNeill, the doctor who had cured her stomach cramps and constipation, told her: “No. Little Geronimo’s not coming yet.” He was wrong, but the name stuck, at least for a while. I was “Little Geronimo” until I was born.

My mother’s first and only pregnancy was pretty hectic. My dad’s best friend, Bud Bickford, had quit Pepper’s and had gone to work for Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas. As soon as he was settled, he wrote and told Don that he should apply for a job there. Mr. Peppers still hadn’t moved Don into his accounting department, and he was tired of working in the refinery, so Don went up to Wichita to check out Boeing.

With the country gearing up for war, Boeing was turning out fighters and bombers as fast as they could, and hiring people in every department. They told Don he could go to work in accounting as soon as he could get to Wichita, so he and Wenonah packed up their Packard and headed north.

I remember that Packard. It was big, and black, and it had a running board. My parents owned it until I was seven or eight. I used to think it would be fun to ride, standing on the running board, but Wenonah wouldn’t let me.

When Wenonah and Don got to Wichita, they had trouble finding a place to stay. With so many people being hired at Boeing, apartments were scarce. Finally Bud and his roommate moved out of their apartment, so that we would have a place to stay.

My dad’s first job at Boeing was to compile manuals and procedures for their expanded accounting department. Wenonah told me his chief worry about her upcoming delivery was that I might turn out to be a girl. She told him that you treat a little girl just the same as you do a little boy. My name would have been Emily if I had been a girl, after Grandmother Paul’s mother.

I was born a boy though, on May 31, 1942, and Don sent out telegrams to both Grandmother Paul and to my Gunning grandparents.

Grandmother Paul was the first to reply. I think she was still having a hard time believing that Wenonah (Jim) had really gotten married. Everyone thought she would remain a career woman, and a spinster. 

Dear Don,                                                                                                      June 2, 1942.
I received your telegram. Am glad it is over. Let me know how Jim is, tell her that she has done herself proud. I am proud of her. Lots of love. Jim, who would have thought it, the world is getting good. The name is Geronimo, the world’s greatest Indian.
Proud and anxious Grandmother Victoria.

Soon afterwards came a letter from Grandmother Gunning:

Dearest Don Jimmy and Robin                                                                 June 6, 1942.
I am so anxious to go up to see you all I hope you are doing fine Jim. I know Robin must be a grand baby. From his father’s description. Don, have a little patience you can see the baby all you want to when you get them home. (The maternity ward visiting hours were very limited and Don would get to the hospital early and sit on the steps until he could get in.) I had thought I would be up there this Sun. but on second thought decided as they are so strict at the hospital I had better wait till next Sunday then you will all be home and I can see the baby and hold him too. It will be hard to wait that long but I will be seeing you sure soon. I am so glad your sister can be with you for a while when you get home (Aunt Kaliteyo). Mother (Laura Boyd, my great grandmother) has gone out to Alta’s (my great aunt) for a few days. She has been here quilting on Robin’s quilt. J.E. (My uncle J E was in highschool then) got the announcement. He was thrilled felt quite honored. He is sleeping this A.M. was out to a hop last night. Let us hear from you. Lots of love to all.
Mother Dad & J.E.

My great grandmother Boyd was still living then, although I don’t remember her, and she made me a quilt.

In the meantime Grandmother Paul had written again:

Dear Don and Jim (Wenonah).                                                                 June 4, 1942.
Received telegram Mon. & letter just now. So glad everyone is happy & that Jim and Geronimo are almost ready to go on the warpath. I am especially proud of the name you gave the Baby (Robin Rosser) & I believe you both will make excellent parents. Or Teachers. I am busy trying to finish the quota that I signed for & I think I will resign then that will be this month. This work takes all my time. I am tired. (She’s referring to her Red Cross work here, but she didn’t quit.)
            I have a nice little Garden. & you should see the day Lilies. They are as high as my head. & Madonna Lilies & Tiger Lilies. I have every kind of Marigold that was in the catalogue. I am canning everything that I have to can. You all can load up if you ever have time to come down.
I am planning to go to Anadarko. Lahoma is going to dance (Lahoma, Aunt Kaliteyo’s daughter, was representing the Chickasaw tribe as princess) She is as large as those big squaws.
Say, Tom has a perfectly beautiful little Girl. Her name is Lacquanna. (My cousin Lacquanna was born just two months before.)
Excuse haste lots of love & good luck with Son. Jim write when you can. Haskell and Lahoma are thrilled about the baby. Don write. I am sending announcements to the boys.
Love, Vick

Wenonah had been at a loss as to what to call me. I guess she figured the male names in her family had all been used up, so she started searching for new ideas. It was my dad who came up with the name Robin. It was springtime and the robins were singing and building their nests, so he said, “Why don’t we name him Robin?”

I haven’t been completely happy with the name of Robin. There are too many girls with the name. I would have been happy with “Don,” after my father, but he squelched that idea, or even “Geronimo,” although that one would be a little hard to live up to. My middle name Rosser came from the sir name of my mother’s beloved grandfather.

My dad said that every morning it was his job to change me and that I would pee on his shirt, so I guess I was getting even with him for naming me Robin.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Everett at Pearl Harbor

By December of 1941, my parents’ lives had settled into a routine. Every day Don went to work at  Peppers’ oil refinery. Jim was making baby clothes and pinching her pennies to buy baby furniture. They got together every week end with Kaliteyo and Lahoma who lived just a block away, and Lahoma would come over to visit with Jim on her way home from school in the afternoons. Jim and Don were looking forward to spending their first Christmas together.

World War II seemed far away, until December 7, “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Roosevelt said, the US fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. News of the attack threw the country into shock. Before that, the president had promised the people that they would not go to war, and they believed him. But after Pearl Harbor, everyone knew we were in it for the duration.

When details of the attack became known, and our family learned that Everett’s ship, the Battleship Oklahoma, had been sunk. They thought he must have been killed. It was almost a month before they learned that he was alive.

Grandmother Gunning sent a letter to Jim and Don:

Dec 30, 1941
My dear Don and Jim,
We had three cards and a note on a Christmas card they were mailed 9th, 14th, 15th of December from Everett. Said he was well. Would write at the first opportunity. Said mail would be slow, not to worry.
I am so happy and relieved. I wanted to call but decided to write.
He gave a new address
U.S.S. San Francisco 5th Div, c/o Fleet Postmaster. Pearl Harbor T.H.
I hope you are both fine. Thanks a lot for the lovely cloth and napkins, also the glasses. Hope you had a nice Xmas. We went with Dal’s to Mother’s for Xmas dinner. Let us hear from you.
Love Mother, Dad and J. E.

The story of the attack on Pearl Harbor has been retold many times, and the story of the sinking of the Battleship Oklahoma is described in the book, Trapped at Pearl Harbor, by Stephen Bower Young, but when Everett got to come home on leave about a year later, he told the story to my parents first hand.

The Japanese attack came at 0800, on December 7th, 1941, a Sunday morning. Most of the officers, including the captain of the USS Oklahoma were on shore. There was an inspection by the admiral scheduled for Monday, and so all the battleships in the fleet were in the harbor. Because it was Sunday, fewer reconnaissance planes went out, and for some reason, none went north, the direction of the attack.

The American planes on Oahu’s three airfields had been bunched together to better protect them from sabotage by the Japanese living on the island. This prevented them from taking off rapidly, and also made them sitting ducks for an air attack. Luckily the US aircraft carriers were all at sea.

Everett’s ship, the battleship Oklahoma, had a crew of 1354. The ship had four gun turrets, two pointing forward and two aft. Everett was a member of 4th division, the 60 man crew of gun turret #4, which supported one of the 14 inch guns. The ship also had a float plane for reconnaissance, and four antiaircraft guns. The battleship was like a small city.

In anticipation of an inspection on Monday, the firing mechanisms of the ship’s antiaircraft guns had been removed for cleaning and the ammunition stored away in locked magazines. The ship’s watertight compartments, which were supposed to prevent water from flooding into the ships if an explosion penetrated the hull, had been opened also in preparation for the inspection.

Many of the crew had been on shore leave the night before and had hangovers, so they were allowed to sleep in an extra hour on Sunday morning.  Everett happened to be up and dressed. He was going ashore for church. He also had a date. Motor launches were already crisscrossing the harbor taking men and supplies to and from the ships. Everett and the others going on leave had all lined up and were standing on deck at attention for the raising of the colors and the playing of the national anthem by the ship’s band. When the Japanese planes started flying in low over the harbor the band had just begun to play. The men couldn’t understand it. Some thought the planes were from one of our carriers, simulating a real attack. Then they saw puffs of smoke rising up from Ford Island, in the center of the harbor. 

Suddenly the ship’s PA system blared: “Man the antiaircraft batteries! Man the antiaircraft batteries!”  

The men who were down below were startled, at least those who were awake. Everett’s crew wasn’t involved immediately. The turret guns were too big for any antiaircraft use. The antiaircraft gun crews ran to their stations, even though their guns were unfireable. The officer of the deck fumbled for the keys to the ammunition boxes and magazines anyway. 

Then the next order came: “General Quarters! General quarters! All hands man your battle stations! All hands man your battle stations!”  

When Ensign Rommel, the highest ranking officer on board, saw the planes coming in and saw the cruiser Helena, in dock, hit by a torpedo, he scrambled up into the control room and yelled over the PA, “This is no shit, God damn it. They’re real bombs! A cruiser has just been sunk! Now get going!” That finally got everyone’s attention.

On battleships, the gun turrets extended from above the deck where turret officers sat, down to the fourth deck below. The 1400 pound shells were hoisted up from the 3rd deck to the guns where they were loaded into the breeches by hydraulic rammers. Then 100 pound powder bags were sent up on an elevator from the powder handling room on the 4th deck, four bags behind each shell. The 60 man crew were assigned to positions throughout each of the four levels. The crew, most of whom were in their living quarters on the second deck at the time of the attack, headed for the ladders, to descend to their battle stations.

Ensign Rommel, realizing that the big 14 inch guns were useless against airplanes, was mainly concerned with the safety of his men. He climbed into the turret and ordered the men on the way to their battle stations to go down to the powder handling room, on the deepest level of the ship. He figured they would be safer there. Airplanes couldn’t sink battleships. They carried bombs, not torpedoes. He was wrong. The Japanese planes had been specially modified to carry torpedoes.

It was about that time that the first torpedo hit the port side of the ship. That woke the rest of the men. Their first thought was that the boiler had exploded. The ship began to list. On the main deck the men saw the tower of water sent up by the explosion and felt it splash down on them as they heard the shells from the Japanese planes strafing the deck. They looked up and saw the big red dots on the wings of the planes identifying them as Japanese.  Meanwhile down below there was pandemonium. Many were knocked off the ladders by the explosion and were trying to get out of the way of the crush of sailors trying to get to their battle stations, or just to safety, some heading up and some down.

Only a few had heard the order from Rommel to go to the lower deck, so he, still convinced it was safer on the lower decks, stood by the hatch in the gun chamber and turned the men back as they came up the ladders. Everett went down with the others, and after a while the officers joined the men on the lower deck. 

When another torpedo hit the ship, and the list became more pronounced. The junior officer with Ensign Rommel said he thought the ship was going down, so Rommel decided to go up on deck to see what was happening. He said he would come back and tell the men. By the time Rommel reached the upper deck another torpedo had hit the ship and water had started pouring in through the hatches. 

He said, “I believe the ship is going down. Tell everybody to get out. Make sure you use the voice tubes; make sure everybody gets the word; make sure they get the word in the lower handling room.” Then he jumped into the water.

Everett and the other men below in the powder handling room hadn’t heard the order to abandon ship. After the second torpedo hit, the lights went out and they were thrown into darkness. They could hear equipment falling as the ship listed to the side. Oil was leaking down into the compartment making the floor slippery. The men tried to grab a bulkhead or some other structure to keep from falling. Then a third torpedo hit the ship. One of the cooks called out, “my breakfast dishes must be breaking.” He was answered by profanity. Finally the emergency lights came on. 

When the order “Abandon ship! Abandon ship!” echoed down the turret, the ship had listed over so far that only a few could even reach the ladders. Even so the ladders were clogged with men. Some climbed up through the powder hoist. Everett made it to the gun chamber, but when he got there he found the hatch to the deck jammed. Looking for a way to escape, he remembered the narrow shell ejection hatch on the bottom of the turret chamber. He squeezed through the opening to the main deck which was now under water. As Everett stood up, holding onto the turret, the deck was slanting so much that water covered his feet. Sailors clung to the sides of the ship as Japanese planes continued to strafe the deck. Everett realized that the ship was getting ready to roll over so he dove into the water and swam away under water. As he swam three more torpedoes hit the ship. 

Trying to get away from the ship, Everett swam under a pile of floating debris which blocked him from reaching the surface. Once free of the debris Everett still couldn’t swim because he couldn’t get his shoes off. He had shed his shirt and bell bottomed trousers fairly easily but his shoe laces got tangled and he couldn’t get them loose! Everett said later, “I almost drowned getting out of my shoes.” After that experience Everett never again laced his shoes all the way up. 

In all, five torpedoes struck the Battleship Oklahoma. She listed further to her port side and finally rolled completely over. As water rushed in through the hatches and portholes the men inside were drowned. Ensign Frances C Flaherty and Seaman James Richard Ward refused to abandon ship, remaining in turret #3, shining a light so other crew members could see to escape, until the ship rolled over drowning them. Lt Aloysius H Schmitt, the chaplain, started out a porthole and then returned to assist other men and was also drowned when the ship sank. On the shell deck, the huge 1400 pound shells lashed to the bulkheads broke loose as the ship listed to the side, crushing the sailors in that compartment. It took the ship only 10 minutes to sink. 

The attack lasted for two hours. During this time the Japanese planes kept coming in, torpedoing the ships, strafing the decks, and strafing the motor launches that were trying to rescue the men in the water. The smoke was so thick the men couldn’t see the sun. Sailors held to anything that would float. They managed to cut a few life rafts loose from the decks, and also the float plane.

Everett swam out to the float plane that was upside down next to the ship and held on to one of the pontoons. As more survivors joined him the pontoon sunk lower and lower in the water. Everett laid on it and held out his arms and legs so that more men could hold on. As they watched, the planes kept diving down. Docked next to the USS Oklahoma was the USS Maryland, another battleship that had been torpedoed and was sinking. Someone on her deck had managed to get an antiaircraft gun working and was trying to fire back at the Japanese planes. The USS Arizona’s deck had been hit by a specially designed armor piercing shell which exploded her ammunition magazines. She sank immediately and almost all of her crew were lost. The sailors in the water watched, horrified, as 25 or 30 men trapped on the Arizona’s foremast were burned alive by the flames leaping up from the deck. Some tried to jump, but the oil on the water was on fire also. 

The oil was Everett’s next problem. A huge sheet of oil extended out from every ship that had been hit and the men in the water were covered with it. It was difficult to even see men in the water because of the oil. Al Sandall, another of Everett’s shipmates clinging to the pontoon, said that the oil on the water was a foot thick! One of the Oklahoma’s crew was struck by a rescue launch that didn’t see him, breaking his leg. The men’s skin and clothes were so slippery from the oil that rescue crews couldn’t pull them into the boats. Everett saw a man drown right in front of a rescue boat because the crew couldn’t get him on board.

Everett was the last man to be rescued from the pontoon. By the time the launch finally came, the fire on the oil covering the water had almost reached him, and he was standing on the pontoon to escape the flames. In order to avoid the fate of the sailor he had seen drown next to the rescue boat, he dove head first into the launch.

Once Everett and the other sailors were in the launch they took off their oil soaked skivvies, so they were naked when they got to the shore. Al Sandall was rescued from the float plane along with Everett, and as they reached the fleet landing it suddenly occurred to Everett that he didn’t have any clothes on, and there was a crowd of dock workers watching as the sailors were getting out of the launch. Before Everett stood up he turned to his shipmate and said, “What do I do now, Al?” Sandall replied, “Don’t worry. No one knows you from Adam.” Then they both got up and walked through the crowd. 

Everett said that when the men got ashore they looked for a way to fight back. They expected a land attack to follow the bombing. There were no land based antiaircraft guns they could use. One of Everett’s shipmates found an old Springfield rifle and fired it at the Japanese planes as they flew by. The rescued sailors tried to help in any way they could. They got back into the rescue launches and returned to help rescue others. They helped carry the wounded to the relative safety of the shore. They helped fight the fires. All the while the Japanese continued bombing and strafing the ships and the rescue launches, even the hospital.

Back in the ship there were many still alive, trapped in air pockets where they grew weaker and weaker as the oxygen in the air became depleted. It was mostly dark inside the Oklahoma, except where men were able to save battery powered battle lanterns. They were standing in water and oil, next to the bodies of their ship mates who had drowned or been killed by falling debris as the ship sank. The men wracked their brains for ways to escape from the ship, now upside down. They dived into the water going from one compartment to another, looking for escape routes. Some managed to escape through submerged hatches or portholes, many didn’t.

The lower powder handling room, where Everett and the rest of the crew of gun turret 4 had initially been sent, was in the deepest part of the ship. There were about 15 men trapped there. They had a battle lantern which they used sparingly to conserve the batteries. The men explored the various exits to the room. The hatch to the shell handling room above was blocked by the huge 1400 pound shells. The powder hoist  through which some had escaped earlier now pointed straight down  and was filled with water. The only exit was a ladder well, called a trunk, which extended up, now down, 21 feet through the three decks between them and the main deck of the ship, and it was filled with water.

The men in the powder handling room discussed attempting an escape through the trunk. They would have to pull themselves down the ladder 21 ft to the main deck, make their way another 35 ft across the deck, and then up 30 feet to the surface of the water. One man went down and didn’t come back. Another made several trips and then gave up. Eventually three men managed to escape that way, an incredible feat. One of the men who escaped couldn’t swim, but he managed to stay on the surface until he was rescued. Another was so exhausted that his muscles refused to move when he got to the surface, and he almost drowned before the rescue launch got him aboard. As time passed the men still trapped inside became too weak to make the effort to escape. All they could do was to tap “SOS” on the wall of the compartment in Morse code hoping to be heard from the outside.    

After the attack was over, efforts began to rescue the men trapped inside the USS Oklahoma. The rescuers, armed with pneumatic hammers and chisels broke through the part of the main deck that was above water and into the ship’s dead spaces where they worked their way back to the compartments where the men were trapped. Only 6 men were left alive in the powder handling room of the Oklahoma after being trapped there for 25 hours in the darkness and the stale dank air of the small compartment. When the men finally came out into the light and saw the devastation left by the attack, one of them said, “It looks like we lost the war.” 

2403 men were lost in the attack on Pearl Harbor. 18 American naval vessels were sunk or badly damaged in the attack, including 8 battleships, every battleship in the Pacific fleet. 180 planes were destroyed and 120 crippled. From the battleship Oklahoma 448 sailors died, 400 of whom were trapped inside her hull. 32 sailors were rescued the next day by the crew that broke through the hull of the ship.  The Japanese lost only 29 planes in the attack and afterwards celebrated a great victory, but their attack was not as devastating as they had hoped. They had failed to sink even one American aircraft carrier and Pearl Harbor’s repair facilities and fuel stores remained undamaged. What was even more disastrous for them was the fact expressed so eloquently by the remark attributed to the Japanese naval commander Isoroku Yamomoto: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.” 

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Everett and the other survivors from the battleship Oklahoma were given their choice of ships for their next assignment. Everett chose the USS San Francisco, a heavy cruiser which had been at Pearl Harbor for repairs at the time of the Japanese attack, but had not been hit. He didn’t return to the United States until a year later when the USS San Francisco was severely damaged in the battle of Guadalcanal.

Everett told us that as he was walking down the street in San Francisco he saw one of his shipmates from the USS Oklahoma whom he believed had been killed in the attack. As they talked, Everett confessed to the man that since they had thought him dead the men had divided his belongings among them, and that he was wearing his socks.!  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Newlyweds, 1941

After my parents were married, in 1941, they lived in an efficiency apartment on 25th Street, east of Classen boulevard in Oklahoma City, in case you are familiar with the area. Aunt Kaliteyo lived about a block away, with her daughter Lahoma. (See blog entry for Oct. 5, 2011, The First Chickasaw Princess)

My mother, Jim, had quit her job at the state capital on the insistence of her brothers because jobs were scarce and it wasn’t considered right for a woman to work if her husband had a job. It would have been especially embarrassing to her older brother Snip, who was in the state senate and had got her the job in the first place.

At first Jim was busy writing 300 thank you notes for her wedding presents. Snip had invited the whole county to the wedding, and the first thing he told her when she and Don returned from their honeymoon was to be sure to write those thank you notes. She kept a record of her gifts, and she saved the cards in a scrap book. I still have them. She saved some of her gifts, like a serving tray made by Joe Raines. He pieced it together using several types of wood from trees growing in Pauls Valley. She also saved a mirror, a gift from the women she worked with, that magnified your image.

A lot of the gifts though were pieces of cut glass, candle sticks, clocks – I don’t know what all, but things which cost a lot of money, but weren’t really good for anything but show, so Aunt Helen gave Jim a clever idea. Aunt Helen was Snip’s wife. She suggested that she take all these gifts, exchange them for cash and then go buy some nice china, so that’s what Jim did. My parents never entertained, so the china was still just used for show, but it was a good idea. I have the china now, displayed in a china closet. It’s beautiful, but my wife Sarah and I don’t use it either. Maybe my kids will. 

Anyway, Jim tried to keep up with her friends, and she volunteered at the United Provident Center down town, which provided relief for the poor, but still she was alone much of the time and stir crazy. She told me that was when she learned to play solitaire. Don taught her to play to give her something to do with herself.

After a couple of months Jim found out she was pregnant, so then she had a new baby to plan for, and Lahoma would come by after school and tell her about her day. She was ten. I have a picture of Jim and Don with Lahoma on the Ferris wheel at the fair.

Meanwhile my dad, Don, was still working at Peppers oil refinery, and he didn’t like it one bit. Mr. Peppers had promised to move him into the office after he got his accounting degree, but months had passed, and Don was still working out in the refinery. The work there was hard and dangerous, and Jim said that he had nightmares about it for years.

Don gave up sports when he got married. He had played football and basketball in high school, basketball and track in college, and AAU basketball after he graduated. He was good enough that his coach at OU, Hugh McDermott, offered him a job coaching there after he graduated. I used to wonder if he missed sports, but he never mentioned it.

Both my parents kept up with their families. Jim’s sister Kaliteyo worked as a cashier. She was good at math, and later worked at the Skirvin Hotel coffee shop down town, but I don’t know where she was working in 1941. Snip, of course, was in the senate, and was building a law practice in Pauls Valley with Uncle Haskell.

Aunt Oteka and Uncle Thurman were living in Norman Oklahoma, and Thurman was working in the oil fields. Their older son Homer Dean was two. Jim’s youngest brother Tom was married and enrolled at Oklahoma A and M. He wanted to be a veterinarian. His wife, Catherine, worked and he made extra money hustling pool.

Don’s older brother Boyd wasn’t using his degree either. He had graduated from law school at OU. Instead he was working for the university, in the Extension Division, which handled correspondence courses, the university press, off campus projects, etc. He also was an announcer on the OU radio station. Don’s brother Everett had just graduated from high school, and his youngest brother J. E. was in junior high.

Don was worried about Everett. He hadn’t done well in school so wasn’t planning on following his two older brothers to college, and he didn’t have a job. Everett was wondering what to do with himself too so he asked for Don’s advice.  Don suggested that he go into the military. There was a war in Europe at the time, but no one thought we’d be involved. We had learned our lesson during WWI. Jobs were still hard to come by as the US was coming out of the Depression, and the military seemed like a good idea. It was a good way for a young man to get some structure in his life, and to grow up. So Everett joined the navy and was assigned to the Battleship Oklahoma, which was docked at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

                                                        Everett Gunning, 1941

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the Oklahoma, Everett’s ship  was sunk. That was a tough month for my parents, and little Lahoma helped to ease the suspense of not knowing whether or not Everett had survived. (see blog entry for Dec. 24, 2010, Christmas, 1941)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Diego Rivera

My mother, Jim, told me once that while she and my dad were in Mexico City on their honeymoon, they visited several museums. She said that in one they saw a politically inspired mural by a famous painter, and that someone had damaged it by throwing paint on it. She said that she thought the artist’s name was Rivera.

Well, when I got off the phone, I immediately Googled Rivera to see if I could find out anything about him. Sure enough, there was a prominent artist from Mexico named Diego Rivera who was quite famous by 1941 when my parents saw his mural, both as an artist and as a political figure. There have been two movies made about his life, Cradle will Rock, made in 1999, and Frida, featuring Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo. Coincidentally, I had seen Frida shortly before Jim told me about the mural.

Rivera was born in Mexico, but studied art in Paris and lived there for several years where he became a prominent artist, and a close friend of Amedeo Modigliani, who painted his portrait. In 1920, after the Mexican revolution, he returned to Mexico where he became active in the communist party, painting nationalistic murals, and founding the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. At the time, his work was so inflammatory that he armed himself with a pistol while he painted.

Coincidentally, 1921 was when Wenonah’s family lived in San Antonio. I tell the story in the book, Wenonah’s Story, about how her father tried to go into the business of selling Mexican real estate, and failed, probably because of the political unrest there.

The mural my parents saw has quite a history. Rivera first painted it in Rockefeller Center in New York City in 1933 with the title, “Man at the Crossroads.” The painting, which had been commissioned by the Rockefeller family, became controversial when an image of Vladimir Lenin was discovered inside it. Rivera refused to remove the image so the painting was destroyed, and Rivera returned to Mexico City. There he reproduced the mural my parents saw, renaming it “Man the Controller of the Universe.”

Wikipedia didn’t mention that the second version was defaced, but Jim got the idea it had been recent in 1941. Once again I was just amazed that she remembered anything about it at all.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Jim and Don's Honeymoon

First, a little apology:
I’ve decided to call Wenonah by her first name, Jim, short for her first name James, because that’s what everyone called her while I was growing up. Actually I did too. I called my parents Jim and Don, like they called each other, and they never taught me any different. My mother did prefer to be called Wenonah - she hated having a boy’s name, and in later years she went by Wenonah, except among family and old friends, but it doesn’t seem natural to me. I hope she’ll forgive me. 

Jim and Don's Honeymoon, June, 1941:

I can’t tell you about my parents’ wedding because it’s in the book, but the book stops there, so their honeymoon is fair game.

The book does mention that they started out to Mexico City with only $25, so I guess that’s as good a place to start as any. That fact just blew my mind when my mother casually mentioned it during one of our telephone conversations during her last years. I guess $25 went a lot farther on those days, but still, going to a foreign country, where you can’t speak the language, where they might not be able to fix your car, where you might get sick and need a doctor – there were so many risks. You’d have to know my parents, but I just can’t imagine them doing that.

First of all, my father was the most careful person I ever knew. He was always prepared. He was the first one ready for church every Sunday morning. He got his car maintained regularly. He was never late for a payment or an appointment. Jim said that after they were married he took out so many insurance policies she had to make him stop because she was afraid they wouldn’t have enough money to buy the things they needed. She teased him for checking their bank statements trying to catch the bank in an error. Actually Jim was the same way. When she took me shopping with her she would go to every store in town that sold a particular item before deciding what to buy. She and Don discussed every major purchase for months before they made a decision. We never lived beyond our means. We were the last family in the neighborhood to get a TV set. We fixed appliances instead of buying new ones. We never bought a car before the last one was paid off. That’s why it’s so hard for me to imagine them starting out on a twenty-five hundred mile trip with only $25. But it’s a fact. They ran out of money too, in Mexico City. My dad had to send a telegram to one of the guys he worked with, Charlie Kopp, asking him to wire another $25 for them to get home. My mother saved the telegram.

Another interesting tidbit my mother shared with me was a warning she got from her brother Haskell before they started on their trip. He told her that because of her dark skin the Mexicans would be offended when she didn’t speak Spanish, thinking she was a “high toned” Mexican refusing to speak her own language. She told me she “poo-poo’d” the idea at the time, but later at a restaurant in Mexico City, she and Don couldn’t get their waiter to come to their table. Finally a Jewish lady sitting next to them figured out their predicament, called to the waiter and ordered for them in Spanish. 

The lack of money, and difficulty communicating didn’t keep Jim and Don from having a good time though. They spent the first night together in Fort Worth, Texas, and the next day they drove on to San Antonio. There they took a Gray Line bus tour of the city for $2.00, visiting the Alamo, the Spanish Governor’s mansion, the San Jose Mission and the Japanese Tea Garden in Breckinridge Park. Jim must have enjoyed showing Don the city where she had lived as a little girl. After San Antonio, they drove south to Laredo. There they crossed the border and stayed in the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo. They bought a tour book there, for 25¢ - Jim kept it in her scrap book. It had maps, pictures, recommended places to stay, and information about each town and point of interest along the way. From there they followed the Pan American Highway through Monterrey, Ciudad Victoria, and Ciudad Valles. The road then went up into the mountains south to Mexico City. They took some pictures along the way, of the mountains, of the palm trees lining the road, and of each other. Jim had several different outfits, and she wore a broad brimmed bonnet. Her purse was woven out of multicolored yarn and had a draw string at the top, like a small sack. I recognized it when I saw the pictures because I saw it all my life. I asked her if she still had it and she said, “Sure, I keep buttons in it.” Don wore a white shirt and a tie with light colored pants and those old fashioned two toned shoes that were black on the toes and heels and white down the sides, with a straw hat.

Jim said the prettiest town they passed was Jacala. It was nestled among the mountains, and all the houses were white washed. There were vines growing on the walls, and poinsettias blooming in the gardens. The last place they stayed before they arrived in Mexico City was a town called Tamazunchale, which they dubbed “Thomas and Charlie” because that’s what it sounded like to them. Jim said the little town was surrounded by a dense tropical forest and there were colorful wild parrots everywhere. The natives were of small stature and the hotel manager told them they were descendants of the Aztecs. Jim said that they were shy, and that she couldn’t get them to talk to her. That night they kept being awakened by a loud noise that sounded like someone trying to start a car. In the morning she and Don asked the manager what had been going on, and he told them that the noise they heard was made by the parrots.

In Mexico City, Jim and Don visited the historic sites, and the museums, but the highlight of their trip was a visit to Xochimilco, a short way from the city, home of the famous floating gardens, the “Venice of Mexico.” They took a boat tour through the gardens, and were enchanted by the beauty of the flowers. Don bought Jim a bouquet, and she enjoyed the fragrance of the flowers until the oarsman warned her not to sniff them too much because there were little insects in the flowers that sometimes transmitted disease. Jim said she spent the rest of the tour blowing her nose. The guide must have gotten a kick out of that.

It was just about that time that they ran out of money, and decided to head back to Oklahoma City where they would be living while Don continued to work at Peppers refinery, and Jim faced the task of writing 300 thank you notes for their wedding gifts.

PS: I’m saving one more story about my parents’ honeymoon for later. I want to give it a separate post because of its historical interest.

Jim and Don, Xochimilco, 1941