Veterans’ Day is here and I enjoy hunting up some stories about my father, David S. McKean, a veteran of World War II. He died in 1988. He wasn’t old when he died, but I miss hearing his stories and seeing his display of metals, and souvenirs of his travels. He impressed us with his boatswains mate whistle. He would demonstrate its unique sound with perfect precision. As a child, my favorite souvenir item was a small draw-string bag, he made from the pant leg of his Levis. It was filled with unusual and colorful seashells he had gathered on the South Sea Island beaches.
As I get older, I recognize the serious importance of gathering stories about people while they or the people that remember them are still living. If the information is not written down and preserved, we are all only a couple of generations from being totally forgotten as “who” we are as an individual. What do we want our families to know about us? What would we want to teach them? I want my grandchildren and great grandchildren to know the kind of people they came from and what sacrifices and contributions they made.
My mother had told me of an incident at sea, involving my father. Through the miracle of computer-research, I was able to read the old ships log of the account. The entry in the log was small and vague with very little mention of the details. Thank goodness my mother is still living with such good memories of Daddy’s stories to fill in the blanks.
Dave was only eighteen when he enlisted in the Navy. The world was at War, and most everyone felt patriotic and was expected and wanted to do their part to help in the War efforts.
I remember how strongly my father felt about defending his country. You don’t just say the words. You stand and “do what you say.”
He was assigned to Landing Ship Tank Vessel (LST 267) and promoted right away to the position of boatswains mate 2nd class and 1st class over the small boats or landing craft. The LST would anchor and send the small boats with their loads of troops to dispense them closer in to shore.
“THE BOAT GOT STUCK”
Not very long after his promotion to boatswains mate, while taking out a load of troops, the tide went out unexpectedly early. The small boat was stuck firmly into the coral reef. They were sitting targets for the firing guns from the island they had just unloaded troops and supplies unto.
Dave’s responsibility, as boatswains’ mate, to get his small boat to the beach, get the troops unloaded, and get it out of the area. The men and other small boats worked hard to get the small boat free from the coral reefs, which were sharp enough to cut up men’s shoes or cut them to death if they fell upon them. There was also the constant treat of planes strafing and big guns on the shore firing at them. Some of the men risked the razor sharp coral and jumped into the water to help push the boat. They tried everything to no avail.
Dave, being a creative farm boy, was able to get a line to another Landing Craft and rig up away to use the power of both boats. By riving up the engines of both boats at the same time and with both boats pulling as the men pushed, it moved and finally dislodged from the reef, but as it did, the sharp coral tore a large hole in the belly of small boat. They were sinking. The men used whatever they could find to stuff in the hole and slow the water leak as best they could. Slowly they limped the small boat back, bailing water all the way. As they pulled up next to the LST, Dave yelled out, “Lower the divots, we’re sinking!” The men were pulled to safety, but the boat was in bad shape.
The officer in charge of the LST that night hollered out, “Send a boy to do a man’s job and this is what you get! Consider yourself out of the boats!”
A physically exhausted Dave, emotionally reacted without thinking, “Thank You Sir, I didn’t like the boats anyway!”
The officer shot back, “Boy! Prepare your self for Court Marshal!”
There was no sleep for David, all that long night, the young eighteen year old suffered with severe anxieties, shakes and sweating. Haunted by thoughts of what folks back home would say. Wondering what he could have done differently. He was tormented mentally and physically sick with worry. There was also a stun of disbelief at the sudden consequences he found himself in. In his mind there were only two choices, once the boat was stuck on the reef…. To leave it or bring it back. They brought it back.
Unknown to Dave, during the night, some of the men that were in the small boats went to talk to the commander, to praise the heroic efforts young McKean had made to get the ship off the reef. They told the officer they only made it because of Dave McKean’s creative ideas and abilities. They stressed the fact, that they would have sunk and died or would have been destroyed by enemy fire by morning. They said, he saved all their lives and should have been praised rather than condemned.
The next morning, when Dave was called into the commander’s office, he heard the officer say “Sorry McKean! I misunderstood the conditions. You’re back in the boats!”
“Thank you, Sir!” he said simply, very relieved that he would not be kicked out of the Navy and grateful to the men who had stood up for him. Serving those years (He completed honorably his full two years) were probably the hardest of his life, but it was a job he was proud of.
THE TATTOO STORY
Daddy was a happy good natured guy, and was well liked by the men. As children I remember him telling us to never be pushed into something we didn’t want to do because others were doing it. Once his friends decided he was man enough to get a tattoo. He didn’t want one. They all insisted and nearly dragged him with them. All ended up getting tattoos that day, except my Dad.
NO R&R TODAY
Another time the men were so excited about having a full day off in Port. What plans they had. It had been so long since they had been a shore for leisure time. Just as they were leaving the ship to begin some R&R, they were called back in. The ship was being sent on an emergency run for another eight days. All were extremely disappointed. The trip felt long and tedious. There was a lot to complain about.
When they returned to the Port those some days later, they found that many of the ships anchored in the Port had been bombed, destroyed and some even sunk. Bodies were floating every where in the water. The Port had been bombed and they would have been a part of the carnage if they had been there. Daddy told us, sometimes when you think you’re having bad luck…it’s saving you from something much worse.
I tell these stories not just to honor my father, and the courage of our veterans, but encourage everyone to gather family stories and write your own, preserve them and pass them down to the next generations.
“You know yourself better, when you know where you came from.”