Friday, February 13, 2009

Living History

U.S.S. Laffey and U.S.S. Ingham
Two of the exhibits at Patriot's Point are the U.S.S. Ingham (on right), a retired Coast Guard Cutter that I posted about a couple of days ago, and the U.S.S. Laffey (on left), a retired WWII era destroyer. The Laffey was closed for renovation during our visit. Which was a shame as I was looking forward to seeing her again as my previous visit had been so memorable.

More after the jump.

On April 16, 1995, my wife and I visited Patriot's Point. We toured the Laffey first planning to save the Yorktown for the afternoon. During our tour, we stopped in the room on the Laffey which commemorated a particular battle that it had been involved in during the WWII Pacific campaign. During that battle, the Laffey was attacked by 22 Japanese bombers and kamikaze fighters. Three bombs and five kamikaze struck her killing 31 of her crew and wounding another 71. This was nearly one-third of her 336 man crew. Two other bombs scored near misses to contribute to the toll. Through it all, the Laffey's crew kept the ship afloat and fighting downing 11 of the attacking aircraft. The crew eventually nicknamed her "The Ship That Would Not Die." The Laffey also served in the D-Day invasion fleet and ended WWII with a Presidential Unit Citation and five battles stars. She would later serve as a support ship for the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test. Later still she was rearmed and served in the Korean War were she earned two additional battle stars. The Laffey is the only surviving member of her class, the Sumner-class destroyer, and was eventually decommissioned in 1975. Patriot's Point received her in 1981 and she was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

As you can see, the Laffey, like the Yorktown and Ingham docked near her, had a long and notable career. The truly remarkable, or perhaps serendipitous would be a better description, of that visit to her back in 1985 was the particular date. As I stood in the exhibit room I thought the date seemed odd, but couldn't quite place my finger on why. That is until I looked at my watch. April 16, 1995, the date that we were standing on the U.S.S. Laffey, was exactly 50 years to the day of the battle where she survived the kamikaze attacks. Once that sunk in, I felt a very palatable weight of history settling on my shoulders. There was no fanfare for the date. No commemoration of the battle beyond the already existing display. Nothing at Patriot's Point at the time remarked about it's significance. Yet, there my wife and I were standing on the ship almost exactly 50 years to the HOUR of when she suffered her first kamikaze attack of that fateful day: April 16, 1945.

That experience by itself was remarkable. To realize that you are standing where men may have died in battle exactly 50 years to the hour you are there is quite an overwhelming feeling. However, it was soon to become even more personal and would be brought into much more human terms.

As I mentioned the battle and the date to my wife, I noticed a family of three step into the exhibit room. They were a young, oriental couple with an aging man who apparently was one of their's father. The older man moved slowly with age, but also with a pensiveness that seemed almost as if he was on a pilgrimage. It was just the five of us in that room together and yet both my wife and I felt a curtain of silent history descend throughout the room. We no longer heard the creaks of the Laffey's battle-scarred plates. The twittering birds and impatient traffic outside faded. Even the waves lapping through the river onto the shore grew quiet. We didn't speak with the family, but I could make out some of what they said. The young couple read the displays to the older man. When they finished reading the commemorative display of the battle to them, the young couple left him alone while he bowed his head. I overheard the young couple speaking softly to each other in English and from what I made out, the older gentleman had been a Japanese serviceman during WWII. He was in American visiting them, and made this visit to Patriot's Point as a way of reconciling his experience and putting the old memories to rest.

So, fifty years to the hour of when the Laffey suffered a kamikaze attack, my wife and I stood on board her with a Japanese serviceman who may have been involved in the battle in some manner. We do not get the chance to experience such a sense of physical, living history often in our lives. That particular day, that particular event, is one that my wife and I will always remember. It is so clear in my mind, so visible when I close my eyes and think about it, that it is almost as if I had been witness to the Laffey's battle myself.

That visit was of course quite a number of years before I really became interested in photography. So, I don't have any photographs of it. At least none in digital form. I might have some color prints in a box somewhere. I don't think that even if it had happened today that I would have taken any photographs with the former Japanese serviceman. The moment was too physical, too personal, indeed almost too important and even too surreal, to even have considered it at the time it occurred. That is why I was disappointed that the Laffey was closed for tours this time. I had hoped to memorialize some of those feelings after the filter of these past few years. This particular photograph does not really capture the feelings I had wanted as I couldn't get onto the ship itself. I don't even think it is a particularly good photograph in the end. It is too busy with no clear subject. The mooring line leads the eye out of the frame rather than into it as I thought it might. However, it does at least capture the U.S.S. Laffey and U.S.S. Ingham together in their final berths. Both are ships with long, distinquished careers in service to the nation during times of war and peace. They are true monuments to man's determination in the face of extreme diversities. Tributes of living history that we should never forget.

Keep shooting.

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