Monday 8 May 2017

The Battle of the Coral Sea 8 May 1942

To day is the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 and Aviation of Japan Texas correspondent Mark Smith has contributed this memorial to his uncle, a sailor on the USS Lexington that day. The Lexington suffered fatal damage from bomb and torpedo hits during the battle and ultimately sank but Mark's uncle was one of the survivors.  Remarkably he went on to serve on board USS Ranger CV-61 in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.  In Mark' words:-

"One day in 2011 I ran across the book Warship Pictorial: USS Lexington CV-2 by Steve Wiper.  I had a special reason to purchase it after just a moment of turning those pages and seeing these remarkable photos, most for the first time.  The brief text and careful captions lent a little better understanding of my uncle, Frank Merrell, whose kid sister was my mother Lee.  After he had drawn his first few months of pay as a seaman, he had saved enough to send her a beautiful pair of boots from San Diego, the first new shoes she had ever owned.  She was sixteen then, and she told me she wore those boots every day all through the rest of high school, always kept them clean and the leather buffed.  "He remembered my shoe size," she told me early in 2009, still relishing this.  Not bad for a 20-year old rake with the world at his feet, remembering his kid sister among all the excitement, work, and turmoil of 1939.  My mom died in June of 2009.  I'm glad she told me about that.  Mom’s family was from Pittsburg in deep East Texas.  Her dad was a share-cropper and her mother chronically ill.  Frank saw the Navy as a way out; math came naturally to him and he understood and appreciated machinery early on; through hard work and a succession of courses successfully undertaken, he qualified for carrier assignment.  He wrote interesting and funny letters home, and his assignment in 1940 to Lexington, only the second US carrier built, in 1940, was a source of pride for all the family.  

"When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Lexington was generally thought to be in harbor there, certainly so by the Merrells in Texas, and the worst was feared.  Many weeks went by.  There is a picture in Steve’s book, one of the many I hadn’t seen, that notes the ship at a dead stop with this caption: "In this image LEXINGTON has come to almost a complete stop about 450 miles to the east of Midway Island on 7 December 1941, with the news of the attack upon Pearl Harbor."  Perhaps it was only by such vicissitudes that, though born so much later, I had the privilege to know Frank a little and be needled by him, to see him shoot an 82 while drinking six beers over eighteen on a hot day; and it was his fault that when I started smoking they had to be Pall Mall Reds, his brand.  It was several weeks before a nondescript postcard finally arrived at my mom's place in Pittsburg, Texas.  Among several boxes, Frank had checked the one next to: "Am well, letter to follow" – all he was allowed to send at the time.  But it had his familiar spiky signature to prove it.  It came on the same day that the Sears and Roebuck catalogue arrived, and my mother told me that her dad dropped all the other mail (she rescued the catalogue from the mud a little later, after all it was the most eagerly anticipated single piece of mail in America in 1942) and ran to the house, shouting,  "We've heard from Frank!  We've heard from Frank!" It sounds like a Frank Capra film, but I trust my mother and her memory on that one.  

"He used to write me occasionally, and tucked into one note was a black-and-white Polaroid he had taken from shore, writing on the bottom border, "USS Ranger off Yankee Station."  It was his last carrier cruise, Vietnam the war this time, CV-61 rather than CV-2.  Instead of bombing up SBDs and belting and loading .50 caliber in Grumman Wildcat fighters, he was an avionics technician on Vought A-7 Corsair attack jets.  Frank would have been almost fifty then.  It doesn't seem likely to me either, but he had retired once to civilian life, and it didn't take, and his return cost him rank.  He said, "I'm older than you're supposed to be in this Navy."  Having missed the Pearl Harbor attack and survived the Lexington's sinking at Coral Sea only six months later, that might have held more meaning than a teenager could realize.

"Though the Lexington missed the carnage at Pearl Harbor, it would be sunk six months later at the Battle of the Coral Sea.  He would never tell me about May 8, 1942, though as a young teenager I asked him about it.  He was indirect.  It was “a fine ship” he said, and he went on to explain that each ship had its own personality, its own health or malady, and could be a plum assignment or a dreaded one; his place in the Lexington’s complement as an aviation ordnanceman was still a source of pride.  It was “a terrible day.”  I had a couple more stupid questions.  But though he had an exceptional memory, that bit was privileged: "Were they good?  Hell, they sank our ship!" and the look that accompanied it closed my inquiries permanently.

"I had either read or heard somewhere that some of the Lex's sailors visited the galley after personnel had received the order to abandon ship, and went over the side with scoops of strawberry ice cream in their ballcaps.  I think I first heard this from my mother, but I’m not sure.  Certainly I could see Frank doing that.  Or I could before I came across certain photos for the first time in your book that suggest that any descent from that massive burning ship was too precarious for such foolishness.  I honestly can’t remember now if I was told that he did this, or read of it somewhere in the accounts of that day, and came to ascribe it to him.

"The knowledge of how easily history can be ‘personalized’ and otherwise corrupted is all too obvious the older I become.  Unlike Frank, I’ve a poor memory; I wish I’d recorded more carefully some of those conversations, but Frank died in 1985 and my mother is gone now also.  It’s one of the reasons I found the Warship Pictorial book so fascinating and valuable.  Seeing those photographs of that terrible day, 69 years after the fact, moved me.  The bravery and sacrifice of those who came to their rescue in the destroyers MORRIS and HAMMANN, and in even smaller craft that day can only be appreciated through these photographs, and the efficiency of the ship’s captain, Ted Sherman, and his officers in getting so many off safely the more remarkable.   While each one is only an instant in time from one angle, a photo doesn’t lie or forget or become clouded by sentiment.  I regret that my mother didn’t get to see the book, as she died a year before I found it.  She would have pored through it.  

"One thing that surprised me as I read was how small the ratio of officers was in ship’s complement.   The photos that Steve discovered and presented for the first time showing the removal of the battleship-type turreted guns at Pearl for the sake of the smaller one-inch anti-aircraft weapons, accomplished under wartime duress and emergency, was of particular interest.  It was completed just in time for the carrier to hurry off to its critical role in preventing the invasion of Port Moresby and thus to its fate.  The guns would down several attacking Japanese aircraft, but could not prevail against a perfectly timed anvil attack, when torpedo bombers split into two groups and came from different directions.  The photos were accompanied by a brilliant but workmanlike memo documenting the refit from the Commandant of the Pearl Harbor Naval Yard.  That a task of such remarkable scope could be described in one closely-typed page - in a way that a layman could generally understand - gives insight into the quality of naval officers the Japanese would be up against.  

"What he was proudest of, I believe, was that he served so long "on the top floor" without getting killed.  He was always alive to the constant danger of deck operations and had seen several men killed in routine peacetime operations due to accidents or fate.  "It certainly concentrates the mind."  Of course I thought Frank had made that up, but he was just well-read for a sea-dog.  

"Steve has written lots of books.  The one I’ve mentioned was the 33rd Warship Pictorial, each covering a different ship, and all of them have preserved important images and facts that might have been otherwise lost; in doing so he and historians like him have served the memory of thousands of unique individuals, and those who want to keep that memory alive as the fuse burns.  Thanks Steve.  And thank you, Frank Merrell.  You are remembered indeed.   Didn’t your little sister remember those boots 70 years after you sent them? 

"May 8 marks 75 years since The Battle of the Coral Sea, when the issue was still very much in the balance, and years of sacrifice still to come for both sides."
Mark Smith  

Image credit: USS Lexington under attack, photographed from a Japanese aircraft, public domain, source: Wiki; USS Lexington explosion Naval Historical Center via Mark Smith; USS Lexington survivors WWII History Images gallery via Mark Smith.


Dan Salamone said...

Thanks for sharing these memories, Mark. And also of course, thank you to your uncle for his years of service.


Terry said...

Very moving. Thank you for the recollections, Mark, and for noting the day, Nick.

Richard Tool said...

Yet another testament to our parents ' generation - their patriotism , their courage , their endurance and tenacity to prevail in the greatest conflict the world has ever seen . Hopefully we will never see it again . Thank you Mark for sharing your family's story- you, sir have a gift for this as I and others I have just shared it with were moved to tears by it. Thanks also to Nick for providing this wonderful venue for all of us to share our interests and passions. My own father was a loftsman at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during WW II . He was fortunate that his critical defense industry skills kept him out of harms way. My father in law , on the other hand , was aboard the USS Maddox DD 731 when she was hit by a kamikaze off Okinawa - like Marks uncle he was never very comfortable talking about it .

Anonymous said...

Mark, thank you for providing this memoir/tribute and thank you Nick for publishing it.
On a technical note I am in the process of reading 'Malaya and Singapore 19-41-42'and have been reminded that it was an 'anvil attack' that eventually did for HMS Repulse off Singapore after a doughty battle and excellent handing by her Captain.

Ken Glass said...

Thanks for sharing, Mark.

Ken Glass