|The U.S. Navy escort carrier USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) and her escorts pictured amidst a smoke screen during a surface action off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. (Source)|
It is not an easy book to read. Not because of the writing style, no far from it, it is a tough read because it details the valor of the crews of some very small ships. Reading of their heroism, and their sacrifice, took my breath away at times.
On 25 October 1944, three United States Navy destroyers and four destroyer escorts, while escorting six small escort carriers in the waters off Samar Island in the Philippines, were confronted by a Japanese force of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers. It's worth noting that one of the battleships was the giant Yamato, the largest battleship design (with her sister Musashi) to ever sail the seas. The Yamato by herself outweighed all 7 of the escorts, the "tin cans" as the sailors called them. She had 18" guns, the American ships' largest gun was 5 inches.
Two Fletcher-class destroyers, USS Hoel (DD-533) and USS Johnston (DD-557), one destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), and one escort carrier, USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) all succumbed to Japanese naval gunfire. However, in the long run, the smaller ships of the U.S. Navy, in conjunction with the repeated attacks and mock attacks by the aircraft from the escort carriers, drove the much heavier Japanese force off in defeat.
Those small "tin cans" had the temerity to launch a direct attack, with torpedoes and 5" guns against much larger and better armed ships. They should have been slaughtered, every single ship of "Taffy 3" should have gone to the bottom. But they did not.
One passage, among many, struck me hard as I approached the end of the book, it's on page 419. It tells part of the story of some of the surviving sailors and their families returning to the waters off Samar in 1977.
On October 24, 1977, they boarded a Philippine navy ship out of Manila. Screened by leaping porpoises, the RPS Samat navigated San Bernadino Strait and steamed into the waters off Samar where the Gambier Bay had gone down. A typhoon loomed somewhere over the horizon, raising whitecaps and long, rolling swells. "They're telling us that they know we're here," a shipmate said. "They're kicking up the sea from below."I read that paragraph and became lost in a moment of reflection, remembering my own dead. I'm not afraid to admit, that passage drew a tear. It's something I've often wondered in the wee, small hours of the night, long after everyone else is asleep. While I can almost sense the presence of those who have gone before, I wonder. Is it my imagination, or is it something else?
Where do the dead go? Do they see us, do they know they are dead? Is it a long sleep until the dawn of resurrection? I don't know.
One of "my" dead is Joe Welsh, he passed back in December. I remember distinctly a comment he had made on an earlier post that year in which he commented to the effect that dead was dead, there was no "after," and all that remained was to become worm food. (I'm pretty sure he used that actual term.) After Joe died I remember distinctly that I hoped that he was wrong about that.
But I don't know.
I know what I'm supposed to believe, sort of, as I can interpret the theology of the thing at least three different ways that I can think of right off the bat. One problem I have with religion is its inconsistencies and contradictions. No other way to describe that. Among the things I think that we, as humans, have always gotten wrong is thinking that we can comprehend the sheer vastness of the Universe and believing that we can know or even begin to understand the complexity of God.
Perhaps I think too much. Maybe I don't think enough. But I cannot begin to believe that when people give their lives in the heroic defense of others then that's it. It's over, no reward, no afterlife, no reuniting with loved ones.
Maybe it's an unknowable thing until we ourselves get to that point. That is an inevitability no matter how much you try not to think about it. Someday, we all die.
So I wonder, where do the dead go?