Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Where Do The Dead Go?

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)
I have just finished reading The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer, something I have been meaning to do for a long time. It is well-written, well-researched, and simply put, brilliant.

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?


  1. I completely agree about Hornfischer's book.

    When I served on Forrestal, and during the rare quiet times of cold iron watches in the machinery spaces, I and many of my shipmates, attributed the chance odd noises to those shipmates who had been killed aboard the ship. And most of us felt that some of those prior shipmates had chosen to stay behind and keep watch over us.

    Ships are much, much more than simply the metal homes we lived in, and for those that say that ships have souls and personalities, I don't think they are very wrong.

    1. I have to agree John. Ships are given souls and personalities by those who served aboard them. How can some of that not stay behind?

  2. As a Good Lutheran Badger, I believe that after death, I will be united with God, and reunited with family and friends who have gone before me. I have no doubt what so ever that this is true.

  3. It's a great book.

    I think you're spot on about the impossibility of understanding the universe. I know much of the physical that happens when organisms die. I have seen, heard, smelled, touched and tasted the real death of man and beast. But every single day I see something new, something I never expected. And that's just on this tiny planet on the edges of a mundane galaxy in one of billions of mundane galactic clusters.

    During tough times and beautiful times I often feel the presence of my friends who have gone before. I am as certain as I can possibly be, which is not absolutely certain of course, that god is with me always. Or perhaps it's better to say that wherever I am, so also is god. I have peace in my life because I have faith that whatever happens, it'll be okay.

    1. I too have faith in my God. It's religion I often have issues with.

      There is a presence at times, I've felt it. I don't try to understand it, because I can't. But it's there.

  4. I have lost more than a few friends in combat. If I thought that the grave was the ultimate end for them, I could not stand it.

  5. The nature of the hereafter is something that I prefer to leave to the theologians. However, one of the things I most enjoy in my strictly amateur study of history is that I firmly believe that the dead are not gone, are not forgotten, so long as a single person remembers them, and the deeds that they have done. Each life is worthy of remembering, but some lives leave a greater impact and thus are remembered by a much larger group. Hornfischer did a wonderful job of reminding us all of the heroism and the devotion to duty of the men of Taffy-3.

  6. I take what I can relate to from religion.
    That's man's interpretation.
    I have my own understanding of God.
    I have too much experience to believe that those who've traveled the road to happy destiny are gone.
    They are with us every day.
    If we pay attention we can even hear them.

    1. And that's as good as a philosophy as any. And it matches my own very closely.

  7. Too often, I think, we forget the dead go to a better place.

  8. Two comments:
    1) They are with us, watching over us. My Father was in the USAF. Passed away in 2004. Went from Airman to LtCol. without a college degree. (No, he wasn't a pilot) Long story but I swear to you that he saved my life a few years ago.
    2) Have you seen this? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ue202jhQMX8

    1. I have no doubts at all regarding your story Jack. As Shakespeare said, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." I fully believe that.

      And I do believe you just answered my "what to watch" question for the evening. Most excellent.

  9. My medic son says that at times he felt someone else's hands were treating the trauma, not his; his hands were being used. Who am I to argue with him?

  10. Thank you. This post and comments are up to the usual high standards of this blog.

    Paul L. Quandt


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