As nuch as I enjoy Panama, I am happy to be back at my home on the
Chesapeake Bay. Three months in the tropics have thinned my blood and
I am feeling the cold, but it will not take long for me to adjust.
As I forecast last week, there is much to do in the garden. Malcolm
and I spent most of the weekend clearing some of the remaining debris
from Hurricane Isabel. Objects carried by the floodwaters from other
homes kept appearing. Malcolm found an unopened can of Bud Light when
clearing a pile of driftwood, along with an almost new man's shoe.
The grass is still predominantly brown from the excessive cold of the
past winter, but thankfully the daffodils are flooding areas with brilliant
yellow. When I look closely at the trees and shrubs, I see buds forming,
giving the promise of good things to come. Spring is an exciting time
for me. With leaves not yet formed, I see beyond the trees to the landscape.
Pat delights in the daffodils as a sign that Spring is near.
With Malcolm’s knee still too painful to engage in heavy activity,
I have been doing the driving of his Ford F150 truck with its manual
drive and heavy clutch. We have shifted several truckloads of debris
and are getting ready for a mammoth bonfire.
In a break from yard work, we visited our neighbor Gilbert Hall. Every
morning when we are in Mathews, Malcolm goes over to Gilbert's to have
a cup of tea and a yarn, while I stay home to make my espresso coffee.
Gilbert will be eighty in June. After retiring from fishing he took
to hanging fishing nets for other watermen (fishermen). Hanging a net
is the term for making a net. He sews the nylon net to a line top and
bottom, placing floats on the top and lead weights on the bottom. He
works at an amazing speed, and because he is one of only a few who still
hang nets, he is never out of work.
Both Malcolm and I feel enriched by Gilbert's positive attitude toward
life and his innate sense of fun. The fact that he is ten years older
than us and still has a twinkle in his eye helps keep us thinking young.
Pat at the wheel of the Ford F150.
A couple of years ago, Gilbert broke sixty years of silence and started
to tell Malcolm about his experiences on a destroyer in the Pacific,
experiences he had never related to his family. Malcolm wrote about
them in an article that was published in our local newspaper, The
Gazette-Journal. I am having the article added to the end of this
letter because Gilbert's war record was remarkable on a number of accounts
and some of you may be interested in reading about it.
For the first time this year, I am not showing you a painting this
week. This does not mean that I have not been painting but rather, because
of the travel, I have no work that is ready for showing. Most of my
painting time has been taken up on starting a new West Virginia painting.
I was not happy with the West Virginia painting I showed you last week.
When I am not one hundred percent pleased with the way a scene is turning
out, I have no alternative but to start again. If I were not to, the
painting would haunt me in the months to come. Next week, I will show
you the new one, and I think you will agree that I made the right decision.
There was a Dutch seventeenth century painter named Van de Cappelle.
It is said that he destroyed more paintings than he sold because he
could not bear the thought of the public seeing a painting of his that
was not perfect. I can understand his feelings.
On Thursday I will be attending a gala at the Museum in Waynesboro
to mark the unveiling of a painting I have created for the public television
station WVPT. At the moment the painting is under wraps, so you will
not see the image until next week.
On Friday, Malcolm and I fly to St. Petersburg where we will be joined
by my sister Mary Martin and her husband Bill and my brother Dan Buckley
and his wife Carol. On March 27 and 28, I will be at the opening of
Tim Finn's gallery, which has taken over representing me in the area.
Pat and Malcolm watch as Gilbert hangs a fishing net.
The big excitement looming is the Tennessee
Convention, sponsored by the Society.
If you are in striking distance of Kingsport and have not already marked
your calendars, please do so now. The dates are Friday and Saturday,
May 7th and 8th. I promise you, this is going to be a fun event. For
the adventurous, the dress for the dinner dance will be ’50’s
style and much of the music will be of that era. Also, don't forget
and Barn Open House during the weekend of April 23-25.
Until next week, when I will write to you from Florida.
One Man’s War:
Gilbert Hall joined the crew of the USS Lawrence C. Taylor,
Destroyer Escort 415, in Norfolk, Virginia, shortly before his 19th
birthday in 1944. Soon after, the destroyer sailed to join the Pacific
Fleet. As the ship approached the coast of Panama, Seaman Hall was called
to the bridge and appointed acting helmsman. He remained acting helmsman
until the war ended eighteen months later.
"They called for me to go to the bridge when they read in my records
that I had fished pound nets before joining the navy. There was a big
difference between steering a fifty-foot fish boat and steering a destroyer.
You have a whole lot more boat, and you cannot give it too much rudder
or it will turn more than you want."
"On one occasion, I had to steer the destroyer while we transferred
an admiral from our ship by breeches buoy to a ship sailing alongside.
I don’t know who was the most scared, me or the admiral. I had
to keep the ship exactly on the degree."
In addition to being a helmsman, Gilbert had another, less pleasant
job. He and another sailor had the task of sewing canvas around the
bodies of those who died while the ship was at sea.
Gilbert explains, "I got to know a Mr. Peters in the wheel house.
He was a lieutenant and had been in the Merchant Marines before the
war. He and I would talk about fishing, and he taught me how to sew
canvas sails. Little did I know that this would later mean that I had
to sew the canvas around the bodies of the men who died. Me and another
boy would work together, he on one side of the body and I on the other.
Before completing the stitching, we would put a 50 lb. shell in with
the body to weigh it down when we sent it over the side."
In 1945, while acting as escort in the 3rd Fleet, the Lawrence
C. Taylor, along with the other ships, was caught in a typhoon.
"The storm lasted for two days and nights, with one day the height
of it. I was in the wheel house eight hours on and eight hours off throughout.
We were supposed to have three helmsmen, but we didn't’t have
but two. They could not find another."
"The wind speed was 130 knots (150 mph) and the seas 60 feet high,
great long swells, and on the top of each swell there was a big sea
coming at another angle. I had to keep head to the wind. The rudders
were useless, the seas were so bad. I had to hold the wheel dead center
while the quartermasters steered with the engines, one ahead and the
other aback. I had never worked so hard, not even on the heaviest pound
nets, and I was scared to death, too. That was the worst part of it."
"Twice we rolled to 47 degrees, two degrees more than the ship
was supposed to stand. The ship just laid there on her side for what
seemed like forever, as if she would never come back. I thought we were
gone for sure. I remember looking at the captain. We were all silent
and he, like us, could do nothing but wait and see which way we would
go. We were lucky. Others weren't."
"Six other destroyers similar to ours capsized. Among those lost
in the storm were two Mathews boys, good friends of mine, Dickie Staunton
and Wendell Hudgins. I was told that only one man out of the six crews
was rescued. It must have been some miracle. They say he came to Mathews
after the war to see Dickie and Wendell's parents."
The escort duties of the USS Lawrence C. Taylor included hunting
for Japanese submarines. "We destroyed two Jap subs," Gilbert
recalls. "One was at 60 feet and the other at 400 feet. On both
occasions, we were given two bottles of beer each to celebrate. The
beer was supposed to be for when we went ashore after an island was
taken, but it was broken into for these occasions."
"I gave my beer away. It is not that I didn't like a drink as
much as any other sailor. I could not swallow it to save my life. It
was so sad. Photographs of families with children and books and the
like would float up to the surface. I made myself remember that if it
had not been them, it would have been us. It's the one who gets the
first lick that lives. Nevertheless, I could not join in the cheering
for thinking of them and their families."
The list of actions in which the Lawrence C. Taylor played
a part follows the progress of the U.S. forces as they pushed the Japanese
back across the Pacific: the invasion of Mindoro; air strikes on Formosa
and Luzon; the support of General Douglas MacArthur’s landings
at Lingayen Gulf; and the assault on Iwo Jima, which lasted from February
14 until March 10, 1945. Gilbert was awarded seven battle stars, five
for invasions and two for sinking the submarines. "I never did
get a battle star for the typhoon," laughs Gilbert. "But,
I reckon that was the nearest I came to death."
"At Iwo Jima we were an escort to the aircraft carriers. I was
on the bridge when the kamikaze pilots attacked the USS Bismarck
Sea, a converted Victory Ship. We were close by. The sun had just
gone down, and our planes had returned to the carrier. I saw the tracers
fired by the kamikaze pilots as they approached and reported to the
bridge officer. There was nothing we could do but stand by and watch.
The planes came in wide open. There was a massive explosion, and the
ship went end first beneath the waves."
"We picked up 120 sailors from the carrier’s crew, many
of them in a pitiful state. We had no real doctor on board, only the
pharmacist mate. I heard it told that he amputated injured limbs with
the machine shop hacksaw and with the butcher’s cleaver--to stop
gangrene I suspect—but, even then, two of them died quickly and
soon after we sewed their remains in canvas and slid them over the side."
The final action of the Lawrence C. Taylor was the assault
and subsequent defense of Okinawa Island, as a unit of Carrier Support
Gilbert was twenty-one when the war ended. The Lawrence C. Taylor
was then given another mission. It was assigned to carry General Chang
Kai Shek along the coast of Manchuria and China. It was a last attempt
by the General to rally his nationalist army in the closing stages of
his war with the Red Army.
At the helm of the launch carrying General Chang Kai Shek towards the
Manchurian Coast stood acting coxman Seaman Hall. "Someone fired
a shot across our bows. The shot was too close for comfort, I tell you
that, about as far as from here to that house." Gilbert pointed
to his daughter’s house two hundred feet away. "The General
told me to go about."
Gilbert was one of two seaman who had been appointed acting coxman.
Early on, the other seaman had taken a short cut across a reef and ripped
the rudder off. "After that, the General always asked for me,"
Gilbert relates, "I took Chang Kai Shek ashore many times in different
places along the coast. He was real friendly and would stand beside
me as we made our way through the channels. Often his son was with him.
They were nice looking, both of them, the old man and his son. They
were taller than most Chinese, the son was particularly tall. They would
talk to me on the deck of the ship also. They were interested to know
about fishing and what life was like back in Mathews."
Gilbert’s naval record shows that he is a member of the Ancient
Order of the Golden Dragon and of the Silent Mysteries of the East.
He does not recall how he came to have these awards or anyone ever giving
them to him. Maybe they came from the General.
When the mission with the General ended, the Lawrence C. Taylor
headed for home. "We brought the ship to Frisco, and from there
most of us were sent by train all the way back to Norfolk. The journey
took a whole week. I felt sorry for the one MP who was responsible for
our carriage. Many of us were drunk most of the time. The poor fellow
was scared to hell of us. He told his lieutenant there was no way he
was going to mess with us. We stopped for a while in Kentucky, and some
of the sailors met up with local girls there and never did get back
on the train. I grew up a great deal in those eighteen months. I never
did leave Mathews after I got home. I was so thankful the Lord spared
me. For ten years I had nightmares, and for many more years I could
not bring myself to think of all that I had seen and experienced. Only
recently could I start to reflect back on those days."