Today at lunch I met an older gentleman and struck up some small talk while we waited for the salad bar to open. This gentleman was not cut from the same cloth as the older, meaner sort commonly found on cruiseships. A very pleasant man of 87 with a sharp mind and firm handshake. I was in uniform and he asked me if I was a pilot. I said, "Yes," and he told me he once flew on military aircraft as well. I always enjoy talking with the guys who flew planes in the "good old days," so I asked him what he flew on. Turns out he was a radio operator on a Navy torpedo bomber in WWII. The more we talked the more Mr. Tom Nelson laid out a tremendous story that had me riveted for 2 hours.
Mr. Nelson was stationed at Pearl Harbor and vividly remembers the morning of 7 December 1941. He was rolling out of the bunk when he heard a plane in a power dive and the first explosion. He and some buddies thought it was a training accident and went out to look. Imagine their surprise when they saw Japanese fighter planes attacking our ships in the harbor.
He participated in the Naval battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942, flying off the carrier Enterprise. His plane was shot down by Zeros and he parachuted into the ocean, spending about a day floating in shark infested waters until he was picked up by a Japanese destroyer. He spent the next 3 years in Japanese prison camps unloading railroad cars and working in iron mills along with the other American and British comrades there with him. He told me of how they "continued the fight" by sabotaging as much as they could. He passed along one particular time when he and a buddy helped sink a barge by dropping a 200 pound iron bar through the bottom. He talked a little of his Japanese captors. One in particular was a young, overly zealous guard who was not highly regarded by the American and British prisoners. They thought even less of him when they found out he had flunked out of Kamikaze school.
When the war ended, he and his fellow camp mates commandeered a passing Japanese train and made their way to Tokyo. I love talking to guys like this. The sad part is that there are less and less of them every day.