Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reunion of the USS HAGGARD

     In mid-September I hopped on a plane for Mason City, Iowa for the 25th and final reunion of the shipmates of the USS HAGGARD.

    I still remember the day, back in 1990, when Lin got off the phone after a call from  Bud Weigand.  He was so excited his feet barely touched the floor. "We are going to Seattle for a reunion of my shipmates."
    Until that time, Lin seldom spoke of his WWII experiences except for a story about all the stills on board his ship.  He said that all  the water beakers, meant for emergencies if they had to abandon ship, had alcohol in them instead of water. 
    My response to his announcement about Seattle was something along the lines of "you can go, I can't imagine wanting to attend."   Despite his assurances that there would be plenty of other spouses (not much of an encouragement as I figured I would be years younger than anyone else there), I finally agreed to go.  It was clear it was important to him and he knew my weak spot....he extolled the virtues of exploring Seattle, easily done from our hotel location.  I  figured I'd explore the city while shipmates sat around in some stuffy hospitality room swapping old stories.
     But I came home with an entirely new view.  I had a great time, met wonderful people, found myself looking forward to the next reunion, and perhaps most importantly, began to realize the importance those 4 years in the Navy had played in Lin's life. 
    As we traveled to Seattle I asked him how many people he remembered.  There were 6 or 7 names but that was it.  He didn't recognize faces when we arrived, but as he began talking to people, memories came back.   Those memories were of people, of situations and experiences.  People brought their photo albums and those brought back lots of memories.  The stories rolled.  Yes, they did tend to get embellished.  Yes, there were incredibly different versions of the same events, but then, each person had a different reaction to what was happening.   But each story jogged a memory of those years.
    Eventually most of the shipmates wrote an account of the day the "ship stood still."   That was the day a kamikaze plane hit their destroyer mid-ship stopping it in the water.   Men died that day.   The hole in the ship, at the waterline,  was huge and the Captain ordered all hands to prepare to abandon ship.  But the ship remained afloat and the crew built a patch allowing the  HAGGARD to limp to -Ulithe for better repairs.   Then they began the journey back to the states for major repairs.   With all shipyards on the west coast filled to capacity, the ship was in the Panama Canal when news came of the end of the war.
   Lin, who was on board for the shakedown cruise out of Bremerton, WA,  also helped  decommission the HAGGARD.  Deemed too badly damaged for post war repairs,  she was  scrapped in Norfolk, VA.
    I learned about boot camp at Farragut, Idaho, going aboard the HAGGARD for its shakedown,  wild baseball games on Pacific Islands, invasions of islands throughout the Pacific, surviving the worst typhoon on record when the ship pitched so far from side to side all hands expected her to go over, the decorations for ship's actions, the attacks, the lousy "lamb" (Australian mutton which they tossed overboard in fire bucket brigade line.....as the meat came on board on one side the line of men snaked to the far side where they tossed it over board as no one could stand to eat it.   Due to the lack of popularity of mutton, no ship could get any other rations until they took aboard their quota of the stuff).    I learned about the camaraderie, the mail calls, the movie nights, the stills the men made and the perfection of their liquor making skills.  I learned about the popular officers and the stories of one so unpopular even the captain and doctor did not save him from harassment.  I heard stories about the skills and idiosyncrasies of the shipmates and the strong sense of camaraderie and loyalty. 
   After attending several reunions, Lin and I offered to host one in Santa Rosa, CA.   Between our offer to host and the actual event a year later, we sold our house.   By the time the reunion rolled around, we were living in our motorhome.   Doing all the planning from our new home was a great experience in learning the ins and outs of RVing and coordinating with the traditional fixed home based world.

    Most destroyer sailors were young.  Lin and his compatriots were mostly in their late teens.   Lin, not unlike many of his shipmates, dropped out of high school and went in at 17.  Even their Captain was only in his mid-twenties.   But today, those teenagers are in their late 80s and 90s.   The decision was made that this year would be the last year for a reunion.     Many of the shipmates are gone.   The names of the departed during each year's memorial service grew longer and longer.   And of those still living, traveling across country to attend reunions was becoming more and more of a burden.  And so, a year ago, the decision was made that this reunion, in Mason City, would be the last.
    Over the years, different shipmates hosted the reunions and the group moved around the country to where that shipmate (s) lived.   Each host or host group made sure we all got tours of their communities.  So, reunions became not only a chance for the shipmates to see each other; they became a chance to get to know more about the variety of places in our country.   This year we got to see Mason City Iowa, boyhood home of Meredith Wilson who based his  MUSIC MAN  on this community.    We visited his home, the museum which honors the musical, the large Winnebego factory, and drove past several of the Prairie School of Architecture buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his students.
       As time went on, reunions also became a time for the families to get to know each other.    In the early days it was just spouses and perhaps the children of the hosting family.  Over the years,  more and more children and even grandchildren attended.   Often siblings came along.  This reunion had  sons and daughters and younger siblings arriving with the shipmates.  There were a number of widows and a good complement of children of deceased HAGGARD mates.
    In a touching moment, the daughters of one shipmate arrived with his ashes.  Harry died weeks before the reunion.   Attending was important and one of the daughters had promised him she would do whatever it took to get him there.    She was prepared to drive him no matter what.  But it wasn't to be.  And so she arrived with a box and said she had fulfilled her promise to get him there.  




                                      Photo of the poster of the HAGGARD signed by shipmates.  And below is a photo of a photo, this one of the patch to be applied to the hole in her side.

 
 


                                      During the Memorial Service many sons and daughters of shipmates, living and deceased spoke of how the reunions brought a greater understanding of their fathers and their experiences.


And here is a statue of Meredith Wilson who wrote the Music Man.  The River City of his musical is based on Mason City.  At one time his mother campaigned to change the name of Mason City to River City.

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