Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bombs, Sharks and Survivors

Yesterday, an 86 year-old World War II veteran told my students stories about watching his buddies get eaten by sharks. "We could hear the screams when they were taken down. A few were still floating in their life vests," he said, "but when you grabbed them, only the top half of their bodies bobbed out of the water."

He told them about his hallucinations after floating for five days in the open sea without food or water – he saw turkey sandwiches raining from the skies - as more of his buddies dove under, convinced that they could "get a drink" on their sunken ship below, only to die horrible deaths from swallowing salt water hours later.

Eugene Morgan's ship, the USS Indianapolis, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in July of 1945, not long after making their top-secret delivery of the A-Bomb to the island of Tinian. From Tinian, the bomb was picked up by the Enola Gay and dropped on Hiroshima. He and 315 others, out of the 1199 on board, survived and returned home, virtually unnoticed, amidst newspaper headlines proclaiming the end of the war.

Around 70 of these survivors are still around, and "Blackie" is one of the tough ones left; he lives in West Seattle, where he became a firefighter after the war. He eagerly agreed to speak to my class when I told him we were reading the book about the "worst disaster in the US Navy's history," In Harm's Way, by Doug Stanton.

"Not many young people know about this," he told me on the phone. "I want them to know the truth, that the Navy has covered this up for years. I want them to know that my captain's record should be completely cleared."

There was a lot to be shocked about in the book. My students projected disbelief when they read about the only US Navy court-martial of Captain Charles McVay for “failure to zigzag” and his subsequent suicide in 1968. It didn’t make sense to them that he could be exonerated in 2001, yet have the mark remain on his record.

But mostly, they wanted to know about the sharks.

"What made you keep going?" one student asked.

Blackie, who wore a navy-colored survivor shirt, hat and coat (the back of the shirt read “Still at Sea,”) answered, "Well, I guess I had seen more action than many of the others (four years of duty on the Indy), so I might have been a bit tougher than the new recruits we had just picked up. I just decided that I was going to make it. Plus, I hear that sharks don't like Polish Sausage, and I'm Polish."

A survivor of torpedoes, salt water, dehydration, sharks, twenty-seven years of Seattle fires, two snow day reschedules and, because of lines like that, now a survivor and hero of high school students.

That is quite a resume.

He got deep and political with us, too. He talked about revering President Truman for making the tough decision to drop the A-Bomb. He said that by doing so, he saved so many lives, and that many of us sitting in that room were probably here as a result of that decision. He said we need to get out of Iraq, now. He also asked us all to do what we could to serve our country. "I put in my time, now it is your turn. By the look of you, I can feel good leaving my grandchildren in your hands. Freedom is the most precious thing you have. Protect it above all else." He also told us that when he dies, he wants his cremated remains to be scattered over the waters between Guam and Leyte, so that he can rest with his good buddies and his ship. But no, he sure doesn’t like being near the water now, not even for a ferry ride to Bremerton.

My students asked him questions for over half an hour after his talk. Then they stood in line to shake his hand, thank him for serving their country, and to have him sign their books (and one cast). One girl claimed she wouldn't wash her hand for a week.

Fortunately, a reporter and a photographer from The Everett Herald captured all of this, and a story will appear in the local section either Friday or Saturday. In response to the negative press that alternative high schools have received lately (the Times' articles about the lack of education taking place at John Marshall Alternative), I sent emails to the education editors at the Times and The Herald giving them a heads up about Mr. Morgan's impending visit and the positive things going on at Scriber. I told them how my students had been indignant about the bad press. "Hey, we've read four books this semester! We should go to John Marshall where they don't have to do anything." Of course, they would rescind these statements quickly (and proudly).

Yesterday, my students certainly knew the importance of being able to meet "living history.” Eugene was impressed with them, too. On the way out to his car, he said to me, "What a great group. That was fun. They knew more about this than any other group of kids I have ever talked to. I couldn't believe how many questions they asked. That sure was fun." He has already called me twice to make sure I will send him the article from the paper.

Today, their thank you notes contained lines such as "I am doing my part to tell everyone to read this book, so that your friends will not have died in vain," "you have inspired me to be a better person,” “thank you for making it possible for us to live in freedom.”

The most popular comment? “I hope your captain gets his record cleared."

Because, you know, they get that.

(link to Herald story:


Angie said...

I love your stories, and I love the way you bring history and books alive for your kids!

The Norris Clan said...

Brilliant. Thank you for bringing such rich and poignant history to your kids. I would have loved to me meet Eugene.

Brian Bowker said...

Marjie - I just don't know what to say. I can't imagine a better way to make history something that your kids can relate to. I thought your last thought was especially poignant. You are ~so~ cool!

Dad said...

Thanks for your story, Marjie. I truly appreciate the way you motivate and relate to your students. Your approach is much more effective than the calculus professor I had who would turn away from the class and bang his forehead on the chalkboard in disgust when asked a question. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

So, Blackie finally got to share his life with your students... very cool. Any fire tales intertwined with his WW2 stories?

Anonymous said...

Blackie visited the firehouse often and we would tell stories for what seemed like hours. I will miss him. God speed, brother.