When my father was a strapping young man of 19, he was in top physical shape from three months of swinging an ax in the CCC. He was also a Carpenter’s Mate on the USS Pecos. He and my uncle were among the 233 survivors when that ship was sunk on March 1, 1942, around 3:45pm.
The book, The Pawns of War, by Dwight R. Messimer quotes both my father, Robert Foley, and uncle, Frank Doyle. It recounts the conflict within the chain of command for the Asiatic Fleet: the torn loyalties, the misguided political influences. In short, it outlines the misuse of human life for a failed attempt to stop the Japanese advance into the South Pacific. It is a story so relevant for today.
During the attack, my father saved the life of a couple of shipmates who had been overcome by the CO2 used to put out fires on the ship. My uncle helped keep a couple shipmates afloat during the long hours of waiting in the sea.
The combined survivors previously collected by the USS Pecos before this March 1st attack, were from the USS Langley, USS Houston, USS Marblehead and USS Stewart. They spent 4 to 8 hours in fuel and oil infused, choppy seas. The first four hours were without knowing if help was on the way. Some were strafed in the water by the Japanese pilots, including my father. Some sang. Some prayed. Some chose solitude and silence. Some swam between groups, clung to floating debris or floated alone with their kapok life jackets. Some simply gave up and let their bodies sink.
Between the time the USS Whipple arrived at 7:22pm, until 10:05pm when she had to leave, she was only able to collect 233 of the unknown total number of men in the water (estimated between 700 and 1000). A Japanese submarine had been spotted in the area. The Whipple commander had to make the extremely difficult, painful decision to leave most of the men in the water. It was a decision made in order to save the few men they could, as well as herself, one of the few remaining 4-stack destroyers in the area.
I asked my father if he swam alone, or stayed with a group. He recalled he stayed with a group until he spotted the Whipple. The members of the group told him to stay with them, because his chances of getting collected were greater in a group. Dad said, “hell with that” and swam for the Whipple. In the end, it was a near 50-50 split among the survivors as to whether they had stayed with a group or swam alone.
My uncle had long thought my father would be a good match for his sister, Hilda Doyle. Robert and Frank knew each other, having bunked in near proximity on the Pecos, but were not particularly close. A month after their survival, Robert met Frank, and three other Pecos survivors on a train bound for Philadelphia. They arrived at Franks home at 5am. Frank’s mom, and sister served them breakfast. From that fateful series of events, my family was born.
These past few days, I have been thinking about this series of events. How often in our lives are we faced with that decision: stay with a group/individual, or go it alone? Do we reach a point where that group/individual no longer meets our needs, or, in fact, becomes toxic to our own wellbeing? These are never easy decisions. They are painful, stressful but ultimately, they may save our lives. They may bring us a new series of events that opens doors to personal growth.
I have also given thought to our individual journeys. What chances or opportunities have presented themselves? What choices have we made along the way: stay or go, try or give up, turn a blind eye, or confront, fight or walk away? How often are those decisions made for us? How much choice do we really have? Is there truly some Guiding Hand at work in our lives?
Ultimately, without the absolute miracle of my dad and uncle surviving the sinking of the Pecos, I would not exist to give thought to these imponderables. I can not help but see a Guiding Hand in these series of events.
As humans, we are complex beings. My father showed bravery and courage in the war. He certainly showed a strong will to live. As a father he was a hard worker, a dependable income producer and loving father. I never felt conditions on his love. He enjoyed singing in the church choir, hunting, swimming, outdoors, family-social gatherings, and being helpful. He took pride in the skills he’d honed in the Navy of building, fixing and repairing. He applied those skills to a second 20-year career as a general mechanic and maintenance man for General Electric in Ontario, California. He further applied those skills when he and my mother volunteered for the sheriff’s department in Victorville, CA. Together they were Citizens on Patrol. My father continued for a few more years after my mom passed away in 2004. His poor eye sight and hearing made his help…..problematic.
Throughout their marriage, my mother gave him stability, direction and provided much of his motivation. Mom always had a “Honey Do” list, and Dad generally enjoyed doing whatever it was. Mom worked as a Catholic school secretary to supplement Dad’s income. She managed the family finances, even hiding funds to keep Dad from misappropriating them for something wasteful. She did the shopping, food preparation, child management, discipline and care.
When she passed in 2004, Robert made several foolish choices with money and other things. His impoverished upbringing, and years of letting my mother manage the household finances, made him ill-prepared for managing his own finances. His pride and independence, along with a hunger for companionship from a pleasant voice on the phone made him an easy mark for con artists.
Fortunately, my mother had put several protections in place, with the help of my brother Tom, so Dad didn’t loose the roof over his head. Tom picked up the reigns of overseeing and protecting Dad’s finances.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know the WWII period of my father’s life. He never spoke of it while I was growing up. I know that as the “daughter” there are parts of his story that were eliminated, or told in a more “presentable” manner to me, than if I had been one of his “sons.” I also suspect his memory of his Navy performance improved over time and countless tellings. I had a chance to record him in 2011, when his recollections were just beginning to blur. I didn’t realize that would be the last time I actually saw him. With the use of the internet, and Pawns of War, I have been able to chronicle the defining moments of a life well lived. I will put the finishing touches on it soon and send it to our extended family.
My 98 year old father passed away, peacefully in his home on Friday, July 31st, about 2:30PM. He was under the loving care of my brother Tom. I can’t think of a better way to transition between worlds than under those conditions. He, like my mother before him, has donated his remains to Bodies for Science at Loma Linda, California. His service to his country, and his community will continue for another two years. At the end of that final service, his ashes will be placed next to my mother’s in the Victorville Veterans Memorial. There, he will finally Rest In Peace.