Another Last Word

What I Remember on Memorial Day


My dad, Raymond Olinger, joined the Army in 1945 after graduating high school at the top of his class of 20 in Buxton County, Kansas, when he was 17 years old. He was in Minot, North Dakota, that summer training for the invasion of Japan when Hiroshima was bombed.

That was, he told me, the best day of his life.

“A secret weapon saved me.”

Then he went to Japan.

He deployed as a military police officer and was billeted in the former 3rd Imperial Guard Regiment barracks in Tokyo, even in its ruined state the most elegant city he had ever imagined.

His unit was meant to monitor and control the local population but spent most of its time enforcing Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s first orders: allied personnel were not to accost civilians or eat any of their scarce food.

Dad grew up on a southeast Kansas farm in the Great Depression and, though he didn’t know it, poor. By the age of 9, he knew how to work in the fields and at school, how to ride and shoot, how to trap, skin and bake rabbits in riverbank clay, and how to roll his own cornhusk cigarettes.

He was appalled by the behavior of some of his fellow GIs. He told me stories of abuse he witnessed, stopped, or was forced to ignore that I will not repeat here. The only violence he experienced was at the hands of AWOL U.S. soldiers, one of whom drunkenly opened fire on his jeep with an M1 carbine in downtown Tokyo.

When I asked him if he shot back, Ray said, “That wasn’t going to solve anything.”

He discharged his weapon in action only once, while serving guard duty on a train to Sasebo transporting Korean men conscripted by the Imperial Army for hard labor during the war. They were to be repatriated by force since many did not want to return to their homeland, which was reputed to be in worse condition than Japan. They wanted to make money working for the Americans before leaving on their own terms.

The guards were stationed on the train carriage roofs for the journey through the night with orders to shoot anyone who attempted to escape, and many did when the train slowed or stopped. My dad and his fellow guards, 18- and 19-year-olds all, dutifully fired their rifles — into the air — having agreed that no one deserved to be shot in the back for refusing to go home.

Dad was later promoted to sergeant, climbed Mount Fuji, and dined with the daughter of Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Midway. After returning to the States, he went to college on the GI bill at Kansas University and was on his way to law school but was talked into joining the Naval Reserve by his new brother-in-law, a PBY pilot who’d earned a silver star at the Battle of Santa Cruz. Dad was to begin flight training after graduation when he was recalled to active duty to fight the Korean War.

His unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry — the storied Rocking Horse Regiment formed in 1866 — was overrun and annihilated by Chinese forces in the Battle of Unsan in 1950.

But by that time Dad had been sent to the Navy’s 90-day officer training school in New Jersey and then spent a month on an ammunition ship crossing the Pacific before finding his billet aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Eversole in the Sea of Japan.

He was 22 years old.

The Eversole shelled railroads and other strategic points along the coast of North Korea and served escort and blockade duty.

As part of the latter, the ship spent two weeks at anchor in a tidal stream between the mainland and some strategic islands wanted by the Chinese. The crew rigged anti-boarding nets, kept steam up in the engine room, and Dad slept with a loaded .45 under his pillow.

One night at dinner in the wardroom, after the stewards had just served soup, the assembled officers were knocked out of their chairs by the concussion of an artillery barrage that fell short of their position. The ship began to move before the crew could release the anchor chains, so she got underway dragging all four anchors. Dad’s battle station was command of two deck guns manned by the wardroom cooks and stewards, all Black sailors clad only in tee-shirts and aprons, who fired their weapons at cannon flashes on the mainland ridge.

Two more barrages from the shore battery sent up walls of water where the ship had been anchored and where it was headed. They made a sharp turn to come parallel to the coast and fired a broadside, which produced catastrophic explosions along the ridgeline. There was no return fire.

Eversole earned seven battle stars before the end of the war. Ray’s gun crews were decorated for their bravery. But the only other significant action my dad saw was applying a splint to the ship’s navigator, who sustained a compound fracture to his leg after being thrown across the bridge when the ship survived a 60-degree roll during a typhoon.

Dad remained in the Naval Reserve until the end of the Vietnam War when he retired as a lieutenant commander. Eversole was decommissioned and given to the Turkish Navy, where she remains in service as a floating museum in Izmit.

Ray died rapidly of bilateral lung cancer in 2003 but not before dictating a letter to my then 2-year-old son, Jack. He had been close to his own grandfather and knew what would be missed by both of them. His transcribed letter runs to 114 typed, double-spaced pages, but only covers his life up to age 9, by which time he had become that experienced field hand, hunter and smoker. When I asked if he’d had any sense at the time of the difficulties he and his family endured, Dad scowled.

“It was a good life,” he said.

Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.