In the days before our mother died, my sisters, brother, my wife, and other family surrounded her as she declined. Still we were able to talk in small snatches with her, and on the Friday before her passing on Sunday morning, she joined us singing a hymn or two. During a relatively wakeful time for Mom, my youngest sister produced two letters Dad had written, one in 1953, the other in 1954. “Jerry, I think Mom would enjoy it if you read these aloud!” There we were, the siblings, a niece, and I don’t remember who else, in the hospital room, and I read those letters.
Oh–My–Soul! a famous preacher often said when other words failed him. The letters were PG-rated at most, but appropriately intimate for newlyweds across several thousand miles. None of us had ever seen the letters before the youngest sister had found them in Mom’s treasured papers. Do I have to say that the Sisters loved hearing the Older Brother read these letters, and that they laughed all the way through? I’m sure some kind of revenge factor was involved. Mom didn’t comment though, only smiled faintly, eyes mostly closed. That’s not the only reason for writing this, though, because Memorial Day is just passed and Dad served in the US Navy from 1950 to 1954.
My father, Robert E. Summers, never left the boiler room, so to speak, during his years with the Navy — as a member, so I am told, of the “tin can navy,” a reference to destroyer service. He began and ended his shipboard years as a boilerman of a modestly rising rating. He said once that the guys in the engine room would do just about anything to get up on deck once in a while. Several days before he died he recounted a story I had not heard. We were in San Antonio for a niece’s wedding weekend; uncle Hubert and I were sitting. Years before Dad had described going ashore in Korea with a small band of men. He had been given a MP (Military Police) armband and a holstered 45-caliber pistol–it was only a brief excursion and he gave no details.
On this occasion in San Antonio, though, he told another, new story. A messenger came to the engine room asking for volunteers for special duty. Dad jumped at the chance. He and three others were given sidearms and put in a launch off the coast of Vietnam. They approached the coast several miles about equidistant between ship and shore. Bob had a walkie-talkie and binoculars, or perhaps another had the binoculars. His ship, probably the USS Cushing DD-797, was to fire onshore, and the small crew in the launch were to radio telemetry feedback to the ship (“too high”, “too low”, “right”, or “left”, I suppose). That’s all he mentioned. I asked why he hadn’t mentioned it before and he replied that he just never thought of it.
Now to the letters. Dad wrote from port at Sasebo, Japan, on February 23rd, 1953, to Mom in Santa Paula. They had been married on December 8, 1952. When he wrote he was 21, she was 15 years, six months. He thanked her for love, prayers, and oatmeal cookies that had come in a package. But he had news to report about his ship.
Well, honey we got in today. We won’t be going out for sometime probably a month. We came from Korea at seven knots. The ship[s] we put in commission were U.S.S. Cushing (DD 797), U.S.S. Pritchett (DD 561) and U.S.S. Owen (DD 536) on August 17, 1951. Well, at 0407 A.M. Friday 20 February, 1953 the U.S.S. Cushing (DD 797) collided with the U.S.S. Pritchett (DD 561). We hit them amid-ships starboard. We were with sixteen Destroyers and three carriers on operation off North Korea. The Pritchett crossed our bow and we hit them. We don’t know how long we will be laid up. We have to have a whole new bow. The ship is damaged right on the very front end. No one was hurt on either ship. You can tell mom about it if you want. I will write her sometime soon, although I won’t write about the ship.
Bob was missing Lois and told her to get some good sleep. He missed her and told her so, again, and he looked forward to the next time home.
Well, we didn’t wreck our ship Friday 13 but we did Fri 20. Honey, I believe you[r] prayers saved us from certain disaster because we were doing 18 knots [top speed was 35 knots] and the other ship was doing 20 knots and we got a full back down just before we hit. Although the ship was moving forward it was slowing due to the opposite direction of the propellers.
And that was it, apart from more personal comments!
The USS Cushing was part of Seventh Fleet operations during the Korean War, serving as a plane guard for carrier aircraft and sometimes among the destroyers firing on North Korean onshore positions. The Cushing (the fourth naval ship of that name) had first been commissioned during World War II and saw extensive service in Pacific naval operations.
A USS Cushing reunion site: http://www.hullnumber.com/crew1.php?cm=DD-797 Dad’s name is on their list.
If you have more information or would like to correct something, send me an e-mail or give me a call!