Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Getting to Know the Grandfather I Never Knew

When we pause for a moment’s silence on Remembrance Day, I think of all the men in my family who were soldiers at one time but thankfully survived those wars, although they are now sadly gone, and one is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. I think of the friends my late father once mentioned losing as he fought the Vietnam War from the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, where I was born.  I think of the people in the tragic stories presented to us on the television moments before the trumpet or the bells in the tower of Big Ben sound to mark the minute’s silence, and my heart goes out to them.  And I think of the grandfather I never knew because he died in World War II.  And how I’ve recently come to know him better.

In our house in the States in the '70s, amidst antique furniture that was regularly knocked over by boisterous children and golden retrievers, we had a small solid silver model of a submarine on a stand.  I knew from an early age that that was representative of the submarine on which my mother’s father had been killed when she was a toddler, and that his death was the result of a torpedo backfiring.  I accepted that without curiosity, as you do when you’re young, without wondering how we knew what happened, and whether he was one of a few people killed because they were standing in the wrong place, and why the torpedo backfired.  I could link the story to the picture hanging over the staircase of the man who was wearing a neat navy hat like the ones we’d bought at the gift shop of the  USS North Carolina Battleship in Wilmington, NC. But, to my shame now, I took little more interest in that long dead stranger, as I had a loving grandfather, technically my mother’s step-father, who had been the only father she ever knew.  Her younger brother Terry had never even seen his father (though I can see now from the photograph that Terry’s daughter looks incredibly like her handsome grandfather).
I remember as a child finding amidst papers in a drawer in the unused ‘for company only’ living room a letter or telegram addressed to my grandmother saying that her husband was Missing in Action.  I thought for a moment about how horrific it must have been for my grandmother to be holding that in her hand for the first time, when she was a young wife who loved him and had two young children, yet I never, ever asked her about it. It seemed like it was not the done thing.

Oddly, it was not until about 35 years after I first saw that letter when I asked my mother to remind me of the name of the submarine.  The USS Tullibee, she told me, and she said it was particularly awful because no one knew what happened to it or its crew until years later when the sole survivor was released from a prisoner of war camp.
The joy of the internet is that one can find reams of information without any real research at all, just by typing a few words, even information that is crucial to your family history.  In addition to various mentions in books, the USS Tullibee has a Wikipedia page, so I now know just what happened.

A year after the submarine was commissioned, and a year before the war ended, the USS Tullibee was indeed sunk by its own torpedo north of Palau, on 26th March 1944. She was a 2,463 tonne Gato-class submarine, and had set out on her fourth and final war patrol on 5th March 1944, calling a few days later at Midway Island for fuel before proceeding to patrol the Palau Islands, but was not heard from again.  She was scheduled to support aircraft carrier strikes against those islands (which are about 500 miles or 800 km east of the Philippines) on 30–31 March, and due to stay in the area no later than 24th April.  On that date, a dispatch was sent directing her to proceed to Majuro for a refit, and she was expected there about 4th  May, but instructions stated that a submarine unable to transmit would go instead to Midway. On 6th  May 1944, Midway was alerted to keep watch for a submarine returning without transmission facilities, but the Tullibee never arrived and was presumed lost on 15th  May 1944.  That must be when my grandmother received the dreadful telegram.  And that was the last anyone heard for over a year. The submarine Tullibee was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 29th  July 1944.
After V-J Day on 15th August 1945, a prisoner of war was freed from a Japanese camp.  He was Gunner’s Mate Clifford Kuykendall, a Tullibee crew member. Finally, the tragic story could be told.

On 26th March 1944, the day after the submarine arrived in the Palau Islands as planned, she found a Japanese convoy of a large passenger-cargo ship, two medium-sized freighters, a destroyer, and two escorts. According to the printed accounts, “the submarine made several surface runs on the transport but kept losing her in rain squalls. Tullibee finally closed to 3,000 yards (2,700 m) and launched two torpedoes from her bow tubes at the target. About two minutes later, the submarine was rocked by a violent explosion. It was only learned after the war that Tullibee's torpedo had run a circular course and she had sunk herself.”
Kuykendall had been on the bridge at the time and was knocked unconscious and thrown into the water. When he regained consciousness, the submarine was gone, and he heard voices in the water for about ten minutes before they stopped. How dreadful.  He managed to stay alive in the water for a day before being picked up by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  He apparently spent 18 months being beaten and tortured daily in a prisoner of war camp until his release after V-J Day, when my grandmother and the wives of the rest of the crew learned that they were definitely widows.  But I suppose it is better to know what happened rather than facing some gnawing great abyss. Mind you, I wonder whether she hoped for a few days, weeks or months that her Lieutenant Commander husband might also make his way home from a prisoner of war camp, but he did not.  So at some stage, she knew that she had to move on. 

In late 1945, my mother would have been three, unaware of the loss as she would have only seen her father on leave since she was a baby, and I wish there were photographs of him holding her, beaming, as I can picture his pride.  Her baby brother was never seen by their father.  A year or two later, my grandmother married the man we all grew up loving as a father and grandfather. He was divine and lived until the 90s, and I even took some video footage of him so even his voice and mannerisms will always be remembered.  But sometimes now I feel a bit guilty that we have not been more involved, somehow, in the memory of the man who truly gave us life, and who gave his life when fighting for his country.  He was then designated to an existence in a flat frame amongst many others on a wall.  He deserved better.
I believe I got the impression from my mother early on that she never wanted to hurt my (step-) grandfather by making enquiries about the man who preceded him. And maybe no one ever wanted to dig up sad memories by asking my grandmother about that time.  The only time she ever, ever spoke of him was during a visit I made to see her in Pennsylvania five years ago She had enjoyed a few drinks as we waited for our dinner to be served, and I somehow came to ask her what made her decide to attend the Connecticut College for Women in New London.  She went there, she told me, because the man who she fancied went to Yale, and at the time, in the 1930s, Yale did not admit women, so she went to the nearest good girls' school.  She said that everybody wanted him, as he was so charming, handsome and popular (and I gather from a good family with money, but I think so was she).  "But I got him," she had said with pride and a wry, self-congratulating smile.  That is the only mention I had ever heard of my grandfather or her romance with him, and I loved it. I should have pursued it more and have no idea why I did not. Maybe the food came and she changed the subject.

When Grandmommy died suddenly and quite unexpectedly at the age of 92 (she had seemed sufficiently fortified to carry on another 10 years), I was surprised to find when we started clearing her house that, despite her having considerably downsized when she moved into a retirement village some years before, she seemed to have kept every letter that her first husband had ever sent her from Yale 70 years before.  She had almost no space and few closets and yet here they all were.  I was only over there for a weekend for the celebration of her life, and so I grabbed a handful to bring back with me to England.  I was at the time being made redundant from my job of over 20 years and, with shocking debts, I feared there was a real danger of my losing my home, so even if I could cram more things into the small suitcase I flew home with, I wanted nothing of value as I feared bailiffs might take it.  So I tried to convince my mother and brother to save some precious things, including the remaining letters, but as my mother has a history of throwing everything away and I gather that’s what happened to much of the contents of my grandmother’s home, I’m too terrified to ask about them, much as I want them.
Because the letters that I do have have vividly brought him to life, and I long for more.  He is Henry, an honest, fun and eager young Yale student writing regularly to the girl he adored, from the Yale Delta Psi house, St Anthony Hall, in New Haven.  He starts some notes apologising for not writing, others refer to the ‘swell time’ he’d had with her the previous weekend and to the sweet letters she had written; some beg her to try to attend a social occasion like a wedding that she’s reluctant to make owing to family or other commitments, and often he apologises that he can only see her on Saturday or Sunday, not both, because he must study for tests.  He tells of arriving at 4am having driven back from a ‘nifty party in NY last night’ and having driven back with ‘Woody, Ed etc’.  Some letters refer to Ed and Pokey, who were a married couple I always knew as ‘Aunty Pokey’ and Ed, having no idea until now quite how far back they went back with my grandmother, and how well they knew the man in that silent picture on the wall. The letters often end with vague arrangements such as ‘Look—if you go to New York, wire me.  If not I’ll meet that 10 o’clock train Saturday. O.K.?’  Another time: ‘Anyway—seeing you won’t write – I’ll see you Friday at one o’clock at the station & stay there till you come. That’s devotion. Or maybe my New London scouts can find out when you arrive.’

Other times, in earlier letters, he is desperate.  One letter I love is from Halloween 1934.  He writes “Just now heard from you.  I’m sorta shaky still. But I had to write fast & straighten things out. And apologise. Cause I did write you.  Within two days after your last letter came around the seventh or eighth.  And you wouldn’t answer. After two weeks, I wondered.  I wrote twice but tore up the letters half finished.  Tonight I was going to write. But you saved me the indignity. Thanks. What happened, I don’t know. The letter will turn up sometime.  (Probably in the pocket of my coat).  But I did write. So forgive me.  I thought something had gone astray. But I couldn’t think what. The things—never mind. Only let’s not do this again. It’ll drive me to drink.”  He then refers to their planning to meet up after all at a game, where he jokes that he fears he’ll lose his life there, as a Yale man sitting on the Princeton side, perhaps because she got the tickets through her father, who got his PhD at Princeton.  He signs it off still a bit delicately…”That last was rather poorly handled comedy relief. Too much Shakespeare. To get back to the serious: I’m still sorry. Tell me how to make it up. Tell me soon (hint).”  My grandmother was clearly pleased with the letter and wrote on it ‘Sent air mail!’ and underlined that.
In another concerned letter in November 1937, a year before their marriage, he says, "I struggle in here at 10.30 intending to phone you. And find a wire that cinches the idea. But when I call you’re out on a date! So I just thought I’d drop a line to call you all sorts of a prom trotter. Yale, Prin., and a date to top it off.  Gawd I hate you. Course I really don’t or I wouldn’t be writing this. I did at first though—when I called. Now I’m just jealous & amazed and worried. Can’t you settle down? How can I love a prom trotter? What I want is security, not a walking representative of Eastern colleges. I’m half serious, darling. Wish I could get my mind made up—and yours. Will you ever grow out of it? Why do you have to be so darn lovely & popular. Why couldn’t you have a hook in that nose & wear glasses. Oh hell—fifty years etc.  Thanks for the wire. Or was it just more prom trotting? I worry & wonder.  Wish I were sure (Security).

“Weekend was crazy & fun. We’ll swap tales sometime. Don’t suppose you did anything about theatre tickets. Just as well—I’m very broke."  A prom-trotter was slang for a student who attends all school social functions, and throughout his letters, he refers to her going to many different dances at Princeton, Vernon, York,  and other places, and sometimes he sends her invitations for dances she has already agreed to come to with him, apparently so she can see the intriguing ‘no flowers’ rule.
One time when he has been worried by a letter from her by reading between the lines, he says. “This is the third try. I can’t tear this up—it’s my last piece.  I don’t know what to say.  You probably won’t get this far anyway. Do you hate me? Or just indifferent. If it’s all the same to you – of the two I’d rather have you hate me. I’m blue.  And fed. “  It seems the friction is because they can’t meet.  He can’t get away because he has to stay for some tests, and she is trying to break a date with him because her father wants her to go see some relatives. Although he says he can see her father’s point of view, he says hopefully,  “We’ve got a date. And you can’t break it.  It’s against your principles (I hope).”

Most letters refer to parties, exams and seeing each other at weekends, and he gives a fun account of life at Yale in the late 30s.  There’s a Jeeves and Wooster flavour when he adds, after saying he hears he passed his Chemistry exam: “This place is getting worse & worse. I came in from dinner tonight to find someone’s Austin in the front hall with three campus cops working on it to get it out.”  Another letter speaks of Calcium night, when “Pretty near the whole Hall invested in fifty cent dresses & paraded around the old Campus. Organised madness-–we even made up special songs for the occasion.  What a night. I came in fairly early to try to study but stayed up letting in the drunken brethren. Never seen such a wild time.”
There are a few later letters expressing his boredom at spending some time in his father’s business in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, after the more challenging work of Yale, with references to his father clearly trying to impress my grandmother, insisting that his son tell her that he’d tried to get him to use better stationery to write to her and asking that he enclose articles the father thought she would enjoy.   My grandfather even encloses a brochure about a silver sale that he’d come across and tells her that they really need to pick out theirs as time was running out, four months before their wedding.

Another time, he spends an unusual amount of space in the letter speaking jokingly of “the problem that’s come into my life. It’s terrible – obsesses me day & night.  It’s the maid – the one that makes the beds.  (Gee – I can see you making beds). Every day when she picks up my – er – sleeping garments – she ties a knot in the string in order to hang the pants up.  It’s awful. I’ve done everything but speak to her – I’m afraid I’ll hurt her feelings.  I’ve tried throwing them under the bed –she finds them, knots the string, and hangs them up.  Once I even took the strings out but she found it and put it in.  She can’t be beaten – the morning I overslept she started to hang me up too. Worry, worry. 
“Promise me one thing—when we’re married, you won’t tie knots in my pajama strings – will you? ….Well I’ve got to quit – got some shopping to do – wonder what size nightshirt I wear.”

Many were written after enjoying her company, such as “I don’t know just what to say, Dearest.  I’m not going to try to thank you for all the fun of the party & boat ride and stuff. Guess I’ll just thank you for being around so I can love you. Don’t know why you’ll have me but I won’t fight my luck.” He signed that one “Love—(inadequate word)”.  He rarely signed his name, and he almost never used apostrophes, almost as though that were a quirky characteristic as it certainly wasn’t down to lack of intelligence.  This is my grandfather, such a sweet, honest, caring, loving lad.
Tragically, in a letter dated April of the year they got married (1938), he says ‘We’re going to have an awful lot of fun together darling—wonder if we’ll have time for it all in one lifetime.’  He wouldn’t have known that he would be fighting in a war in a few short years and die in it within six.

When he died, he was 27. Twenty-seven!  Think back to when you were that age, and you think you know everything, but you really know so little, as you’ve had so little experience of the world.  (All that hard studying at Yale, sometimes instead of meeting my grandmother for a dance, and I feel it didn’t set him up well for life as there was no chance to apply it.). Although through war, he had loads of experience in the world and, thankfully for us five descendants, had already started a family. 
Another sad thought that grips me is it seems his excellent genes end with our generation, as though they narrowly escaped being wiped out by war but we’ve failed to play our part. My brother married late and has no children, sadly as I was counting on him since I have never wanted children, and as a fiercely independent and single person over 45, there’s little chance of my procreating even if I suddenly had a change of heart.  I still hold hopes for my cousin, who looks so like her heroic grandfather, but she is apparently not that way inclined either.  It seems a shame.  Even my grandfather’s family name won’t carry on as his son’s adopted son only had daughters.  I don’t know why this all makes me feel sorrowful.  It’s as though he deserves more, rather than having all those youthful hopes and dear, tender thoughts snubbed out within years with no legacy to follow.

As much as I adored the (step-) grandfather I knew, the man my widowed grandmother married when my mother was about 4, and the father of my aunt, I now feel guilty that I didn’t pay more attention to my blood grandfather, this adorable human in the letters, who couldn’t wait to start a secure and settled life with my grandmother, who had visions of a long and happy future together, without any notion that so soon he would be dead. During his long and undoubtedly stressful separation from her and their children, one of whom he would never see, perhaps he carried on writing letters to her as he had from Yale, to post when they next reached a safe port, which never happened.  Perhaps they floated in the water with the other debris when Clifford Kuykendall was picked up from the water.
Just in the past few days, thinking of him again, I was able to learn from simple internet searches that Clifford Kuykendall is still alive—at least he was in late 2012.  His great niece’s responses in a forum to fellow grandchildren of long dead Tullibee crew members they never knew, was that Clifford carried a lot of survivor's guilt having lost all of his shipmates. He was only 21 when he was released from the Japanese POW camp, and that understandably affected his mental state.  She said that he was sharp and remembered everything that happened in great detail.
However, she said a year later that his mind was still good but he didn’t really remember any details about his fellow crew, he just remembered their faces.  “Which still haunt him today, having lost all of them at sea.  I think talking about it is just too painful for him. He is 88 years old now and has heart problems…..People are always trying to contact him. He said it just brings up bad memories. After the Tullibee sank, he spent 18 months in a Japanese Prison camp where he was beaten and tortured every day. So you can see how painful the past can be for him.’

So I won’t trouble him about my Lieutenant Commander and Communications Officer young grandfather. But I thank goodness that at least one man survived to tell the tale and carry on. An online newspaper article from a few years ago reports on his meeting with the children of another crew member, and says that when he returned from the war, he sat at his sister's kitchen table and wrote letters to the 79 families of all the crew of the Tullibee to tell them what happened.  He said that telling the families the truth, and dissolving the awful mystery for them, was the least that he could do. Bless him.
During the same search, I also came across a record showing my grandfather’s address in Wilmington, Delaware, at the time of his death, and I was able to look at
the actual house on Street View where my grandmother and mother had waited for his return, or at least the house beside theirs; their own was hard to pinpoint and may even be gone now.  But I was able to appreciate the lovely neighbourhood and read about its history.  I also learned from a quick search that my grandfather had served in the Navy for two years and two months at the time of his death and was decorated with a Bronze Star, Pacific Asiatic Ribbon with three Bronze Stars, a Submarine Combat Pin with three Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart, some of which I have, some of which will probably be in my cousins’ hands, as sadly my uncle died a few years ago.  I was surprised also to find a photograph online of where he is ‘buried’, in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, as there could have been no way to retrieve or identify his remains, so he was buried at sea by nature (and the
horrid explosion), but then I realised the plot in Manila is ‘tablets of the missing’. (Of course, the poor people of the Philippines have been going through their own tragedy in recent days, decimated by that massive typhoon with so many of their own people missing and an estimated 10,000 dead already.)

My grandfather was a lovely, warm, soul I feel  know a bit better now.  I wish I had done more to know him when there was time, through people who knew that youth before tragedy struck.  I long to chat to relatives who knew him, and realise that I had decades to talk to his widow and somehow failed to do so.   At least he is no longer just that framed, flat photograph on the wall.  I feel certain that, with his joie de vivre, he would have adored us, so it is horrid that we didn’t pay him the same regard, as it wasn’t his fault that he was absent.  We let him languish in a photograph we regularly rushed past. But when you are young, you care so little for the past, and nothing for strangers in photos that hang quietly on the wall.  I wish there had been other pictures of him.  I have a photograph of my grandmother as a bride, but no picture of the groom, and I’m sure he looked remarkable.
Before I ‘met’ my grandfather through his letters, when I did think of the mysterious turn of events later in my life, I would find myself humming Thomas Dolby’s song One of Our Submarines is Missing, which refers to “Tired illusion drown in the night,  And I can trace my history down one generation to my home in one of our submarines.”  I seem to recall reading that Dolby also lost his grandfather in a missing submarine, although it looks as though it was a British submarine that ran aground in the Baltics.  But it’s a similar loss, and I know where my mind drifts when I hear the song…to that handsome man in the naval uniform who died too young and then was cruelly nearly forgotten by even his own family, which galls me. Although he clearly wasn't forgotten by my grandmother, who saved all his letters, and who, given how upset they were when they could not meet for the occasional weekend at college, must have been utterly devastated to learn they would never meet again, despite all their beautiful plans.
I feel an affinity with him now; I care for  the young man at Yale who wrote those letters, and I hope to be able to mark the 70th anniversary of his death next year somehow suitably.  And he will fill my mind as long as any memories reside there, which I pray will be for many decades, but this story shows us that we just never know.  For now, today, on Remembrance Day, or Veteran’s Day in America, my thoughts are very much with the long lost darling grandfather I have only recently come to know.  The hopeful, fun yet studious youngster who got the girl in the end, and thankfully started a family quickly.  The naval officer now on eternal patrol. “Splendid you passed, the great surrender made; Into the light that nevermore shall fade.”  (O Valiant Hearts, Sir John Stanhope Arkwright)
As I am now 20 years older than my grandfather was when he died, it naturally puts me in mind of Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen:

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:  
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
 We will remember them.”

 It’s the least that I can do.