On Higher Ground

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By Bill Horner

The most awful day of my Dad’s life


“Is this the William Horner who served on the U.S.S. Farquahr during World War II?” the pleasant, elderly-sounding voice on the other end of the phone line was asking.

“No, that was a little before my time. But I think you might want my Dad,” I replied.  Not wanting to give a stranger my father’s phone number, I assured the man I would have Dad call him. That phone contact would have a significant impact on Dad.

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus spoke those words to His disciples at the Last Supper. He was primarily referring to Himself and the sacrifice He was about to make on the cross that we might have life. But it holds true for us, also, as His followers, when we lay down our lives for others. In World War II hostile forces were threatening the freedom and security we enjoy in the United States. Men like my Dad put their lives on the line to protect us. 

Dad had to get permission from his parents to join the U.S. Navy in 1942 at age 17.  But he was eager to do his part to defend the shores. Joining up in the Washington, D.C., area where they lived at the time, his first experience on the water came the day he enlisted—a boat ride down the Potomac River to Norfolk where he would train and be assigned to the U.S.S. Farquahr.  That ship served in the Atlantic. Soon Dad was transferred to a destroyer, the U.S.S. Wiley, based in the Pacific. 

He joined the Wiley in Hawaii. The captain was a tough World War I veteran named Bjornson. He had scrounged some leftover machine guns from that conflict and had the ship’s mechanic weld them to the deck railing around the whole perimeter of the ship. Everyone on board, from officers down to galley cooks had to practice target shooting with those guns for hours on end. They hated all that practice, but it would eventually pay big dividends.

As the war was reaching its climax in the Pacific, the Navy assisted at Iwo Jima, pounding the shore with their big guns. Dad told of the sickening feeling he had watching the Marines going ashore and being cut down in waves by enemy gunfire.  But with tears in his eyes, he told of the indescribable feeling of watching the Stars and Stripes being raised on Mt. Suribachi.  He and his sailor buddies were safer, being just offshore. But their day would soon arrive.

On May 4, 1945, the battle for control of Okinawa, just 340 miles off the Japanese mainland, was raging. The Navy played a major role in taking the island. And on that particular day the kamikaze attacks came in waves. Over 1500 planes attacked our ships, hitting many of them, killing over 10,000 sailors. It would be the Navy’s biggest war-time loss ever.

The men of the Wiley saw ships all around them damaged or sunk. Survivors were surfacing through burning oil slicks screaming in agony. Dad said they would hear the sound of an incoming kamikaze before they could see it. Then they’d have only moments to shoot it down. One plane got so close that some of its wreckage fell onto their ship.  It was the most awful day of Dad’s life.

Why didn’t any plane hit the Wiley? Because men with lots of practice on machine guns were shooting at them from all over the ship. Thanks, Captain Bjornson, for helping save my Dad’s life.

Dad never talked much about his war experiences while we were growing up. I think I can understand why. But after that phone call, he began to open up. The man on the other end informed him of the Farquahr’s reunion activities. He also put Dad in touch with the reunion group from the Wiley.  Dad has since renewed old friendships from among his shipmates.  He proudly displays his medals.

We have become a selfish, sassy people in recent generations. But thank God for the sacrifices of that “greatest generation.”