By John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom
November 23, 2007
He was 19 years old in 1968 and the war in Vietnam was raging. He had been drafted and America intended him to serve in the Army — but he hastily enlisted in the U.S. Navy instead.
Today he told me “Those were the finest years of my life.”
Mike works in the grocery store near where I live and he works through the night so he can help parent his grandchildren during the day.
“When the heck do you sleep?” I asked.
“Oh, I get by,” he said with a sheepish grin.
Mike served aboard the USS Shangra La, an American aircraft carrier built during World War II. The name Shangra La is unique to that one ship. After Jimmy Doolittle’s raiders took off from USS Hornet and bombed Japan early in 1942, reporters asked President Roosevelt where those bombers had come from. He told them: “Shangra La.”
The president was referring to the mythical land created by author James Hilton for his novel “Lost Horizons.”
USS Shangra La served with distinction during the assault on Okinawa and during other battles. Her airwing attacked Tokyo and other key targets in Japan.
Mike said, “I wasn’t much. Just a Gunner’s Mate taking care of the 5 inch 38 guns aboard Shangra La. But I watched our little A-4s and F-8s roar off that wooden flight deck to attack the communists in Vietnam. It made my heart proud. And still does.”
A-4 Skyhawk. Senator John McCain piloted an aircraft of this type.
“Those pilots were tough. They were up against incredible odds. I could have never done what they did,” Mike told me.
“Sometimes those pilots supported American and South Vietnamese troops on the ground. They saved countless lives.”
“So I wear this Shangra La ball hat, even as I restock the vegetables here each night. It reminds me that we had an important mission. It reminds me of my shipmates. And it reminds me of all those killed and wounded in a damned good cause.”
I shook his hand and reluctantly said good bye. I had to get to work, I told him.
Then, quite unexpectedly, he hugged me. A gig bear hug from a big man.
He said, “I never hugged any white guy before.”
I told him we were all just sailors, once. Even though I served aboard a different aircraft carrier in a slightly different era — we shared a sense of kinship.
He hollered as I walked away, “Come back and see me again, shipmate!”
I certainly will see him again. And listen to some sea stories.