MILT RACKHAM COLUMN: World War II scars that still wake me in the night

Milt Rackham

Milt Rackham is an 86-year-old World War II veteran who was born in Drigs, Idaho, and raised in Lorenzo, Idaho. He joined the U.S. Navy when he was 17 years old, within weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Milt served on an 80-foot Navy Patrol Torpedo boat as an engine machine mechanic 2nd Class. He fought the Japanese first in the U.S. Aleutian Islands for 12 months, and then in the South Pacific for five and a half years. Milt and his wife of 61 years, Carol, live in Belding. This is the first installation of a series about his time in the service.

 

By Milton Rackham

Special to the Pioneer

 

Our topics last week provided a glimpse of World War II in the North Pacific against the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands, and introduced my efforts to resolve battle scars that I still carry from the war. This week’s article provides a snapshot of the war against Japan in the South Pacific. The material for this article is based on my World War II nighttime dreams that have haunted me for the past 66 years. The dreams are intense. Would you believe that after not having had one for more than three months, that I was awakened by a war dream experience in the very night that I began tape recording for these articles?

Would you come with me on a South Pacific World War II PT Patrol? So I can share the content of one of my dreams? I’ll provide narration. Let your imagination provide surround sound and Technicolor. That’s the way my dreams are. Full sound. Full color.

We’re patrolling along the shores of islands in the South Pacific where the shipping lanes narrow and bring our Japanese supply ship targets within range. Our PT boats have a six-foot draft that allows us to stay close to shore so that we are harder to spot from either the sea or the air. By staying close to shore, we keep our “backs to the wall,” so to speak, while we scan the ocean for targets and the sky for Japanese fighters. There are 17 of us on PT-81, enough to man the boat, handle six cannon and machine guns, enable torpedoes or dump depth charges. We are all trained to back each other up, if the need arises from enemy fire, or from one of us being thrown overboard. Which reminds me to warn you that this boat accelerates to 42 knots in the time it takes you to breathe in and out.

That’s 48 miles per hour for you land locked folks. Our three V-16 Packard gasoline aircraft engines are pumping 1200 horsepower each; that’s 3,600 horsepower hurtling us through the water. It banks hard on a turn. You’ll get flipped out if you aren’t careful, and you do NOT want to get flipped overboard when skipper is evading enemy fighters and end up as target practice for a Japanese pilot. I’ll tell you about getting flipped overboard another time.

Listen! Hear that sound? Planes coming. You’ll hear them before you see them. There they are. Stand quietly, we need to find out if they see us this close to shore.

Ahhh, they see us. Three. Turning our way. Get to battle stations and prepare your guns. We’re going to be VERY busy in a few minutes. You’re on your own.

Once they spot us, our boat comes alive, guns spin into position and our skipper revs up the engines. We prepare for maneuvers as our tracers mark the path of live ammunition being pumped skyward toward the fighters. The planes are lining up to strafe us. One plane breaks formation and begins its approach. Skipper darts the boat quickly out of their line of fire and the plane roars by, strafing the now empty water with gun fire. When he goes by, he’s a perfect target. Don’t miss the chance to lock onto him. One of you had him in your sights. There’s slight damage. Wait, there’s a barely visible, black, pencil thin streak up and over his cockpit from the engine. Good Job! He’ll head home rather than risk what might be an engine oil leak.

A second plane is coming in. Skipper changes tactics, teasing the pilot this time with a long straight run then dodges first one way, then the other, then away hard right. The fighter tries to follow our movements, but flies wide at the speed he’s traveling. The now empty water where we once were gets sprayed with gunfire. The plane roars past, its engine screaming like a mechanical bird of prey, angry at having missed us.

Another plane coming at us. From behind. This time from higher up. Skipper throttles back, the boat instantly slows and settles into the water. The fighter can’t correct his speed that fast, and overshoots us and banks into a turn ahead of us. The plane is so close I can see the pilot. He turns and we look at one another.

In the split seconds that follow, first one, then two of our gunners lock the fighter in their gun sights. Ammunition and tracer fire puncture the fuselage from the cockpit to the tail with a staggered pattern of holes. The Japanese plane shudders, recovers and then banks steeply upward as the pilot’s head and upper body lift slightly and turn, staring back as if he’s trying to look back and inspect the damage. The fighter plane continues its upward lift, unaware of the damage inflicted on its fuselage, or upon its pilot now slumped forward in his unshielded cockpit.

Suddenly, its quiet. The planes are gone. We are alone! No, it’s more than that! The South Pacific scene is fading.

It’s ME that’s alone. I’m sitting upright in my bed. My body is tense, my arms are rigid with my fists held in front of me. My tightly clinched fists grip an imaginary 50mm machine gun. I see something! I lock onto an incoming plane and my entire body vibrates in time with the chatter of bullets, bullets spaced between tracer fire that arcs into the sky.

LOVING COUPLE: Milton Rackham sits with his wife of 61 years, Carol. As Rackham continues to have nightmares about his World War II experience 66 years ago, Carol still comforts him through the dreams. (Courtesy photo)

Suddenly I notice there are lights. This time I realize I am sitting in bed. I turn to get out of bed and find my wife, Carol, beside me, stepping forward now that I have stopped thrashing. She reaches out to me as she has done so many times before. I have lost track of the number of times I have relived these nightmares.

I have just shared with you as best I can, one of the nighttime war dreams that have been a part of my life for 66 years, with 61 of those years with Carol, my wife. I’ve spoken about my own interest in resolving these nightmares, but my wife would probably like me to bring closure to my ongoing nighttime patrols even more than I do. I warned her about me before our wedding 61 years ago, but she told me she could handle it, and she surely has.

I remember that someone once asked her how she puts up with me. I loved her answer. She said, “I think it must be that we really like each other a lot.” Who needs any more than to walk in life with someone like that; with someone who is there standing at your side when you wake up during one of those times when World War II revisits you and breaks the quiet of the night. Capturing them is a new experience for me. It will be interesting where this leads. Will you be here with me next week?

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