MILT RACKHAM COLUMN: The evening of the just-in-case notes to our mothers

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 a continuation of a series about his time in the service. Readers who would like to provide feedback to Milt can contact him at 810 Harrison St. Belding, Mich. 48809 or midmichigan.grassroots@yahoo.com.

 

Milt Rackham

By Milton Rackham

Special to the Pioneer

 

PT-81 was part of a large number of squadrons that went on patrol almost every night for months at a time in the South Pacific, typically leaving our base before 2400 hours. That’s midnight for those of you who need a translation. We would get back to base about 6 a.m., then divide our time between maintaining the boat, maintaining ourselves, getting some sleep and being briefed on our assignment for the next night. The few hours before leaving on the night patrol was typically ours to sleep, to relax or sometimes to just talk.

Johnson and I were sitting quietly on board PT-81 one evening, talking now and then, but mostly just relaxing as best we could while waiting for the upcoming night patrol. It wasn’t unusual for the two of us to end up together, not only because neither of us were into drinking or serious partying, but also because of a bond that we had as being part of a small, special group of four PT crewmen. Johnson and I and two others were the only remaining survivors in a group of nearly 300 PT crewmen in our Ron-13 squadron of 12 boats that started out together in the Aleutian Islands. Our survival rate, however, was not our topic that evening, at least not in the beginning.

It was a beautiful South Pacific evening. A quiet blanket of darkness covered the signs of war that were all around us. Palm trees stood silhouetted against the evening sky. Even the dark outline of the PT boats around us seemed to somehow fit into the sights and sounds of a quiet Pacific evening. They looked a little like a fishing fleet. After one particularly long interval of quiet, Johnson’s voice came out of the darkness.

“Hey Milt, will you write your mom’s name and address on this piece of paper for me?”

I was surprised by his question and startled by what I sensed was coming next. I took the paper, wrote the information and handed it back. As he took the paper, he handed me a folded paper with his mother’s name and address written carefully on the otherwise blank page. His next words hung in the air for a few moments before I could answer.

“Milt, will you go see my mother just in case something happens to me and deliver a message? I’ll do the same for you.”

I sat there for what seemed like too long and then answered, “Sure Johnson, what’s the message?”

“Tell her how much I have loved her my whole life. Tell her how precious she is in my memories of her and that I have taken those memories with me. Tell her it’s OK for her to be sad and OK to miss me for a little while, but that I know I will be with her again someday. As far as what happened to me out here, tell her not to be concerned about it, that I was doing what the Lord wanted me to do. And Milt, could you give her one last big hug for me?”

I eventually managed to say, “OK,” but was unable to say any more than that for some time. Before we left on patrol that night, I was able to tell him, “That’s just what I had in mind for you to tell my mom, Johnson. You tell her the very same thing from me.” I thanked him. We shook hands.

We then busied ourselves with sorting through the cases of ammunition assigned to our gun to be sure our ammo was clean, dry and lubricated. We did that every night before leaving so that it wouldn’t jam during a firefight in whatever might be coming up that night. It was Johnson’s turn to feed the ammo that night, I would be behind the 37 mm.

Just before 2400 that night, Skipper threw the throttle forward, and 3600 horsepower lifted PT-81 up and out of the water and left waves behind us that rocked and bumped the other PT boats against the dock. The crews still on the dock yelled something and waved their fists at us. We waved back as if we thought they were saying goodbye. Johnson was killed the next day.

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