MILT RACKHAM COLUMN: Time at the bow of the boat before nighttime patrols

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.


Milt Rackham

By Milton Rackham

Special to the Pioneer


The prior column mentioned “time at the bow of the boat” that became an important part of the PT-81 war experience. PT boats went out on regular nighttime patrols. We left base between 10 p.m. and midnight and returned around 6 a.m. on a schedule that often ran for weeks at a time without a break. We never knew what to expect, or if those that left with us each night would make it back alive. I spent some time alone each evening at the bow of the boat before each patrol. The rest of the crew would be on the dock or in the back of the boat, so the bow was usually a quiet place for a silent prayer for the mission, the safety of the crew, my own safety and the boat itself.

One evening, I noticed a couple of crewmen standing quietly off to one side and that they began coming back each night. One of them was Frank Eugene McCuster, and when he and I talked about it (in the previous column), he welcomed the invitation to join me at the bow. He mentioned that he and several others had talked about it and had wondered if they could be a part of it. In the days that followed, other members of the crew would show up at the bow in the evening, and before you knew it, the whole crew was there every night, including our new skipper.

One day skipper called me in and asked if I could pray aloud during those quiet meetings and it became a part of PT-81 from that time on. We worked together as a team in everything that we did, including seeking heavenly assistance in the protection of our country, a timely end to the war and the preservation of our very lives.

Prayer at the bow of our boat before patrol was not the only occasion for prayer by any means. One particular example was the three days and two nights I spent floating in the Pacific Ocean with two of my crewmates. It all started one night while we were on night patrol. As we rounded a point of land on an island, we came into the path of a Japanese destroyer who saw us first. We were under fire before we even knew he was there. Skipper immediately went into evasive maneuvers with a high-speed turn along with blowing a smoke screen to hide our location. It all happened so fast that three of us couldn’t grab hold of something fast enough, and we were thrown overboard. Skipper paused and we waved him on, knowing that we would be safer in the water if the destroyer didn’t see him trying to rescue us as the smoke screen began to clear. In minutes, both the Japanese destroyer and our PT boat were out of sight, and the three of us were alone in the middle of the ocean.

We were dumped overboard sometime after midnight and spent two nights and three days floating in the ocean. The sun was viciously hot and the risk of sunburn and sunstroke were real. Two of us used our shorts during the day to cover our heads and shoulders and at night to catch condensation as our only source of drinking water. It’s amazing how much fresh water you can suck out of a freshly “dew moistened” pair of shorts when you are dying of thirst while floating in the middle of water as far as you can see in every direction.

One of our group of three wouldn’t listen to us and didn’t take his shorts off to protect his upper body or to gather fresh water. By the second day, he had swallowed sea water and began to hallucinate. We tried to restrain him as he fought to free himself to swim towards rescuers he envisioned walking on the water. When he recognized his father as one of the imagined rescuers, he became so violent that we could not hold him, and he began to swim away. We tried to catch him as he violently fought his way through the water, calling out to his father. He removed his life jacket to be able to swim more easily, and then slipped into the depths before we could get to him.

In the next day and night, we saw a Japanese destroyer and a Japanese cruiser who luckily did not see us, and several of our own search planes. At the end of the third day, we recognized PT-98 in the distance and caught their attention by yelling and waving our precious, life preserving shorts. They had gotten ocean current information and were crisscrossing the ocean in the direction of the current.

Once on shore, we discovered how weak we were and that our arms and legs were uncoordinated with the rest of us. Our base commanding officer was on the dock to greet us and see if we were all right. Once he determined that we would be OK, I heard him talking to the base head cook about some of that “really good” beef stew. We were soon in the mess hall with a bowl of warm up stew. It was the best meal, the very best beef stew, that I have ever had in my life.

As my thoughts for this column about prayer began to be pulled together, I was drawn to the words of the previous column that “if it’s the right thing to do, the Lord knows how to it.” I began to wonder if there was something there for me regarding at least one of the reasons that I am writing these columns. That is, that I have been praying that telling my story will relieve me from my more than 66 years of World War II nightmares, and that the columns might also be useful to someone else who needs to know that they are not alone in what they face.

It has occurred to me that the “right thing to do” may very well be my reaching out to others and sharing my story with those who also are facing the effects of wartime or other experiences that are trapped inside them. When it comes to my own painful memories, however, and depending only upon myself, what if the relief from my own painful memories is be beyond what I can do for myself? As this thought came to me, I almost immediately recalled a lesson that reminded me “that we need to do all that we can do, and then rely upon the Lord for our salvation.”

Just thinking about this quiets me somehow. I have been concerned that as I have faced my wartime experiences and recorded them that my dreams have escalated to as many as two or three a week. The doors of my memory are opened. I am recording everything that comes to my mind in a manner as calm as I can. It’s as if I am inviting these dreams to come out in the open without knowing what to do with them beyond helping get them on a printed page.

The work is certainly more than just about me. There are those who have offered to expand the sound of my voice and extend the reach of my pen. That assistance “out of the clear blue sky” itself testifies to me that the right thing to do is to reach out to others with needs like mine.

I am comfortable with that. Reaching out is truly the right thing to do, and that for me the right thing to do is to place myself in the hands of the Lord. I accept the will of the Lord whether or not it brings an end to my dreams, and I feel relieved as I feel that burden lifted from me. I will do all that I can do and leave the rest to the Lord. It also occurs to me that I have heard that lesson before, along with “May the will of the Lord for me and not mine be done.” This that once was the hardest thing I have ever done, takes on a new light.

This has been a pretty heavy, soul-searching column where I have taken the liberty to focus on a self-related thought perhaps at the expense of my readers. I can’t help but wonder what some readers must be thinking. I hope you will continue to put up with me, and that I will see you next week.

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