( Patrick Raycraft / Hartford Courant )
World War II Navy Veteran Recalls Waiting For Sea Rescue Off OkinawaBy Paul Doyle, email@example.com | Hartford Courant
MANCHESTER — The explosion rocked the USS Halligan early in the evening of March 26, 1945.
Al Chevrette, a 19-year-old from New Hampshire, felt the jolt from his gun mount on the deck. The impact sent him backward through the air and into the Pacific Ocean off Okinawa Island. It would be 12 hours before Chevrette was rescued.
As he fought for survival in the shark-infested water, his mind wandered. What could have he done differently? Will he return home, marry and have children?
"I thought I was going to go screwy," Chevrette recalled. "Everything goes through your mind. What could I have done better, all of this stuff. … Then you start to cry."
And as he reflected on that night during a recent interview, Chevrette shed more tears at the thought of his teenage self fretting about never becoming a father. Chevrette and his wife, Lucille, raised six children in Manchester, where the family settled after Al took a job at Pratt & Whitney.
Sitting in a room at the Manchester Manor Health Center, Chevrette, 88, pointed toward two of his daughters and talked about the family. On that night in the Pacific, though, as hours passed and he floated amid the debris, a future as a father seemed more and more remote.
He tried to maintain faith that he would be rescued, even as he saw shipmates saved while he continued to fight the tide that was moving toward an island occupied by Japanese soldiers. Asked how he survived, he replied: "Luck."
Of the 325 on the Halligan, only 162 survived the explosion. Chevrette, who became the ship's historian and helped organize reunions of survivors, believes he is the last of the 162 still alive.
He was one of the youngest on the ship that was launched and commissioned in 1943. Chevrette dropped out of high school in Manchester, N.H., and joined the Navy at 17. His father, a World War I veteran, insisted he not join the Army because he didn't want his son sleeping in mudholes.
The Halligan, named for South Boston native and Rear Admiral John Halligan Jr., started with a shakedown cruise off Bermuda before escorting a ship carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Teheran Conference at the end of 1943. From there, the Halligan was assigned to the Pacific and arrived at Pearl Harbor in January 1944.
Chevrette, who says he learned to swim by crossing the Merrimack River as a 9-year-old, saved four airmen who went down during training sessions.
"We took carriers out and the guys practiced landing and taking off," Chevrette said. "And old Halligan was there picking up the guys who couldn't get the damn plane up into the air. So Al, the swimmer, had some duties. … Swam out there, grabbed them, and hauled them back to a boat."
These were shark-infested waters, but Chevrette said he can't recall being afraid. His last recovery came three weeks before the Halligan exploded and the airman he saved was covered in blood.
"Now that scared me when I got out there," Chevrette said. "He's got blood all over him. Sharks, you know?"
But Chevrette pulled the airman to safety. A Navy photo from March 3, 1945, shows Lt. Claude D. Tate sitting on a deck after being rescued off Iwo Jima, with Chevrette — identifiable by his tattooed arm — in the background.
"We took a beating over there," Chevrette said.
The end of the Halligan came 23 days later. The explosion came at dinner time, when Chevrette decided to stay on the deck rather than retreat for a meal. Had he left the deck and gone below, he probably would not have survived.
The official Navy account attributed the explosion to the ship hitting a mine, but Chevrette still wonders if it was something else. Perhaps a "Baka bomb," a type of rocket used by the Japanese that required a suicide pilot to fly a plane. Chevrette saw many suicide bombers in the Pacific and a shipmate later said he heard a high-pitched shriek — the distinctive sound of the Baka bomb — before the explosion.
Or it could have been a Japanese submarine. Chevrette still isn't sure, nearly 70 years later.
Whatever the source, it was powerful. Debris flew 200 feet in the air, crew members were killed on impact and the ship smoldered.
Submerged in the water, Chevrette immediately wondered if he would ever return home. He was heartened to see others saved, but wondered if rescue boats were overlooking him. The survivors chatted with one another in the water. One shipmate, speaking with a deep southern accent, told Chevrette and others to come visit him in Alabama.
"Yeah, let's get the hell out of the water first," Chevrette answered.
Finally, the sun rose and Chevrette was rescued.
"When they picked me up, I said, 'Why the hell didn't you pick me up first?' " Chevrette said. "They were picking up guys left and right."
Chevrette would spend six months in a Naval hospital in Northern California, surrounded by other veterans suffering from the emotional impact of the war.
"A hospital [for] guys who were loose," Chevrette said."I was one of them. I must have gotten some pretty good advice and I listened to it and I survived. … Some guys didn't."
Chevrette returned to New Hampshire, but his father sent him back to a hospital 24 hours after he arrived. He wasn't emotionally ready to be home.
When the war ended, he was discharged and returned home for good. But the trauma he experienced in the Pacific Ocean haunted him. Healing began when he embraced the story, becoming the historian of the Halligan.
He built a scrapbook, collected pictures and helped organize reunions. At reunions of the Tin Can Sailors — the name used for The National association of Destroyer Veterans — Chevrette met veterans from other ships and talking about the shared experience was therapeutic. At a reunion in Washington D.C., Chevrette connected with former shipmates, some of whom he thought had died on that Sunday evening explosion in 1945.
"I wouldn't give you a nickel for another trip on the Halligan," Chevrette said. "But I wouldn't sell you the whole story for $1 million. … It's too bad. We lost some good men."