Thanksgiving meal softened tragedy of war
By Jeb Phillips | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: November 22, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thanksgiving Day, 1945.
Six members of the USS Wallace L. Lind disembarked at the firebombed city of Nagoya, Japan. It was about three months after the surrender that ended World War II. A Japanese man approached them.
But hold on. The teller of this story, the person who was there, needs to take a seat. Robert Crewe is 88 now.
“Excuse me for grunting a little bit,” he says. “My legs aren’t worth a damn.”
After Crewe talks for a while longer, the voice of his wife comes from the den of their Dublin house. Pat Crewe is 84, and they’ve been married for 63 years.
“He can’t walk, but his mouth goes a mile a minute,” she says.
Later, she mentions how happy she is that her husband is getting to tell the story to someone new.
Crewe contributed the story to the War Era Story Project, an effort by the Ohio departments of Aging and Veterans Services to collect memories of the World War II era. Crewe’s contribution and others can be found at www.aging.ohio.gov.
Crewe has a million war stories. Before he gets to Thanksgiving 67 years ago, he tells a few others first.
He grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and made it through a year at Michigan State University before joining the Navy in 1943. It was that or be drafted and have no say about the military branch he ended up in, he said.
Crewe wanted to avoid combat. He was unsuccessful.
He trained as a sonar technician — then called a “sonarman” — and became an inaugural crew member of the Lind, a destroyer. Many of the stories he tells are funny ones about his time on that ship.
There were some brief leave periods that he and shipmates got at Pacific atolls. They walked around and tried to find Amelia Earhart.
There was also the time that Crewe and the ship’s captain were both knocked unconscious by the concussion of close gunfire. Crewe came to first, and then made sure that the captain woke up.
“Everybody feels like slapping around their commanding officer at some point,” he said. “I got to.”
But plenty of his stories are serious. Crewe and dozens of other sailors helped identify the dead on the beach of Iwo Jima after the battle moved inland. Crewe came across one Marine who was alive but had had his shoulder shot off. The Marine pointed to his chest, where a rifle lay.
“He wanted me to kill him,” Crewe said.
Crewe gave the man a painkiller instead and placed him inside a body bag. Crewe wrote on the bag in big letters: “This Man Is Alive.” He moved on, and others arrived to take care of the Marine.
He saw Americans die, he saw Japanese fighters die. The surrender came. Many ships were sent back to the United States. The Lind was assigned to carry mail from one city to another in Japan.
In the process, the sailors saw places of destruction. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. On Thanksgiving Day, 1945, they came to Nagoya. It had been a center for aircraft construction, and the Allies bombed it many times.
Crewe and five shipmates got the chance to look around. Before long, Crewe heard a voice from behind say, “Welcome to my country.”
It was a young Japanese Catholic priest, Crewe said. The man spoke fluent English. He told the sailors that before the war, he had studied at Fordham University in New York.
He said that he knew it was Thanksgiving for the Americans. And then, in the middle of his burned-down city, he asked them to share the holiday.
“I would be pleased if you had Thanksgiving dinner with me,” the priest said.
They walked to the shack where he was living on the former site of his church. He had a garden there, and he served the Americans sweet potatoes. It was all he had.
Crewe was 21. He’s not entirely sure what they talked about so long ago during dinner. Maybe what they had been doing on the Lind. He’s not sure what they drank. He says it would have made sense to ask the priest more about his time at Fordham, but he doesn’t recall doing it.
He does remember that the priest was nice. He remembers that he felt humbled by the man’s gesture after years of war.
It was over in 45 minutes. The sailors went back to the ship. Crewe came home, finished college, married Pat, had three children, worked in sales for Coca-Cola, was transferred to central Ohio, had three grandchildren.
Today, he will spend Thanksgiving with his family. He will not be eating sweet potatoes. He hates all kinds of potatoes, he says.
Crewe did eat them 67 years ago, though. He gave thanks, on that day, for a Japanese priest’s kindness.