I Discovered My Father’s Tragic Aircraft Carrier Diary From World War II
Key Point: “What makes his story so compelling is that it turns the impersonal into the intensely personal.”
Suppose you found a magic door that opened onto some of the most crucial battles fought in the Pacific during World War II?
That’s the kind of door I stumbled upon in February 2010 when my 91-year-old father, Edward James Reynolds, died and left behind a diary that recounts nearly every day he spent as a radar man on the aircraft carrier Yorktown during World War II.
As I opened and read through this remarkable little gem, all kinds of questions surfaced. First, how did this book survive in such perfect condition? The guy served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, for cryin’ out loud, where salt water, humidity, and rain were constants. And how did he manage to not miss a single day? We’re talking about approximately 545 days of entries, and they come from places as far flung as the Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois, Virginia Beach, Central America, Pearl Harbor, New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, San Francisco, and sweet home Chicago at 1814 South Komensky Avenue.
And could this really be my father saying something like: “Arrived Pearl Harbor in afternoon. Impressed by Navy Band playing ‘Aloha’ as we pulled up to docks. Country beautiful. Women situation acute—125 men to every woman.”
Questions and curiosities aside, by the time I got to the part where my father laid eyes on the shiny new aircraft carrier that was about to propel him into harm’s way in the boundless blue, I was hooked. The diary became my way of experiencing the war vicariously. Gradually it dawned on me that his story belongs to everyone who benefited from his service in the Navy. If he and some 16 million other Americans had not stepped up to the plate the way they did, our lives would be profoundly different, and not in a positive way. So it is only fitting that the story of Ed Reynolds be shared, and shared as widely as possible.
What makes his story so compelling is that it turns the impersonal into the intensely personal. We all know from reading history books that Allied assaults on Japanese island strongholds in the Pacific—the Marshall Islands, the Gilbert Islands, the Marianas—were the beginning of the end for Japan in World War II. But what if we could be right beside a sailor from Chicago during these assaults? What if we could share his homesickness, his delight in new places, his fear of the ever-present danger that dive bombers and submarines and kamikazes represented, his pride in America’s military might and the rightness of its cause?
What if, through our Chicago sailor, we caught a glimpse of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet; of a ship’s captain who was the first Native American to graduate from the Naval Academy; of Pearl Harbor; of Pacific atolls and the natives inhabiting them? All of this is ours to share in Ed’s diary.
“Assigned to Yorkie”
He begins in February 1943, when he writes that he is on leave from the Great Lakes Naval Training Base and has “nine heavenly days in Chicago.” A few days later, he leaves Great Lakes bound for Virginia Beach. “Lump in throat,” he tells us. “Will miss Chicago.” He leaves behind a 19-year-old neighborhood girl named Mary Ellen Murphy, who will surface repeatedly in the pages of his diary. Of all the reasons Ed looks forward to returning home after his Navy service, Mary tops the list.
Ed arrives in Virginia Beach March 13, 1943, and is bivouacked in the historic Cavalier Hotel. “Impressed by hotel’s beauty,” he notes. And well he might have been. Built in 1927, it was a masterpiece of architecture, sophisticated ambience, and gorgeous ocean views. So how did he wind up in such splendid digs? Because the U.S. Navy commandeered the Cavalier Hotel as a radar training school. Stables were cleaned and used as living quarters for some of the sailors, while in the swimming pool area the water was drained and the bottom of the swimming pool was used as a classroom. Imagine the Navy walking into Chicago’s Palmer House or New York’s Waldorf Astoria one day and saying, “We’ll be moving in now. And on your way out, drain that pool, will you? We may need it for something.”
By April 5, Ed finds himself five miles up the road at Camp Allen. “Assigned to Yorkie,” he notes. “Glad it’s a big ship, you don’t get so sick.”
This is Ed’s first reference to the USS Yorktown, the Essex-class aircraft carrier named to commemorate the first aircraft carrier Yorktown that was lost in June 1942 at the Battle of Midway.
“It was nearly the length of three football fields,” he always used to tell us when we were kids, and sure enough, the Yorktown was 820 feet long. I should say is 820 feet long—it is now docked at Patriot’s Point near Charleston, South Carolina. Its crew numbered 380 officers, 3,088 enlisted personnel, and 90 planes. It was commissioned on April 15, 1943, as Ed duly notes in his diary. Shortly after the commissioning ceremony, Ed and about 3,400 of his newfound comrades introduced this historic ship to sea.
Arrival in Hawaii
A “shakedown” cruise to Trinidad included beer parties on the beach financed by the 20th Century Fox Studios. June 17 has the Yorktown back at the Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia. The same evening, Ed departs on leave for “four days of happiness” back in the old Chicago neighborhood. Unfortunately, he returns from Chicago to the Yorktown six and a half hours “over leave,” which leads to this June 22-23 entry: “Spent these days ‘over the side,’ airgun in hand, scraping the bottom of the ship. Miserable duty.”
By July 7, with the Yorktown on its way to Pearl Harbor by way of the Panama Canal, Ed notes, “Scout planes spotted two subs.” The next day his entry talks about three “cans”––Navy slang for destroyers. These are the Dashiell, the McKee, and the Terry, and they show the way, writes Ed, “through sub-infested & squall-swept waters.” He also notes that he spent some time on July 8 in the pilot house, which causes him to observe that “the capt. is some character.” It’s worth noting that the captain he refers to is “Jocko” Clark, or Admiral Joseph J. Clark. Born in Oklahoma and a member of the Cherokee tribe, he was the first Native American to come through the U.S. Naval Academy.
While in the vicinity of the Panama Canal, Ed notes sighting Costa Rica and El Salvador. Once through the Canal and sailing west through the Pacific, he writes that the coast of Mexico is 200 miles away. “Issuing steel helmets & gas masks,” he notes. By now, thoughts of home are never far away. “Beautiful moonlit night. Flight deck would be wonderful spot for a dance. Heard ship’s orchestra practice—wow, are they solid.” And the next day: “All afternoon on flight deck gazing out over the water, thinking of home.” And a few days later: “Realization I’m a long way from Komensky Ave. When will I get to see Chicago again? No mail. Just plain lonesome tonight.”
Throughout the loneliness and homesickness, one thing that clearly appeals to him is the thought of being in Hawaii. Remember, he has never been farther from 18th and Komensky than Fox Lake, Illinois. So imagine his sense of anticipation when he writes: “Hawaii just 300 m dead ahead. Swaying palms, make way for E.J.”
When the Yorktown does reach Hawaii, it’s still four nights before E.J. gets up close and personal with those swaying palms. “Wish I could go ashore & just wander around on that mountain range to the West,” he writes. Keep in mind that he’s never seen a palm tree in his life at this point. In the meantime, he rubs shoulders with none other than Chester W. Nimitz, the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “Anticipating tomorrow’s visit to Honolulu. Up in Radar Plot working tracking problem when Adm. Nimitz came through on inspection tour. Com. of Pac. Fleet is a nice old boy.” He then adds: “Boxed in evening, ran into a stiff left.”
Eventually Ed does get to see Honolulu, and he enjoys it a lot, especially Waikiki Beach, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, an aquarium and bird collection, tennis, bowling for a nickel a lane, and pool. On August 21 he writes, “Liberty with Small & Furlow. Ping-pong & pool at U.S.O. It’s surprising how much food 3 guys can eat.” By August 22 it’s anchors aweigh from Pearl Harbor. “Rendezvous with task force,” he writes. “18 ships strong headed for Jap. held Marcus Islands.”
From here on, the diary entries grow ominous, to say the least. On August 30, he writes: “Exec’s message on eve of attack: ‘Tomorrow morning we will commence to launch attacks on Marcus which will be repeated again & again until all Japanese in the vicinity have been destroyed.’ ”