PT BOAT 81: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and changes a nation

PT Boat 81 | Milton Rackham and Myrl Thompson

I’m an 86-year-old World War II Veteran who fought the war from the deck of U.S. Navy PT-Boat 81. Some of my battle scars have healed, while others still set off airport metal detectors when I travel … or wake me in the night. It all started when waves of Japanese fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes flew over Pearl Harbor on Sunday, 7 December, 1941. The United States of America was under attack, in a surprise raid that destroyed a major portion of the United States Pacific Fleet. The rapid pace of events in the next few hours and in the days and weeks that followed, forever changed the United States. It changed the lives of millions of men and women, including the life of one 17-year-old high school senior in Lorenzo, Idaho.

My name is Milton Rackham and I was that 17-year-old high school senior. I joined the U.S. Navy when I was 17, with an enlistment date deferred to March, 1942, that let me earn my high school diploma. Months later, having survived boot camp, I volunteered for PT Boat Duty, received additional training, and became part of a 17 man crew on PT Boat 81. The 80 foot wood-hulled boat that was to become my home away from home, headed north toward the Aleutian Islands, a 1,700-mile long string of islands that stretched from Alaska westward toward the Russian coastline.

Traveling north in the opposite direction of the warm south Pacific Islands was not exactly what I had in mind back in Lorenzo, Idaho … where I made my decision to join the U.S. Navy after having seen South Pacific War newsreels at our local movie theater.

The American public that just months earlier had tried to ignore the War that was spreading across Europe now found itself deeply involved in two separate wars on opposite sides of the world. As the Japanese followed up their attack on Pearl Harbor with an ongoing series of victories in the South Pacific, the American Public became increasingly concerned about a possible attack on the United States mainland itself. Unknown to the general public, Japan had already initiated occupation of the U.S. Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific.

One of the better kept secrets of the war was that U.S. military intelligence teams had broken the Japanese communications code and were intercepting daily information about Japanese military activity. The U.S. had discovered that Japanese advance scouting parties had already landed in the Aleutians to gather information in preparation for the landing of Japanese occupation troops. U.S. Military preparation to meet this threat was already under way.

Getting back to my WWII experience, I was assigned to U.S. Navy PT Boat 81, which was a part of RON-13, a 12-boat squadron that was scheduled to leave for the Aleutian Islands in August of 1942. PT81 and three other PT boats were pulled off the assembly line in New Orleans and scheduled for Navy recommended design improvements that delayed delivery by 3 months. Unknown to me at the time, PT81 was to have less weight, higher speeds, better performance, higher durability, and improved engine performance and reliability beyond anything that had been previously available. We were scheduled to leave Seattle, Washington on 10 May 1943 to join the rest of Ron-13 already in the Aleutian Islands preparing to assist in the removal of the Japanese from that part of U.S. territory.

The Aleutian War experience was to be a wet, cold, miserable experience for all concerned. Even the well prepared Japanese who were dressed in fur-lined uniforms and boots and lived in tunnels and caves out of the weather, ended up suffering … as U.S. forces eventually cut off their supply of food, ammunition, kerosene and saki. Ground battles were typically marked by slow, painful advances of U.S. soldiers under constant hit and run Japanese sniper fire from dug in positions scattered for miles beyond the landing beach. U.S. forces were often dressed in light uniforms and boots and completely unprepared for the freezing cold and hurricane winds that swept across the barren Aleutian landscape.

The final battle of the war on the Aleutian Islands turned out to be a vicious encounter with Japanese suicidal Banzai attacks that is ranked second only to the battle on Iwo Jima in the South Pacific. …

This first article has provided a brief introduction to the North Pacific portion of my WWII PT-81 experience. Next week’s article introduces the South Pacific experience…..and together they set the stage for a journey that will take you through my WWII experience from beginning to end.

Before I close, I want to express how I feel about all of this. First, about first having my friend, Morris Stewart, show up one day in my upholstery shop down here in Belding, Michigan…..with someone interested in writing my story. Then, about receiving a second call indicating that the Pioneer Newspaper in Big Rapids, Michigan wanted to take a look at my story.

I want to express my appreciation for the opportunity to share my WWII experience, something that has been difficult for me. There are several reasons for wanting to do so. One is that I have been advised that telling my story may help me resolve recurring nightmares of war that still wake me in the night 66 years after the war.

It is my prayer that this opportunity will create something useful for others that will at the same time remove the pain of the war memories that I have carried with me for so many years. May there be a way to pass on that which is useful and good, and respectfully bury that which is bad. May I be able to resolve the guilt of having survived when so many others were taken time and time again … often within an arm’s length of where I stood.

There surely must be at least one person out there who needs to know that they are not alone in trying to deal with war-time memories … or even non-war related memories of events that disrupt their life. May God Bless both of us, you and I, whoever you are, that we will listen, hear, and understand the things the Lord would have us do to get relief, that we will accomplish those things, and pass what we learn to others in need.

To the rest of you, I hope you’ll join us next week for what may turn out to be an interesting, perhaps difficult Journey, for one Milt Rackham. I will forever appreciate all those who have reached out and helped me extend the sound of my voice and the reach of my pen in my effort to tell my story.

Story Told By Milton Rackham to Myrl Thompson.

6 Comments

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  1. TED WALTHER says
    08 Aug 12 at 12:22pm

    Milton;
    I enjoyed you writings, being a fan of PT Boats since childhood and a member of PT Boats INC since 1984, stories like yours are what formed the basis of my Navy career. I look forward to your South Pacific stories.
    Cheers,
    TED

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    • Steve Eckhardt says
      02 Feb 13 at 2:32pm

      Milton, I read your experience and want to thank you for your service.
      My father, Harold “Duke” Eckhardt was also in the Aleutians. From what I can tell, he was assigned to RON 16, Base “PAPPY” as a carpenter and was a Gunners Mate on 223, 300 &
      301 as needed. He went to the Philippines for the invasion of Manilla after they completed there mission Alaska.
      He never told me about the ugliness of battle even though I found a scrap book of
      his when I was very young. There were some amazing pictures…..Japanese Zeros attacking his base near Manilla. Bombs and torpedos blowing up on the beaches ! He said the book belonged to someone he met at a PT Boaters convention and that when his Ammo ran out he picked up his camera and would shoot with that! He would only tell me of the comradeship of he and his mates. The good things, like chasing nurses or avoiding curfew.
      Never ever did he recite any of the bad things.
      After his death in 2008 I found out the amazing truth of his history.
      One thing that those pictures came from his camera. Also, I found a journal. It started out like any other. It has a list of so many servicemen he met. Shipmates, Names, addresses, phone numbers, but also some notes, of their demise. KIA. More disturbing was kill counts of enemy ships that his squadron took part in decimating through out his tour.
      Quitting school at 16 in 1938, the outbreak of WWII, he went to work at ELCO in Bayonne, NJ
      building PT Boats. On Monday Dec. 8, 1941, like thousands of kids, he joined the Navy.
      After a quick basic, and PT Boat school in Melville, RI., he was assigned to RON 16 and went to New Orleans to pick up a boat and started his tour through out the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal, headed for Midway. By 1943, they were diverted to the Aleutians.
      Then RON 42 in the Philippines.
      I find it absolutely horrible that he kept war a secret. In the back of my head I always knew
      that there was more to what he experienced but never shared with me or any of my brothers and sisters. He never talked about anything bad. I never really knew that he was harboring such awful memories. We were all forbidden from joining the military. When I was 14 I was in trouble with the law and stood in front of a judge that was scolding me for whatever I did wrong and blurted out that I had intended to join the Navy like my dad to distract him from the punishment he was ready to hand me. It worked. But my father was very upset because even he believed of my intentions. That night I listened to him argue with my mom. He was crying.
      I never heard him cry. I did hear him up a lot in the middle of the night, like you probably, but I never heard him cry before that night. My mom begged him to explain what it was about but he still never did. Now I know why. He only wanted to protect all of us from what he had experienced. I do not blame him for that. I would probably do the same thing.

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      • Kathy Thompson says
        02 Jun 14 at 8:11pm

        My husband was a vet (101st airborne) he passed away in April of this year.. I fought to get him a 10% disability. They would not pay for his respiratory problems as they said his records had burned. First time he got pneumonia was at Fort Leonardwood, Mo. He died from respiratory failure. He was in the hospital (ICU Unit) from April 8th till Good Friday, then he was sent to a nursing home and on Easter Sunday he got really ill and was back in the hospital, then to a nursing home on the 23rd and passed away on the 25th. I just now am getting the part of the bills not covered by Medicare. They billed the VA, but they denied any payment as they said it was not service related and he was not in a VA Hospital. The morning he went in the hospital I took him to an appointment and he got ill so I took him to the VA Clinic here in town and they told me to take to ER, they did a code blue on him at the emergency entrance. They would not see him at the VA clinic as he could not get in by himself and he was very unresponsive. Nobody came out to the car and even checked to see what was going on with him. I have to file an appeal to get the balance of the medical bills paid, will most likely have to hire a Lawyer to help me with this appeal. I feel really angry about this.

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        • 21 Jul 14 at 12:08am

          Kathy Thompson

          I am so sorry that you and your husband have had to experience the VA
          situation…..to the point that he is now gone.

          It turns out that during the 2 years it took to write Milt Rackham’s WWII story that i discovered that he had been applying for VA benefits since 1972….and being turned down for “lack of information”, burned records, etc., etc…..a total of 4 or 5 times.

          I ended up helping him on his last application…and used excepts from his PT Boat 81 book
          to describe his situation…..and he just started getting benefits at a 50% level as of Feb 2014 with back pay that went back to March 2013. He has decided to hire a lawyer and appeal after recieving advice from hundreds of people as the result of a Fox News internet interview.

          May I pass your comments about your situation to the Fox News Reporter ? or maybe yiou can contace Christina yourself. if you Google

          PT Boat 81 on Fox News

          I think you will find the article….along with several others on the same topic. The Fox News internet piece resuited in close to 2000 responses about others who are having VA Benefit application problems…..including one that surprised me with the comment that the Fox News Story sounded “fishy”. Even so, there may be some information that might be useful to you in the way of lawyer names, etc…..

          Myrl Thompson
          in behalf of Milt Rackham

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      • 20 Jul 14 at 11:42pm

        Steve Eckhardt

        Thank you so very much for your response to the Belding New article on PT Boat 81.

        I’ve been writing War the stories for the few Vets who will talk about their war experience, which are few and far between. Your father’s situation sounds typical of what I find…..where the memories typically haunt those vets as PTSD nightmares for the rest of their lives..

        In Milt’s case, he became so upset by the things that are happening in our country that he decided to endure the pain of describing the price paid for the preservation of America….in an effort to remind current generations of the sacrifice still being laid down by vets everywhere.

        You mentioned hearing your dad crying that one night…..MIlt and I have both ended up crying as we proof read the results of converting the news articles into a book.

        There are several additonal chapters in the final version of the book that is now available
        on a website…in case you are interested.

        http://www.ptboat81.weebly.com

        Price is $30 on paypal that includes the cost of shipping and handlng.

        Thanks again for your comments. It is so sad that these Vet stories are being lost one at a time…..but like you, I suspect that I would also be unable to talk about memories that are so horrible…

        Myrl Thompson

        PS:….Do you own those pictures you talked about.?…..are you interested in sharing them or maybe selling copies ? I am trying to collect WII and other pics that I can legally use by permission or purchase in case I have opportunities to write for others.

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    • 20 Jul 14 at 11:08pm

      Ted Walter

      Thanks for the comments. Milt and I just finished the final copy
      of his book and it is available for sale on the website using PAYPAL

      ptboat81.weebly.com

      Book is $25 plus $5 for shipping and handling for a total of $30..

      Book contains additional chapters that Milt decided to add after
      he finished the articles were submitted as newspaper articles.

      The new chapters on rescuing U.S. soldiers and nurses from Japanese
      prisons makes me teary eyed every time I read them.

      Thanks again for your interest.

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