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