The American eagle tattooed on Ray Karr’s forearm has spent the past 72 years clawing at a Rising Sun flag, a symbol of Japanese imperialism dating to World War II.
The ink has long since blurred, the tattoo now a page out of history. But for the former torpedo man on the USS Parche submarine, the memories of pinging depth charges dropped by Japanese destroyers remain fresh, as if their “wolfpack” hunts for enemy cruisers happened only yesterday.
“I was young, 18, and you don’t know a damned thing about fear and death when you’re 18,” said Karr. “I didn’t like the depth charges. I still dream about them – sitting on the bottom and listening and hoping they don’t come any closer.”
On a Thursday morning with a steady drizzle falling across the Missoula Valley, Karr sat with his friend and fellow WWII vet Al Adams, and Hellgate High School senior Scott Drake, to consider the days ahead.
Early next month, the trio will leave on the journey of a lifetime, joining what will stand as the last Big Sky Honor Flight planned for the state’s WWII generation. With Drake as their escort, Karr and Adams will visit the war’s memorial in Washington, D.C., where they’ll reflect on their youth, their service and the memories of their fallen peers.
“It’s a great honor,” said Adams. “Thousands of young men never came home and never had the chances in life like Ray and I had. We’re just a little group of guys going to think about all that went on there (in the war). It’s a neat thing.”
There have been Big Sky Honor Flights before, each as special as the last. And while the WWII generation is quickly fading, its legacy is not. As a bookend to life, the two aging vets will finally get their shot to see the memorial built in their honor.
At 89 years old, Karr has had his chances before, though illness and age have prevented him from joining the flight. At 88, Adams also is racing the clock. What they needed were two strong hands to guide them on the trip, and a dash of the youth that left them long ago.
They found it in Drake, who at 18 years old could easily pass as a great-grandson. But really, he’s just a good-hearted volunteer who has developed a fondness for the two men.
“I enjoy these guys immensely – they’re just great,” said Drake, who graduates from high school this May. “I love listening to their stories. Al taught me how to drive – he taught me tons of things, and so has Ray.”
“Everything from table manners to how to dress,” Adams remarked.
Karr and Adams both met one night last year at the Missoula Senior Center. It was during a Saturday evening dance – couples turning up their heels as best they can after eight decades of living.
As they got to talking, they discovered their commonalities: They both had served during WWII, and both in the Navy. They both had a connection to the U.S. Forest Service.
It was there at the dances, too, where Drake entered the scene. He stood out as the youngest kid in the room, but his congeniality made him fast friends, never mind those friends were generations older.
“I met Al at the Senior Center, and the same with Ray, but I got to know Ray more through Al,” said Drake. “My grandfather knows Ray from the Forest Service as well. I met these guys at the Senior Center at the Saturday night dance, the same way they met each other.”
The family dog curled up on Karr’s lap before he opened an album filled with memories. Adams also came equipped with an album depicting his service as a Navy parachute rigger for the blimp squadrons that formed to protect U.S. merchant ships from German U-boats.
Captured in black-and-white images, they both looked young and dapper – two kids facing a world at war. The blimp squadrons worked, decreasing the number of merchant ships lost at sea. And Karr’s submarine hunts were legendary, sinking entire Japanese convoys in a single afternoon.
Their stories are mesmerizing.
“The ocean has thermal layers – different temperatures – and when the enemy’s sound gear hits those layers, it’s partly deflected,” Karr said. “If you can get a couple of those layers above you, the enemy destroyers think they’re on top of you, but they’re not. When you’re on the defensive, that’s what you’d seek out, those thermal layers.”
History has applied its brush to WWII, and for Drake, listening to the stories is akin to Karr and Adams listening to the stories of the vets who served before them.
As a boy, Adams once met an elderly man who’d served as an infantry drummer in the Civil War. Karr’s own father served with a U.S. cavalry regiment in 1916 during the “Punitive Expedition,” helping chase Francisco “Pancho” Villa into Mexico.
“It’s a different era and something I have no clue about,” Drake said of WWII. “You hear about it at school and see it in the books, but it makes it that much more real and special to hear it in person. It’s going to be amazing to see everything there in Washington and getting to hear more stories. I can’t wait.”
Their stories aren’t in short supply and Karr and Adams have had decades to perfect them. Adams joined the Navy in 1944 and went to parachute school in Lakehurst, N.J., where he was assigned to a blimp squadron.
Adams pulled out the notes he follows while giving talks to schoolchildren – notes recounting the British evacuation from France as the Germans closed in, and how German U-boats sank 450 U.S. merchant ships heading to England in 1941.
“The Navy started forming blimp squadrons, 15 of them along the East Coast all the way down to Brazil,” said Adams. “As long as we were over a convoy, the U-boats would go the bottom because they knew they’d get sunk. As long as we had a blimp over a convoy, we never lost a ship.”
Karr waited his turn and when it came, he explains how he joined the Navy in 1942. Fresh out of high school, he volunteered for submarine service. It paid 50 percent more than normal pay – normal being $35 a month at the time.
Karr’s perspectives now come from wisdom. The experience provided good training, a chance at maturity and lessons on teamwork. It also offered harrowing moments of battle, as told in one Presidential Unit Citation issued to the crew of the Parche by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal.
“Boldly penetrating the strong hostile screen at pre-dawn, the USS Parche launched a perilous surface attack with a crippling stern shot into an enemy freighter and followed up with a series of bow and stern torpedoes to sink the lead tanker and damage a second one,” the citation reads in part.
Drake just sat back and listened.
“I love coming up here to talk with them and to learn these things,” Drake said. “It’ll be a blast to go with them to D.C. I’ve never been. Al asked if I wanted to go with them, and I did. I’m flying as their escort.”