Sailor had bird's-eye view of battles in Pacific
IVESDALE – Kamikazes haunted Jack McHale's dreams for years, long after he'd left the South Pacific and returned to Ivesdale to raise his family.
McHale, a recognition officer on the battleship USS Massachusetts from October 1944 until the war ended, was stationed in the crow's nest high above the deck in the middle of the aerial action . His job: to spot aircraft and ships and identify them as friend or foe.
"They were kids," he said of the Japanese pilots who flew their planes so close he could look them in the eye. "They were trained to fly and crash. Okinawa was the worst. They came at you in waves of hundreds of planes."
McHale, 90, signed up for service before Pearl Harbor, intending to become a pilot. He rethought that decision and was picked to attend aircraft recognition training.
He taught recognition at the University of Illinois, but by fall 1944, he was on his way to the Massachusetts, part of the massive Third Fleet by way of Saipan.
McHale was in charge of a lookout station. There were three on the Massachusetts and they stood far above the deck. McHale spent several weeks in lower stations, then was assigned to the tallest "air defense" station 12 stories above the deck.
"Ten guys with binoculars, taking turns hour after hour telling one plane or ship from another," McHale said. "There was a lot of talk about how to get out if we got hit. I told them there was only one way: Get out on the yardarms, hold onto the ropes and jump."
But they never had to employ those tactics: The Massachusetts, built to hold 115 officers and 1,678 men, didn't lose a single Navy crew member during its time in the Pacific.
The memories of specific conflicts have dimmed, but the fleet saw plenty of horror.
"At Okinawa, the ships were shooting at planes coming at them and blowing them out of the sky," McHale said. "The Philippines was blood and guts, people dying on the street. At Iwo Jima and Okinawa, they bombed until they were done. We were very lucky."
McHale's fleet moved in for the kill in July 1945, bombarding the coast of Japan. From his crow's nest, McHale saw, high in the air, the Enola Gay returning from its war-ending mission.
McHale was in his crow's nest anchored offshore when that end came. Emperor Hirohito was a no-show, but Admirals Halsey and Nimitz and General MacArthur were there.
"I saw the big wheels board the USS Missouri to sign the peace treaty," McHale said. "MacArthur was a big man with big bodyguards and there was a rumor that the Japanese emperor was afraid of him."
Back home, he and his new wife, Catherine, started a family that would soon include 14 children. McHale worked for the state of Illinois and family life blotted out war memories.
"He never talked much about it until he was 80," said son Mike McHale, a Monticello resident who works for the State Bank of Bement. "Then we started putting stories together.
"I recalled when there was a thunderstorm, he'd jump out of bed yelling commands."
Mike McHale has taken his father several times to visit the Massachusetts, now a museum ship docked at Fall River, Mass., and McHale is honored there by the officers in charge. On Veterans Day 2004, Mike McHale and Ken Wright, also a State Bank employee, took their fathers, including Earl Wright of Cisco who was also in the Navy during the war, to visit the new World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
It was a poignant visit.
"People came up and hugged us," McHale said. "I was interviewed on television. They haven't forgotten us."