Angel sent by history

Published: December 7, 2006 | 5167th good news item since 2003

World War II Pacific Navy stories often feature bravery and chance. We rightly thank an amazing generation for serving their country simply because “it had to be done.” [D-Days in the Pacific]

It is especially significant to remember them today, the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

This story features bravery and more. A gift of life that echoes for generations.

My father survived Pearl Harbor. Trapped below decks on the battleship West Virginia, he barely escaped drowning.

After nine torpedo hits to the port side, this ship was in danger of rolling over.

When “general quarters” was sounded, all compartments on the Pearl Harbor battleships were shut and sealed in a procedure called “set zed.”

This means if an area is damaged, adjacent sections remain water-tight.

If one side of the ship becomes too flooded, the other side can be counterflooded for balance.

Balance is critical for a heavy vessel. A sailor’s worst nightmare is being trapped in a pitch-black sealed compartment, while the ship turns over. No way out, their fate is assured.

This is exactly what happened to the USS Oklahoma. A victim of torpedoes also, she capsized quickly. Trapped within constantly shifting air-pockets, most of her crew drowned. A few were cut from the bottom of the exposed keel, but this procedure had its risks: often allowing air-pockets to escape, cruelly drowning those within sight of rescue.

The “WeeVee” was berthed behind the Oklahoma. One side ripped open by torpedo hits and communication out, she started turning over. A list of 28 degrees was reached, but those below deck could only ride to their watery grave; Sealed in condition “set zed.”

My father told of a terrifying angle in the dark, while hearing water rushing into surrounding compartments. All expected drowning.

Top-side, WeeVee’s captain (Mervyn Bennion) was disemboweled by a bomb blast. Fatally wounded, he directed Lt. Claude Ricketts below to start counterflooding. Every second counted as the list became severe.

Bennion started this ship’s rescue while simultaneously bleeding to death. Awarded the Medal of Honor, sadly, few remember his name.

As I researched USS West Virginia history, I came to realize how close it came to capsizing. I would never have been born had it happened.

I read the Navy action reports and realized the real heroes were “shipfitters,” men with knowledge of the battleships plumbing who occupied the dark areas no one knew.

The shipfitters instinctively knew to commence counterflooding. Without waiting for orders, they ran to the bottom of the stricken vessel, but found the counterflood crank handles locked away.

Maintaining their footing on the severely angled deck, they flailed at the Navy padlock but it wouldn’t budge. Every second counted as this ships fate hinged on a hunk of brass.

One shipfitter barked for the wrecking crew to step aside. As they did, he smartly attacked the hinges and freed the counterflood cranks. The action report notes they ran through the behemoths lower decks, opening flood valves in the proper sequence to halt the listing.

WeeVee slowly swung back on its keel to rest on the mud of Pearl Harbor upright.

I had often wondered but for the intelligence of a sailor attacking the storage door hinges, the ship may have capsized. When every second mattered, this fellow bucked the crowd and used his brain. I’m likely here because of him, because even after counterflooding started, the ship was listing so badly most thought it was too late anyway.

Throughout the years I’ve collected much information about the USS West Virginia. I’ve written many articles about Pearl Harbor, even writing for the Web site for the movie “Pearl Harbor.”

By chance, the daughter of a WeeVee shipfitter read one of my articles and contacted me about her father. I looked up his name in the Navy Action Report and gasped. This was the guy who broke open the locker containing the counterflood cranks!

Surprises continued when I found out he was alive and well, living in Rome, N.Y., a one-hour drive from my Auburn home.

His name is burned into my head: Sylvester Puccio.

“Syl’s” daughter Pam was rightfully proud of her World War II dad for all the usual reasons (If your father was a World War II dad, you know what these reasons are). “No, you don’t understand,” I told her “Your father is greatly responsible for saving the USS West Virginia, the lives of her crew and future generations… not to mention me.”

If Syl’s children were proud of their dad before, they now have reason to think of him as I do: An angel sent by history.

I arranged for my wife and I to meet Syl.

I knew exactly what to expect, since I’ve met many World War II Navy vets over the years. They all have a self-effacing view of themselves, simply happy to have played a palpable role in critical history.

Syl was no exception.

A cheerful, outgoing man, he greeted us with the dignity of that neighbor you never knew well, but later discovered was a war hero.

I had recently lost my father, so it felt strangely familiar to listen to him pepper his language with the same terms and attitude my father displayed.

We talked for hours. Then I simply thanked him for a job well-done. Living proof stood before him that he made the correct moves that December day so long ago.

I hope Syl Puccio knows the scope of what he helped create: generations allowed life because he sacrificed his efforts for good. This can be said of all WW II veterans in general, but in this case it’s especially poignant. He can look someone in the eye and be certain he is directly responsible for that person’s life.

Not a bad legacy.

This helps explain why I have always stood next to World War II veterans, and now especially Sylvester Puccio, with a mixture of respect and dumb-struck awe.

Published in Heroes, Life
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