Vet’s war experience appears in book

By Regina Villiers. Originally published May 3, 2000 in The Suburban Life, added May 15, 2019.

Charles B. Shea holds the book, “Brave Ship Brave Men,” which was written about his ship, the USS Aaron Ward, in World War II.

     Back in February when World War II veterans gathered at Madeira City Hall to be photographed by the Madeira Historical Society, Charles B. Shea strolled in with a book under his arm.  I spotted a story immediately and headed toward him.

     “It’s my ship,” he said, holding the book out to me.

     The book, “Brave Ship Brave Men,” by Arthur S. Lott, was indeed the story of Shea’s ship.  During the war, he was Gunner’s Mate 2ndClass Charles B. Shea, ant his ship was the USS Aaron Ward.

     The Aaron Ward was a destroyer-turned-minelayer on the radar picket lines off Okinawa in the South Pacific.  On May 3, 1945, the Aaron Ward was hit by kamikaze, or suicide attacks, by the Japanese. Six direct kamikaze attacks set the ship on fire from bow to stern.  The battle lasted for 52 minutes.

     Forty-two crewmembers were burned to death or were blown over board.  The remaining crew kept the ship afloat and tried to care for the wounded.

     Shea is written in the book, starting on page 192:  “When the plane hit, Gunner’s Mate Charles B. Shea crawled under a portable quarterback desk.  Burning gasoline ignited his dungarees, and he jumped overboard to douse the fire.  In the water, his flashlight didn’t work, but the burning ship made enough light for him to tread water and for one of the picker-upper boats to find him.”

     But Shea says he spent three hours in the South China Sea before being rescued.

     After the attack, according to the book, dead and wounded crewmembers filled the wardroom, mess hall, sickbay, fantail and passageways. There was no electricity, no power and no lights.  There was no pressure on the fire mains.  Men fought the fire the way men did in Homer’s day, with water.  They grabbed buckets and formed lines, dipping water out of the sea. The aft crew and other sailors used buckets to bail water from a flooded compartment.  When they could find no more buckets, they used empty shell cases.

     They kept the ship afloat, and, eventually, it was towed by the Shannon back to port.

     The book is a vividly written account of a time too horrible to imagine.  The author, Arthur S. Lott, was also a Navy man. He enlisted in 1931 and retired 30 years later, working his way through every rank to lt. commander.  He also wrote other books, including “Most Dangerous Sea,” and “A Long Line of Ships.”

     Charles Shea has the traits of a historian.  In addition to the book, he has put together an album of photographs and a scrapbook of clippings and memories of his ship and of his part in this phase of World War II.

     He has also kept up with the fate of his ship and with his fellow surviving crewmates.

     After the war ended, the ship was brought back to the Brooklyn Naval Yard, and the ship was then scrapped.  Crewmembers could ask for a relic from the ship to keep as a souvenir. One man requested the anchor and eventually received it.

     The anchor, Shea says, is now in a cemetery in northern Illinois.

     The survivors of the Aaron Ward started holding a reunion every two years on the anniversary of the attack on their ship, May 3.

     The reunion this year, the 19thone, will be held in Washington, D.C., an apt place for it.  Two of their shipmates rest in the stillness of Arlington National Cemetery.

     Only a handful of Aaron Ward survivors remain now, but survivors from other ships of Radar Picket Line Station 10 are invited too.  It’s expected that about 200 will attend, and 75 rooms have been reserved at the Embassy Suites in northwest Washington D.C.

     The reunion starts Wednesday, May 3, and will continue through Sunday, May 7.  Many events are planned.

     For the first time in the history of the reunions, this year’s reunion will not be hosted by an Aaron Ward survivor.  It has been turned over to younger, healthier blood. It will be hosted by two nephews of an Aaron Ward crewmember.  Bill and John Morgan’s 19-year-old uncle, John Joseph Morgan, was killed in the attack on the ship, May 3, 1945, years before they were born.    Charles Shea and his wife, Phyllis, will attend the reunion.  He will get together once again with his old friends to remember their time in history and to honor their ship and its part in the victory of World War II.