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Foote Notes from My Father

Theresa J. Elders
656 Pend Oreille Loop
Colville, WA 99115

Foote Notes from My Father

 

By Terri Elders

 

“You have served in the greatest Navy in the world.”—James Forrestal

 

Until recently I knew only three things about Daddy’s service in WWII. It was his second Navy stint, he tap danced in a shipboard talent show, and he was the oldest enlisted man aboard his ship. Daddy, a notable yarn spinner, rarely discussed the war.

 

Since boyhood he had loved the sea, particularly the Pacific, Daddy told me on the evening of his 75th birthday, as we relaxed on the deck of his houseboat moored at Oakland’s Jack London Square. Daddy had built the boat himself and dubbed it Surfside Sex, a play on the title of the television series, Surfside Six. He particularly loved throwing birthday bashes aboard it.

 

That May evening in 1983 as we watched the incoming fog gradually obscure the overhead stars, Daddy told me about how he had agonized over his decision to leave my sister and me with Grandma and enlist again in the Navy. It was l942, he said, and he heard a call to service.

 

“I first joined when I was 16, after persuading Grandma to fib about my age to the recruiters. Not because I was so eager to serve the country, mind you. It was peacetime. I just wanted to get away from my father. But after Pearl Harbor I felt compelled to go. I was 34, divorced with two little girls, and knew I wouldn’t get drafted. So when Grandma said she’d take you girls, I enlisted.”

 

 Daddy took a sip of his birthday champagne and gestured towards what we could still see of Orion’s Belt.

 

“To tell the truth, I was eager to see the Southern Cross.” He gave me a wink. “I always longed to see the world and to achieve something.”

 

This year I learned from his widow, Barbara, and through some Internet websites, that he had seen much more than the Southern Cross. My dad, Albert George Burgess, had been chief petty officer on the USS Foote-511, one of a squadron of eight Fletcher Class destroyers that became known all over the Pacific as the “Little Beavers.” Under the command of Captain Arleigh Burke, the popular observation was that the crews of those ships would “work like little beavers.”

 

That birthday night in Oakland he didn’t say a word about how the “Little Beavers” operated in unison in the Solomon’s Campaign to prove that fast destroyers indeed could defeat what was alleged to be a superior enemy force. He didn’t tell me about how the Foote took a Japanese torpedo hit to its fantail in the battle of Empress Augusta Bay off Bougainville on the night of November 2, 1943. Daddy never disclosed that the impact threw him high in the air and that he was injured when he plummeted back to the deck.

 

Instead he described the festive 1943 Christmas dinner the shipmates enjoyed near Espiritu Santos, New Hebrides. “That dinner began with turkey and ended with coffee, cigars and cigarettes. All the courses, including pickles and olives, are on the menu that I still have somewhere. Afterwards we had a talent show and I tap danced.”

 

“I never had much formal education,” Daddy continued, “but I wish I could write. I’d like to write about those days. I started a poem once when I was at sea, but never got too far.”

 

He didn’t mention that nineteen men lost their lives in that attack, nor that as he lay on the deck, dazed, unable to speak, he overheard two much younger shipmen discussing whether they should leave “the old SOB there or take him along,” as they prepared to evacuate to a companion ship. He later confided to Barbara how their words chilled him, and how relieved he was when they finally snatched him up and carted him to a lifeboat.

 

Instead he laughed about how he tried to explain war honors to Grandma. “Mother never could understand about medals,” Daddy said. “She kept writing me that she didn’t want me to get hurt, but would be rather proud to be a gold star mother or have me earn a Purple Heart. I tried to explain I’d have to be killed for her to become the first and badly injured for me to get the second, and I that I hoped she’d settle for something more modest.”  He threw me one of his signature wry looks, and I laughed, too.

 

Though twenty-five years have elapsed, I still remember Daddy jesting about how he tried to let Grandma know where his ship was patrolling in language that would slip by the military censors. Since he was near the Solomon Islands, he’d ask lots of questions about Grandma’s brother, Solly. Grandma didn’t get it, though. She’d just write back that Uncle Solly was fine, and she didn’t understand all his concern for that particular relative. Didn’t he care about Uncle Walter or Aunt Viva? Why was it always Solly, Solly, Solly?

 

When I asked her about Daddy’s war years, Barbara sent me an envelope stuffed with copies of letters of commendation from James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, and Harry S. Truman, President of the United States. There’s also a copy of the program for a November 20, l942 memorial service for the “Little Beavers” who lost their lives on the Foote, as well as that notorious Christmas menu. Daddy had it right about the cigars. They’re right there on the menu.

 

There’s also a letter from Alston Ramsay, the Commander of the USS Foote, himself:

 

“Now that the smoke of battle has rolled away I salute every officer and man of the hardest fighting division of the hardest fighting squadron of the hardest fighting navy and commend you individually and collectively for a series of victories which have added to the glorious history of our navy.”

Barbara also tucked into the envelope a yellowed page from a lined writing tablet. “Your dad wrote this one afternoon as he sat near the bay window in the house in Twin Peaks. He didn’t show it to me until he was finished.”

 

I suspect it’s the poem that he had alluded to on his 75th birthday, the one he had started at sea during WWII.

 

Daddy had printed, “To you, O stranger and friend that I may never know, I bequeath one thought…we come from the dark, and into the dark we all must go. So while there is light, love someone, believe in someone, try to achieve something. Men and women are transient creatures. But mankind abides. The flower, the fruit and the seed are one. Cherish the flower, ripen the fruit and spread the seed. O, stranger, I have nothing more to say, except that you are my sister, my brother, and my friend.”

 

When he died, Daddy’s ashes were scattered over his beloved Pacific Ocean and the Navy gave him a memorial plaque at the Presidio. He did receive a Purple Heart, Barbara confided, but upon his return to the States gave it to a man who wanted to impress a girlfriend. He presented Grandma with his Bronze Star, though.

 

I’m pretty certain she was proud of him. I know I am. 


Owner/SourceTheresa J. Elders
Linked toAlbert George Burgess; Theresa Jeanne Burgess; Gertrude Alma Solander

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