They Painted Them Over

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

You will have to excuse this one. Most of my generation was raised on John Wayne, George Patton, Red Ryder & Little Beaver. The blood of the men who crushed two and a half nations full of self-possessed supermen, still pumped through our chest IMO pumps. I grew up in an age and location where boys were expected to look up little girls dresses on the swings and settle differences of opinion on the playground at lunch.

We didn't have Mr. Rogers, Big Bird and simpering Barney. Thank God! We weren't confused that we came with male fixtures but were being taught to think by folks of doubtful gender or lady gear. No one called anyone a "wussy", 'cause the only wussy thinking was being expended on the creation of Richard Simmons. Right now you are probably saying, "Dex... What in the hell does this soapbox tap dance have to do with smoke boats?"

In the late fifties, Naval leadership caught a case of mass amnesia or a stiff case of collective stupidity... They completely forgot about Pearl Harbor. In ten years, the sonuvabitches who brought you the attack on Pearl, the Bataan death march, the rape of Nanking, the bridge over the river Kwai, the wanton destruction of the Philippines, kamikaze planes, and were only stopped by the nuclear Orkin man, suddenly became our "Soapy Shower" pals... Same sonuvabitches... New smile. We hadn't invented the term "spin doctors" yet, but all farm boys could recognize a manure spreader.

I don't want to get in a "The Japanese are nice people" hoo-hah... I'm sure they are. But from 1936 until two A-bombs triggered their religious conversion, they were an ornery bunch of bastards.

A lot of guys in the undersea services were called upon to put damn near all of their seagoing hardware on the bottom of the Pacific, along with any citizens of Nippon who happened to have their fannies parked in these ships. A lot of Japanese sucked a lot of saltwater, thanks to a generation of boat sailors who will always be my heroes. They put the pride and meaning in the silver dolphins we wore.

When these magnificent bastards sent another load of Japanese sons of Hirohito off to hell, they would paint a Jap flag on the conning tower fairwater. That was the prize in the bottom of the Cracker Jack box... A nine inch by six inch flag painted where it would announce to the world that the folks who sunk the fleet at Pearl had made another installment payment. The American people had selected the sub force to be their collection agent and if you could turn a blind eye to being shot at, depth charged and bombed, business was good. If the visible "Jap flag" accounting tallies on the sides of conning towers was any indication... Very good.

I saw grown men... Wonderful representations of the best we turn out in this great country... Saw these men cry when the boats they rode were towed off to the scrap yard. One of my most wonderful memories of the sub force was one day I was returning to base at New London... You know, haulin' hiney down that windy road that ran along the river. I came over a hill and there was an old first class gunners' mate standing there in dress canvas... He had his dolphins sewn above the cuff of his right sleeve, was wearing all his medals and saluting an old, rusty, cannibalized fleet boat being towed upriver by the razorblade pirates. The old bastard had parked his cane against an oak tree... He just stood there... For me, that moment will last a lifetime. It was this old gunner, the boat, memories of tough times, great shipmates, and watching that old rusty girl down there heading for her last date, that says it all.

In the late fifties, the leadership in a fit of mass memory obliteration said,

"Let us not continue to offend and embarrass our oriental brethren and paint over these offensive eyesores donning the conning towers..."

And we did.

Who knows, we may have witnessed the birth of political correctness.

What we should have said was,

"Japanese sailor, look at this submarine's conning tower... Then thank whoever it is you pray to that we didn't get your old man, or you wouldn't be here, to get upset."

Most subsurface lads today never had to paint over Jap flags... But it can't hurt to, every once in a while, stop and reflect on our bubblehead brethren who put them there. So the next time you pray to the Almighty, you can thank your God that he let you miss that workin' party.