Updated: May 27, 2022
“The summer of 1942 was the happiest, most carefree of my life,” Sally wrote fifty years later about Longview on the Columbia River in Washington. “Romances began and ended quickly that summer. First, I loved a college man from the University of Oregon who was waiting to go into the Navy. It was hard work getting his attention, and when I finally did, I didn’t want it anymore.” She kissed him at the train station when he left for the war.
Summer 1942, Longview, WA, Sally on left.
Sally was my mother. She turned seventeen, moved on to date other boys, and flunk out of boarding school. In the 1960s, The Longest Day came out about the invasion of France. Mom commented that she knew a sailor killed in the engine room of a destroyer there, but she didn’t leave us his name. I am fond of the Woody Guthrie song about another destroyer lost in the Battle of the Atlantic with the refrain,
Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names, Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?
I discovered through research that the friend’s name was John A. Denning. His father was an engineer in one of the forest products mills in Longview. John worked in the mill too, graduated from high school in 1941, and went off to the University of Oregon in Eugene for a year. In 1942, men of military age enlisted in a branch of service rather than be drafted into the infantry. My own father left a good paying construction job for the Air Corps. John picked the navy and he ended up a Machinist’s Mate Second Class aboard the new destroyer U.S.S. Meredith (DD-726). If John wrote to Sally, none of the letters survived.
On June 6, 1944, Meredith protected Utah Beach from German torpedo boats and exchanged gunfire with shore batteries.
U.S.S. Meredith (DD-726), 1944.
The official account of the Naval History and Heritage Command details what happened at Normandy early on the morning of June 8, 1944.
Mines posed a deadly threat to ships in the area and Meredith properly set her degaussing coils. The sea was choppy with a fresh breeze blowing, and the sky low and overcast with a ceiling of about 1,000 feet. The moon emerged visibly from time-to-time through breaks in the clouds.
Suddenly at 0152, Meredith struck a submerged mine amidships on the port side of her keel right under No. 2 fire room. Commander George Knuepfer described how the ship “gave a tremendous lurch forward and upward,” and the explosion threw everybody topside to their knees and drenched them with a huge cloud of water. None of the survivors could afterward recall seeing any flames or smoke in spite of the force of the blast, but debris hurtled through the air and scythed into crewmen. Meredith lost all communications and power and turned slowly to starboard as she drifted ominously to a stop, dead in the water.
The mine’s blast wiped out No. 1 fire room, No. 1 engine room, and No. 2 engine room, killing most of the men in those compartments including many in the repair parties topside just above those rooms.
Chief Bryan B. Lawson was in charge of the twelve men in the No. 2 engine room, and the explosion stunned him and his fellow watchstanders. Despite being dazed by the blast, Lawson managed to make his way out of the shattered space by climbing out the hatch and out to the fantail. He did not see any of the other men escape from the damaged compartment, and realized they must still be trapped below. He obtained a flashlight and at great risk of his own life, went down into the totally dark and wrecked compartment.
Lawson discovered water pouring in and rising to a depth of within four feet of the overhead. He bravely waded through the filthy and murky water and saved four men, passing them up the ladder to the hatch for other men to pull them out onto the deck. All four of the sailors sustained burns, lacerations, and fractures, and later required additional medical assistance back in England. For Lawson’s “total disregard for his own safety” he subsequently received the Navy Cross.
The next day, Meredith sank under an air attack. Thirty-five crewmen were dead or missing including John Denning.
John’s father was notified that he was missing in action and papers statewide included him in the casualty lists. Eventually, the Secretary of the Navy wrote with regret that John was declared dead. His name is listed today on the Tablet of the Missing at Collville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach.
My mother went on to marry, have three children, and retire from teaching high school. She passed away at the age of 92. She always felt a bit guilty about that goodbye kiss at the train station.
In the 1950s, Fred Hellerman of the Weavers added this verse to Woody’s original:
Well, many years have passed since those brave men have gone And those cold icy waters are still and they're calm Many years have passed but still I wonder why The worst of men must fight and the best of men must die.
The friend's name was John Arthur Denning.
After I posted, I got this from the Cowlitz County Historical Society, June 28, 1944, The Daily News (Longview)