Columns, War Bonds

Keeping my promise: A personal Pearl Harbor reflection

This week The Spokesman Review published a special keepsake section commemorating the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the past nine years, I’ve been interviewing Pearl Harbor survivors for newspaper and was pleased to have many of those stories included.

In addition I wrote the following piece describing what it meant for me to visit the place I’d written about so often.

Never forget.

Cindy Hval, who wrote “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation,” visited Pearl Harbor in March. She explored places she had learned about in nine years of interviewing Pearl Harbor survivors.

Stretching out, I pressed my cheek into the hot sand, its gritty heat almost too much to bear. Closing my eyes, I imagined the shriek of airplane engines and the spitting sound of machine gun fire hitting the beach, while the air around me burned.

I covered my head with my arms, and could almost hear the whistling sound of bullets whizzing past my ear.

A shadow loomed. “Are you okay?” my husband asked.

Slowly, I sat up and scooted back onto my brightly-colored beach towel.

“Just thinking about Nick,” I said, while I slipped on my sunglasses.

The beauty of being married 30 years is I didn’t have to explain what I meant.

Derek and I visited Oahu in March to celebrate our anniversary, but the trip was part pilgrimage for me. After nine years of interviewing Pearl Harbor survivors, I was at last visiting the place I’d written about so often.

Here on Waikiki, I was just 12 miles away from Hickham Field where Nick Gaynos almost lost his life on Dec. 7, 1941.

Nick Gaynos holding the piece of shrapnel that landed near him while under fire during the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago. Gaynos died 20 days after this March 11, 2015, photograph. (Courtesy Cindy Hval)
Nick Gaynos holding the piece of shrapnel that landed near him while under fire during the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago. Gaynos died 20 days after this March 11, 2015, photograph. (Courtesy Cindy Hval)

During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nick had been running toward his duty station when a Japanese pilot targeted him. He’d told me of looking up as he ran and seeing the grin on the pilot’s face as he fired at him.

Nick hit the beach and covered his head with his arms as the bullets flew. When he got up he discovered a large piece of shrapnel next to him.

“I grabbed it,” he said. “It was still hot from the explosion.”

When my book “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation” was released, Nick attended a reading at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library in March 2015. He brought that piece of shrapnel with him. It was jagged and more than 2 feet long. He died a few weeks later.

Now, on the island that had been so devastated by the horrific attack, I carried his memories with me as well as those of Warren and Betty Schott. The Schotts had quarters on Ford Island and were eyewitnesses to the attack.

When Derek and I walked through the entrance of the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, I wanted nothing more than to talk to Betty, to tell her I was here. But Betty passed away in July 2015.

At the center, we watched a short film featuring actual footage of the attack. A scene of sailors and soldiers pulling the wounded and dead from the harbor made me gasp. That’s what Warren had done in the aftermath – it was the one thing he didn’t want to discuss with me over the course of many interviews. It was the only thing he refused to speak of with his wife of 76 years. Now, watching the footage through tear-filled eyes, I finally understood why he was loath to speak of it.

That horror was also all too real for my friend Ray Daves. During the attack, he hustled to a rooftop and handed ammo to two sailors who were manning a .30-caliber machine gun. He had his own brush with death when a Japanese plane exploded 20 feet from that rooftop before crashing into the sea below. His left hand was lacerated by shrapnel.

Like Warren Schott, Ray spent time pulling wounded men from the harbor, his blood mingling with the red splashes in the water around him. In his biography, “Radioman,” he described the bodies and body parts floating in the harbor. “We had to push them aside to get to the wounded,” he said.

Despite those gruesome memories, what really choked him up was recalling the bombing of the USS Arizona.

“My friend George Maybee was on the Arizona,” Ray said. “We’d gone through radio school together. Sat beside each other every day and were bunkmates at night.”

Ray Daves

“My friend George Maybee was on the Arizona,” Ray said. “We’d gone through radio school together. Sat beside each other every day and were bunkmates at night.”

He watched as the Arizona burst into a huge fireball. He knew his friend was gone.

Over the years, Ray and I grew close. He reminded me so much of my dad. They were both from Arkansas and had joined the military seeking a way out of the poverty of the rural south. Both had tender hearts and shared a wickedly funny sense of humor.

The last time I spoke to Ray before his June 2011 death, I told him I longed to visit Pearl Harbor.

“George is there,” he said, his eyes filling.

“I’ll look for his name,” I said. “I’ll say a prayer.”

Ray took my hand. “You do that, sweetheart.”

Five years later, I boarded the boat that took us to the USS Arizona. As we stepped from the boat onto the memorial, the throng of tourists quieted. The only sound was the snapping of the flag in the wind and the clicking of cameras.

We were somber with the knowledge that we were standing on the final resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed on the Arizona.

1913753_1047614618610498_5611130893995793483_n[1]A rainbow of undulating color in the water below caught my eye. Some 500,000 gallons of oil are still slowly seeping out of the ship’s submerged wreckage, and it continues to spill up to nine quarts into the harbor each day.

Slowly, I entered the shrine. A marble wall bearing the names of those entombed beneath us stretched out behind a velvet rope.

So. Many. Names.

Overwhelmed, I looked at Derek. “I’ll never find him,” I whispered.

The day had been overcast, but suddenly a shaft of sunlight illuminated the marble.

“There,” Derek said. “There he is – G.F. Maybee.”

George Frederick Maybee was a radioman, second class, aboard the USS Arizona when the battleship was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Habor. Maybee, whose name is etched in a marble wall at the Arizona memorial, had been a friend of Ray Daves, a Pearl Harbor survivor from Deer Park who died in 2011. (Courtesy Cindy Hval)

Bowing my head, I wept for the sailor I’d never met and for my friend who knew and loved him.

I hope that somehow Ray knows I kept my promise.

George Maybee hasn’t been forgotten. Neither has Ray Daves.

 

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War Bonds

Together Again

At last night’s “War Bonds” event at Studio 107 in Coeur d’Alene, I learned Nick Gaynos had passed away on April 1.

I can’t be too sad, since he so wanted to be with his beloved Tex who died June 3, 2014.  And I’m beyond delighted that he was able to attend the reading at the Coeur d’Alene Public Libary on March 11 and receive his copy of “War Bonds.” 20150311_184658He brought the piece of shrapnel that almost nailed him at Pearl Harbor to the reading. When he turned to the chapter (Damn Yankee) about he and his bride, he lingered over her photos. “Isn’t she pretty?” he asked.

Yes, she is, Nick and I’m so happy you’re together again.Gaynos RB

 

War Bonds

He brought the shrapnel with him

20150311_184658

From Chapter 8 of War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation;

As he ran down the beach back toward his duty station, a Japanese Zero strafed the sand around him. Nick hit the ground and covered his head. He said he felt a hot breeze and heard a whistling sound inches from his ears. He looked up and saw the face of the pilot as he flew alongside him. The pilot grinned.
When he got up he discovered a large piece of shrapnel next to him. “I grabbed it,” he said. “It was still hot from the explosion.”

Last night, Nick Gaynos attended a War Bonds reading at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library. He brought that piece of shrapnel with him.

Simply amazing.

War Bonds

Dying Vet Rallies

001 The most amazing thing happened yesterday. I’m still processing it. This summer I wrote about my visit to WWII Vet Nick Gaynos. Nick was on his deathbed. Here’s the column I wrote about that visit.

Yesterday, I went to return his photos. His caretaker met me at the door. “Come in,” she said, smiling. Her eyes sparkled. “Nick’s at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. He’ll be so happy to see you!”

Stunned, I just looked at her. “But. He was dying!” I said. Shaking her head she said, “I know! But not anymore. He’s 96 and the only medication he takes is vitamin supplements!”

I walked into the kitchen and there sat Nick, now with a scruffy beard. “Hello, there,” he said. Tears filled my eyes. I said, “Oh, Nick, I came to see in July, but I don’t think you knew I was here. I just held your hand for a bit.”

His eyes clouded. “Tex died, you know.” (His wife had died on June 3rd.) “Yes, I know. I’m so sorry.” He sighed. “She was an amazing woman.” I spread out the photos that will be used in War Bonds.

He lingered over Tex’s picture. “Oh, I knew I was in trouble when I saw her.” I pointed to a photo of him with two other soldiers. “Ah,” he said. “California. Those two had come down from Washington to inspect my operations.”

Laughing, I said, “It sure looks like you were in charge.” He replied, “Well. That’s the way I always looked.”

We visited a bit and I promised to return to bring him his copy of War Bonds. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said.

So am I, Nick. So am I.

Columns, War Bonds

Column: Grateful to have told WWII veteran’s story

The fading late afternoon sun, blurred by the haze of wildfires, fell softly across the foot of his bed. A smoke-tinged breeze wafted through the open French doors.

His once-commanding frame seemed frail against the stark whiteness of crisp sheets and rumpled pillows. I stood quietly beside him, a writer at a loss for words.

Nick Gaynos was dying.

The World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor had endured many things, but the loss of his beloved wife, Tex, was proving too much for his heart to bear. After more than 70 years with her, he doesn’t want to be here without her.

I met Nick and Tex in 2010 when I shared their Love Story with newspaper readers. His regal military bearing and her gorgeous red hair and sense of style made them one of the most elegant couples I’ve interviewed.

They laughed and bantered throughout the afternoon, recalling how they met in the Bamboo Room of the Hotel Californian in Fresno. Nick spotted Tex through some bamboo fronds and was immediately smitten. He told his friend, “See that redhead? I’m going to marry her!” His buddy replied, “No way!” Gaynos said, “I’ll bet ya $10.”

Six weeks later he collected that $10 as he walked down the aisle to marry Tex.

His smile faded when he recalled the horror of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The young private was in charge of air/ground communications at Hickam Air Field on Dec. 7, 1941.

He was asleep in his bunk when the earsplitting scream of airplane engines and the rat-a-tat sound of bullets strafing the barracks woke him. Grabbing his pants, he scrambled out the door.

As he ran down the beach back toward his duty station, a Japanese Zero strafed the sand around him. He hit the ground and covered his head. Gaynos said he felt a hot breeze and heard a whistling sound inches from his ears. He looked up and saw the face of the pilot as he flew alongside him. The pilot grinned.

When Gaynos got up he discovered a large piece of shrapnel next to him. “I grabbed it,” he said. “It was still hot from the explosion.”

After Pearl Harbor he was sent to Officer Candidate School and quickly moved up through the ranks. He married Tex in 1943 and enjoyed a long military career followed by a successful second career in real estate.

On a recent day, I came to tell him that their story will be included in a book I’m working on and to collect photos for the project. His daughter warned me that his health was fading and he wasn’t expected to live much longer.

His caregiver greeted me at the door and Gaynos opened his eyes briefly when I entered the room, then he sighed and turned away.

I sorted through the photos, selecting the ones I needed, and when his caregiver went to photocopy them, I approached his bed.

“Nick,” I said.

His eyes fluttered and he slowly raised his hand. I took it and he wrapped his fingers around mine. His eyes fell shut, but his grip on my hand was firm.

I told how I admired Tex, and how much I appreciated that after talking about the awfulness of war, we were able to laugh together at the silly jokes and stories they shared.

“I’ve never forgotten that you told me that a sense of humor is vital to a marriage,” I said. “Thank you, Nick. Thank you for serving your country, for loving your wife, for sharing your memories with me.”

He sighed and released my fingers.

I heard his caregiver returning to the room, so I bent down and kissed his brow – taking a liberty I’m sure Tex wouldn’t mind.

According to recent statistics, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 555 a day. Time is running out to tell their stories. But in this case, not only did I get to share this hero’s story, I also got to say goodbye.

As I drove away, my eyes blurred and the tears that had threatened all afternoon fell.

The tears weren’t of grief, but of gratitude.

This column originally appeared July 31, 2014 in the Spokesman-Review.