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Veteran Stories: Shipmates Forever

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At age 91, Boone County resident Richard “Rich” Graham still has a sharp memory. He can clearly recall serving on not one, but two battleships while fighting the Japanese during World War II. As Veterans Day approaches, experience Graham’s realities as he remembers his fallen shipmates.

World War II Navy veteran Rich Graham stands next to a model of a battleship similar to the one he served on while fighting the Japanese across the Pacific Ocean.

World War II Navy veteran Rich Graham stands next to a model of a battleship similar to the one he served on while fighting the Japanese across the Pacific Ocean.

Age has not robbed Boone County resident Richard “Rich” Graham of the twinkle in his eye or the keen sense of humor he possesses. At 91, this U.S. Navy World War II veteran still drives his big Dodge Ram pickup truck around town and runs errands on foot, with the help of a walker. His mind is sharp and he clearly recalls serving on not just one, but two battleships while fighting the Japanese during World War II.

“I wanted to join the Navy when I was 16 but the Navy made me wait until I was 17,” recalls Graham. “It was 1943 and the war was in full swing and I wanted to do something for my country and not just sit at home!”

If Graham was hoping for adventure and service to his country, he got more of it than he could have imagined. After graduating from Navy boot camp and going to radar school, he was assigned to duty aboard the U.S.S. California, a battleship that had been heavily damaged when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“I was excited to be assigned to the California – a battlewagon,” says Graham. “She had been fully repaired and upgraded after being hit by torpedoes and bombs at Pearl Harbor. To be assigned to a battleship when you were just a teenager, not really knowing anything about how the Navy worked … well that was really good luck.”

The war in the Pacific was at a peak level during late 1943 and 1944 and the Navy was in need of good sailors to fill all kinds of positions left vacant by wartime casualties. Little did Graham know that the situation would directly impact his Navy service and his life.

“A Chief Petty Officer from the battleship U.S.S. Colorado came on board our ship at 1 a.m. while we were anchored at Pearl Harbor and he was looking for replacements,” recalls Graham. “He woke me and two other guys and took us over to the Colorado. There was no choice, just grab your sea-bag because you’re going! The boat’s waiting for you!”

The U.S.S. Colorado was one of the older battleships of the American Pacific fleet, commissioned in 1923. She was being overhauled and upgraded when Pearl Harbor was attacked and was destined to see significant action fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.

In November of 1943, the Colorado took part in the invasion of the Japanese-held island of Tarawa. She also played a role in the landings at Kwajalein and Eniwetok, in early 1944. But some of her toughest duty took place just off the shores of an island named Tinian, which was heavily defended by the Japanese.

“We were off the coast of Tinian, shelling her with our big guns, trying to soften up the Japanese and make it easier for our Marines, who were landing on the beach and trying to take the island,” recalls Graham. “Suddenly the Japanese opened up with their heavy artillery, their shore batteries, firing right at us. We were totally surprised. We’d been told all of their heavy guns had already been destroyed!”

That mistake proved deadly for 22 Colorado crewmembers and dozens more were injured. A close friend of Graham’s was killed.

“We took 24 direct hits,” he recalls. As I walked down the deck, I spotted one of my buddies. He had both of his legs blown off, halfway between his knees and his hips, by one of the Japanese shells,” Graham tearfully recalls. “I bent down and held his hand but there was nothing I could do for him. All I could do was lie to him and tell him he was going to be OK. I stayed with him and watched him die right there. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”

War leaves little time for active sailors to grieve, and that was the case for Graham and the U.S.S. Colorado. After some hasty repairs to the damaged battleship, she was back in action just a few months later, off the coast of the Philippines near an island called Leyte. That’s when the crew of the Colorado encountered, for the first time, one of Japan’s deadliest and most terrifying weapons: Kamikaze suicide planes.

“My battle station was manning a 20-mm antiaircraft gun right on top of one of the main gun turrets. My job was to help shoot down any Japanese planes attacking us. I had a bird’s-eye view of those planes diving right at us,” says Graham.

He got a better view of those Japanese Kamikaze planes than he wanted, when four Kamikazes attacked the Colorado.

“I was at my battle station manning my gun when they attacked,” recalls Graham. “I’ll never forget that this one plane came cruising by – he was going relatively slow and he was almost at eye level with me. He went between the superstructures of the ship and as he went over the ship he waved and smiled at me! About 200 feet past the ship, he deliberately crashed his plane into the sea. That still haunts me to this day. He didn’t want to kill anybody, but he did kill himself to avoid killing others. I’ll never forget that.”

The Colorado survived that attack. It also survived being hit by a Kamikaze plane in November of 1944. The ship went on to take part in numerous other battles, including the invasion of Okinawa. She earned a total of 10 battle stars for taking part in major battles during the war.

By the end of the war, the Colorado had suffered 77 sailors killed in action, with another 338 wounded and six missing in action.

Losing so many of his shipmates is just one reason Veterans Day means so much to Rich Graham. He hopes everyone will take a moment to remember the sacrifices made by his shipmates and so many others.

“I hope that people will remember all the sailors and soldiers who didn’t make it home. Say a prayer for them,” requests Graham. “Veterans Day is always a tough day for me because of my lost shipmates. We were all in the same boat. I often think of them. Especially the ones who were my friends. I’ll never forget them.”

After Japan signed a peace treaty in September of 1945, Graham looked forward to returning to civilian life. He’d seen just how horrible war can be.

“I was happy to get out,” he recalls. “That was enough.”

After he was Honorably Discharged in December of 1945, Graham returned to his home state of North Dakota. He took a job in the town of Fargo, at a filling station, pumping gas seven days a week, 12 hours a day.

Later, he drove 18-wheeler trucks across the country for more than 40 years.

Along the way, Graham met and married Dena, the love of his life; their wonderful marriage lasted until her death 63 years later. They brought three children into the world.

Today, Graham lives alone in his Boone County home. He’s fortunate that his children give him the help he needs to maintain his independence, but admits he is slowing down.

On Veterans Day 2017, he’ll once again be thinking of his shipmates from the U.S.S. Colorado, and all those who have served in the Armed Forces in all wars. He hopes the people of our nation will be thinking of them as well.

Editor’s note: Bob Ryder is a former Marine sergeant who served in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and was awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal for his service as a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent and broadcast journalist with the Armed Forces Desert Network.

He’s a lifetime member of the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association and has received numerous awards for his work from the organization, including Best Television News Story and Best Radio News Story.

The author’s father served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army with the First Cavalry during World War II, fighting in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines. This triggered Ryder’s interest in WW II and those who fought in it.

Ryder worked as a senior reporter and substitute news anchor for WTVO, the ABC affiliate in Rockford, for almost 20 years.

He is currently the Superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Boone County, a local agency dedicated to helping veterans and their families in need.

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