For Those In Peril on the Sea

Listening to interviews with Ken Burns about his WWII documentary, I've been drop-kicked into my own memories of those years. Burns has interviewed vets about their experiences—I don't know if he's included anyone who was a kid then, as I was.

Children were witnessing the adult drama of it all. A third-grader when it started, I was also waging my own "war effort." It was deeply magical thinking—I really thought what I did or didn't do could save lives, win battles, bring my dad and uncles home safe. And conversely, that if I screwed up, they were all in greater danger. Quite a mix of guilt, love, and wildly inflated Responsibility.

So as part of what I hope is a national experience—all of us watching this new telling of the WWII story—here are pages from my roman a clef, Outing the Mermaid. The passage describes one serious kid who was deeply marked by those years.


The war was not going well. In the newspapers, in LIFE, in the Saturday Evening Post, there were stories and pictures of defeat, of death marches, and of sinking ships.

Her father’s ship had burned at Pearl Harbor, one of the ones billowing black smoke in all the newsreels as Roosevelt’s voice declared war on the Japanese. Chief Warrant Officer Ernest Palmer had been on shore leave when it happened, home with his wife and children on Coronado, an island in San Diego harbor that was half navy base and airfield, half charming civilian town filled with Navy families. But they had not seen him since voices on the radio had ordered all military personnel to report immediately to their ships and bases. Buses moved slowly along San Diego’s palm-lined streets, loudspeakers blaring, stopping at corners to pick up every uniformed man in that town filled with uniforms.

Commissioned as a line officer and reassigned to another ship, Ensign Palmer had flown to Pearl, where the ships were burning, where the Japanese might land troops, where Lee knew that Navy friends had been killed in their backyards and in their cars by strafing planes.

San Diego harbor, normally filled with great warships, had emptied out, the carriers, battleships, cruisers, and destroyers steaming past Point Loma and into the Pacific, leaving the harbor bereft, the city unguarded, vulnerable.

She sat with her mother and her baby brother in their green stucco cottage with the drapes drawn over the closed wooden blinds and a blanket shielding one small lamp. There must be no light to guide enemy pilots to the North Island base, or to this fragment of a family, sitting stunned in the Stateside town nearest to Hawaii.

In the long months after that, Pete, the too-old-to-be-drafted mailman, became the most important human on Coronado Island, a modern Mercury, carrying messages to and from the war. Every day her mother had a letter ready for him to take, a letter that smelled always of the sweet peas she grew, picking each day just one to send into the war. Most days the letters she received were things she shuffled quickly through and dropped unopened on a chair or the kitchen counter. And Lee would find her mother listening to songs from the radio like “I’ll Be Seeing You" or “When the Lights Go On Again," as she mended Ernie’s clothes or grated American cheese into macaroni, and quietly wept.

Then there would be a day when Pete—Mr. Cameron to Lee—came down the walk beaming, and Mrs. Palmer would run into the house with a stack of tiny V-mails, sorting them out to read in order, one for each day that had passed since the last batch that had come. But the sad songs on the radio still made her cry.

Drawers full of V-mails later, one came that said, “I’ve decided to shave my mustache next month, maybe before Halloween" and, “Why don’t you and the kids go see Liz and Danny Bailey for your birthday?" Since Mrs. Palmer hated mustaches and her husband always grew one at sea and the Baileys lived in San Francisco and her birthday was in late October, she knew what to do. The Delius was coming home.

In the next few weeks, Lee worried about her mother’s behavior. Posters everywhere warned that a slip of the lip could sink a ship, and there her mother was, not saying anything exactly, but laughing too much and arranging for a friend to weed the victory garden when they would be away, buying makeup and perfume that she didn’t open and making a lot of new clothes that she didn’t wear. She stood in lines for stockings and had four pairs in packages on her dresser, 54 gauge, 15 denier, but she kept painting on leg makeup. She made an awful suit with big shoulders that she told Lee she would need for going out in San Francisco, which was an elegant city, almost Eastern. Then she made a red silk blouse with no back and a black satin skirt that she didn’t sew up one side, and she didn’t tell Lee what that was for.

Lee was sure her mother was a security risk. The woman didn’t seem to understand that the Delius was a mother ship, a submarine tender, the rallying point for subs that would leave her to move below the surface of the Pacific, on the prowl for enemy battleships and carriers to sink. Sink the Delius and you’d cripple the sub fleet. The enemy must not know that the tender was headed toward San Francisco.

Lee tried to make amends for her mother by doubling her red-wagon rounds of the neighborhood, collecting coffee cans full of used cooking grease, clattering piles of flattened tin cans and stacks of newspapers that left the dresses her mother made for her gray with ink. She pulled all of it dutifully, ritually to the corner gas station where she placed her offerings on the piles of precious junk that would be scooped up by trucks from the base for conversion into explosives and tank treads.

Saturday mornings she would walk to the shadowy junk store on Orange Avenue and trade Classic Illustrated comics with the owner, a fierce, white-haired woman who looked remarkably like the parrot that hung near the stacks of comic books, assailing Lee every week with, “Tell me a story! Tell me a story!" She would make her trade, a Count of Monte Cristo and a Last of the Mohicans for one Man in the Iron Mask and leave, getting quickly away from the Parrot Lady and her demanding bird.

The next stop was the 9-cent matinee at the Strand, hours of Abbott and Costello, Flash Gordon, and of Humphrey Bogart winning the war on land and sea. Sitting over a lemon phosphate at the drugstore counter after the show, she silently ran and re-ran images of ships with guns erupting fire clouds, ships lowering away lifeboats after being torpedoed, ships slipping under the seatop. She would not play in that sea, would not even walk on the beach, knowing that the water was filled with drowned men who might be her father.

On the days she deemed her war efforts worthy, he would be safe. She knew he was not in danger the week she hauled two threadbare tires to the rubber mountain at the service station, and one week when collections were slow, she carried over her new Magicskin doll, just to be sure. If she got the yellow dye squeezed evenly through the disgusting sack of white margarine, he was safe for at least a morning. When the practice air-raid sirens screamed and she ran home under the fragrant oleanders and eucalyptus, it meant that no planes were diving on his ship.

Their own little house was well protected; housing was impossible to find and families all over Coronado were taking in servicemen’s families. Her mother had moved out of the room with the double bed and into Ernie’s room, sleeping on a folding cot next to his crib so the most beautiful couple Lee had ever seen could move into her parents’ room—a tall Marine pilot based at North Island and his small blonde wife.

Mrs. Palmer was terribly upset when the pilot’s wife spilled a bottle of ink on her hand-crocheted bedspread, but Lee loved the days when the pilot swooped his F4U down over their tile roof and waggled its wings. If the Japs tried to hit Coronado as they had Pearl Harbor, the little house on C Street would have its own air defense.

The homefront blackouts and air raid practices were constant reminders to Emily Palmer that the war could come to Coronado at any time, could take her children’s lives, and her own. There were dangers everywhere—stories of bad men breaking into houses they knew were unprotected by resident males; Mrs. Palmer locked every door and window, checking them again and again. People got polio and went into iron lungs, if they lived. When there was news of an outbreak, Lee was not allowed to go to the Strand for her beloved matinees.

There was never enough money or ration points. Mrs. Palmer made all their clothes, grew vegetables in the victory garden, added more and more bread to the meatloaf, mended every tear, darned the holes in their socks. And waited for the mail.

During this super-dangerous time for her father, Lee stopped speaking to the Chinese kids who lived two houses away because they might really be Japanese who could send out Morse code reports on her mother’s revealing behavior, the stockpiled stockings and the industrious sewing of San Francisco clothes. Lee couldn’t be too careful.

The best insurance came at Sacred Heart, where Lee never missed a Saturday morning confession. She had sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through her fault, through her fault, through her most grievous fault, offending God in some way or another every perilous week. Amends had to be made. She used up most of her allowance on candles she lit at the feet of Our Lady of Guadalupe, blessed Mary ever Virgin, before kneeling to pray that the dirty Japs would not harm the valiant officers and men of the USS Delius.

Words kept coming into her mind from the song they sang at Navy ceremonies, a song that was not Catholic and so could not be sung here at Sacred Heart but it was beautiful and filled up her heart with just the words she wanted God to hear, even if they were Protestant—“Oh hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea."

Every couple in those war years must have had censor-beating codes— when the Delius made it safely into port, the crew’s wives and children were waiting for them. They had all beaten gas rationing or impossible crowds at train and bus stations to get there; civilians had no priority on travel space, the seats going first to the droves of military travelers.

Emily Palmer and her children had been lucky. Ernie Junior completely charmed a teen-aged sailor from Ohio who was waiting near them in the mob jamming San Diego’s Union Station. The toddler had been wearing the chubby sailor’s hat and getting romper fuzz all over his uniform for an hour before the train going north was finally announced and the sailor plunged into the crowd, carrying Ernie on his shoulders. Lee and Mrs. Palmer had tried to keep up but were held back by the solid press of bodies. Her mother was calling out to the sailor to stop and give her son back, but the sailor was already on the train steps, talking to the conductor and pointing to Lee and Mrs. Palmer. The conductor waved them through the crowd, to coach seats with Ernie and his friend. “I told him he had to let my wife and daughter aboard, too," he said with a pimply grin.

In San Francisco, Ernie and Lee stayed with Liz Bailey and her son Danny, who ignored Lee, as he always had in all the times their families had turned up on the same bases, once even sharing a house in Long Beach when their fathers both shipped out on the Mississippi.

There was nothing to do but read, help Mrs. Bailey in the kitchen and chase after Ernie so he didn’t get into trouble. “T-Bone" Bailey, like her own father a mustang officer now, which meant he used to be a sailor, was somewhere in the Pacific, on a battleship.

Lee wondered then about the names their fathers had been given by their shipmates. How did a person get to be called T-Bone? She knew they called her father “Deacon." She supposed her own name would be “Bookworm." And Danny’s would have to be “Stuckup."

There had been even more to fear during the war than Lee had imagined as she had made her collections, and lit her candles. Her father didn’t talk about it, but she learned from eavesdropping at the officers’ club that a kamikaze had hit the bridge, shells fired from a Japanese destroyer had torn open the forward bulkheads, and some of his friends had died. The part of the story that frightened her even more was the long, slow towing of the wounded Delius across the Pacific, all those days that her mother had been preparing for the ship’s arrival in San Francisco. Lee knew from the matinees how dangerous such a voyage was, and she wondered how the enemy ships and planes had missed such an opportunity to take advantage of helpless Yanks.

At a picnic for the crew and their families, her father and the skipper presented her with a bowl of polliwogs they said had gotten shell-shocked aboard the Delius. On the bowl there was a decal of the emblem Disney had drawn for the ship—Dolly Delius, a mermaid, surrounded by polliwogs. Lee didn’t think deadly submarines were darling polliwogs and a cute little mermaid certainly wasn’t dignified enough for the Delius’s solemn and dangerous role in the war. Saying none of that, she agreed to nurse the tiny creatures to a peaceful recuperation ashore. And deep into her life as an adult, Dolly Delius the mermaid still hung on the wall, wherever Lee lived.

Each day her parents became sadder, more distracted, as the ship came closer to leaving dry-dock, all repairs completed by round-the-clock shifts of shipyard workers. They sold gardenias on the streets of San Francisco then, from carts that perfumed the city air. Lee could see now the gold braid on her father’s sleeve as he pinned a gardenia to the broad shoulder of her mother’s suit. For the rest of Lee’s life the scents of sweetpeas and of gardenias would tip her instantly into being both the enchanted observer of her parents’ great love for each other and their excluded, incidental child. She could see them now, each fateful day quieter, until they were standing beside the re-floated ship and they were saying nothing at all.

Lee had not seen the Delius wounded, but now it loomed above her, whole and strong, a gray wall held taut to the pier with massive hawsers, the ship full of noise and movement and power, ready to go once more in harm’s way.

Dozens of families stood in its shadow, each one a tight cluster of colors around a single, dark uniform. The adults did not look at the ship and no one stood near the gangplank, where officers and men whose families were not there hurried aboard.

On the other side of the narrow dock, another ship waited, its gangway already pulled in, its decks lined with Marines in full battle dress, silently watching the scene below. No one was there to see them away. They had made their goodbyes in Idaho or Alabama or New Mexico and now stood and witnessed the undoing of the Delius’s ties to home.

No sun from the pale winter sky reached into the shadow between the ships, and a wind that seemed to seek out the men and their families swept into the harbor from the sea, shivering the air. The Delius began making harsh noises, and men broke away from embraces and outstretched arms to move up the gangway.

Her father spoke to her quickly and his shoulder board scratched her cheek. “You be good now, you hear? Take good care of your Mama and Ernie."

He pulled himself away and her mother moved into his side, her lavender dress soft against his uniform, and then he was climbing up to the ship.

Lee couldn’t find him among the figures that banded the decks and the bridge, but she could see that her mother’s eyes were fixed on a place directly above her on the ship’s superstructure.Mrs. Palmer waved and Lee wondered how she could think that one of those forms was the right one and the others were not. But one of them waved back in the way her father did, so Lee pointed to him and got Ernie to waggle his small arms back.

There were no men on the dock now and many of the women were walking quickly away, leading or carrying their children back through the gates where the Shore Patrol stood watch.

The gangway was drawn aboard, the hawsers with their metal rat-guards thrown down, and the ship was freed. It throbbed slowly away from the dock and her mother moved with it as it eased along the length of the pier, her eyes holding to the figure on the bridge while she threaded her way through the women and children who remained.

Lee tried to get Ernie to walk behind their mother, but he cried to be carried. The skipper’s wife scooped him up and went with them to the dock’s end. Mrs. Palmer’s arm was still in the air and, farther and farther away in the harbor, the man who waved like her father still moved his hand back and forth slowly over his head.

“Bastards!" said the skipper’s wife. Taller than Emily Palmer, her hair rolled in a high pompadour, she was facing the troop ship, where Marines were laughing and shouting, some of them hanging over the rails and waving.

“Don’t worry honey, you’ll find another one!"

“How about me, cutie? I’d jump ship for you."

“Hey, there’s always the 4-Fs—don’t cry too long, babe."

The remaining Delius women were glaring at them or pretending not to hear or leaving angrily. The skipper’s wife handed Ernie to Emily Palmer and hugged her quickly before hurrying away, high heels making small angry hits along the pier. Ernie thought the Marines were funny and gurgled happily at them. Mrs. Palmer still had not turned away from the Delius, though it had moved so far away that Lee thought it looked like one of the models on her father’s desk.

“Mama, I can’t see him anymore."

She looked at Lee, startled, perhaps, that she was there.

“But he has binoculars, he can see us."

She turned quickly back to the ship, holding it firm with her eyes, with the intensity of her need to stay linked to Ernest Palmer. Unstoppable in its purpose, in the gravity of its mission, the Delius bore him away, beyond her reach, beyond her sight.

Lee had thought her mother didn’t hear the Marines, then realized that they had gone silent. Their ship had begun to move too, easing away from the dock to take its place in the convoy that was moving under the Golden Gate, out of the soft, sheltering arms of the California hills that enclosed the harbor, into the Pacific and the war.

A voice called out, “Goodbye dear," and another, “Goodbye—take care." Men began calling down from all over the troop ship, and Lee could not understand who they were talking to.

“Don’t worry darlin,’ I’ll be OK."

“Think of me."

“I love you."



The toy Delius gone, Emily Palmer smiled, waved, and nodded her head in answer to the Marines.

She stayed there, still waving, until their ship too, disappeared. Then she walked slowly away, with her children, in the gray light that flooded the empty pier.