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"My father was born on the 4th of July in 1902. He died a long way from home. He was strong and brave and good and kind and funny. Oh - how I loved him! I miss him everyday and will until my dying day."
Ms. Tucker Bruun was eight years old when her daddy died on a Japanese "Hell Ship," the Oryoku Maru, during World War II. This is a letter she wrote to her grandson in remembrance of Othello Christian Bruun.
Dear David Christian,
One of the most special days of my life was the day I learned that your mother had named you for your great-grandfather, my father, Othello Christian Bruun. The name Christian has a long family history, beginning with your great-great-great-great-grandfather Christian Pedersen Bruun who was born in 1788 in Norway. It came to the United States with his fourth child, Christian Severin Bruun, and has continued without interruption in each generation since.
Those who preceded you had the good blessing of growing up with, and intimately knowing, their namesakes. A war and the vagaries of fortune have robbed you of that blessing.
Millions of lives were lost in World War II. Millions. It is a concept the tongue can speak, the pen can write, but such an enormity that the human mind cannot grasp it.
One man died, gave his life, made the ultimate sacrifice. One man resisted to the last ounce of strength, in brutal conditions we cannot even imagine. He did it for his country, his home and his family. He did it for me, for my children and their children. That's you. And your children. This we can understand.
Life is so dear, so precious. Yet stripped of all the accoutrements we seem to spend so much time and effort gathering around us, it consists simply of Now. A series of Nows. In the end the record that counts is what we did with our Now. My daddy made his count for all of us, and it is well worth remembering.
Growing up in these modern times as you have David, I wonder if I can give you a sense of what it was like fifty-plus years ago in 1941-1945. To anyone of any age who was involved, those years, that war, were a defining time. It set the boundaries of what we are, what we became. Yet somehow a part of our being remains forever in that time.
Even as a child, I was involved. I was part of a military family in a military town - a citizen of a country that was fighting for survival. I, we, were all part of the Home Front.
I remember trying to sort it out. I remember clearly standing in the kitchen asking, "Mama, what will happen if we lose the war?" She was quiet for a moment before she answered, "I guess we would all be slaves." What happened in other countries that were invaded and conquered proved her to be correct. Even a child could understand that.
We understood that every effort, every sacrifice counted. We collected scrap metal to help build tanks and guns and planes. We took a dime to school on Stamp Tuesday to buy a defense stamp. The stamps would fill a book that would buy a Defense Bond. The bond in turn, would "help to bring our boys home."
Tuesday was meatless because we had an army to feed. Shoes were rationed and bought sparingly with ration coupons because we had an army to shoe. We understood the need to forego luxuries and ration necessities "for the duration" because we were fighting for our lives and the continued existence of the country we loved.
Even children were familiar with names of places like Midway, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Normandy. We knew the battles that raged in the Pacific, Europe and North Africa. The battles were fought by fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. The proof was in the service stars that hung in so many windows. When the star changed from blue to gold, the father, husband, brother, son was never coming home.
Some died before they had a chance to live - like your cousin Bobby. He was not much older than you are right now when he was killed in 1944. A P-38 pilot, he died when his plane was shot down during a bombing raid over Germany.
We knew the heroes too. I remember the day the Life Magazine photographer came to our house to take a picture of Daddy's picture to go with his Honor Roll recognition. The article tells why he was awarded the Navy Cross - the highest award given by the Navy - second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor
It is difficult to speak of these things. Words can convey the facts of what he did. They cannot convey the fear and danger he must have faced and conquered. What he did was above and beyond the call of duty. I feel that I have no right to even speak of these things because I was safe at home. But then, that was part of what he was fighting for - to keep his family and all families safe. I write with awe - and the greatest of respect.
He was in the Philippines and the Philippines were completely cut off. There would be no rescue, no help. We had been dealt an awful blow at Pearl Harbor. The Germans spread over Europe like an evil steam roller while the Japanese poured over the Far East - an unstoppable wave consuming everything in its path. We were desperate for time. Time to build our Army, Navy and Air Force. To defend ourselves. To save ourselves.
Those who were left in the outposts of the Far East had one task. That was to buy time for us by fending off the Japanese - to hold back the flood as long as possible. At any cost. They were expendable by necessity and they knew it.
In spite of the fire and bombs, your grandfather succeeded in saving the Navy Yard funds for two purposes. First, to prevent those funds from falling into enemy hands. Second, to keep the Navy Yard open and functioning for as long as possible. He and Cliff Condon later made as dangerous a trip to Manila for the same purpose, just before all American forces withdrew to Bataan. These are the acts he was officially cited for.
The official language is cool and precise. It does not convey the living hell he must have experienced in a world turned upside down. Let me remind you, the honor of the Navy Cross is not awarded for doing one's duty, but rather for performing heroic acts above and beyond the call of duty.
After the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, my daddy escaped and thus avoided the infamous Bataan Death March. He was captured on the island of Cebu in 1942.
Everyday for the next three years, I think he was a hero for 24 hours a day. He kept going when there seemed to be no hope. He survived the death, disease, starvation and brutality that was always with them as prisoners of the Japanese. He had the will and the spirit to help those around him survive. He escaped once, but he was weak and sick. He was recaptured.
We received a few cards during those years, through the Red Cross. He said he loved and missed us. He said his health was good. That was so we wouldn't worry.
After MacArthur returned to the Philippines and we were taking back the islands inch by inch, the Japanese began shipping POW's to Japan to be used as slave labor. On December 13, 1944, my father was one of more than 1,619 prisoners loaded into the holds of the Oryoku Maru. She was not marked as a Prisoner-Of-War vessel. I believe he was in the after hold.
Being unmarked, the ship was bombed and strafed by American planes from the aircraft carrier Hornet on both December 14th and 15th. The Marine Colonel who was with Daddy when he died said Daddy was brave. He tried to survive and come back to us, but there was no air in the hold and no ventilation. He suffocated.
On the morning of December 15, 1944, the Oryoku Maru sank in Subic Bay, about 300 yards offshore from the Olongapo Naval Reservation where I was born. His body went down with the ship. Only about 450 of the men survived the journey to Moji in Japan. Of the almost 1,200 who perished, it was stated at the war crimes trial that "they died of suffocation, starvation, dehydration, disease, bombing, shooting and beheading". (1)
What happened in the holds in unspeakable. Therefore, I am sending you a copy of The Rising Sunby John Toland. If you look up Oryoku Maru in the index, you will read about the last days of your grandfather. Perhaps it will help you to understand my feeling that his survival for so long was heroic, and that his death came only when courage and strength of spirit were not enough.
But David, always remember this: Your grandfather's body was never recovered. No one knows where the remains of the Pacific War Candidate for the Unknown Soldiercame from. Your grandfather could be in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
At any rate, that represents to me the heartfelt attempt to honor the thousands who gave all their Nows to save their country. It is also an acknowledgement that it happened to one human being at a time. And, that each life lost was a separate tragedy.
My father, your great-grandfather, was born in Van Buren, Arkansas on the 4th of July in 1902. He died too soon; he died a long way from home. He was strong and brave and good and kind and funny. Oh - how I loved him! I miss everyday and will until my dying day. You would have liked him David, and he would have liked you. I think he would be proud of the kind of man you are becoming, and proud to share his name with you.
I hope you will be as proud of him.
(1) The Oryoku Maru Story, Charles M. Brown, Lt,Col,AUS Ret.
Copyright © Tucker Bruun
Reprint with permission