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Orville Mousel - Veteran of World War II

By Priscilla Waggoner

2016-11-09 17:04:36

     Although the windows of his house look out over miles and miles of Kiowa County land, Orville Mousel still carries within him a deep love of the sea.   It takes little effort to imagine how the years on the water have shaped him to be the man he is.  At 95 years old, his clear gaze, steady gait and calm, quiet nature seem to embody the timelessness of the sea itself, as if his spirit is as impervious to the passing of years as are the waters of the great Pacific.

     Orville’s life on the sea began when he was 19 years old, and, in the years that followed, he spent various periods of time on the water.  Some of those years were spent diving to either repair or salvage and other years were spent sailing the boats he’s owned with his wife, Rita.  During those years, the world—at least, Orville’s part of the world—was at peace, and he could sail the great waters with the untethered freedom that peacetime provides.

     However, the early years were different. 

     Orville joined the Navy in August of 1940. War had broken out in Europe, but the public did not have a taste for war, and the United States remained largely uninvolved.  That all changed sixteen months later.
In December of 1941, Orville was a Seaman First Class on the U.S.S. California stationed in Pearl Harbor.  In a surprise attack that took place on Sunday, December 7th, Japanese fighter planes flew over “Pearl”, dropping bombs and severely damaging or destroying the battleships in the harbor, including the U.S.S. California.  The United States had no choice but to enter the war, and Orville’s life—like the life of countless other men in the military—changed forever.

     “After the 7th,” he says, in his quiet voice, “those who were on the battleships that were sunk were given the choice of signing up for new (ship) construction on the east coast.  We were there for, oh, several months. Some of us who were on the California had the chance to get on the same destroyer.  It was such a…good….crew.  We were on the USS McCalla DD488—that holds about 300 men.  After we got out of the naval yard, we had to do a shakedown—that’s where you go out to sea and the crew gets accustomed to the ship and…the ship gets accustomed to us. You know, when you come off a battleship on to a destroyer, you can get so seasick you just…don’t care.  We were sent out from New York to escort a submarine and I was laying there on the side with a bucket and…well…”  He can’t help but laugh.  “I was so sick, I was hoping we’d get sunk so I could get off.”  His voice grows quiet.  “I eventually wound up in the South Pacific.”

     Orville pauses for a moment.  One hand holds the cane that rests in his lap. The other gently scratches the head of Snoopy, the young, rescue Dalmatian who belonged to their late son.  Snoopy never strays far from Orville’s side. 

     “The first place we hit was Guadalcanal,” he begins.  “The Marines had taken the airstrip and were fighting to hold it.  Then…oh…with all the different things that happened, we just went up the Solomon Island chain with the Marines as they took the different islands.  Between Guadalcanal and Tulagi, they named that section ‘Iron Bottom Bay’ because there were so many ships that got sunk in there.  One night, we saw fifteen Japanese ships. Lost our sister ship and damaged a couple of others.  And then, another night, the Quincy, Vincennes, Astoria and a Canadian ship got sunk by the Japanese in there. So, there was a lot of action in there.  What was it like?  I’ll tell you…I was the first loader in the (gun) turret when we got in that battle with the Japanese.  Our gas ejection system went out.  And they warned us—in the number one turret, a first loader had passed out from the gas fumes. And I was feeling a little woozy at the time, and I stuck my head out the door of the turret to get some fresh air and…what I saw…well, I didn’t need air.  There was so much going both ways…you couldn’t hardly imagine it.”

     Orville watches as Rita lets Snoopy out in the yard.

     “You can’t see out in a turret, but the trainer and spotter, well, they have scopes. One guy by the name of Stone, he was always great at informing us of what was going on.  He’d get real excited and kept telling us what was happening.  How long would the battles last? Gosh, I don’t know.  Sometimes they seemed long.  Sometimes they seemed short.  That one, they figured had fifteen ships on both sides, and I don’t think it could have lasted more than half an hour. But when you’re busy loading, the time goes fast.  The Marines were on the islands, and to them it looked like everything both Navies had were shooting it out in one night, so they said they’d start digging in deeper into their foxholes.”
Snoopy comes back inside and starts to trot past Orville but, after just a few steps, stops and goes back to stand next to where he’s sitting.  It’s difficult to miss the way she looks at him, half asking for reassurance and half offering it.  Orville gently rests his hand on her head, something he must have done a thousand times before.

     “That battle…Guadalcanal…that was the battle where we lost our sister ship, the Duncan.  A destroyer. Yes, there were survivors, but we didn’t find them until morning.  The ships that were left (from the battle)…they left and we were to find out which ship was burning.  They thought it was another one.  So when we turned on the searchlight to see if there were any survivors—they’d all abandoned ship—they thought we were Japanese and dove under. We couldn’t spot any of our guys until morning.  And in the morning, we picked up the survivors of the Duncan…the ones that didn’t get eaten by shark.  There were a lot of sharks in there at the time.  We tried to kill them off with depth charges and everything…but there were still a lot of shark.  See, they’d trained us what to do if we ended up in the water.  They told us to take off our clothes so they wouldn’t weigh us down and then to take the pants or whatever we had to fill with air and use like a floatation.  In the water, you’ll use whatever you can to float.  Even empty powder cans.  Well, those shiny white legs in the water and those aluminum empty powder cans…those shiny objects just attracted the sharks.” 

     Orville suddenly gets to his feet and opens the door for Snoopy to go outside.

     “You know, that Stone (the pointer and trainer)…after the shark had eaten some of the Duncan crew and we had picked up all the survivors that were left…well, that evening, an aircraft got shot down.   And the pilot, well, he was just pooped out and couldn’t swim anymore.  Well, Stone jumped in the water—we’d tied a line around him and he jumped in the water and swum over to save that pilot.  There were a lot of shark in the water.  That’s why we tied the line around him, so we could help pull him back if the sharks got after him.  That man’s parents wrote Stone a letter.   But the sharks…  We had a guy by the name of Shaw.  He was a sharpshooter with the police force in New York before he joined the Navy.  Well, a shark was attacking an officer off the Duncan and he—the guy in the water—had a life jacket on and his legs hanging over a powder can. Well, the shark was swimming across him and would grab his life jacket and pull him under.  So Shaw got to the highest place he could on the ship and he was taking shots that were right next to the guy’s face, and we thought, ‘my God, he’s trying to put him out of his misery or something…’.  Well, we got the guy aboard but the last pass the shark made…well, it was just like a meat cutter.  It cut a big V across his legs. He died after we got him aboard ship.”

     Although there’s no sound at the door, Orville gets back up to let Snoopy back inside.  When he sits back down, he’s quiet for a moment before speaking.

     “I was out there for almost four years.  I was with a good crew.  In all that time, I don’t think we were ever fighting for the Navy.  We were fighting for each other.”
In the hours spent at Orville and Rita Mousel’s house, this is the only time that the gracious, elderly sailor’s eyes fill with tears, and they prevent him from speaking for just a moment.  But when the words come again, his voice—although thick with emotion—is still soft, humble and strong.  “I still think about those years.  Every single night.” And he nods and smiles, as if to say, that’s enough.

     Outside, it’s just past dusk. And it only takes a willing observer with a bit of imagination to see how the miles and miles of gently rolling plains could—in such a gray and waning light—resemble low, sweeping waves upon an ocean.
 
 

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