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WWII veteran reflects on saving fellow crew members

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

BUFORD -- For most of his life, Clyne Veal wouldn't talk about the day the USS Emmons sank during World War II.

"Some things you don't want to remember," the 90-year-old said recently. "I guess time (has changed my mind). Time eases things up."

April 6, 1945, was a day the Gwinnett native thought for certain he was going to die facing Japanese kamikaze planes raining down on him and his fellow seamen on the main deck of the destroyer.

Veal won't watch war movies. He's lived them.

"I saw one of them diving at us and they was loading the machine the gunnery mates used to practice on. I went behind it," he said. "He overshot us and turned around and come back and he hit the stern and knocked both screws out so we were dead ducks sitting there in the water."

Five planes hit the ship, which had been sweeping the waters off Okinawa for mines just days after troops stormed the beach there, all over the course of just two minutes. The attacks created an inferno that Veal and other fire and rescue personnel couldn't fight. Instead, Veal tried to help those who were injured.

"A third of the crew was unaccounted for and another third was wounded," he said. "A third of us was all right. I was one of the lucky ones."

The ship's captain, Lt. Commander E. N. Foss, was also one of the lucky ones that day. When Veal came out from behind the loader, he saw Foss floating in the water alongside the ship. Grabbing him up by his life jacket, Veal hoisted his captain back on board.

"I thought the man was dead but he wasn't," Veal said. "He lived for several years after that. He was blind for a while."

In all, 60 men died in the attack, their bodies laid to rest at the bottom of the sea with the hulk of the ship. More than 70 crew members were injured.

But Veal, a humble and slight man who can still fit into his Navy-issued pea coat more than 60 years later, doesn't consider himself a hero.

"I wasn't," he said. "That was my job. That's what I was supposed to be doing."

It's a sentiment held by many veterans, who see their military service as a duty. For those who celebrate the more than 20 million veterans like Veal on this Veterans Day, these men and women are heroes who have risked their lives for their country and their neighbors.

Veal still holds onto the small ID-like card that is his certificate of satisfactory service, as well as a pair of Bausch & Lomb Mark XIII Mod. 6 binoculars he brought off the burning Emmons when he boarded a rescue ship. In all, he spent 32 months on the ill-fated destroyer.

"During that time I crossed the equator and I also crossed the Arctic Circle," he said. "If I've got my counts right I crossed the Atlantic seven times."

Just four years after he returned to the U.S. and was honorably discharged, Veal met his wife of 61 years, Lorene. The couple still resides in Buford, where a black-and-white photograph of the USS Emmons is displayed in their living room, not as a tribute to those who died April 6, 1945, although there is that, but so his nieces and nephews can see where he spent almost three years of his life, particularly the fateful day in April 1945 that he survived.

"That was one day I thought I was going to die," he said.