by Henry Lane Hull
Three weeks ago, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the battleship U.S.S. Missouri, which shows the mighty fortress proceeding through the water painted in its wartime camouflage colors. The date of issue, June 11, was the 75th anniversary of the ship’s commissioning by Captain, later Admiral, William M. Callaghan Sr., who commanded it during the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The ship had an illustrious history during the final year of the Second World War, culminating with the Japanese surrender to General Douglas MacArthur on its deck on September 2, 1945. By that time, Admiral Callaghan had been transferred to other duties, but his role on the Missouri remains the most noted part of his near 40-year naval career.
In 1945, in their last desperate effort to win the war, the Japanese launched a barrage of kamikaze attacks on U.S. naval vessels. On April 11 one struck the Missouri, killing the suicide pilot, but failing to detonate the bomb it carried. The pilot’s mangled body lay on the ship’s deck, and Captain Callaghan ordered a burial at sea service to show respect for his fallen enemy.
Many of his crew, as well as the press, disapproved of his action, being opposed to any manner of respect for a sworn enemy. The tide of public opinion changed over the years, and today his action has achieved widespread acclaim, having been heralded by many public figures, including the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.
Daniel Callaghan, the Admiral’s older brother, also an admiral and U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was killed in the Japanese attack on the U.S.S. San Francisco on November 13, 1942. His actions led to his being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously. I have thought that perhaps the loss of his brother in combat might have led to the younger Callaghan’s compassionate response to the death of the kamikaze pilot.
Following his service on the Missouri, he went on to other naval assignments, including Commander of the Military Sea Transportation Service and Commander of the Western Sea Frontier. He retired from the Navy in 1957. Thereafter he became vice president of the American Export Lines and chairman of the Maritime Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1969 a new transport ship was named in his honor, the Admiral William M. Callaghan.
In his retirement the admiral lived in Chevy Chase, Md., and remained active in many charitable causes along with his son, Admiral William M. Callaghan Jr., and his daughter, the wife of former Maryland Congressman Gilbert Gude. In his later years the Callaghan family enjoyed visiting the Northern Neck. I came to know him towards the end of his life. On June 8, 1991, I was having dinner with his family, shortly after having returned from an inspection trip to see the damages caused by the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in the Soviet Union in 1986.
I was seated across the table from him, and after telling him of the devastation I had witnessed, he asked if I had compared it to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two Japanese cities bombed at the end of the Second World War. I answered him, but he did not reply, staring into my face. An ambulance was called and he was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital where he was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke in the brain stem. He lived for a month, never speaking again, thus his question to me comprised the last words he spoke. He died on July 8 at the age of 93.
His family kindly assigned me a role in his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery where he was buried with impressive full military honors. As I look at the stamp depicting the U.S.S. Missouri, now berthed in retirement at Pearl Harbor, having served through the Vietnam War, I think of the admiral and the remarkable life he led as well as the absorbing interest he exhibited in history and contemporary events down to his last sentence focusing on the Chernobyl disaster.
He often referred to the Missouri, the last battleship built by the U.S., as “my ship,” and today I think of its stamp as being his stamp.
Happy Independence Day!