Tags: Battle of Guadalcanal, Navy Cross, USS Crescent City, VADM Ingolf N. Kiland
By The Bunny
I was 21 years old and given a college history class assignment on World War II. For a student in the 1980s, World War II seemed like ancient history. But, I also had a personal connection. My grandfather had served as an amphibious task force commander in World War II, and saw combat in the Battle of Guadalcanal. He earned the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest award, for his actions in the battle. And he was still alive and coherent at 92 years old. So, I decided to interview him.
I had a video camera, but I didn’t have a tripod. I did not have a film crew, but I did have a girlfriend, Liz Dyer, who was willing to help. She had a grandfather who served in the Navy, too, so she was eager about the project. I wore jeans, a college sweatshirt and electric blue mascara (it was the 80s!). Grandaddy wore his California resort wear – a short-sleeved, collared polyester shirt and polyester pants with the belt cinched tightly and pulled up high above his waist. Even though it was spring break in southern California, he wore a sweater. He was always cold, which surprised me – given how much time he spent on the ocean. But he was 92 and thin-skinned at this point and kept the heat on all year round.
Liz sneezed halfway through the interview, making the camera bounce up and down. She became tired holding the camera; you could hear her heavy breathing as she became more weary and her muscles started to cramp. A few neighbors stopped by and rang the doorbell; you can hear my mom whispering to them about the “big interview” in the background, asking them to come back later.
Despite the distractions and the amateur production job Liz and I were doing, it was a bonding moment for Grandaddy and me (and nostalgic for Liz, since her grandfather had already died). He knew I was going to be commissioned an officer in the Navy in about a year and that he and my father were my inspiration for doing so, but he didn’t know what kind of interest I had in his service…until then. I did my homework and studied the ship’s log, the charts and the award citation. But, I didn’t know how he thought – strategically and tactically…until then. I didn’t know what kind of a manager and leader he was…until then. And this is what I learned:
As the newly appointed commander of a unit of APAs, Grandaddy was in charge of a group of ships that were responsible for ferrying troops from Australia, New Zealand, and Noumea to the smaller islands in the Solomons. On the evening of February 17, 1943, they were given a heads-up that they had been targeted by the Japanese. In this interview, he made it very clear that the attack he and his crew sustained was expected. While this can allow for some planning, it can also raise anxiety levels to an unbearable level. I attended a reunion of some of Grandaddy’s crew from USS Crescent City (APA-21) in 2004 and they recounted his speech on the eve of the assault. They said he made it clear that they were about to be attacked and that not all of them would survive. He indicated that “this moment” – February 17, 1943, could be the seminal experience for them in this war. His stoicism was memorable and left an indelible impression on them. And his unflinching strength provided an example for the crew to follow, even if they quivered inside. I will never know if Grandaddy felt scared. He never, ever showed it. The unwavering example he set for his Sailors is a powerful lesson for leaders of all stripes. But, it has consequences, for he was an emotionally absent person with most of his immediate family. He was soft and affectionate with me, a granddaughter who took interest in his career. But that was an anomaly.
Grandaddy was not a leader who hammered his leadership style into his crew – he was a bit more subtle, and surprisingly so. Not to say he didn’t have a temper or a well-formed opinion – many people have attested to his outbursts and his soliloquies. But, he was somewhat indirect in his teachings and in his dictums. He recounted in this interview that, after the 90-minute attack by Japanese fighter pilots, there was some crew banter on the ships’ radio circuit about the surviving Japanese aviators who were floating in the ocean nearby awaiting rescue. Some of the crewmembers wanted to throw them some provisions. Grandaddy grabbed control of the radio and demanded that the airwaves be kept clear for more critical transmissions. His edict obviously silenced the more humanitarian Sailors. While I do not agree with his moral decision, I have some respect for his tack. He didn’t prohibit his crew from providing some humanitarian assistance, but he made his priorities clear without a direct order. It was creative, to say the least.
I hope I learned something from Grandaddy professionally. I adored him personally, as he showered affection on me and mentored me professionally – his only granddaughter who arrived very late in his life and who was enamored with his career. But I’m not sure I can adopt his stoic, rigid, hermetically-sealed professional style. It may have worked in World War II, but I’m not so certain it would work today. For that insight, I would have to ask today’s combat veterans. Certainly the principles still apply, but the style probably needs to be adapted. I’m sure he had similar sentiments when he attended my college graduation and commissioning as a (female) naval officer. Same principles, but very different look. Rest in peace, Grandaddy. You served hard and well. I love you.
Watch my 24-minute video interview with Grandaddy from 1988 here: http://www.navytv.org/media.cfm?c=366&m=3156
Bunny is a former naval officer, the third generation in her family to serve. Since HBO’s The Pacific is spending a significant amount of its air time covering the Battle of Guadalcanal, she dusted off an old video interview she hosted with her grandfather, a Navy Cross recipient from the battle. He died in 1992 on the eve of his 97th birthday and is buried at Arlington with his wife. Watch the entire video (24 minutes long) of her 1988 interview with her grandfather on Navy TV at: http://www.navytv.org/media.cfm?c=366&m=3156.
Click here to see the video interview of VADM Ingolf N. Kiland.