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I’ve Been Sounding Taps Since My Ship Was Attacked in 1945

This account is from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series from The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war. In the spring of 1945, the U.S.S. Terror, a minelayer, was anchored at Kerama Retto, off the southwest coast of Okinawa Island, where it was receiving casualties from nearby ships. On the morning of May 1, George Sherwood, a 17-year-old signalman, stood watch on the bridge as it was attacked by a kamikaze aircraft; 48 servicemen were killed or went missing, and more than a hundred others were wounded.

We had experienced numerous kamikaze attacks, and we shot down a couple of them but, for the most part, they were going to do us some damage. I was on the bridge of the Terror, because I had the watch. I had the habit of walking back and forth, port to starboard, just to keep moving so I didn’t fall asleep. That previous afternoon, we had one air attack after another; we knocked down three or so planes, and then there was kind of a lull. I was up on the bridge, walking back and forth, and all of a sudden I saw this plane coming right at us.

I shouted something to the effect of, “There’s a plane coming in on the starboard side!” The next thing I knew they started firing. We had what were called quad 40s, four 40-millimeters guns lined up side by side, and our gun crew started firing back without any orders. Then the plane veered and came right straight at us. The best I could do was lay down flat on the deck. And then it hit.

It was a hell of an explosion, my ears were ringing. I got up and came to realize I’d been wounded in the right leg, down between the knee and the shin, and also in my right hands and wrists, where blood was coming out. All hell broke loose.

Because of all the damage that had been done to the Terror, The Rockingham, a Navy transport ship assisting with casualties, took some of us onboard and gave us bunks. I was 17 years old at the time, quite fresh, and there were four or five guys with me in that little area, all of whom wanted to go back to the Terror. So, being a signalman, I called up the ship and said, “Five men ready to return to duty, please send launch!” Not 10 minutes later, a launch comes over from the Terror, where they were still putting out fires down below.

They were happy as hell to see us. The Terror had lost quite a few men because of those damn kamikazes.

I wasn’t the official bugler, but you like to make yourself useful. So, next thing I know, the funeral service is going on and a fellow comes up to me with an old bugle and he says, “Hey, Sherwood, we need someone to sound Taps!” I told him I had not played since I was a Boy Scout, but I’d try.

The first time I heard it was when I was at a Memorial Day parade in Dover, N.H., as a boy. All the schoolchildren were given flags and asked to march in the parade. We organized at 5th Street, the whistle would blow, and we held up our flags and marched down to the cemetery. There was a rifle team from the National Guard waiting for us there, and they fired a volley and then someone sounded taps. I heard that and said, “Oh my god, that’s beautiful.” I said, “When I die I hope someone sounds Taps for me.” I was young and remember crying for all the soldiers buried there.

So it was kind of thrown on me. I was really worried that I was going to hit a bum note, but that guy upstairs watched over me. That evening, we had the funeral service. Someone rigged up a platform with a piece of plywood. The bodies were cased in canvas, and they’d lift up the back of that platform so the bodies slid down into the water. I sounded Taps just once, and Father Donahue said a prayer: “We commit their souls to the deep.” It was almost like an anticlimax, because we didn’t want to cause any more delay in getting them buried. We wanted this as a service for them, and then let’s get on with it.

Decades later, in 1989, my bugle skills were put to use again. There was no one in the city of Dover, N.H., to sound Taps at Pine Hill Cemetery on Armistice Day. So my friend Walt told me to bring my bugle with me. We went around to five different cemeteries. So I decided the following year I would do it again, even if I had to do it all by my lonesome. But my wife, Jane Ann, came along with me, and now I look forward to it every year. And God must be with me, because before I do it I wonder, “Am I going to foul this up?” But I hit every note, right on the button, and people come over and pat me on the back.

This account has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. George Sherwood told his story to Jake Nevins, The New York Times Magazine’s editorial fellow.

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