Museum exhibit brings back haunting memories for shipwrecked WWII sailor
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org August 2, 2012 6:08PM
U.S. Navy veteran Elmer Renner returns from an Honor Flight to Washington DC to the cheers from family and friends, Tuesday night, August 2, 2012 at Midway Airport in Chicago. | Photo courtesy~Ben Perez
Updated: September 4, 2012 6:05AM
It hadn’t been easy for the family to convince former Navy Lt. Elmer Renner to sign up for the tremendously popular Honor Flight Chicago, which, since 2008, has shuttled thousands of Chicago area veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Renner had suffered a stroke and had been battling melanoma, so the 92-year-old Auroran argued his doctors wouldn’t even clear him for the trip. But the docs gave him the OK.
And on Wednesday’s Honor Flight, Renner had a remarkable time, not only visiting the memorials but spending time with other local vets, including Fran Sibenaller, a former East Aurora schoolmate and co-worker, and Bob Schmidt, from Naperville.
But then Renner walked into the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum at the Udvar-Hazy Center outside of Washington — the last stop on the tour and one that sometimes gets skipped if time is running short. There, the first thing he saw hanging from the ceiling in the massive hangar-like building was a Corsair Vought F4U fighter plane — dark blue with a light gray underbelly —suspended in midair with its left wing dipped, poised as if to make a gentle turn in flight.
That’s exactly how it looked flying above the Pacific Ocean when Renner — clinging to a dilapidated raft and only hours away from death — last saw such a plane.
The flashback was instantaneous. And it was not pleasant.
It was Sept. 22, 1945. For six days, Renner and three of his crewmates had been adrift at sea after their minesweeper, the YMS 472, and 38 other ships sank in a historic typhoon near Okinawa that killed thousands in the waning days of the war.
Renner had already watched helplessly as four of his shipmates died on the raft, including a friend who lost his life in the jaws of a shark. Another shipmate was missing after jumping into the water to swim for help. Dehydrated, suffering from heat stroke and slipping into madness, the men became even more despondent as they tried time and again to flag approaching planes, only to watch them fly away or turn in the opposite directions.
Renner knew when the sun came up that September morning, they would not last another 24 hours in the water. Yet later, as they watched a group of Corsairs fly overhead, they had barely any energy for a final SOS attempt.
All four of the fighter-bombers had passed over them, when suddenly, the last pilot in the formation dipped his aircraft’s left inverted gull-wing and circled back in their direction, coming in low over the tiny raft.
Even advanced age and a stroke could not erase that 67-year-old image from Renner’s mind, no matter how deeply it was buried. “That’s the plane,” he said softly, as dark memories flooded his thoughts.
And his son-in-law Steve Burrows, who escorted Renner on the Honor Flight, knew immediately the old sailor was haunted.
Close to 2,500 people packed Midway Airport Wednesday night to greet the 90 World War II veterans when they returned from this latest Honor Flight Chicago tour. The welcome home was, as usual, a cacophony of patriotism this amazing volunteer group puts together at least 10 times a year. It includes brass bands, drum corps, bagpipes, honor guards, military escorts, lots of flags and rousing cheers.
And Renner’s smile was matched only by the joy and pride on the faces of loved ones who, two dozen strong, had turned out to surprise him. They know how close their own stories came to never be.
Renner spent five months in the hospital after his raft was spotted by the Corsair. As the only surviving officer, he had to give a full report on the sinking of the YMS 472 to the Navy; and write letters to the families of the 25 men who went down with the ship. Then he put the war behind him. Sort of.
He returned to his hometown of Aurora, where he became an engineer and vice president of Stephens-Adamson Mfg. Co. He and wife Dorothy raised a family of four daughters that grew to include five grandchildren and six great-grandkids. Renner also was president of the Aurora Country Club, served on the boards for the Chamber of Commerce and local Red Cross and was active with other charitable groups.
And like most members of this Greatest Generation, he talked little about his war experiences — until his grandson began asking questions; until long-buried memories became too much to ignore.
Renner spent 15 years writing “Sea of Sharks,” a book that, published in 2004, forced him to recall, research, then speak — to schools, civic and veterans groups — about his nightmare at sea. It was a potent catharsis that helped ease some of the emotional pain created by such horror.
Renner wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He’s thrilled he took the Honor Flight trip. It exceeded all his expectations, and he encourages every veteran who has not signed up for the tour to do so immediately. “It was absolutely wonderful,” he said of the day itself and the many volunteers who made it possible.
But it took a single museum exhibit to remind him of how instantly those long-ago memories can surface.
“It was hanging right there in front of us,” he said. “It took me by surprise ... It was powerful.”