By Con Marshall
At age 96, Jack Carnahan has had lots of birthdays.
There’s a good reason why he remembers one of his birthdays more than the others. He turned 25 on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, helping end World War II.
Carnahan was aboard the USS Stormes, a Navy destroyer with radar capabilities that was anchored in the Pacific only a hundred miles or so south of the Japan.
“Sure I remember it,” said Jack, a Chadron resident who has spent his entire life in Sioux or Dawes counties except for the two years he was in the Navy.
“We were in a radar picket line; that’s that they called it,” he said. “There were probably at least a dozen other ships there, too. Our home base was Okinawa. We were on Japan’s door step. We’d been there for 77 days and they (the Japanese) bombed us every night. It was wicked.
|Sailor Jack Carnahan during World War II|
“Harry (President Harry Truman) dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, my birthday, but they didn’t surrender,” Jack continued. “So he dropped another one on Nagasaki on Aug. 9 and that did it. If he hadn’t done that, me and a lot more Americans wouldn’t have gotten to come home. The way it turned out, we were headed back home in just a few weeks.”
In reflecting on his Navy days, Jack knows he and most of his mates were extremely fortunate. The entire destroyer, a 376-foot-long vessel which contained 360 men, could have been blown apart. He recalls that on May 25, 1945, a Japanese airplane fired a 500-pound bomb “right into one of our torpedo tubes.”
“It hit the ammunition magazine, so a lot of our stuff exploded, too. But it blew down instead of blowing up, like you’d expect. It blew a hole in the bottom of the destroyer that you could have driven a semi through. It also caught fire. We lost 23 men, all of them who were in the ammunition area.
“It was terrible, but it could have been a whole lot worse. Our ship didn’t sink and we were able to patch it up.
These 71 years later, Carnahan believes the loss of lives and damage to the destroyer could have been prevented. He said the Japanese plane had been spotted in the clouds and the report was sent to the commanding officers. But instead of taking immediate action, they hesitated and didn’t try to knock the craft out of the skies before it delivered its payload.
While Jack’s Navy days are memorable, he also has many other memories and stories to tell. He’s a part of America’s “greatest generation” the one which grew up during the Great Depression, preserved America’s freedom by winning WW II and then helped make America the greatest nation in history.
Although Jack’s parents, John and Mabel, were living in Orella, located in Sioux County on the edge of what became Toadstool Park, in 1920 when he was born, his arrival occurred in nearby Ardmore, a village just across the state line into South Dakota. That’s because Ardmore had a doctor.
Jack was third third child in a family of seven.
He said his mother had an 80-acre homestead near Orella and his father had purchased two sections of adjoining pastureland. His dad was the section foreman for the Burlington Railroad that ran through Orella. The berg is still on some maps, but is now a ghost town with a few dilapidated buildings.
“They say it was about a tossup whether Harrison or Orella would be the Sioux County seat,” Jack said. “We had the school, the post office, a hotel, a grocery store and a dance hall, but I don’t think there was ever a church or a bar there.”
Jack said every day two passenger trains ran each way through Orella. His two older brothers, Ansel and Kenny, rode them to Crawford to attend high school. But after completing grade school, Jack and his brother Bob, along with their cousin Cecil Wasserburger, remained at the Orella school, which had a capable teacher, and took courses supplied by both Harrison High and the University of Nebraska to earn their diplomas.
Since their dad was a full-time railroader, the Carnahan boys were kept busy ranching. Jack recalls that in 1932 his dad bought a flock of sheep and the following summer when he was 13, he was designated as the primary herder in the shadow of Sugar Loaf, the area’s most prominent landmark, as the woolies grazed.
“There were so many coyotes that even if you took time away from the sheep just to eat dinner you might lose four or five lambs,” he said. “We finally got some 1080 poison from the government to help control the coyotes. But one year we lost more than 100 lambs and had to quit raising sheep.”
The family’s holdings expanded briefly during the mid-1930s when his dad bought 1,300 acres next to Toadstool Park for a dollar an acre.
“We really didn’t have the money to buy it and it was mostly badlands with not much grass, but the depot agent, a guy named J.B. Jolly, owned it and wanted to sell it. He convinced dad to take it off his hands,” Jack related. “The next year, the government started buying land in the area and dad sold it for $2.25 an acre. It seemed like we made a lot of money then, but we realized afterwards we should have hung onto it.”
Similar land in that region sold for $1,095 an acre in March 2016 to a Floridian who intends to hunt fossils on it.
“When I was a kid, you could find petrified turtles and turtle eggs every day of the week in the area that became Toadstool Park,” Jack recalled.
The Carnahans expanded their operation in 1942 when they bought 480 acres near Whitney. It included 120 irrigated acres where they raised hay to feed their cattle in the winters.
This time Jack was in charge of the irrigation. He says it was harder than herding sheep. “I had a shovel in my hand day and night. It was the hardest work in the world.”
But irrigating prepared him well for his next venture. When his brother Dick graduated from Crawford High School in 1944, Jack’s deferment expired and he was about to be drafted. That’s when he joined the Navy. Boot camp at the Farragut Naval Training Station in Idaho was a snap because he had been working so hard.
“I’d take two laps around the camp while holding my rifle over my head in the mornings before the other guys got there,” he said. “It felt good.”
When the war ended a few days after the atomic bombs had been dropped, Jack had been a sailor only 15 months and didn’t have enough points to be discharged immediately. So he remained on the destroyer as it went through the Panama Canal to Cuba and then along the Atlantic Seaboard to New York City, where he and his mates were based for several months.
The trip back to the U.S. was an extra long one. The Japanese bomb had left the USS Stormes with only one of its two propellers and its top speed from then on was just nine knots, or about 10 miles an hour. It would normally go 50 miles an hour.
After the destroyer was fully repaired in East Coast shipyards, Jack was aboard when it was taken on a test run to Greenland. He received his discharge early in the summer of 1946 and returned to the home place to farm and ranch. He eventually purchased the property.
|Jack Carnahan a few years ago holding the photograph of "Riding the Ridge" ago |
when it went through the badlands in the Orella, SD area where he was born and raised.
By the time he arrived home, his brothers were on their way to other careers.
Ansel, who also served in the military during WW II, became a veterinarian and initially practiced in Chadron before moving to Vermont, his wife’s home state; Kenny was a Chicago and North Western Railroad engineer in Chadron and later at Belle Fourche, S.D.; Bob became a surgeon who practiced in Casper; Dick bought a machine and laid lots of asphalt in the area while living in Harrison; and Jim, the youngest, became a railroader in Sheridan, Wyo., where he still lives.
The only girl, Dorothy, a medical technologist, lives in Hilton Head, N.C.
In 1948, Jack married Peggy Mittan of Chadron and they raised five children—Sandy, Bruce, Bev, Brian and Brenda—while living on the Whitney place. For the next 35-plus years, Jack and a few helpers, including the kids, trailed his 200-head cowherd by horseback the 23 miles to and from the Orella pastures each spring and fall,
Following a lingering illness, Peg died in 1979. Jack retired and moved to Chadron in 1985, then sold the land a few years later, but he’s had other investments ever since. He and former Chadron teacher Virginia Jones have been special friends for more than three decades.
Jack is hale and hardy and obviously enjoys living. His long and productive life is not a huge surprise. His mother, Mabel, lived to be over 100 and amazed many by annually participating in the CROP Walk from Crawford to Whitney when she was in her 90s.
(Editor's Note: Thanks once again to good friend Con Marshall for sharing yet another terrific story about the interesting people, places and history of northwest Nebraska. For those of us who've known some of the Carnahan family members over the years, this was a great read! Thank you, Con.)