Most fathers are something of an enigma to their sons. This is particularly true when it comes to fathers who have lived through combat in war. The son knows what service he was in, what his rank was and maybe a story or two about a buddy, but hardly ever do combat veterans talk about the details of war to their sons. This may be to shelter the son or simply not wanting to relive the details or have to say what they did to save their lives.
My father was of the “I served here” but nothing else category. I knew he was on the USS Arizona, and that he was transferred off the ship a few days before Pearl Harbor. I knew he served on the USS Hornet and was there when Jimmy Doolittle’s planes took off from the deck and bombed Japan early in the war.
And I knew that I was named after his childhood best friend, Burton Carter, who died on the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor. I also found out that Carter was a radioman.
I was drafted in 1966, and when I came home from boot camp, I told my father and mother than I was assigned to radioman school. My father turned pale and walked away. My mother told me later that Burton Carter was a radioman. That was all I knew.
That all changed in the fall of 1999 when I got a call from a person identifying herself as Chelsea Carter. She told me that she was a reporter from L.A. for United Press International, and had been looking for me for months. She also said “I am the niece of Burton Carter.”
Chelsea had been assigned to do the national Pearl Harbor story that would run in hundreds of newspapers around the country on December 7, the Day that Will Live in Infamy. She wanted to tell the story of my father and her uncle. She needed my help to find my father and interview him.
The whole enterprise was more complex. There was an entire Carter family mythology that had been developed over the years. And, there were some facts that I heard from Chelsea for the first time.
Burton Carter dropped out of high school to follow my father into the Navy and asked to be posted to the USS Arizona so they could be together again. They had been best friends since seventh grade.
Also, I learned that my father had visited with Burton’s mother after the war and had given her the pin tag off a bomb that had gone onto Doolittle’s plane before the attack on Tokyo. The bomb had “Burton’s Revenge” written on the side of it. When Burton’s mother died, Chelsea’s father, who was Burton’s younger brother, found the bomb pin and a purple heart in his mother’s things.
Then the mythology began. The story was that the two of them had forged a pass and left the Arizona the night before Pearl Harbor. Burton went back that evening and my father stayed on shore and survived. The truth was my father had been transferred to the Hornet a few days before and had gone to sea with the rest of the aircraft carrier group that the Japanese had hoped to catch in the surprise raid.
When Chelsea and my father finally met, he cried; something I had never seen him do. He told Chelsea that he had carried the guilt of convincing Burton to join him on the Arizona, and that if he had not done so Burton would have lived. He had carried the guilt his entire life and at almost 80 years old he finally said it out loud.
In the newspaper article my father said “Burton was smart. He was a fun person to be around; so is my son. He couldn’t have a better, more honorable name.”
I have always taken that thought with me. I now have a son named Burton.
The story was published in over a thousand newspapers around the world on December 7, 1999. That Christmas he cried once more and then slowly the guilt left him. Delbert Eugene Weast, late of the USS Arizona, died at peace.