In the summer of 1992, while driving a dirt road in Pratt County, Kansas, my 70-year-old dad saw his own tractor, driverless, rolling across a field pulling a land leveler. He felt a chill; he knew his brother Harold had been driving the tractor and leveler rig up to his place near Pratt.

Dad soon saw Harold lying on the ground beside the road. Frantic, he stopped his pickup and ran to his brother. Harold was fully conscious, but Dad could clearly see that was going to be a real bad day.

Harold’s death was an earthquake in the Chinn family. Youngest son, playful and funny, and the spark of life in every family gathering, his death left a wide wound across our landscape. But it blew a deep and ragged hole right through Dad’s heart. He never recovered.

From that day it seemed that Dad’s strong mind began to melt. The distinct shapes of his personality began to droop and dissolve. His confidence tottered. He still went to his beloved shop, but he stopped repairing and making things. He just stood amidst his tools and cried; he didn’t know why.

Dad served on the aircraft carrier, USS Princeton, in World War 2. He was on board for every day of her 19-month existence. Her sinking on October 24, 1944, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was the central moment of his life. From that day Dad seemed to live in the shadow of the Princeton.

Dad and Mom made their last visit to our home in Northern Virginia in the spring of 1995. In preparing for their visit I wanted to find something that would engage Dad again, some spark that would animate his wonderful and vivid personality.

In 1995 the very colorful Admiral Arleigh Burke was one of the last living commanding officers from the Pacific theater of the war. And he had participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Two weeks before my parents’ visit, I learned that the 93-year-old Admiral lived in nearby Fairfax, Virginia. So I found a phone number for his home.

When Roberta “Bobbie” Burke answered the phone, I introduced myself and told her about Dad. I told her that Dad would be there in a couple weeks and asked if “the Admiral would be open to a visit from another sailor.” Bobbie immediately exclaimed, “Oh, yes, he would so love that! Please come.” She gave me their address and we agreed on a date and time.

When my parents arrived, I handed a new biography of Admiral Burke to Dad. He thanked me, scanned through it and told stories he recalled of “31-knot” Burke. Then I told him that we had an appointment with Admiral Burke the next day. Dad’s smile revealed his anxiety; he had never met an Admiral. Even after 50 years of civilian life he still thought like an enlisted man.

Dad asked too many questions about protocol and social courtesies as we drove from our house in Reston over to The Virginian apartments in Fairfax. He grew silent as we entered the building. Finally we stood at the door. I knocked. Very quickly, an elderly man, standing with a walker, opened the door and smiled. “Jack,” he barked and grabbed Dad’s hand. Dad relaxed; he heard an invitation to a safe place.

We spent two hours in the Burke living room. Bobbie gracefully vanished from the distinctly male gathering, as I’m sure she had often done in 72 years of marriage to a Navy man.

I watched in astonishment. A former Chief of Naval Operations, a major player in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, an Admiral who had a class of destroyers named after him sat with an enlisted man, a Kansas railroader, a Sunday School teacher. But their eyes glistened at the same heartsounds of battle, loss, and heritage. And they burst into synchronous laughter at the same details and nuances of Navy culture.

I’ll never forget Dad’s face as Burke told him of watching Dad’s beloved Princeton, through his binoculars, explode and sink.

The 20th century had taken these two men to vastly different places, but as children of God they shared an enormous familial heritage. I saw them touch their shared bond as brothers. Class distinctions blew away like dust; they were sailors.

As we prepared to leave, Bobbie bid us farewell with a deep glowing sadness. Admiral Burke, with his walker, escorted us to the elevator; he clearly wanted to extend the moment as long as possible. He and Dad shook hands, “Come back anytime Jack.” They both knew they would never meet again.

Admiral Burke died 7 months later. Two thousand people attended his funeral; President Clinton delivered the eulogy. Burke’s tombstone at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis carries a one-word epitaph, “Sailor.”

Dad lived another 10 years. The slide that began with Harold’s death continued. But that incredible day was a clear announcement that human value has nothing to do with the illusions of rank, class, wealth, or productivity. Our value, our royalty, flows from the Fatherhood of God.

Far more than we realize, we are all His children. We have infinitely more in common than we have in conflict. May we all discover our shared family bond…even with those who may seem so different or so far away. They really aren’t.

32 thoughts on “Sailors”

  1. What a moving experience! The transcending joy shared by those two men on that day was, in part, the result of a faithful son’s care. I am delighted that you are able to be there, to share the overflow of their joy, and to record it for us.

    I lost a dear cousin, Allan Cook, who died when his bomber went down over Germany in 1944. I still remember the sorrow of my seven-year-old heart. These men truly were the Great Generation!

  2. I settled into this tale as though I was listening
    at the feet of Uncle Jack as he wove his adventures
    into a tapestry of history and excitement. A wonderful story of the bonds of family, friendship, circumstance and the love of God. Once again, thank you and bless you Ed.

    1. Thank you, Sandy. We’ve all sat at the feet of those great men and women of our family. We are forever different because of their stories.

  3. Ed, thanks for that great story. By arranging that visit, you bestowed a great blessing on your dad. I wish my father-in-law, who served in France and Germany, could have had such an experience with one of the generals who served there. He rarely told stories of his war service.

    As for Admiral Burke, he is respected enough to have a building named for him at the Vinson Hall, in McLean, Virginia. Vinson Hall is a retirement community primarily for commissioned military officers and their spouses.

    1. It’s interesting that you mention that facility. It was driving past that very building that made me wonder if Admiral Burke was still alive! From that I did some basic research and discovered that a new Burke biography had just come out. I bought and read it, then decided to track him down. Now you know “the rest of the story.” Thank you for reminding me.

  4. Thank you, Ed. That is a wonderful memory of your father, and beautifully worded. You facilitated a meeting that deeply impacted two men, and now sharing it here has impacted many more.


  5. Ed, I just dug out a portrait-photo of your Dad ‘Sailor’ Jack made during those Princeton war years. Your story stirred a renewed kinship with Jack and a new kinship with the Admiral whom I never met. As the first convert to Christ in my Dad’s pastorate in Sun City, KS, Jack Chin’s portrait-photo was prominently displayed in our home in Sun City and later in our homes in Wichita and, after WWIII ended, in Cherryvale, Larned and Independence, KS. During the war years, it was love for a new convert and prayer for his safety that kept Jack’s photo displayed. After the war, my mother displayed it as a testimony of God’s grace upon a war-survivor and as a testimony of the power of the image of Jack’s mother in his mind that kept him swimming in dark waters during that tragic night until a life-boat rescued him at dawn. Your story of Jack and Admiral Burke does encourage us to appreciate more our common humanity and search for “… our shared family bond…even with those who may seem so different or so far away.” But your story also enlarges the context for my understanding why we need icons to show us that there is a common humanity even with those with whom we are in conflict.

    1. This is a beautiful reflection, Paul. I am forever related to, and grateful for you, your parents, and all Oxleys. Our spiritual heritage is significant and deeply cherished. Thank you.

  6. Thank you Ed, not just for writing the story and giving it to us all as a gift, but also for being thoughtful in the endeavor of making a huge difference for your dad.

  7. Ed: Thanks for sharing your God-given gift of writing. This story reminds me of my thankfulness of having married “into” the Chinn Family through Brad. I got much more than a husband that day 34 years ago — I got an entire family legacy that brings tears of joy to my eyes and gratefulness to my heart. We’ll all be together again someday as we cross over, one by one.

  8. Ed. Thank you for this wonderful story. I am so grateful to have had such wonderful brothers as Jack and Harold. Wiley

    1. Thank you, Wiley. Dad and his brothers – you, Lewis, and Harold – gave a great gift to me and our family. Four strong men who really loved each other and opened their circle on occasions to include me and other nephews and nieces. I will never forget the sound of the Chinn men laughing.

  9. My goodness Ed this is so good. I never tired of dad’s stories of the ship. You have such a gift of writing and this is such a good description of those we have had in our lives and loved so much. I’ll never forget that day in June of 1992 and have always we said we lost an uncle and dad the same day. So many lives, including mine, were blessed to have known them. Thank you again for such a touching story!

    1. Thank you, Vernon. We all have a duty (and a very joyful one) to remember. You do that so well. I have learned so much from you and Carl. Giants went before us. I know that every day we try to live up to their example.

  10. Ed, Thank You So Much For Sharing This Story Of Two Great Men. You May Recall That I Was A Sailor Also. It Means A Lot to Me to Read Your Story. GOD Bless You My Friend. Vaun.

  11. Thank you. Inspiring. In my recent visits with dad I’ve been able to record stories I’ve never heard about his time in the Pacific. It’s incomprehensible how that generation walked through the field of death many times and came back and lived as expected – normal and breadwinners.

    1. Ed, thank you for inviting me into this very meaningful, personal experience. I feel enlarged by the moment and inspired at so many different levels. God bless you my friend!

  12. Ed,
    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful family story. There is something about serving in the military that ties you with other military service men and their family members. Sue because of her father’s military career, and my military service have kept us connected and comimitted to local military families and distant military friends.
    Bob Long

  13. Thanks for sharing Ed. I enjoyed this story so much. It inspired me that you arranged this for you Dad. It was such a blessing to know how it touched his life and you could hear the memories of these brave men. Your sharing has touched many people that have been in the same place as your dad . I always enjoy your stories. If you get tired of that cold weather back there, head for the land of sunny California. I would love to have you and Joanne come visit me! Happy Thanksgiving.

  14. If I had not personally witnessed your courage to boldly invade, with the audacity of a steel trap, into those social barriers that separate men into the “rank, class, and social” groups you mentioned in your account, I might have been surprised by this account. Men of courage inspire admiration and emulation. Thanks for sharing this experience with all of us.

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