Although more than 70 years have passed, Robert Emmett Stanley still occasionally feels discomfort in his shins, where shrapnel cut into his flesh during a Japanese kamikaze attack in one of the final battles of World War II.
He was wounded a second time that same day, when the destroyer USS Luce exploded as it slipped below the surface of the Pacific off the island of Okinawa. The blast sent a concussive wave through the water, leaving him with severe internal injuries.
Of the 312 sailors in his crew, 126 were killed on the morning of May 4, 1945, the day after Stanley’s 22nd birthday.
Now 92, the Navy veteran who was raised in the Irish Channel is finally is getting his due. On Saturday evening, Stanley will receive his Purple Heart medal for the injuries he received during the Battle of Okinawa.
“Seventy years seems like a long goddamn time,” the still-salty Stanley said in a recent interview in his Terrytown home. “As a matter of fact, it’s a lifetime.”
Stanley enlisted in the Navy Reserve in 1943 after graduating from Samuel J. Peters High School on South Broad Street. He was at Pearl Harbor in October 1944 when he was assigned to the USS Luce, on which he saw action in the northern Pacific.
After U.S. troops invaded Okinawa on April 1, 1945, the Luce was assigned to “radar picket” duty, Stanley said. Ships surrounded the island, using radar to detect Japanese aerial attacks.
On the morning of May 4, Stanley, a ship clerk, reported to his battle station, a gun emplacement on the destroyer’s starboard side. His job was to pass 40 mm cannon shells to the gun loaders.
He watched in horror as a Japanese kamikaze pilot attacked the Luce, deliberately flying his plane into the ship. The blast knocked Stanley to the deck, he said. Shrapnel pierced his steel helmet and entered his scalp; other pieces punched into his legs, he said.
Two or three more kamikazes struck; he doesn’t remember the exact number. His commanding officer gave the order to abandon ship. Stanley swam about 40 yards to avoid being sucked under the waves with the sinking ship.
“It wasn’t very long before we had this tremendous explosion,” he said. “And believe me, I had the most excruciating pain in my stomach I ever had in my life. I never experienced anything like this. The water tore in through my rectum.”
Sharks killed some sailors while Japanese fighter pilots shot at them, he said. It was dark by the time he was rescued. He ended up on the USS Karnes, on which he was treated and taken to California. He never returned to sea.
Stanley doesn’t know which of his injuries garnered him the Purple Heart. Nor does he know why it took so long for him to get one. For some reason, the medical report detailing his injuries was not included in his military service record, he said.
His passive attempts to get the award went nowhere, he said. His first wife, who has died, would tell him it would “come out in the wash,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, yeah, I got to do something about that wash.’ I said, ‘I can’t sit on my fanny and let this go, go, go.’ A couple of times I tried it. I probably didn’t have the right people.”
He enlisted the help of the Disabled American Veterans, he said. In June, he wrote to the Department of the Navy, again inquiring about the medal. The Navy responded in July, telling him he’d hear something by Sept. 8.
“The 10th goes by. The 11th goes by, and all that, and I said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ ” he said.
Within days, though, someone from the Navy called. “He told me, ‘Mr. Stanley?’ ‘Yes.’ He responded, ‘I’m so-and-so. I’m in Washington, D.C., and I’m here to inform you that you have been awarded the Purple Heart.’ ”
The Navy had planned to present it at the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse. But those plans quickly evolved. Instead, Stanley will get his medal Saturday during the Navy’s birthday ball at the National World War II Museum, where he has volunteered since the museum opened 15 years ago, he said.
Vice Adm. Robin Braun, chief of the Navy Reserve at the Pentagon, is presenting the medal.
Stanley said he feels humbled. He was a mere seaman third class when the USS Luce went down. Now, a three-star admiral is giving him the Purple Heart.
“Three stars?” the ever-modest Stanley said in wonderment. “Holy mackerel.”