A WWII vet and his beloved USS California

  • Updated: June 23, 2012 - 6:36 PM

As he nears 90, WWII stories flow, as do some tears.

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World War II naval veteran Lyle Scribner has a painting of his old battleship hanging in his Oakdale bedroom.

Photo: Photo by Curt Brown, Star Tribune

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Lyle Scribner's slate-blue eyes sparkle like moist marbles -- especially when he pauses to collect himself while telling the stories he's long kept bottled up. Those eyes match the watercolor in the painting in his townhouse bedroom -- the one showing his old battleship, the USS California, in whose engine rooms he toiled for three years during World War II.

His wife, Lorraine, has an electric piano near the bedroom window, through which deer can often be seen as she plays. Family pictures -- showing their four kids, nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren -- punctuate the walls and shelves of their home. The California, though, is the last thing Scribner sees at night and the first image that greets his mornings.

Seventy years ago, Scribner was working at car washes and garages on St. Paul's East Side, making money to pay for the damages to the Model A coupe he'd crashed. The military offered open enrollment, so he enlisted in the Navy as his cousin and brother had.

In the shipyards near Seattle, he worked repairing the California after it chugged up with only one of its four propellers -- "screws" he calls them. The ship lost nearly 100 crew members and sunk in the Pearl Harbor mud after the Japanese sneak attack.

Once the 625-foot flagship was rebuilt, Scribner worked as a fireman in the forward engine room as the California shot phosphorus smoke screens to cover invasions in the Philippines and skirted land mines in the South China Sea. He spent weeks at a time below deck during Pacific sea battles as the U.S. Navy won back island after island.

One evening, when conditions were "Zebra Easy" with no Japanese detected in the area, Scribner and his pal from Michigan, Harold (Kayo) Reese, went topside. They hadn't seen land for days, but when he tried to talk to a gunner, he was told to shut up. Just then, he noticed two Japanese kamikaze pilots swinging low, under the radar.

As the sailors scrambled below deck, one of the planes struck the ship. Scribner fell on top of Kayo, possibly saving his life. Other sailors' limbs were torn off and torsos exploded as 44 died and 160 were injured. As a bugle later played taps, the bodies were dropped into the ocean for burial at sea.

"Whenever I hear taps, it comes back to me," he says, his eyes moistening up again.

When the war ended, Scribner and Reese vowed to attend Minnesota-Michigan college football games together. But they lost touch, until a grandson's Internet brought them together for several visits. Kayo has since died and Scribner has long since retired from his engineer's job amid the boilers of Northern States Power.

He met Lorraine when she was 18. Her friends urged her to come down to the Ryan Hotel in downtown St. Paul to meet a fun serviceman back from battle. In their years together, they've visited every state and all the Canadian provinces. They'll celebrate their 63rd anniversary Monday.

CURT BROWN

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