It was the briefest of encounters — but it remains one of the most memorable of Bob Crerar’s life.
As he stood on the bow of an American warship, watching a small plane fly low overhead, the aircraft’s pilot turned his head and locked eyes with the U.S. Navy corpsman.
It was over in a heartbeat, but Crerar remembers the wordless exchange like it was yesterday.
In fact, it happened more than 70 years ago — on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
Crerar was born in Rossland, B.C. on April 23, 1919, to American parents. When the Great Depression forced his father to close his insurance business in the B.C. Interior, the family moved to Spokane and opened another branch.
When that business, too, closed its doors, they returned to British Columbia, this time moving to Nelson.
But the family’s strong connection to the United States remained, and when Crerar was 20 years old he walked into a Navy recruiting centre in Opportunity, Wash. and signed up for military service.
“I joined because I had a great opportunity to join the Naval Corps medical school to get training — which I never regretted,” said the 94-year-old Langley man, seated in the living room of his daughter Susan Miller’s Walnut Grove home.
After finishing his training in California, Crerar was assigned to the USS Cummings (DD365), a Mahan-class destroyer.
At just 22 years old, he was to serve as the medical officer aboard a vessel carrying 215 souls — 15 officers and 200 enlisted men.
“You can imagine the responsibility I had … but because of my training, I was able to carry it through,” he said.
Though the U.S. was not yet actively engaged in the Second World War, the Cummings — along with the other three destroyers in its division — patrolled the South Pacific, making goodwill stops in Australia and New Zealand along the way.
On Dec. 1, 1941, they sailed into Pearl Harbor, where each ship was scheduled to undergo repairs or refitting.
The most junior of the four vessels, because it was captained by the most junior officer of the group, the Cummings would be the last of the destroyers to go into dry dock.
The senior ship in the division, the USS Cassin went into dry dock first, followed by the Downes.
Six days after their arrival in Hawaii, on the morning of Dec. 7, Crerar went to breakfast at around 7:30 a.m.
“I met a friend of mine down there who had just got a new camera. He was going to go ashore that day and he wanted me to go with him and take some pictures,” he said.
So the pair finished breakfast and headed up to get organized before going ashore.
But as the two men were preparing to leave the ship, something unexpected caught Crerar’s eye.
“All of a sudden there was a plane that flew over the top (of the ship’s bow). And I saw that plane and I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s awful low this morning.
“I looked out at Ford Island and all of a sudden there’s this huge explosion.
“We thought, actually, that a bunch of pilots had gone over and got drunk.
“I said, ‘Those guys are really going to catch hell tomorrow. Look at that.’”
“And then about that time, there was another plane come right over our fo’c’sle, and I looked up at it and I could see that big meatball on the side, and I knew that it was the Japanese, and it was the real McCoy.
“And I can remember now looking there, and looking at the pilot. And the pilot was looking right at me — honest to gosh.
“It was only a matter of a half a second. It wasn’t very long but it seemed like an eternity, and I thought, ‘That’s the enemy.’ He didn’t look like he was wild and all the rest of it.
“The fellow just stared at me and I stared at him … I think we were both just stunned.”
As the first wave of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor continued, the crew of the USS Cummings began to fight back. They managed to shoot down a single aircraft, said Crerar.
“We put up a big fire — we did the best we could.
“I was busy — we had a lot of casualties, but thank God we didn’t have any major casualties. Most of it was shrapnel.”
The two ships from Crerar’s division that had gone into dry dock ahead of the Cummings — the Cassin and the Downes — were sunk.
The third had her bow blown away.
“We were the only ship in our division that wasn’t hit, and for where we were — If I had a good slingshot, I could have hit the Arizona — that’s how close we were,” said Crerar.
Several hours after the attack, at around 2 p.m., the Cummings set sail with what remained of the Pacific fleet.
“We were one of the only ships to get underway in our area,” he said. “The whole fleet, to go out to look for the enemy, was practically nothing. There was nothing left.”
“And I can remember going out of port and looking back and seeing the columns of smoke, and I thought I would never see land again.”
Luckily, said Crerar, they didn’t encounter the enemy.
“If the Japanese had had a follow-up force, they could have taken us without any problem.”
After Pearl Harbor, Crerar took part in seven more naval campaigns during the Second World War, including Guadalcanal and the Battle of Coral Sea, while the Cummings served as an escort to U.S. aircraft carriers, including the Lexington and the Saratoga.
If a pilot ditched, the destroyer’s crew would pluck them from the water and the corpsman would render first aid.
“I can think of six, maybe seven, pilots that I worked on,” said Crerar.
“I gave them morphine and put them in a stretcher. I did everything I could at that particular point and then they were taken over to the carrier.”
In 1943, during an all-too-brief shore leave in California, Crerar married his fiancée, Lois Brown, whom he’d met at a high school dance in Nelson prior to joining the Navy.
While Crerar continued to serve during the war, Lois returned to Canada to wait.
Throughout the Second World War, the couple, who celebrated their 70th anniversary last month, exchanged letters. Writing every day, Crerar used a code they had to developed to tell Lois where he was. She would pass the information on to his parents.
After the war ended and as their family grew, Crerar’s military career took them back and forth across the country, from Seattle to Idaho, California and Virginia.
The couple had three daughters — Marilyn was born in 1945 in Oxnard, Calif.; Diane in 1947 in Seattle and Susan in 1949 in Long Beach.
In 1950, the family was living in National City, Calif., near San Diego. One night, at around 11:30 p.m. there was a knock at the door.
Two shore patrol officers had come to hand-deliver Crerar’s next set of orders. It wasn’t normal protocol, but then these weren’t normal orders.
Crerar was to report by 6 a.m. the next day, so he and Lois got busy packing and, just a few hours later, he was out the door.
“To this day, I can’t understand how I could have left Lois in a Navy project with the three little girls. She didn’t know how to drive, I was going someplace I had no idea,” said Crerar.
To his Canadian wife, it was still very much a foreign country. And to make matters somewhat more challenging, Marilyn had contracted polio.
When Crerar joined about 100 other corpsman aboard a plane at San Francisco, none of them had slightest idea where they were going.
And when the aircraft eventually landed — at Guam — there was another exactly like it on the other side of the field.
The men were divided alphabetically by last name, with the latter half transferring to the other plane.
“I stayed aboard. I didn’t realize how lucky I was,” said Crerar.
The other flight went directly to Korea and within two weeks every last one of those men was gone, he said.
Crerar, meanwhile, was bound for U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan.
“I wish you could have seen what we saw,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“At one time, it was a little dispensary for 25-28 beds. We got there, and in the mess hall, in the theatre, in the church — everywhere you could look — was nothing but wounded all over, wanting help.
“They were all sent over from Korea. We were awake for two maybe three days before we got any sleep.”
After three or four months in Japan, Crerar’s surgical team was transferred to Korea, where Crerar was assigned to the 5th Marines.
Despite his deep admiration for the U.S. Marine corps, “It was worst part of all my service,” he said.
At Chosin Reservoir — the site of a bloody battle where the Americans had overextended themselves and been surrounded — Crerar found himself on the front lines, doing his best to treat catastrophic injuries.
“One fellow from North Carolina was buried in the snow. I didn’t even know he was there, but I saw some thicket moving a little bit and I thought perhaps it was a bird.
“I went over and I was able to scrape away some of the snow and there was this fellow, sitting there. He saiwd, ‘Hi, doc.’
“I said What are you doing here?
“He said, ‘I’m just taking it easy for a little bit.’
“And I turned him over and all his guts and everything were there. It was just a matter of time.
“I picked up his rifle and I put it in the snow. That’s to signify to anybody coming along that … there’s a body there,” he said.
“I ran into so much of that.”
For Crerar this was his ‘lowest ebb’, and the thought of another day spent slogging through knee-deep mud in the freezing rain was more than he could stand.
He recalls standing in the tent that had been set up to serve as the head, using the bottom of a tin can as a shaving mirror and wondering how much more he could take, when a PFC poked his head in the tent and said, ‘Chief, the old man wants to see you.’
Crerar was being transferred once again. This time, he was headed back to Japan.
“I was sent to Tokyo where I had best job I ever had in the service. It was perfect,” he said.
Perfect, because he was finally able to bring his family over.
Ten years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Crerars were living in Japan and developing an abiding love for its people.
The family returned to the U.S. where Crerar finished out his military service. Their son, Brian, was born in Seattle in 1957.
After retiring from the Navy in the 1960s, the couple owned a medical supply business in Toronto for more than 30 years, before moving to Langley in 2002.
Crerar still takes great pride in the service he and his comrades provided, and he continues to speak about his experiences, including to students in the United States.
“If he goes into a restaurant in U.S. and he has his Pearl Harbor hat on, you’d be amazed how many people will come up to talk to him, shake his hand and thank him,” said Miller.
And when he visits the Pearl Harbor memorial — as he has done a couple of times since the war — people line up to speak to him, take photos and ask for autographs, she added.
In October 2011, he traveled to Washington, DC on the Honor Flight Program to attend a ceremony where, he reports, he was treated like royalty.
As the only Pearl Harbor veteran in attendance, he was given a place of honour at the front of the parade.
Today, he is likely the only living Canadian veteran of the attack on Pearl Harbor, said Miller. The family is not aware of another, at any rate.
“I’m very proud of my service record,” said Crerar.
“There’s no greater reward than to serve your country — especially when your services are needed.
“But I’m very, very sorry for the men I had to wait on.
“Even today, Lois will tell you, I often have nightmares.
“It still bothers me.”