When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the 21-year-old Papazian was working odd jobs in Detroit, and he knew what had to be done – at least in general. He knew he had to enlist, but saw little difference in the various branches of service. So in February of 1942, he joined the Navy to do his part – whatever that might turn out to be.
“I didn’t even think about it,” he said. “It was the thing to do, what had to be done.”
Papazian spent his first years in the Navy operating his radio from a remote island in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In 1944, however, he became one of the inaugural crew of the destroyer USS Putnam, and duty got far more hazardous.
The Putnam arrived at Iwo Jima on D-Day, Feb. 19, 1945, supporting the invasion by pounding Japanese positions with her six 5-inch guns. At night, she crept dangerously close to shore to fire “star” shells that illuminated Japanese troop concentrations as the battle raged. All the while, Radioman Papazian sat at his post on the ship’s bridge, keeping the ship in touch.
However, asked about the sound, fury and spectacle of it all, Papazian struggles to recall. “I can’t remember,” he said with a shrug and a slight shake of his head. It’s an answer he returns to frequently during the interview, though his misty eyes seem to suggest that the memories are still there.
Life in the Navy “was hard at first, but I got used to it,” he said. He’d left behind his sweetheart, Pat, whom he’d met at the age of 10 and would return from war to marry. Pat helped build bombers while Jack was away, getting love letters up to twice a week from her sailor.
“He was really good about writing,” said Pat, adding that his letters didn’t allude to what he’d been up to.
“I couldn’t talk about work” because it was classified, Jack said. “I just told her how much I loved her.”
In fact, most of Jack’s memories are of Pat. Hers was the only picture he hung on the walls around his tiny, three-deep bunk. When things got frightening, it was Pat who helped him stay calm from thousands of miles away.
“I thought about her,” he said, nodding toward her as she smiled in return. “That’s it. I thought about her.”
He thought about her when, off the coast of Okinawa, kamikaze planes attacked the Putnam. In one attack, as four of the suicidal Japanese pilots tried to ram her, the ship’s three dozen anti-aircraft guns shot down three of them. The fourth, according to reports at the time, was destroyed when an American pilot knocked it out of the sky by crashing into it with his own plane. Papazian confirmed that it happened, but under gentle probing his eyes again got misty, he shrugged, and said, “I don’t remember.”
The Putnam also received commendations for rescuing 118 sailors from an ammunition ship that had been torpedoed, venturing close enough to pluck survivors from the water despite exploding ammunition from the other ship. Reminded of the incident, Papazian got misty, nodded silently, and shrugged.
His face lit up, however, when asked about coming home at war’s end. He remembers riding to Pat’s house on a streetcar in Oakland, his seabag over his shoulder. He remembers hugging her for a long time, and Pat smiles as she remembers, too. The couple has five children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
World War II veterans, it’s said, are passing away at the rate of 1,000 per day. Unfortunately, they take with them many of the memories of a pivotal time in American history. For many of those who remain, those memories grow foggier by the day.
Jack Papazian seems to be OK with that, though. The thing to remember, he said, is not what he went through, but “what the country went through.” His own memories of the war might be fading fast, but what carried him through it is still fresh in his mind, and sitting across from him, smiling.