Abbi Overfelt Editor
November 11, 2013
LAURINBURG — C. Raymond Calhoun is no stranger to press.
He has been interviewed on national news stations and by newspapers — and has penned two books. He has been a part of several ceremonies and on Monday was honored at a Scotland County Veterans Day service.
During his 99 years, 35 of which were spent in the military, many during World War II, the Laurinburg resident has placed quite a few stories in his arsenal. After celebrating his 100th birthday on Oct. 9 at Scotia Village, Calhoun “considers himself an antique” and is still willing to tell his tales to whomever will listen — although he may direct questions to the written-word accounts he has already produced.
One of those, titled “Typhoon, the other Enemy: The Third Fleet and the Pacific Storm of December 1944,” details Calhoun’s experience on a destroyer that tilted an “uncomfortable” 70 degrees during one such “harrowing,” 12-hour storm in the Pacific, near the Philippines.
Calhoun said when he arrived on shore after the storm that killed 778 men and sunk three destroyers and more than 100 aircraft, there were officers waiting to ask him how far his ship, rumored to be top side heavy, had rolled.
“I knew if I told them I rolled 70 degrees they would say it was impossible. So I decided I wouldn’t tell them how far I rolled in terms of degrees,” he said.
“They asked me, ‘How far did you roll,’ and I said ‘I don’t know, but I can tell you I was hanging from a vertical stanchion [an upright post] with my hands around the stanchion, my feet were clear of the deck, and as I looked down past my toes I was looking right through the starboard bridge window, and had I let go, I would have fallen through right into the ocean,”’ he said.
Calhoun and his crew clocked winds at 140 knots — about 161 mph — on par with a Category 5 Hurricane and a little below the 195-mph-winds recorded in Friday’s super typhoon that has killed thousands in the Philippines.
One gust of wind stretched and pulled an already-stressed guide wire that secured the top of a smokestack to the deck to its breaking point. The stack crumpled as the wire whipped around the crew’s heads and smoke continued to pour out, mixing with the turmoil of the ocean below.
In the height of the storm, an officer came up to Calhoun in a panic, asking if they were going to abandon ship. Calhoun laughed at him.
“Where the hell are we going to go?” he said. “No we’re not going to abandon ship.”
Years later, Calhoun says “it was a harrowing experience but one I was glad to have lived through.”
Originally from Philadelphia, Calhoun’s father was a naval officer who had been killed in World War I on a ship accident, when Calhoun was just 5 years old. Though he grew up without a father, his death afforded him an appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. As soon as he graduated in 1938, he was sent to a battleship, the USS Tennessee.
He would later pen a novel, “Tin Can Sailor” about living in ships with sides as thin as a tin can.
Life in a destroyer was cramped and uncomfortable, and all belongings had to fit in a “sea bag,” which Calhoun learned first-hand after being wounded in the arm once when his ship was under attack. All of his clothes and possessions were stuffed into a four-foot tall bag for his trip first to a hospital ship and then back to land, where he would spend a year regaining use of his arm.
The one, and only time, Calhoun was wounded would happen as a stream of planes meant to divert ship’s fire from Japanese dive-bombers made their way over the ship, firing rounds of ammunition as they made their way across the sea.
“I ducked not quite soon enough … it hit me and knocked me down. It was like getting hit with a line drive in baseball,” Calhoun said.
But again, Calhoun was fortunate. The shrapnel had split his radial nerve in what he called “a million-dollar wound.”
“I knew it was going to get better eventually, and all I had to do was relax and enjoy it,” he said. “And I did.”
While he recovered, Calhoun got a job as a “one-armed lifeguard.” He was given a purple sweatsuit that much to his wife’s chagrin, not only did he wear out in public but paraded around in at Monterrey beach, where the two had a home.
He lost his wife after “40 wonderful years. The two met on a blind date through a mutual friend.
“I fell in love with her the minute I saw her,” he said.
Years later, Calhoun would similarly meet and fall in love with Betsy, with whom he would spend 25 years, until her death.
“We met for lunch and we were still there at 4:30,” he said. “So I guess you can say we were getting along pretty well.”
Betsy worked for 30 years as a nurse at Walter-Reed Hospital, where she served the likes of President Eisenhower, who came to ask for her by name — a fact of which the good nurse was especially proud.
Calhoun retired from the Navy in 1967, and a year later went to work as Vice Chancellor of the Minnesota State University System, where he served for 11 years, “just long enough to get into their retirement program.” He also served on the faculty of the National War College.
“I’d like to do it all over again,” he said.