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Striking Back: Naples resident displays flag from WWII parallels to terrorist attacks

A memory from the Ticonderoga hangs in front of Austin's home: the ship's American flag. Torn, sooty and battle-worn, the flag flies in the same condition as it did the day the Ticonderoga was taken on by two Japanese pilots who like the terrorists, ...

Monday, October 15, 2001

By BRIGID O'MALLEY, bmomalley@naplesnews.com

In 1945, John Austin watched from his battle station on the USS Ticonderoga as a kamikaze plane headed straight for the mighty aircraft carrier and exploded into the ship.

Naples resident John Austin displays a World War II American flag from the USS Ticonderoga outside his home in memory of those killed in the recent terrorist attacks on America. Austin was serving on the Ticonderoga when it was attacked by two Japanese kamikaze aircraft on Jan. 21, 1945. The tattered flag was later given to Austin. "I have an idea of what the people in New York are going through. We at least had weapons to fight back; they didn't," Austin said. Kinfe Moroti/Staff

A little more than a month ago, Austin watched on television as a terrorist-piloted airliner took aim and plowed into the World Trade Center and burst into flames.

Nearly 57 years later.

A world away.

And the terror is still real - and remembered.

"I had flashbacks," said Austin, 75, of North Naples. "I can imagine the fear of those people when that plane came. I could visualize everything that had happened to them."

A memory from the Ticonderoga, from that day, Jan. 21, 1945, hangs in front of his home ? the ship's American flag.

Torn, sooty and battle-worn, the flag flies in the same condition as it did the day the Ticonderoga was taken on by two Japanese pilots who like the terrorists, surrendered their own lives in an attack on the United States.

Never cleaned, hardly touched, the flag ? its 48 stars are its first signs of history ? in a patriotic way tells the story of the men of the Ticonderoga and their place in history during World War II.

"It had been in mothballs, but I thought for this, for what happened to our country, I wanted to fly it," Austin said.

For Austin, then an 18-year-old in the middle of history, it's a story he retells sometimes with a tinge of sadness, sometimes with a hint of anger, but always with pride.

It is the story of a Navy ship, the young men who served aboard her and how the events of that day would be relived more than five decades later on American soil.

"I wondered to myself, 'How many other guys are going to be reminded of the kamikazes? A lot, I think.' "

The Ticonderoga, known as "Indestructible" because of its valiant successes and its ability to survive the Japanese enemy, was sailing in the Philippine Sea, off Formosa. Ready for battle, the carrier had 40 planes on the flight deck and 60 more in the hangar.

It was the target coveted by the Japanese air attack.

Around noon on Jan. 21, 1945, Austin and some of his shipmates were at chow when the call to "man the battle stations" came. He and a friend ran up the ladder as the first of the suicide bombers came straight for the ship.

Austin, who was in the gunnery division and a coxswain, didn't see the plane that time, but he heard the explosion. He hit the deck and hung on, but his friend was thrown into the sea and was never seen again.

From the starboard, the kamikaze, full of explosives and its pilot ready to die, hit the hangar deck and exploded. All the while, it strafed machine gun fire at its target.

With every plane loaded with fuel and bombs, the Ticonderoga was in a bad position already. Sailors started pushing planes over the side to keep the fire from spreading to them. It would only get worse.

About a half hour later, as the crew took on the fire, a second kamikaze came from the port side. This one plowed into the conning tower.

Austin saw it coming, closing in, faster and faster. He was at his battle station and as the guns from the ship fired at the plane, it crashed into the tower.

"That second plane, it was so like the one everyone in America saw on television on Sept. 11," Austin said.

Sailors were thrown off the ship or thrown into the fire and explosions from the kamikaze's strike. Men rushed into the fire to help, into the devastation to look for survivors.

"When it hit, it was just a ball of flames," Austin said.

The ship started listing, the fire was 400 degrees or hotter and Capt. Dixie Kiefer was hurt but stayed in command as long as he could.

And the American flag, tattered and torn, blew in the breeze and the aftermath of the attack, on the bridge.

It was a symbol of survival.

In the end, 159 men died, but the Ticonderoga survived and limped away for repairs. It was back in service by May and, at the end of the war, its planes were in the air headed for Tokyo.

Kiefer, the Ticonderoga's skipper, later died in a plane crash in New York. His sister gave the flag from the bridge to one of the ship's first officers. At a reunion in 1985, he turned it over to Austin.

"He told me to do what I want with it," Austin recalled.

It had stayed boxed and stored at his son's home in New Jersey since then.

On Sept. 11, on a trip with his wife, Robin, in Nova Scotia, he saw the terrorist attacks ? planes flown into the giant World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon which weren't so different from when he watched another enemy ? at that time a known one ? head straight for him.

"I can imagine the fear," he said. "I saw that puff of flame and then the way that collapsed, it all came back."

A week later, he drove home to Naples, stopping along the way to pick up the flag.

"I thought to myself, 'I have got to fly that flag,' " he said.

Originally from Springfield, Mass., Austin, who has lived in Naples for about 12 years, is retired from his job as associate director of sales for the Wall Street Journal. He worked in New York during his career and knew people who worked in the towers.

"I think about the families there," he said. "I think about what I would have done had I been there, in the fire, helping people. I think back to the ship."

The flag ? now out of mothballs ? is a part of Austin's patriotic salute to the attacks, all of them.

"There are a lot of flags out there with stories," he said. "Mine is just one of them."

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