After writing about shipwreck, vet “became more vulnerable”
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org November 28, 2012 2:46PM
Lt. Elmer Renner, US Navy
Updated: December 30, 2012 3:41PM
Every time I read the obituary of a World War II veteran — whether I knew him or not — I can’t help but feel a sense of melancholy as our country loses yet one more member of this Greatest Generation.
Read the obit on Elmer Renner in today’s paper, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. But the passing of this 92-year-old Aurora veteran was especially sad for me because, after writing stories about him over the past 17 years, I couldn’t help but develop a personal relationship with this remarkable man.
If you knew Elmer, you would understand why.
I first interviewed him in 1995, when he decided it was time to write a book about his incredible adventure as a Navy lieutenant 50 years earlier. After an Okinawa typhoon in September of 1945 sank his ship, he and eight crewmen were stranded on a dilapidated raft in the Pacific, where for almost six days they fought sharks, dehydration, heat stroke and, eventually a descent into madness, in order to survive.
Four of them, including a friend he saw die in the jaws of a shark, did not make it. And in 2004, Renner’s “Sea of Sharks” was published by the Naval Press Institute that brought this horrific tale to life.
My most recent column about him was written this past August when Elmer, who had suffered a stroke and was battling melanoma, was able to go on an Honor Flight trip to Washington D.C. to see the WWII Memorial. An already compelling journey was made even more so when he toured the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. There, he struggled with an unexpected and dark wave of emotions after suddenly coming upon the same fighter plane that had spotted his raft 67 years ago on what likely would have been their final day of life.
Elmer truly had a remarkable tale to tell; and after his book was published, he did so many times, with audiences that included school children and civic groups in the Aurora and Naperville areas.
Elmer, an engineer by profession and a stickler for details, became like a “man on a mission” as he wrote this book, said his daughter Sue Gouldsberry. And part of that mission was contacting surviving family members of those on that ship and raft to let them know what happened. “Sea of Sharks,” she added, was a life-changer for her no-nonsense, business-oriented father.
“After that, he became more vulnerable, more emotional,” Gouldsberry said. “We had never seen that side of him before, but I think it allowed him to release so much of what had been suppressed.”
Still, the story of Elmer Renner, as his obituary points out, is more than a tale of survival. It’s an example of how these WWII veterans came back and built rich and full lives that celebrated every day the way God intended: as a gift. As obsessed as he became with writing his story in the last chapter of his own life, in those final weeks, all he wanted to talk about was his family and — always the organized one — getting that Christmas shopping done.
“He was,” his daughter said, “my hero and my rock.”
I’ve heard similar accolades many times over the years as we read and write about these veterans. It’s why I feel that sense of loss when, one after the other, we lose them.
Too soon, all we will have left are their stories. Thank you, Lt. Renner, for sharing yours with us all.