It’s hard to interview Milton Rackham.
At 86, the Belding resident’s answers come slowly, deliberately, not because of his age, but rather the topic.
Rackham is sharing stories of the years he spent peering down the sights of a PT boat’s big guns during World War II.
Those stories, along with others of ground action he experienced, offer a unique glimpse into a hell those who have never known combat can scarcely imagine; moments when life and death collide, separated only by capricious fate, the trajectory of a bullet, a shard of shrapnel.
These are not easy stories to tell. It’s only now, more than 60 years later, that Rackham can bring himself to talk about them.
“For years after I got home I couldn’t even think about war,” Rackham says, his voice muted, someone relating a dark secret. “When I got home I was a flat-out basket case. I was never going to get married. I was just going to go to work and hibernate. I was going to do whatever I had to do to just forget. All I wanted was to forget.”
Putting the horrors of war behind him proved to be more difficult than Rackham imagined. He eventually did get married; a good woman, a woman willing to comfort him on the nights he woke screaming, hands locked viselike around the invisible grips of a .50 caliber turret, hammering round after round into the flight paths of approaching Kamikazes.
Even now, after relating much of his experience to Big Rapids author Myrl Thompson, there are things about which Rackham simply will not speak. There are things that happen during wartime, Rackham says, that are simply too grim to recall. He leaves it at that and no prodding will sway him.
Based on the stories included in Thompson’s new book, “PT Boat 81 – Still on Patrol 66 Years After WWII,” one can’t help but think that perhaps this is for the best. Maybe there really are stories best left untold. Maybe the tales Thompson convinced Rackham to should be enough for us.
“This stuff is too real for him,” Thompson explains.
Thompson is a big man with thick hands that reach impulsively for a pen whenever Rackham says something not already in his extensive collection of notes.
“For him, it’s like replaying a video or something,” Thompson said. “When (Rackham) spoke, I could almost visualize what he meant, what he lived through. Sometimes by paraphrasing, I could get even closer to the truth. We would read it back and sit there, a couple old coots, half in tears, dealing with things that are very serious.”
This book and other similar works Thompson has written are in part a means for him to work off the guilt he feels over not having served in the military himself. College and a career as an engineer — one who designed and built machine guns used during the war — exempted Thompson from the draft.
“I felt kind of guilty about that,” Thompson says. “I was a college student working in a plant that built machine guns. Meanwhile, guys like Milt are right there putting their lives on the line. I felt guilty about it for years. Milt told me to get off that kick and just tell the stories.”
For his part, Rackham considers the efforts of civilians like Thompson to be just as important as those of the men and women who served on the front lines.
“(Thompson) made machine guns,” Rackham explains. “If we hadn’t had them, believe me, we would have been in deep doo-doo.”
A mutual acquaintance introduced the two men after hearing of Thompson’s desire to consign the wartime experiences of veterans to paper.
“Some guy told me about this guy in Belding,” Thompson says. “We hit it off, just two old guys yakking back and forth like two guys in a bar, even though neither of us drinks. (Rackham) didn’t want to talk about it at first. He was still having PTS (post traumatic stress) dreams. But before too long we were really sharing things and I realized I should be documenting this stuff. That’s all it was going to be at first; memories documented on the tape recorder.
“After a while, though, it became clear this was a painful story and I started writing things down,” he said.
The book evolved from there, moving from Rackham’s experiences in the Pacific Theater through his discharge and adjustment to civilian life. Along the way, Thompson documents the problems Rackham had obtaining GI benefits following the war. In what he calls typical military fashion, minor paperwork snafus and an uncaring bureaucracy conspired to keep Rackham from the counseling and medical services he truly needed.
“Here I’ve got a Purple Heart, but all my paperwork was ruined in some flood,” Rackham says with a rueful smile. “I have a Purple Heart hanging on my wall but I don’t have the paperwork proving I was injured.”
As difficult as his post-war experiences have been, Rackham’s sympathy tends to lie more with vets of the Vietnam era. His voice chokes up when he speaks of it.
“We came home heroes,” Rackham says. “Vietnam vets came back and people would spit on them. Let me tell you, if we hadn’t been there, things would have been far worse than they were. People just don’t have a clue.”
The purpose of Thompson’s book, however, is not to garner sympathy for disaffected vets, but rather to tell an important story and help people understand in some small way what those men and women went through, what many of them are going through still.
“Talking with Rackham has been an experience and a half,” Thompson says. “To have this guy and all his memories in your midst … we just want readers to understand what happened. We’re just trying to create some awareness about what was going on.
“Our country really is worth this effort, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I started out as the poorest kid you can imagine; no indoor bathroom, a real social misfit. I wound up an executive engineer at General Motors. With this book I’m looking for a way to pay the community back.”
With the tales related in “PT Boat 81,” Thompson has at least made a down payment on the debt he feels he owes. There is a richness to these stories that can come only from a first-hand account such as Rackham’s.
As to the chapters he cannot bring himself to relate, Rackman again asserts there are some things best left unsaid.
“It’s like when I came home on leave that first time,” Rackman says. “I got a 15-day pass and went to a dance. Some of the other kids came up to me and started asking things like ‘How many Japs did you kill?’ I just turned around and walked right out of that building. I was done. Some things … well … the Lord and I have taken care of that.”