There aren’t many words to describe the sight of a kamikaze plane dropping down onto a ship, Stan Primmer said.
“It’s beyond frightening,” the Rockford farmer said of the morning of June 22, 1945, when he was an 18-year-old gunner aboard the LST 534 off the island of Okinawa.
On Wednesday, the Purple Heart he earned in that kamikaze attack caught up to Primmer, now 80.
Primmer left high school and joined the Navy in 1944, after his junior year. He trained in San Diego and eventually was assigned to the LST – which stands for Landing Ship, Tank – that was part of the amphibious landing forces involved in capturing islands in the South Pacific.
Eventually they were sent to Okinawa with Marines and tanks for the assault on that island.
That June morning, the LST 534 was in shallow water after unloading troops and weapons when a Japanese plane approached the bay filled with ships. The crew had been up all night because of kamikaze raids, Primmer said, but the morning had been quiet until the one plane was sighted.
Primmer was in his gun turret in the middle of the ship, firing as the plane approached. Of all the ships in the harbor, the plane homed in on the LST 534. It dropped a bomb that landed somewhere beneath him, then the plane slammed into the ship.
“It knocked me out,” he recalled. It also apparently knocked his shoes off his feet, he later learned. “When I woke up, I was in a field hospital on Okinawa.”
Three sailors died, and Primmer was one of 35 wounded. He spent about five days in the hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds in his neck and mouth. It was not an entirely safe stay, he said, because one Japanese plane managed to strafe the hospital tent. Then he was ordered to report back to LST 534, which was being raised from the shallow water where it settled after the kamikaze hit and being reconditioned for the expected invasion of Japan.
LST 534 was made seaworthy, but the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war before an invasion was ordered.
After the war ended, Primmer eventually was shipped back to the states to return to civilian life.
“They said I had (a Purple Heart) coming when I got discharged at Bremerton,” he said. “But I didn’t want to wait around because my father was sick. They said ‘We’ll send it to you.’ “
But the medal never arrived.
He spent his life farming near Rockford, got married 52 years ago and raised six children. He and his wife still live on the family farm.
Primmer tried a couple of times in the 1950s or 1960s to find out whatever happened to the medal, but he never could get a good answer and finally, “I just said, ‘The hell with it.’ “
But his family knew the medal was important, so recently his daughter, Jody Cornwall, of Fairfield, decided to surprise him by applying for the Purple Heart he earned but never got. To keep it a secret, the family told him one of his grandchildren needed to know about his war experiences for a school project. Eventually, though, Primmer himself had to sign some forms and his family had to ‘fess up to what was really going on.
They also enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and her staff to move the paperwork through the bureaucracy. “They were terrific,” Cornwall said.
On Wednesday, McMorris Rodgers presented Primmer with his Purple Heart nearly 62 years late, pinning the medal on the lapel of his gray suit during a meeting of her veterans advisory group in Spokane.
“It’s long overdue,” she said.
“It’s an honor,” Primmer said. Humbled by all the attention, he insisted he’s really just lucky.
“There’s thousands that’s passed on and didn’t get their medals,” Primmer said. “We have a great country, and we need to stand behind our president and our people.”
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