The explosion blew away Walter John Mallett's right shoulder. Doctors somehow saved his life, but the medical reconstruction left his right arm 4 inches shorter than his left.
His three sons and daughter knew he had fought in the war. They were curious, but they knew not to ask. If their father wanted to talk about it, he would.
"His wounds were obvious,'' recalled the youngest son, Bob Mallett. "But he didn't complain. He just went to work.''
Then one day 40 years ago, Bob walked into a New Port Richey oyster bar with his dad. Some men sat at a table. "Hey,'' one of them hollered, "there's Mallett.''
They had gathered to form an exclusive club that, in an odd twist, would keep alive memories they would just as soon forget. And when they welcomed Walter Mallett to their restaurant table, when they gripped his hand with respect, a 13-year-old boy began to realize that his dad might be more than just dad. He had done something remarkable.
Carrabelle is 20 miles east of Apalachicola, in Florida's Big Bend. Two hurricanes in the summer of 1899 left it with only nine homes. The town hadn't grown much 17 years later when commercial fisherman Walter Peter Mallett, tired of the harsh Massachusetts winters, sailed his vessel from Gloucester to Florida. He rounded the horn at Key West and headed north to Pensacola. From there it was an easy cruise to Carrabelle, where the Gulf of Mexico ran thick with mullet, snapper and grouper.
He met Susan, a widow with four children. They married and in 1923 welcomed Walter John. They would add four more sons and a daughter to the family and eke out a living off the sea until 1939 when Mallett suffered an illness and died at age 55.
His oldest son, just 16, had to take charge of the business. He packed fish on ice in the trunk of a 1938 Ford and hit the road to Jacksonville where he peddled on street corners. Grouper sold for 12 cents a pound — filleted. "Nobody had any money,'' he recalled. "These were hard times.''
One weekend in 1940 he took 1,000 pounds of mullet roe to Jacksonville. "I hit the jackpot,'' he said. "There were three big events that weekend: the Florida-Georgia football game, the Duval County Fair and the Barnum & Bailey Circus.'' He sold all the roe, put money in the bank.
But trouble was brewing.
Within weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, every able-bodied man in Carrabelle had signed up for service. Mallett had responsibilities to his family, "but I would have felt like a fool if I hadn't joined in the fight,'' he said. He enlisted in the Navy on July 7, 1942, and in a few months found himself floating in blimps off the New Jersey shore, escorting ship convoys and keeping watch for enemy submarines.
In May 1944, the Navy commissioned the USS Ticonderoga aircraft carrier. Mallett, a fisherman from a Florida village with a few hundred residents, was off to combat in the Pacific on a ship with 3,448 men.
On Jan. 21, 1945, Japanese fighters attacked the carrier off the coast of Formosa. One plane dove into the flight deck, setting off explosions and fires. Mallett, a coxswain assigned to damage control, rescued pilots and sailors until a second kamikaze plane crashed where he stood.
"I tried to push up and my arm folded under me,'' he said. "I thought, 'Hell, I've been through all this and just broke my arm.' ''
His wounds were far more serious. The Ticonderoga sustained heavy damage and 344 casualties, including 144 deaths. Doctors stabilized Mallett, but he would spend 16 months in hospitals, most of that time in a cast from his waist to his chin and out to the end of his right arm. He had been 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds when wounded. He weighed 160 when he finally left the Navy hospital in Jacksonville.
The Navy gave him a Purple Heart and the Silver Star for gallantry in combat — and $8.60 to get home. He hitchhiked 200 miles to Carrabelle, stuck his medals in a drawer and went back to the fish business.
"I didn't consider myself a hero or anything,'' he said. "I had to get busy making a living.''
And a family.
He met a young woman named Frances, whose family had pioneered a similar tiny coastal village a few hundred miles south of Carrabelle — Port Richey. They married in 1948 and decided to move to Port Richey where Frances' father, Victor Clark, had left them property. Walter sold fishing tackle and bait on the Pithlachascotee River until 1959 when western Pasco County began to attract northern retirees. Walter and his brother Lester opened Tropical Realty on Main Street in New Port Richey.
Meanwhile, the family grew — Walter Jr. (Butch) was followed by Susan, Victor and Bob. Their mother, Frances, became a respected local historian, passing along stories about the early days of the area that was changing so fast.
But one particularly fascinating story went untold. Had it not been for the men who organized reunions of the Ticonderoga crew, that might still be true.
"They would get together,'' Bob Mallett said. "More details would come out.''
Now 88, Walter Mallett is the lone survivor of the original local group of 10 who started the reunions. He suffered quietly for years with back pain related to his war injuries. He had prostate cancer and a quadruple bypass. But he and Frances seem to be happy living with their daughter on Miller Bayou.
Not long ago, Mallett happened to mention to his youngest son how much he would enjoy attending the Memorial Day ceremony at the National World War II Memorial. The Ticonderoga crew had already planned their annual reunion for the same weekend in Washington, D.C.
Bob Mallett, now 52 and a lawyer who handles real estate and eminent domain for the state expressway authority and airports, saw an opportunity to do something special for his father. He wrote James Fisher, executive director of Friends of the National World War II Memorial. He simply asked if his father could attend the concert and memorial service.
Fisher took it a step further. On Monday morning, Walter Mallett will sit alongside Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He will represent the Navy in the solemn Laying of the Wreaths ceremony. Fisher has also arranged for other Ticonderoga crew members to attend.
Bob Mallett will escort his dad. Forty years after they walked together into that oyster bar, he now is fully aware of why those men afforded so much respect.
"Dad thinks I'm doing him some great favor,'' Bob Mallett said, "but this is really more for me. I'm honored to have the opportunity to share something so meaningful. I'm honored to be his son.''
Bill Stevens is the Times' North Suncoast Editor. You can reach him at [email protected], or at (727) 869-6250.