In service: ‘I have missed death a few times’

Donna Stephens
Troy Braswell Jr. with his dad, a veteran of World War II. (Mike Kemp photo)

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

While still just a teenager, Troy Braswell Sr. survived a kamikaze attack on the USS Mississippi during World War II, only to leave the ship months later spitting blood, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and overhearing a doctor tell someone he only had six months to live.

But live he did.

“I did a lot of praying,” Braswell said. “I’m a Christian man, and I said, ‘Well, God will take care of me somehow,’ and He did — all through my whole life. I have missed death a few times.”

Braswell, who turned 93 on Jan. 31 and lives in Hot Springs Village, is a shining example of that Greatest Generation, particularly in the eyes of his son, Judge Troy Braswell Jr. of Conway.

“We stand on their shoulders,” Braswell Jr. said. “We’re losing that generation. I don’t want to lose what they fought for.”

The son marveled at all his father has lived through since his birth in 1926 — the evolution of technology, advances in medicine, wars and the Civil Rights Movement, just to name a few.

“I’ve never seen my mom or my dad be anything other than kind and helpful to people who are different from them for any reason — race, religion, sex,” Braswell Jr. said. “That’s a huge example. In his eyes, in God’s eyes, we’re all the same. People have been battling each other based on where they’re from for centuries. We have the responsibility to make sure all their rights are protected, that we serve all people and take care of each other. He’s always provided that example.

“Words don’t do justice to how proud I am. Just the example they set for the rest of us to continue to honor what all those men and women did. Times change and perspectives change, but we owe a ton to that generation.”

Braswell grew up in Shreveport. His father was a mechanic who worked at Barksdale Air Force Base. After four years of studying drafting, he graduated from high school at 16 in December 1943.

Two years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the country was all in for the war effort. But upon graduation, Braswell took a drafting job with the Atlantic Refining Company. “They told me the oil business was a good business to be in because you won’t have to go to the service,” he remembered. “I started with them in January, but in April, I went and joined the Navy.”

Just 17, he had to have his parents’ permission.

“They tried to talk me out of it, and my dad finally said, ‘Mother, sign the papers,’” he remembered.

Why Navy?

“Who knows?” Braswell said, chuckling. “It must’ve been a God thing. I knew I didn’t want to fight in a foxhole. I’d rather drown at sea.”

He was assigned to the battleship USS Mississippi along with about 1,400 other sailors. They departed from Long Beach, Calif., heading to Pearl Harbor.

“What had happened in Pearl Harbor had destroyed practically all the ships that were there,” his wife, Kitty, said. “He tells a very interesting story about the officers who had said those ships needed to go back to the States. Troy was on one of the first ships that got over to Pearl Harbor after the bombing before everything had been moved.”

Braswell said the Mississippi was involved in pushing the Japanese back.

“They had taken over all the (Pacific) islands and sunk our great battleships,” he said. “We had to be the ones to go do that job.”

He said his role was as “powder man.”

“They put me in a turret with the big guns on the back of the ship,” he said. “I put the powder in. It would come up by escalator; I’d push it into the guns and the gunner would fire it.”

He remembered training for his job on the way to Pearl Harbor. “By the time we got there, I’d done it so many times, I knew what to do,” he said.

But he remembered being shocked at the sight of all the damaged ships and planes that remained more than two years after the 1941 attack.

“That scared me to death,” he said. “I thought, ‘What have I done?’”

After Pearl Harbor, the USS Mississippi headed for the Gilbert Islands.

“We took them back, then we’d go to the next row and take them back,” he said. “Then we got provisions and headed to the Philippines. Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur was in Australia; he’d been run out of the Philippines, so we picked him up. They flew him in; it was the biggest fleet of ships I’d ever seen. We took him back to the Philippines.

“The Japanese Navy was coming to attack us. They didn’t know we knew they were coming, and we sunk every one of them that came. They had to fall in a single-file line, and as every one of their ships came through, we sunk it. That was exciting.”

Kamikazes — according to dictionary.com — during World War II were “members of a special corps in the Japanese Air Force charged with the suicidal mission of crashing an aircraft laden with explosives into an enemy target, especially a warship.” They were all around Braswell and the USS Mississippi.

“We were on the other side of the Philippines, close to China, and that’s when the kamikaze hit the ship,” he remembered. “We were all running to our battle stations. I was stepping through the hatch and all the guys in front of me got it.

“A split-second later and I’d have been running right with them.”

More than 30 of his shipmates died.

“I saw the hot lead from that bomb going right in front of my eyes,” Braswell said. “It was like seeing a movie. Unreal. It scared me to death, but we were taught when something like that happened to go to Plan B.”

He remembered after the hit having to wait until his shipmates cleared to get to his battle station. “One side runs one way and the other side the other way so you don’t run into each other,” he explained. “I had to wait until everybody got out. You couldn’t run against the grain. It took a few seconds, then I was up in my turret.”

His son grew emotional describing the disaster his father survived.

“He responded to his battle station, and going through the doorway, the doors would shut from top to bottom,” Braswell Jr. said. “As he was going through that, the door shut and he had to pull back. Right after that, the ship was hit by a kamikaze and he lost his friends. But he did what he was trained to do — go to his battle station.

“He was seconds away from being with his buddies.”

After the attack, the Mississippi returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs, then sailed to Seattle for updated equipment before heading toward Okinawa. “The Air Force was bombing Japan at that time, and we were helping get ready for the big invasion of Okinawa,” Braswell said. “That’s where I left the ship.”

Because of his typing skills, he had moved from his powder position to the exec office. One of the officers saw him spitting up blood and sent him to the sick bay — against his wishes.

“You’re a coward if you go to the sick bay,” he said.

But the doctor treating him diagnosed him with tuberculosis and told him he had to get off the ship — the disease was a danger to everyone on board.

“I heard him speak to a corpsman and say, ‘This kid only has six months to live,’” Braswell remembered. “So they took me and put me on a landing craft and sent me to a hospital ship. Kamikazes were coming all around us; some of our ships hit their destroyer and sunk it. That was a scare.”

The ship took him to Wake Island where, while hospitalized, he watched Air Force planes take off and return from their bombardment of Japan.

“They’d come back all shot up, and some of them never made it back,” he said.

He joined other ill and wounded Americans on a plane back to Pearl Harbor and, ultimately, Corona, Calif., site of “a huge Navy TB hospital.”

Braswell received an honorable discharge in Alexandria, La., in December 1945, and his father moved the family to Arkansas the following year. He graduated from Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in 1952.

Braswell, who has been married to Kitty for 49 years, eventually became a businessman, building and owning seven skating rinks in the state and another in San Angelo, Texas. He also had a skate supply business, from which he sold skates all over the South to other rinks, and eventually he opened a pawn shop.

“I stuck a sign in the ground and did 17 loans the first day,” he said.

Braswell Jr. said his father’s service continued long after the war.

“All I’ve ever known was him serving other people,” he said. “With the skating rinks, that was a time when families dropped their kids off and trusted my dad to take care of everything. Through the pawn shop, I saw countless times when he helped people. He was willing to do things and work with people when no one else would.

“And that also showed me his work ethic, which I think is a good example of that Greatest Generation. People said, ‘There’s no other option — our country needs us.’ What stands out most to me is that desire to serve, to give back and help.”

The son remembered a snow day when he was out of school, but the father got in his car and drove across town, in conditions he shouldn’t have, to open the pawn shop.

“I asked him, ‘Why are you going to work?’ And he said, ‘Because we have mouths to feed,’” Braswell Jr. remembered. “He knew people in the community needed the store, and the employees needed to work. He drove with two tires on the road and two off the road to maintain traction.

“That’s who he was — ‘That’s what’s right, and that’s what I’m going to do.’”

On Jan. 31, he wished his father a happy 93rd birthday on Facebook:

“Thank you for defending our country and being a part of the greatest generation. Thank you for showing me the value of hard work and helping others.

“Thank you for texting me Bible verses to help me stay grounded. And thank you for loving your grandkids more than life itself. 

“I’m looking forward to celebrating 100 with you!”