Though he had been mentally prepared for the possibility, Bill Ryan would never have been forced to jump ship.
And for that he was grateful. With the deck of his aircraft carrier about 80 feet above the surface of the water, it was hard to imagine surviving in one piece.
But many of Ryan’s fellow sailors from nearby ships had no choice. And from the elevated position of his battle station, he had a clear view of the scenes that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Reminding me once, he said he could still see them in his mind: countless sailors leaping to escape their burning aircraft carriers.
Left to wander at sea, many would die before they could be saved, he said.
Although Ryan had no reason to know right now, somewhere in that water, struggling to stay afloat, there was someone whose path was bound to converge with his.
That someone was Blaine Imel.
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With Friday marking the 77th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa during World War II, it seemed like a good time to share the story of the late Tulsans Imel and Ryan.
In addition to having a common profession, the two established architects also shared a nightmare called Okinawa.
But it’s not so much the nightmare as the couple’s shared response to it that’s worth remembering now.
Imel and Ryan are back from the horrors of war not broken by experience, but dedicated to making the world a more beautiful place.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan in 2016. I have never met Imel, who died several years earlier.
But I recently spoke to your daughter, Barbara Smallwood.
He said back home, his father picked up where he left off after the war and never really told him about it.
She first learned the details of her experience in a newspaper clipping saved by her grandmother.
During the war, Imel, a Marine Corps pilot, was a member of a squadron assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill.
He has flown over 60 missions from his decks, earning multiple decorations for his part in various operations, including supporting ground forces in Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
However, it wasn’t one of Imel’s air missions that was his closest call. It happened once off the coast of Okinawa when its carrier suffered direct hits from two kamikaze planes.
To escape the hell that followed, Imel and others were forced to jump.
“When you’re getting off, you really start wondering if it was a good idea,” he recalled in a later interview, adding that he hit the water with a slap and “saw the stars.”
Eventually, Bunker Hill would be saved and Imel and many others would be saved from the water.
But over 390 of his shipmates died. Imel she would have lived with the memory of having seen many of the bodies lying on the deck.
As for Ryan’s experiences, some of which I have heard from him personally, they are similar.
On board the USS Essex aircraft carrier, where he was a deck gunner during the fight, he survived suicide bombers and a typhoon.
Part of the healing
Imel and Ryan met later after they both enrolled at the University of Oklahoma to study architecture.
Eventually, landing in Tulsa, the couple formed a friendship, which was joined by fellow architect Charles Ward. He had fought in Europe and could relate to their experiences.
But what stands out most is how, in the light of those experiences, men have chosen to live their own lives.
In addition to architecture, both Imel and Ryan have explored the arts in a variety of media.
Smallwood said her father even fell in love with Japanese art and culture, which always struck her as surprising.
So many veterans could never forgive their former enemies. But if his father felt resentment, he let it go, Smallwood said.
“He was a kind soul,” he said.
Having met Ryan, I think the same can be said about him. He was sensitive and always emphasized the beauty of things.
Ward, for what it’s worth, was the same way.
Which led me to wonder: after being exposed to so much ugliness in life, how is it possible that these men could still focus on beauty?
How can such opposing images – of death and destruction, of light and life – coexist in the same mental space?
Smallwood, who asked similar questions, suggests that “maybe (the creativity) was part of the healing for them.”
“Maybe doing it helped put their world back together.”
In this era of “hot take”, where everyone seems to have an opinion to proclaim, I am encouraged by the examples of these latter Tulsani.
They let their art speak for them.
And the message was not to tear down, but to build and heal.
Having seen everything they had in life, Imel and Ryan had a right to be as angry as anyone else.
But they chose a different path. And Tulsa – in fact, the world – was a better place for that.