May 21, 2001
Chief Petty Officer Robert Palmer in 1939 at the age of 20. He was imprisoned in Penang, Malaysia for 28 1/2 months during World War 2 following an attack on the submarine, Grenadier.
Robert Palmer in 1985.
A salute to a heroic uncle
By Bronwyn Wilson
"Dive! Dive! This is not a drill! All ahead emergency!" It was pre-dawn, April 21, 1943, and the submarine USS Grenadier was at sea. A single engine plane was approaching. Hurriedly, the Grenadier dipped safely beneath the surface to a depth of 120 feet and a sense of security fell over the crew.
Then a violent explosion rocked the ship. To Chief Petty Officer Robert Palmer, the ship's yeoman, it seemed like two express trains had just collided. A torpedo had slammed into the Grenadier, knocking out power for propulsion, auxiliary equipment and lighting. Stunned men were airborne.
Tubes were askew and pipes and valves ruptured. To make matters worse, seawater sloshed in through the loading hatch and other openings.
"People passed out from exhaustion trying to bail water out," said Rep. Kathy Lambert, 45th District, relaying the experience of the crew and of her uncle, Petty Officer Palmer.
Though the Grenadier was finally able to limp to the surface, propulsion was never re-established. The crew managed to destroy sensitive equipment before being captured by the Japanese. They were transported to a Catholic School in Penang, Malaysia. Torture and inhumane treatment became the order of the day for the weary Grenadier crew, including beatings, knives under the fingernails, standing at attention for hours and the water torture.
After the war, Chief Petty Officer Palmer described what he called the water treatment.
"I was tied to a bench to such an angle that my feet were on a plane of about 30 degrees above my head. They would then start pouring tea kettle after tea kettle of water down my nose, holding a hand over my mouth in the meantime; every time I would move my head or try for air, a heavy fist would bounce off my chin."
There was very little for the POW's to eat and many ate the bugs they caught in their small dirt floor quarters. Some of the men were buried in cages with only their heads above the ground. No one was allowed to talk.
Entertaining the mind became a matter of survival. Speaking of her uncle's captivity, Rep. Lambert said, "He told me once that in his mind he had put a whole car together." He also thought about the love of his life, Barbara, who he had married in 1941.
His incarceration lasted twenty-eight and a half months accompanied by cruel torture and total lack of medical treatment. He weighed 80 pounds upon his return to the United States. After arriving, he learned he had been listed by the Red Cross as missing in action and was presumed dead.
"I thought he was dead!" said Barbara, who now lives in Maryland. With the belief her husband had been killed, plus the encouragement of her father to get on with her life, Barbara had found another man while Palmer had been incarcerated.
Bob Palmer and Barbara divorced. Later, he married the sister of Lambert's mom.
Life became a series of mental battles. Said Lambert, "He would say, 'I can't watch people eat.' It would make him remember the days (as a POW) when there wasn't any food and people were starving."
At family dinners, Palmer ate by himself in a back bedroom. However, he managed to win a much bigger mental battle, his bitterness toward those who tortured him. Instead of putting the horrendous POW experience out of his mind, Palmer faced it. He traveled to Japan and hiked from village to village asking the whereabouts of his former captors. When he finally found them, he went to their homes and stayed with them.
Lambert remarked, "He said, 'No matter what happens, you can't be filled with hate.' He went to Japan to have the opportunity to forgive."
Rep. Lambert recalled that her uncle never said anything unkind "He always had a good sense of humor," she added. She remembered a time when he took a home movie at a family function and when the movie was showed it revealed only the backsides of people at the party. "We were very close," said Lambert.
Since Palmer had a son, but not a daughter, he adopted his niece, Kathy. "He always wanted a little girl and that was me," she said. "He took me fishing with him in Medford, Oregon." Palmer also continued his military service in the Navy after the war. "Whenever he would go out to sea, he would always write me letters," said Lambert. He always signed his letters with the numbers, 13 0 13. "I thought 13 0 13 was a special code spy name." Years later, Lambert learned that her uncle was not engaging in a
covert operation when signing his letters, but instead he just didn't close
the letter "B" and so it looked like the number "13."
Although Palmer and Kathy's biological aunt eventually divorced, Lambert
continued her relationship with her uncle. On the other side of the country,
Barbara had re-married and made her home in Virginia. One day, she flew to
Oregon where her parents lived. While there, she unexpectedly ran into Bob.
"There went that flame," Barbara recalled. "I hadn't ever really forgotten
about him." And she hadn't ever stopped loving him. The two were reunited on
July 26, 1971 and were married in 1972.
When he was in his 80's, Palmer began to have heart problems and went to
Bethesda Naval Hospital. Barbara Palmer called Lambert and told her that her
beloved uncle was dying. Lambert flew to Maryland where her uncle resided.
Driving up to his house, she spotted him standing on the front porch waiting
for her. "For a dying man, you look pretty darn good," she told him. Her
uncle smiled and kidded, "Well, honey, if I knew you were coming, I'd get off
my death bed." Her uncle lived three more years, and then sadly passed away
last year. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, having served in
three wars. The letters "PH" are carved on his headstone to represent the
Purple Heart he earned.
Rep. Lambert remembered a time when she was going to give a speech about
veterans on the State House floor and had called her uncle to ask him who his
hero was. He had told her of his admiration for Pappy Boyington who he had
met while he was a POW. "Pappy Boyington was shot down and brought to the
camp he was in," said Lambert. Palmer and one other person were required to
hold the Marine Corp ace down while he was operated on without anesthesia.
Her uncle told her that Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington was the bravest man
he had met. Said Lambert, "On the day, when it came to give the speech, I
couldn't give it. It was too emotional."
She added, "I think honor, courage and strength describe him so well. I think
that made a huge impression on our family. He said, 'If you can love someone
who tortured you, you can love anybody. I think one of the things that kids
don't get enough of is [hearing about] the heroes we have around us. Kids
have no idea of the sacrifices people have made."
Larry Colton, author of the award-winning book Counting Coup: a true story of
basketball and honor on the Little Big Horn, is currently writing Robert
Memorial Day, observed on May 28, salutes the memory of Chief Warrant Officer
Palmer, as well as everyone in military service, for the sacrifices they have
made so that others can live in a country where freedom is enjoyed.