The love that would not die: World War II widow visits Laffey, where her husband died

Margaret Casaday becomes emotional Tuesday as she looks around the rear gun turret aboard the destroyer Laffey. Casaday's husband was mortally wounded in the battle of Okinawa.

For 67 years, the destroyer Laffey has haunted Margaret Casaday's dreams.

In April 1945 her husband of a few months — Calvin Cloer — was killed aboard the ship in one of the most ferocious kamikaze attacks in naval history.

On Tuesday, Casaday saw the ship for the first time.

She sat in the metal gunner's seat where Cloer was injured twice in the attack off Okinawa. And she stood in the ship's ward room, where another explosion injured Cloer so badly that he died within a day.

It was almost more than Casaday could take.

“I'm just so overwhelmed,” she said. “I never thought this day would come, that I would be so close. I've never been able to forget him.”

Casaday, 85, is in town for a reunion of the USS Laffey Association, an organization she only learned about and joined in the past year. It has given her a new family, one that brings her closer to the happiest — and briefest — chapter in her life.

Margaret Williams met Calvin Cloer in 1942, when she was just a teenager. He was a handsome, serious young man with plans to become a preacher after the war.

The two corresponded for two years and, when she was 17, Peggy — as she prefers to be called — married Cloer, five years her senior.

Even then, the two had very little time together. Casaday became sick during their honeymoon and had to be hospitalized. Cloer could only visit her in the hospital a few times before he shipped out to the Pacific aboard the Laffey.

Casaday eventually got her own apartment and went to work in a factory as part of the war effort. And one day in April 1945, her mother brought her a telegram. Calvin had been killed.

“I had burned some lima beans and I had a vision that he had been burned,” she said.

That was exactly what happened.

The Laffey was on picket duty off Japan on April 16 when the attack began. Cloer was sitting in the aft gun mount when it was hit by the first of five kamikaze planes to target the Laffey. Cloer was burned and hit with shrapnel and had to go to sick bay for treatment.

The syndicated columnist Jim Bishop would later write that Cloer was determined to prove he had guts — as soon as he was patched up, he returned to his station. “Most of all, a fellow needs spine,” Bishop quoted Cloer as telling the ship's chaplain.

Cloer returned to his post, and soon another kamikaze slammed into the Laffey near the aft gun mount. Navy reports say Cloer's spine was fused to the metal seat.

He was taken to the ship's ward room. While there, a bomb exploded on deck, blasting through the bulkhead and fatally injuring Cloer. He died the next day.

Years later, a shipmate said that as Cloer lay dying, he said, “Now I can go home to Peggy.”

During the attack, the Laffey was hit by five planes and three bombs. Out of a crew of 336, 71 were wounded and 32 killed. But somehow the destroyer managed to survive an onslaught that should have sunk a much bigger ship.

As a result, the Laffey earned the nickname “The Ship That Would Not Die.”

“It was the most concentrated attack on a ship in World War II,” said Sonny Walker, president of the USS Laffey Association. “Cloer was pretty brave — he was injured three times in one attack. He was a hero, like everyone on the ship.”

Cloer was mentioned by name Tuesday during the memorial service onboard the ship at Patriots Point. Casady was recognized as the newest member of an old family.

Casaday continues to fight for recognition of “her hero,” as she calls Cloer. Since his death, she has fought with the Navy, which paid Cloer's death benefits to his father. She feels she is owed that money, that Cloer had named her his beneficiary long before he died. Cloer's family would not give her the money, she said, although they did not oppose her marriage to Calvin.

Casady has been fighting for decades, both to fix the official record - which lists the wrong date of death for Cloer - and to gain recognition as his wife. She was not recognized as his spouse, was not even invited to his funeral. "They took my husband away from me," Casady said. "They took my whole life." Casady has spent decades trying to correct the record, and has enlisted the help of U.S. senators, petitioned presidents.

Casady eventually remarried and had children, but to this day feels she was robbed of a life with “the only real love I ever knew.”

As she walked out of the Laffey ward room Tuesday afternoon to attend the association's memorial service, Casaday said the visit to the ship had brought her a measure of closure.

But she will never forget her Calvin Cloer, her hero.

“He was so sweet and gentle and kind, and he gave his life for his country,” Casaday said. “I cannot forget that face.”

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561.

Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story needed clarification with respect to Casady's attempt to gain recognition as Cloer's wife from the Navy.