The boss pulled a bottle from a drawer, shared glasses all around, and promised them their jobs would be waiting. Dad was grateful for the drink. Grateful, too, he told me once, that the boss – a crusty old Marine – skipped his oft-told stories about the Marne River and Belleau Wood. “If I had to listen to those stories that day,” Dad said, “I’m not sure I’d have kept my nerve.”
By midday Wednesday the four friends were at the recruiting station. By early in the new year they were on a train headed south for basic. Dad had never been outside of Ohio, and rarely far from Cleveland. Biloxi seemed a world away, but it was warm, and Dad always liked the heat. Before long, though, he was headed a real world away. When we think of the war in the Pacific – those of us who think of it at all anymore – we mostly think of the Marines. But the Army Air Force was there in numbers, too, and if they were spared abattoirs like Peleliu and Iwo Jima, where the Marines traded so many lives for coral rock and glory, that’s not to say the the Army Air Force was spared.
Dad’s troop ship stopped at Colon, Panama. He was one of hundreds of seasick young men in holds converted to barracks, waiting their turn to lock up through the Canal on the way to the South Pacific. Word came that a headquarters clerk at the major Canal Zone air base was down with appendicitis. (In fact it killed him.) Well, even the most junior of junior executives had a skill crucial to a mid-Twentieth Century army – he could type. Dad was pulled off the ship, and sent to France Field, where he would spend the war.
Calm, organized, steady, determined and unafraid of the menial or the unpleasant, by the end Dad was a First Sergeant and the post sergeant major – the highest ranking non-com. Forty years later, when I was a newsman covering the Air Force, I asked Dad how it was possible for a guy to go from boot to Top Kick in less than four years. “Robbie,” he explained, “the only thing we never ran out of was rank.”
The mission at France Field was simplicity itself: Keep the Canal open; keep the ships moving. Planes from the field would hunt down and kill the German U-boat wolf packs and the lesser known, but larger, fleet of Italian subs that operated in the region throughout the war. (Just because you've never heard of the Battle of the Caribbean, doesn't mean they didn't fight it.)
Dad would say that he spent the war filing paper, fighting off yellow fever, placating officers, disciplining drunken airmen, and playing a lot of softball. A quiet, contented man, Dad often said he had had an “easy war.” He meant that especially when compared to his three friends, who fought the war from inside B-17s over Europe. One of those guys spent years confined in, then escaping from, a series of increasingly brutal German POW camps. One of them rode his plane into a smoking hole in the Dutch countryside and never made it back to claim the job waiting for him, as promised, at W.S. Tyler Company.* If not for some poor guy’s infected appendix, Dad’s war would have been anything but easy. And who can say if three and half years in the Solomons and New Guinea and the Philippines would have sent home the man I was blessed to know as my father or, instead, someone less whole, less gentle.
Dad never regretted the way things happened, never felt deprived of some sort of martial adventure.** He knew he’d been blessed. “I did what I was called on to do,” is how he would put it. “That's war. I did my job; other guys were just called to give more.”
I didn't argue the point with him; never would have, never could have. But as I've grown, and especially in the 20 years since he’s been gone, I've come to understand that he was wrong.
I think of that skinny Cleveland kid, just a few years out of service as an altar boy, standing around the boss’s desk with a drink in his hand, silently praying the old Marine would forego his war stories, lest will and determination fail. I think of a kid for whom the Gulf Coast was far country, signing up to go wherever they sent him. I think of a kid who, as smart as he was with the accounts, could never have figured the value of the note he was signing, but who signed it anyway – and stood ready to pay whatever the tally-man demanded.
And I think, Dad, that you couldn't have given more than that.
* Which isn't to suggest Dad was entirely immune to pride. “The bastards never shut us down, Robbie. They never did.”
** He did have at least one adventure he liked to describe: There was a fire at a remote observation post and Dad was sent to investigate. The Jeep could only go so far before he had to travel by small boat, then hike a day up a jungle mountain. (Faulty generator not sabotage, as it turned out.) Typical of my Dad was his perspective on that story: “I got back in about three days. Got a shower and hot chow. I thought a lot about those guys in the Pacific who had to stay out in that jungle all the time.”