Sunday, May 26, 2013

Memorial


Down on the shop floor that Monday lunchtime, most of the company, including Dad’s three best friends, listened to the speech on the radio on the foreman’s desk. At 21, with a two-year business degree, Dad was the most junior of junior executives. So he and a dozen others upstairs listened in boss’s office. Later that same afternoon, Dad and his buddies were together in that office. They told the boss they’d be back again when it was over. 



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 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 – they 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, contended 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 15 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 from 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.”


3 comments:

  1. I wish I had known him longer. He was a decent, humble, godly man. Rob, you were blessed to have a father like him.

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  2. Very nicely told. You managed to unearth a little bit of extraordinary here that might have been easily overlooked. Especially in your father's account, I'm sure.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this. Not every man is called to serve as so many were, with bullets and blood. My father had a similar experience. Before Pearl Harbor he was working in San Diego bucking rivets for B-25's, or some similar airplane. He got his draft notice in late May 1942, and being a loyal Missouri boy, he went to Kansas City to enlist in the Navy, partly because his uncle was career Navy, partly because he didn't want to walk. They wouldn't take him because he was color-blind, until someone noticed he was a carpenter. "We're starting this new group called the Seabees. We need builders. So he enlisted. In Gulfport, he had appendicitis and pneumonia one after the other. (I forget in which order). By the time he got out, his unit had shipped out to the South Pacific, where it saw action in the Solomons and points East. He, on the other hand, went to Trinidad, where he built barracks for the people building the runways for the MATS program flying aircraft to the war zones. Later he went briefly to Suriname, the Canal Zone and Maine, when he was invalided out because his knees were giving out ( suspect they bothered him all his life, because he never rode bicycle with us, never went on hikes with me in the Boy Scouts, never ran more than 100 feet that I can remember, but he never complained about anything. He was happy to have a wife and family, a home, a job, when so many others did not have those blessings.
    A family story is that some woman in his family, I forget if it was a mother, sister, or daughter, thought he had lucked out, and not served sufficiently hard during the war, as compared to her man. She might as well have complained that the bullet missed the man beside hers. Everyone in that war wrote that check as you say, and it is the meerest luck that your dad and mine were not called to pay it in full.
    And I'm also grateful he didn't come back with scars that left him less whole and less gentle.
    Thank you, that is a beautiful essay you wrote.

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