What he gave, I’ll never know

Memorial Day, 2012:
One of the few clear images I have of Dad in World War II is of him slung into a kind of hammock, reading below deck of the USS Cabot in the South Pacific. It was a secret spot of refuge for him amid the daily insanity of warfare. Reading provided him a respite from the rigors of the world, as it had since he had read Jack London, Zane Grey and Alexander Dumas as a boy.
A less romantic image is of Dad sitting on the long trench-like bench that served as a latrine on the aircraft carrier, looking straight across at a fellow serviceman on the opposite latrine who was blowing cigarette smoke into his eyes.
Dad hated war. Like many WW II veterans, he didn’t much talk about it and certainly didn’t glamorize it. He’d go into it if we asked him to, and in later years upacked more detail than we three kids had heard before. He wasn’t particularly proud of what he’d done as a radioman and tail gunner on a torpedo plane; he may, in fact, have felt a little shame about it. Dropping torpedos and depth charges to kill other people was not consistent with his character.
But Dad had signed up for the Navy gung-ho, as many did in those days. In the car on a date with Mom and their good friends Mary and John Read, he heard the radio report of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Right then, he told me years later, he knew what his future was.
Here is the account my sister, Maureen, gave in “An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation,” a compendium of letters by and about WW II vets compiled by Tom Brokaw:
“My father gave up his summers fighting fires in the national park system and interrupted his college education at Michigan State to enlist after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He tried to join the Marines as an expression of his desire to fight, but a heart murmur kept him out, to his great disappointment. My grandfather wanted him to sign up for officers’ school when he joined the Navy, but Dad wanted to be one of the ‘grunts.’ He was 20 years old.”
That last line slays me. Dad was barely beyond boyhood when he went to battle, as have been so many, then and now, who put their lives on the line for us. No questions asked, he went to war to save the world from murderous madmen. Dad would always downplay that heroic role, but I never let him get away with it.
This day memorializes those who died in trying to protect the rest of us. Like Dad, I hate war. I believe wars are almost never necessary and usually serve ignoble ends. My brother, Mike, served his country as a conscientious objector to Vietnam, doing civil rights work in the South. I shared his objection, though I honor those who risked and lost their lives doing what they felt needed to be done for all of us.
But I believe WW II was a necessary evil. I will always feel grateful to those who waged it both at home and abroad.
Dad’s service is modestly recorded in his flight log book, marking down every sortie he made from May 1943 to September 1944 — 543.9 hours in all. There, in his remarkably neat handwriting, one sees many of the historically crucial engagements the Cabot made in the South Pacific theater: Truk, Tinian, Palau, “shelling Iwo Jima,” “found two men in raft from last nites raid.” The Cabot later received a Presidential Unit Citation, one of three light carriers so honored in World War II.
On Jan. 31, 1944, Dad wrote this entry: “CRASH LANDED IN WATER.”
Although Dad did not die in the war, he came plenty close when his plane hit the drink upon returning from a mission. Dad and his pilot survived by inflating “Mae West” flotation devices and lying on their backs to absorb the shock waves of the sinking depth charges. Dad’s crew mate, Tom Wolf, did not.
In the last year of Dad’s life, the pilot wrote him a letter confessing his guilt about Wolf’s death. Dad called him to reassure him it was not his fault, perhaps salving a wound that had festered for half a century.
There’s so much we don’t know about what our fathers went through in that war, nor our mothers. They did what they had to do. The lucky ones returned to have families and build a life for us, their children.
Most of what Dad went through in the war, as a young man flying through shrapnel and making daily sorties into hell, I never will know. Dad didn’t want me to.
Yesterday, my sister and brother and I visited Mom and Dad’s gravesite for the first time. The VFW had planted a flag next to Dad’s name. We were a little surprised, and certainly grateful, to see the miniature stars and stripes fluttering in the warm breeze next to our dear father’s name.
Other flags fluttered over other graves in Williamston’s Summit Cemetery, modest markers of the sacrifices people from this small Michigan town made for their country.
Most of what they gave, in war and at home, we will never know.

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2 Responses to What he gave, I’ll never know

  1. Marg says:

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute, Char. I am thinking of Twister today as I finish writing the words for his memorial.

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