My grandmother and grandfather, both children of Irish immigrants, served in WWI. Grandma, a nurse, served again in WWII. Far from home, my dad also served in WWII. He was a boy when he enlisted, 16, maybe 17. He hadn’t finished high school. His mother had to sign consent. He had severe asthma, but we were a country at war, and he was accepted. He was granted his high school diploma when he enlisted and was assigned to the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He served as a band musician and medic. He grew up fast. He had to; he was serving our country, a job he took seriously.
As I was growing up, my dad rarely spoke of his time in the service. I didn’t know why, but I didn’t push. I know he saw “a lot of action” but I never heard the specifics. He had been awarded several medals, but he had given them away to “kids on the streets” in Paris after the war; he never thought he would have his own children. Much later in life, I know my mom contacted a Congressman and duplicates were issued. I saw them only once. After he was diagnosed with cancer, I starting asking the questions I had always wondered about but thought I would have more time, or a better setting, or withheld for fear of prying. I asked him to share with me what he saw, and heard, and smelled. I wanted him to tell me the stories that formed the man from a boy during wartime. I asked him to share before it was too late.
He shared fragments. I heard snippets of stories long tucked away; his weight at enlistment (109); his mother’s first reaction (No! He was her only son.); his persuasion to change her mind (You served. I owe it to this country.) Some tales were new, some familiar. He answered “Why the Navy?” with “Because, I’ve always loved the sea.” I dug for more. He chose to go in before graduation because he was automatically guaranteed a high school diploma. (A teacher had once told him he should drop-out because he wasn’t bright enough to finish. After the war, he played as a jazz musician in Paris, returned to the U.S., became a lawyer, worked for 5 years, hated it, returned to school, completed his PhD. in psychology, and wrote several books on marriage and parenting. Not bad for an “almost drop-out.”) I heard about “the guys that would tease” because he slept standing up due to his asthma and his nickname (Wheezy Joe.) I pushed for more. He told me about the fighter jet pilot that “took him under his wing.” The pilot was older by several years; he looked out for my dad and became one of the best friends my dad ever had. Dad would help him check out his plane before a mission; he liked being on the flight deck. I heard the tale of the loss of that friend and of the brutal reality of the war. Though I will not share that story, I will say I heard a tone in my dad’s voice I had never heard before. There was profound sadness. In that moment, I was talking with a WWII veteran, not just my dad, and it was an honor to hear his tales.
When he was done, I asked him, “How? How does a boy process what you experienced?” His answer was spoken with humility; “You don’t. You just do what you have to do to get the job done.”
I was glad I had pushed, so that I may carry his stories to future generations.
Today, I interrupt this blog to say, “Thank you,” to all the men and women that have done and continue to do what you do to “get the job done,” and to the families that support them in that mission. God bless you, all.
On this Veterans Day, won’t you take just a few minutes to watch this video while you give thanks with me?