There is a World War Two photo of my Dad in his uniform and another of my Mother dating from the same era. Both were black and white “portraits” that had been “colorized.” There is a somewhat faded snapshot taken at Easter some twenty years later and not long before my Mother’s death to ALS. She is seated in a wheelchair with the rest of us crowded around in order for the old Kodak to get us all into its viewfinder.
Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation was written about my parents. Not my parents specifically but the millions of young men and women who went off to fight and win the Second World War, the last war that had a righteous goal of saving the world from monsters – Hitler and his Nazis or the Japanese Imperialist and Tojo. Some served as soldiers like my Dad or worked in munition factories like my Mother. Hers might have been a more important job than my Dad’s as she, along with millions of young women, filled the industrial workforce that defeated the Axis Powers. After they came home, those who came home, began to try to create better lives for themselves and their families than they, themselves, had had. I would say my parents were successful.
My father Ernest rarely spoke of his involvement in the war. He fought, or according to him, didn’t fight, in the Pacific Theater under the command of MacArthur. In 1941, just days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he and several of his buddies attempted to join the Marine Corp. After receiving his physical, I am sure, that “hell hath no fury” as my father when finding out he was 4F – physically unfit for duty due to a birth defect that left him one set of ribs too short. Undeterred, he attempted to join the Navy and then the Army but the 4F continued to follow him. I can only imagine his surprise upon receiving a draft notice in 1943. I guess this should graphically enlighten us on how well the war had gone up until that point. He served in the Philippines and was a part of the forces that occupied the Japanese Home Islands after the surrender at Tokyo Bay. Placed in the tank corps, his physical defect would cause him so much pain he would later be transferred to a group that maintained the landing craft that would be used to invade the Philippines and other Japanese held islands.
“Daddy, what did you do in the war?” I think this was a question that most of us from our generation asked. Like most vets that I have been around, neither he nor any of his friends seemed to want to answer that question or talk about the bloody action that they might have seen. They were full of funny stories but seldom ventured down the dark path of battle. “How many Japs did you shoot, Dad?” Let me say up front that this was his term for our now Japanese allies. In fact, there were worse descriptions used to describe the enemy that they fought in the Pacific. He would smile at my question and inform me that of the many waves of soldiers that “hit the beaches,” his wave went in right after the nurses when the island was secured. He did say that they were close enough to occasionally hear gunfire but it was the exception, not the norm. He once told a story of a “dud” bomb going off in a fire and commented that had he been in the Japanese Army he would have assumed it had been assembled by the Japanese equivalent of my mother. I found out later that the lone casualty was one of my father’s best friends.
Like most of the returning servicemen, my father brought home souvenirs from the war, along with his dress uniform with sergeant strips that included a “rocker” below the three strips and a big T in the middle. Tucked away in my mother’s cedar “wedding chest”, Japanese Kimonos made from rich colorful silk, small porcelain curios and Japanese script that had been used in place of money were just a few of the souvenirs that he returned with. My favorite souvenir was a Japanese rifle and bayonet. It had been “fixed” so that the bolt could not be retracted and, therefore, it could not fire. I spent hours trying to remove that bolt but that was okay. I got to use it to play at war when playing war was still okay to play. I would put on Dad’s old field jacket and boots, both several sizes too big, and with one of my mother’s metal mixing bowls turned over on top of my head, I was ready to defend the good ole United States against all of our enemies, at least the imagined ones.
I remember staying up late on a Saturday night, after the Gillette Fight of the Week had ended. It was a special treat to watch the NBC Saturday Night Movie of the Week with the family. The movie Sahara starring Humphrey Bogart was being shown. The story was about a tank crew separated from their unit as it retreated after the rout of Allied forces at the seaport of Tobruk. The story is not important, while my thoughts about it and my father are. I always thought that my father resembled Bogart in a somewhat less gaunt way, especially with a “coffin nail” hanging from his lower lip. Like Bogart he was not a big man and I am sure it was the dark hair and the strong and silent personality that he had. Maybe it was their sense of duty, although my father’s was not portrayed on the Silver Screen but in the way that he lived his life. I can remember thinking, “Gee, I wish Dad was more like Bogart and had gone out and killed all of those Krauts or Nips!” You know, someone heroic instead of a landing craft mechanic. Really? I guess youth is wasted upon the young or maybe with age comes some sort of wisdom.