My father has been gone from this world for more than forty years. And as adult children are wont to say—there are so many things I should have asked my dad, things I’ll never know.
What’s even more maddening is that much of what I ‘know’ about my dad is likely to be somewhat inaccurate, dependent on faulty memory and well-worn family stories. Still—I am certain that World War II was the experience that made him a man, and left him with some lifelong wounds.
My dad enlisted early in 1942. He was 20 years old, a high school dropout (another long story) who lived at home, contributing to the family income, knocking around his hometown. He was tested and put in what he described as a ‘special group’—men that would be part of the Army’s young Air Corps. Did he want to be part of a new air force, to fly? You betcha.
He was sent to Chicago to train, staying at the Palmer House Hotel. From the time I was a child, I knew that the Palmer House was the most beautiful hotel in the world, because my dad swore it was true. When I first visited the Palmer House, as an adult, I imagined my dad, a first-generation American, walking into the impressively ornate lobby, big-eyed but trying to be cool, like all the other 20-somethings going off to war, still safe but up for adventure.
He trained as a radio gunner, and became part of a combat team that stayed together through most of the war. Well into the 1970s, my mother exchanged Christmas cards with the other members of his flight crew, an annual reaching out to acknowledge their once-intense wartime bond. He was our pilot, a smart guy, my dad would say—and Dick lives in Indianapolis now, what a good guy he was, and this guy, he was a radio gunner, like me.
The crew was assigned to the Pacific theatre, and flew numerous missions in a big, ungainly aircraft where my father was seated in an exposed bubble on the side of the plane. In one intense air battle, their plane was shot down.
All of the crew bailed and survived, floating in rafts, until they were picked up by a submarine. Until the sub surfaced, they couldn’t identify its origin: enemy or ally? It turned out to be an Australian submarine, not the symbolic Japanese rising sun they feared it would be.
There are so many things I don’t know: when this happened and precisely where, for example—or how long they floated on open water before they were rescued, although I know that night fell, at least once. Did they go up again, in the same kind of plane? How many missions did they fly after being shot down? And how do you go up again, after that?
Most of what I know came from things my mother told us, often as an excuse for why my father was so touchy. My dad had a cardboard box of war memorabilia that we weren’t allowed to open—it was taped shut—and he kept his feelings taped shut, too. Most of the time.
When my brother was in high school, he interviewed our father about his wartime experiences for a school assignment. My mother took notes and typed up the paper. (As an older sister, my first response to learning this was: I hope she got a good grade.) When my brother mentioned this, some 35 years later, I was shocked. Dad talked to you about the war?
It turned out that what my brother wanted to know was details about the plane (he knew the exact model and could show me the pictures online), the gun, the radio system, the parachute and rescue gear. The war tools. He said my dad remembered lots of concrete details. My brother didn’t remember what happened to his paper. And now, my brother is gone, too.
On February 28, 1945, my dad’s own beloved younger brother, Don, a Marine, was killed on Iwo Jima. At that point, Dad had been in the military for three years. He had seen, done and lost so many things—and now, he’d lost the most precious thing ever. He went AWOL, to try—my mother said—to locate Don’s grave, so he could confirm what he didn’t yet believe, that his brother was dead.
He had risen to the rank of Staff Sergeant. When he returned to his unit, he was busted down to Private, and was honorably discharged, several months later, at the end of the war. My mother told me he had been diagnosed, if that’s the word, with battle fatigue.
Shell shock, PTSD, battle fatigue. What war does to men.
A post-war job where he would be autonomous and not cooped up in an office was recommended by the US Army, upon discharge. His high school girlfriend had graduated and gone on to university, in Kalamazoo. She was sure he could get a GED and enroll at WMU—there would be federal money. But he declined both her and the suggestion, taking a job delivering bread that he kept for the rest of his life.
Shortly after returning home, he met my mother. He was 25 and she was 19. She says he was handsome and seemed like a man of the world. He liked to dance. He taught her to smoke and drink. Within a year, they were married.
But my father, tight-lipped as he was, never completely left the war behind. It was, I believe, both the best and worst period of his life.
He said he’d seen all he wanted to see of the world, when I went backpacking in Europe—that he wouldn’t leave this country for the rest of his life. When I bought my first car—a Toyota Corolla—he wouldn’t let me park it in his driveway, muttering about ‘the Japs.’
In many ways, he was forever stuck in the thinking and prejudices of 1942. But he always loved to fly, that moment of liftoff, wheels up, grinning. When I think of my dad now, I picture him in the wild blue yonder. It’s where he’d want to be.
Thanks for doing your duty, Jay. Another story from the greatest generation.