As I write this two American flags hang on my wall. Both are folded into militarily tight triangles and protected by flag boxes. One contains a Purple Heart, the other the WWII Service Medal and Pacific Service Medal. One day my own flag with a Cold War Service Medal will join them.
My grandfather received the Purple Heart after being shot and mustard-gassed in contested Alsace-Lorraine. He knew his location only by the strange melange of French and German the locals spoke.
His injuries were severe. Gruesome battlefield triage located him near the bottom of the list based on the likelihood his wounds were fatal. They laid him on a blanket spread across war-churned mud to die. He received only a daily ration of bread and some water. After a week, he beat the odds and finally received some medical attention, eventually going home.
The Mail Had to Go Through
He tried to reenlist at the beginning of WWII, but was barred because he held a critical wartime job – clerk on a railway post office shuttling through a dozen of more Montana and North Dakota ‘burgs. His car is on display at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, proof the world is very small.
His daughter went to work at Boeing as a draftsman working on the B-29. My mother worked as a crane operator at a former toy factory in Toledo converted to manufacturing tank barrels. They were Rosie the Riveters and every bit as important and deserving of praise as the men they supported.
My father joined the Naval Reserve midway through his senior year in high school, only months before Dec. 7. He became a radioman and immediately shipped out to Alaska. There, he served aboard the YP-73, a converted salmon fishing boat tasked with patrolling the Aleutians.
Like many men of the era he was taciturn about his service. A few years before he died he told me a new story he’d never mentioned before. I’m still not sure why he did.
On Dec. 8, 1941 – less than 24 hours after the war began – his small boat forced a Dutch ship carrying a cargo of Japanese silk to stop off Dutch Harbor. His boarding party found a Japanese officer escorting the cargo and took him prisoner. Surely one of the first prisoners of the war.
Aboard the Gar One Last Time
Later he became a submariner, serving two war patrols aboard the USS Gar. After the patrols, he transferred to the personal staff of the Commander of Submarine Forces (Pacific), Adm. Charles Lockwood, aboard the submarine tender USS Holland.
Growing up, I heard many tales about the Pacific islands and countries he visited. They were unstintingly light-hearted, “There was one time went to a beer garden and…,” they usually began. I assumed his war patrols had been relatively combat-free and that service on the Admiral’s staff wasn’t exactly tough duty.
It turned out my assumption was wrong.
My Dad died at 86. He suffered a stroke a few months before pneumonia finally got him. The stroke left him semi-conscious for the better part of a week and every few hours he’d verbalize his delusions.
He talked to my mother. He took up his old vocation by controlling aircraft in his sleep. He described a sinister organization called, The Group that imprisoned him in a school. Oddly, The Group’s commandant was one of his least favorite people, Pat Robertson.
One afternoon he started mumbling and his voice grew steadily louder. He shouted the names of his Gar shipmates. He cried out for help and wept as if holding a shipmate during his last moments. It was clear from his fevered talk that he was back 65 years aboard a submarine under attack.
I suppose he could’ve been dreaming about a fantasy like The Group, but his voice betrayed an emotion and reality his Group rants never had. I listened to his cries for help, stung that I could to nothing to ease his pain. On that sunny afternoon I became his crewmate holding him as he held his shipmate. That pain taught me something about the man I’d known my entire life.
I saw him in a different light and was boundlessly proud of him.
Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks!