As every World War II remembrance does, the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor made me think of my father. He was thirty-one years old on Dec. 7, 1941, married, no children, a salesman in Cleveland, Ohio.
I never asked him where he was or what he was doing when he heard about the attack that was about to change his life. Like many of his generation he was not chatty about he war. But I do know he quickly realized he was draft bait, and he did once tell me that he was sure he didn’t want to end up in a foxhole, so he sought alternative service. That led him to enlist in the Army Air Corps in 1942.
His scores on the Army Alpha test were sufficiently high that he was offered a chance at Officer’s Candidate School, but he declined. Throughout his later life he avoided paths that would have required him to boss others around. He was content to be a plain American who did his job, collected his pay, and went home.
This drove my mother nuts since she was convinced he was squandering his chance to rise, but he choose to run his own little business or to work in a line position as one of the guys. He shared this attitude with many of his generation who recoiled from bravado or braggadocio.
Her was probably deemed too old to be pilot, so was routed to flight mechanics school. The elaborate training took he and my mother to Dyersburg, Tennessee alter which she went home. He continued to Ypsilanti, Michigan and someplace in Kansas where all he recalled was the incessant wind.”If you put a piece of paper flat against the side of a barn in the morning, “ he said, “it would still be there when the sun went down.”
Finally, he passed through California and stopped in Hawaii, which he found as enchanted a Bali Hai as thousands of other en route soldiers, sailors and airmen. The final destination was Kwajalein, a speck in the Pacific that, by late 1944, had become the busiest airport in the world, one entirely dedicated to turning the empire of Japan into cinders. By then he was a technical sergeant who headed a team servicing the new B-29s, patching them up and keeping them flying.
To a kid this sounded unbelievable exotic. I was fascinated with the cowrie shell bracelet he brought back for my mother, and with his khaki jacket with its shiny insignia and winged patches in the back of his closet.
I was far from alone. In school I eventually discovered everyone of his generation had gone. In the 1960s the father of a friend of mine was a retired admiral who had actually been at Pearl Harbor. Then a junior officer, he was decorated for being one of the few who got his ship under weigh and out of harm’s way. My wife’s uncle served in the engine room of a warship in the Pacific that ended up in Tokyo Bay.
The father of another friend had been a medic in the hellish jungle fighting of the Pacific where he was forced to crawl under fire to wounded soldiers through undergrowth teeming with snakes, spiders and rotting corpses. He really didn’t like to talk about his wartime experiences.
Some did not return, but most came home. A few still survive, but most are gone after 75 years. When they returned many took advantage of the GI Bill and went back to school, more college students than ever before in American history. This educated cadre helped fuel the boom times that followed.
My dad had been forced to drop out of Ohio State after about two years when his father died in 1931. He needed to get a job to help support his mother since it was the depths of the Great Depression. He did not go back to college after the war. My mom said airlines were anxious to hire people with his training then, but he declined to do that as well.
He never said why, but I think when the war ended he said goodbye to all that. As far as I know he never flew again from 1945 until a few months before his death in 1996, when he went to see his ailing older sister one last time.
When I was young, World War II was everywhere. Saturday matinees were chockablock with movies about submarine warfare, tank crews, infantry battles, prisoner of war camps, you name it. The war’s significant moments were replayed on TV as well, especially on “The Twentieth Century,” narrated by former war correspondent Walter Cronkite. My dad chose instead to watch baseball on TV, and if he went to a movie it was a Western.
As one veteran of that generation said, putting the war behind him, “it was as if there was a snake under the house. We killed the snake and then got on with our lives.” They didn’t need to be celebrated or want to remember what they’d been through. But all of us who grew up in their shadow would be ungrateful or oblivious if we didn’t understand what we owe hem. Seventy-five years of imperfect peace, relative prosperity and a semblance of stability. A far better world than if they hadn’t done their duty and killed the snake.