Today, amid the parades and family gatherings, I recall the many Memorial Day services I attended, often in churches and at cemeteries where clergy, local veterans, and officers from the VFW and the American Legion Post spoke about hometown heroes lost in past and current wars.
I always think of my father on this day. Although he came back from WWII alive and intact, the trajectory of his life was changed. He was seventeen when he joined the Navy in 1943 as a signalman on the USS LSM 449 assigned to the Pacific Theater. The ship was a Landing Ship Tank built to carry troops and supplies to American and Allied troops.
Dad was a kid when he joined, not unlike many boys across America who scrapped high school to go to war on forged birth certificates. He never had much to say about any of it, other than to tell us his mother wrote to him every day, and then to show us kids the cyst on his back where he claimed a bullet was lodged. We’d ask where it entered and he’d show us his belly button, and of course, we all laughed and asked for the real stories.
In the last years of Dad’s life, he died in 2015 after eighty-nine years, my brother brought him to a Veteran’s Day dinner. Dad, then riddled with dementia, regaled all who would listen various stories of bravado about his time in the Navy, claiming he was the skipper of the boat. The other guys at the table knew no better and believed his tall tale; the rest of us smiled and laughed. Underneath the confusion in his mind was something noble.
They real stories seldom came.
My father eventually graduated from high school, and in 2000 he was given an honorary diploma at his hometown high school. He was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony, an honor he accepted with the solemnity of the occasion. He spoke about Iwo Jima; about the Marines who captured Mount Suribachi and did so, he explained, because they understood what was needed and were willing to put everything on the line. They did not measure the gain, or calculate the accolades. That group of Marines became more than the sum of their parts. They forged ahead, courageous and selfless for the greater good. My father spoke of that kind of selflessness that has been brushed aside all too often in contemporary America. He encouraged the class of 2000 to consider the meaning of the greater good, and apply that to their lives. I’d like to believe that some of them took their oldest graduate’s words to heart.
What he did not tell those graduating seniors was that he was there at Iwo Jima, as well, from February 19th to the 25th, 1945 ferrying troops and supplies to the island and recovering bodies and scurrying the injured back to the carriers. 6,821 American soldiers were killed and 19, 217 were wounded.
He saw too much for any boy to see, and it changed him.
He came back to his hometown and became a volunteer as a fireman and an EMT. Over the years, there were thousands of calls he answered, fighting forest fires, grassfires and beating back the flames of burning buildings, and then there were the rescues.
My father gave back in some small measure perhaps to rectify what he could not change in the Pacific. At the scene of an auto accident, or in the back of an ambulance delivering a baby, and again transporting those who did not make it, my father lived a life of service because he was one of the lucky one who came back.
I offer my prayers today for those who didn’t.