For this Veterans Day: Remembering my father
When I was 12, along with every other boy in my suburban neighborhood, I loved war.
"Combat," the early 1960s fictional World War II infantry saga, was my favorite TV show. Whenever I'd hear or whistle its theme song, I'd feel good about myself — all brave and strong and patriotic.
One night when I'm watching "Combat," my dad walks through the room and stops.
He stands there looking down at the screen. I start hoping that he might sit and see how good my much-loved show is. Maybe he could get to know these cool World War II Army guys — Sgt. Saunders, Kirby, Caje, and Littlejohn — just as well as I do.
"That's nuts. They'd never move through an open area like that."
My dad mentions this matter-of-factly and shakes his head like this is all kinds of silly and a bit foolish and pretend. He smiles at me. Then he continues down the hall.
My dad was an Army infantry soldier in World War II. But that was easy to forget. Like so many other men of his generation, my dad never really talked about his war experiences. I never once heard him tell anyone that he was a combat war veteran.
It wasn't until after he died, at age 67, that I learned how his 38th Infantry Division, "Avengers of Bataan," had endured an unimaginable 198-consecutive days of brutal, bloody combat in the Philippine jungles.
As I was growing up, I only heard a few of this man's "war" stories. Usually the ones that made you laugh.
Like how when they first got off the ship in New Guinea, this guy pretended to stumble and pitched his rifle into the bay, in hopes he wouldn't have to go into the jungles to fight. Or the guy from the South who always swore that if he ever made it back home, he was gonna leave his gosh-darn rifle (that he'd had to clean every day since boot camp) out there behind his barn and go urinate on it first thing every morning for the rest of his life.
My dad would tell that story, endearingly repeat this guy's name to himself, and give a thoughtful, reflective chuckle. But when I got older, my mom told me how that gentleman — and so many others who served alongside my dad — never came home from that war.
We also knew that a Japanese soldier's bullet had once passed between my dad's lower legs and pierced a hole right through his pants. We actually laughed about this. But, looking back now, I don't think this close-quarters combat memory ever had my dad laughing. I'm pretty sure he just gave an affirming "yes, that's true" type nod buttressed with an ironic smile. Of course, today, I realize that there is nothing funny about trying to survive the life and death perils of the kill zone. What if that bullet had been four feet higher? I probably wouldn't be here.
There's another story that my family knew about regarding our father's war experience. But I don't think I ever truly appreciated the reality of this harrowing event, either.
His company and others were on a big troop transport ship, the SS William S. Ladd, sailing from New Guinea to Leyte Island in the Philippines. He had just eaten his dinner that evening when the siren went off. He looked up to see a Kamikaze dive bomber screaming down toward him and his ship.
"I ran back down into my room and grabbed my pistol and the photo of Agnes and Suzanne," my dad, who was then a lieutenant, would recall. He'd always shake his head in reflective disbelief about this instinctive decision to snatch that gun, as if it was going to protect him from a Japanese Kamikaze. But he was always glad that he had tucked that small leather-framed photo into his shirt pocket.
It was of his wife, Agnes, holding their infant daughter, Suzanne. He wouldn't meet this first child of his, my sister, until he came back home from the war, when she was almost 2.
This week I did some research. The SS William S. Ladd was carrying 500 barrels of gasoline and 150-tons of ammunition when the Kamikaze bestowed its direct hit into the ship's aftermast. The shredded plane then smashed into the midship house. Next, the aircraft's bombs exploded, shattering the engine room bulkhead. Explosions and immense fires engulfed the ship.
As my dad had explained, because she was going down, the command was given to abandon ship. My dad jumped overboard. He ended up clinging to a chunk of flotsam with a fellow soldier. After several hours, they were rescued by another ship.
By the way, my dad kept that cherished photo—with its forever waterlogged stains—with him throughout the war. It came back home with him and was always there atop the nightstand beside my parents' bed. My sister now has this precious World War II family heirloom.
After my dad died of cancer when I was 30, I decided to contact a few people who I didn't know, but who had known him before I was born. I sent a letter to a gentleman who had served with him in World War II.
He wrote back to me from the other side of the country.
"Your father was one of the bravest men I ever knew. When we were pinned down in the San Mateo Mountains east of Manila, I can still see him jump up in the face of heavy enemy fire and rally our company forward. He wasn't reckless or foolish, he just did what needed to be done."
This man closed his letter by thanking me for writing to him. He said my inquiry made him realize that he needed to tell his own children about his war experiences. I truly hope he did.
And, oh how I wish that night when I was 12 watching "Combat" I would have snapped off the television set and gone to my dad and said: "Please, tell me more about war."
Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his "Beneath Wy'east" column once a month here on the Post's editorial pages.
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