Dad and I used to go the movies together when I was a kid and we were stationed in Soesterberg, Netherlands. Thursday night at the Camp New Amsterdam Air Force Base theater was westerns and war movies. All my buddies and their dads went. Mom would make grilled cheese sandwiches for dad and me at home, then we’d have popcorn and soda – and candy – at the movies. I always sat down in front with my pals, while dad sat with his friends in the back. John Wayne looked so tall filling the screen as seen from the point of view of a kid with his head tilted way back and stuffing popcorn in his mouth.
I loved the war movies and thought it was cool to be a Soldier, Marine, or Sailor. I didn’t know much about war at that age, even though the war in Vietnam was kicking into high gear. I also didn’t know WWII films were mostly propaganda, intended, naturally, to make folks back home despise the enemy and love our heroic fathers, sons and brothers. War was seen from the 20,000 foot level on the big screen. When death was shown, it was a heroic death if our boys, and a cowardly death if the enemy. The thinking was that the fighting men needed the support of the folks back home, and everyone needed good morale. So movies glamorized war, minimized death, and made a lot of noise.
Dad was a Sailor in the Pacific in WWII, a gunner’s mate, and fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. That’s his battle-damaged ship, an LST, at the top of this post, sailing into San Francisco Bay. He was nineteen during the Battle of Okinawa. Only nineteen. After the war, dad married, joined the Air Force, and started a family.
It never occurred to me later in life to ask dad what passed through his mind – or the minds of his buddies – while watching those movies. Years later we saw Patton together and Midway too; dad didn’t avoid war movies but, with few exceptions, he never spoke about his war experiences. He explained to me once what firing a salvo from a battleship meant, but that was about it. I was curious, but never pressed him to talk about it. I don’t know why. I guess I thought there was plenty of time to ask those questions later.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized how deep an impact the war had had on him. I invited him to tour my aircraft carrier when he and mom visited me in Norfolk, Virginia in the early nineties. He came to the ship, but wouldn’t go on board. That’s when I understood my father. Boarding my ship would have brought too many memories back: the death of his buddies, and the near-destruction of his ship.
To work through my dad’s experiences, I wrote an essay two years ago that pieced together what little I knew from him, and what little my mom would share. As I wrote, I came to understand that his entire post-war life was molded by WWII. I titled the essay Eighteen Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty.
Eighteen Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty. “Eighteen Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty.” That’s how many days my father lived after the war. That’s also how many times my father died after the war. That’s how many times he fell asleep each night praying he would not wake up and relive the war in his mind, only to die again and again and again until, one day, finally, he died and stayed dead. Dad went to war a boy. He came home an old man.
That’s what war did to my dad when he was just nineteen years old.
I will have only one regret someday when I depart this life: That I didn’t know my Dad until it was too late.
I love you, dad.