As Americans nationwide mark Memorial Day, this will be my first Memorial Day without my dad. He was a World War II veteran.
Since my father’s passing two months ago, seven years after my mother’s, I consider how both significant and ephemeral their lives were. My parents were born in the 1920s, and their formative years were spent surmounting two of the greatest crises this country has faced: the Great Depression and World War II.
This hardship tempered the national character. My parents were from poor families that lost most of their means during the Depression. Forces of totalitarianism and cruelty threatened the world, and vast armies killed millions. America was swept up in this conflict, and our civilians, including women, contributed mightily to the war effort.
Mom and Dad worked at Sun Shipyard in Chester, Pa. My father was a party animal, zoot suit and all. But the lovely olive-skinned Mary Anna Foreacre captured his attention, they had lunch together, and their relationship blossomed. Dad became a soldier, and in October 1944, days before he shipped out to fight in the Pacific, they were married. Like many newlyweds then, they did not see each other for two years. But for her, he would ultimately dedicate his life for 61 years.
Dad was an army construction engineer, a dangerous job. I knew long ago that Dad had incurred a wartime injury, but I never heard it from him. (Mom wished he had applied for the Purple Heart.) At our father’s funeral, my oldest brother revealed that Dad had been burned over much of his body. He recovered and went back to active duty, but I never saw him on a beach without a shirt and long shorts. Upon smelling something disgusting, he would say, “smells like human flesh burning.”
In my experience, WWII vets responded to the war in very different ways. My father’s reticence contrasted strongly with my Uncle John’s loquacity. Uncle John, also a hero to me, was a gunner in a flying fortress and brimmed with war stories we boys eagerly devoured. But Dad said hardly a thing. Mom told me many of his best friends were killed in combat.
The animosity that my father harbored against the Japanese diminished as the years went by. In later decades he said they were decent people who had a lousy government, and he and other GIs in the occupation force collected some of their food to feed hungry Japanese. He learned to speak a little of the language, and in later years, in a grumpy mood, he said it would have been better for this country had the Japanese won, given all those “damned politicians in Washington.”
On the other hand, he was a soldier and obeyed as a soldier should. Roosevelt and Truman demanded unconditional surrender of the Germans and Japanese, and this meant the war was pursued with ferocity. Dad had little patience with the moral posturing of those who said we shouldn’t have dropped the atomic bombs. He was in the infantry, deploying to invade Japan just as the bombs were dropped. The GIs all cheered. Moralizing is easy when you’re not preparing to invade an island fortress.
After the war, my father’s life was characterized by competence. He never strived to become elite in society: a celebrity, plutocrat, or even a member of the country club. He was successful in his chosen career as a factory engineer. He was there when I needed him and faithful to his chronically ill wife. He built furniture for his sons and grandchildren, re-worked old guns, and flew gliders and painted in retirement, renewing a hobby he had to give up during the Depression. He was always interested in science, and until the very end at age 90, he loved discussing the latest advances and read about quantum mechanics. Dad always told me to pay attention—that everyone could teach me something.
At Dad’s death I pondered the words of Blaise Pascal, Christian natural philosopher: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. . . . All our dignity then, consists in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”
My father was a deeply creative person who coupled the analytical abilities of an engineer with the sensibilities of an artist. But he was a reed. And Mom was another kind of reed herself. The fierce independence of the American spirit was sublimated to strength in the faithful soldiers of our wars. Many of those soldiers of World War II are dying only now, as are their sweethearts, and freedom depends on their children and our children.
Requiescat in pace, Dad and Mom.