My dad came from the “greatest generation” of American men who fought in World War II. Like so many of dad’s fellow soldiers, he didn’t say much about the war, most likely because he didn’t want to relive a single minute of it—-or because it was a tacit understanding that military men were sworn to silence, so as not to gloat in victory or wallow in the sheer horror and pyrrhic costs of it—-or so as not to scare the living shit out of their sons and daughters.
Now, close to 75 years after my dad served as a radio control officer aboard a U.S. battleship in the Pacific, all I can ever remember him saying about the war was that the secret code words that the radio officers used were mostly names of Disney characters—-like the time his battleship was carefully navigating through the heavily sea mined and shark infested waters of the Yellow Sea on a mission they called “Operation Mickey Mouse.”
The one thing dad said to me that I will never forget was that he was the only midshipman to sleep down below in his bunk during that mission because his fellow navy men figured that if the ship hit a sea mine in the middle of the night, if they were sleeping on the deck they would have a better chance to survive. if it wasn’t the sea mines to worry about, it was the ravenous sharks and the belligerent Japanese.
Dad said that he would take his chances by trying to get a good night’s sleep in his own bunk. I remember saying to him and being so glad I did: “God, dad! That’s some ballsy stuff!”
Years later, I was reminded of dad’s story while reading Laura Hillenbrand’s best selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival.
If you haven’t read this book—-my goodness—-do yourself a favor. It’s the incredible story of WW II air force pilot and former UCLA track star Ernie Zamperini’s survival of the Japanese POW camps and in particular being relentlessly tortured by a despicable Japanese officer called ‘The Bird.”
Of course, while reading Unbroken, I couldn’t help but be even more impressed with the kind of POW tortures that Arizona senator John McCain endured in Vietnam. McCain’s heroism was also “unbroken” and that fact that any American would ever question or try to mitigate McCain’s impeccable honor and courage is beyond egregious.
Fortunately for me, my dad survived the war. I would have never existed, had he not.
Growing up in the Vietnam War era of the 1960 was very challenging on an emotional level. I still to this day get choked up every time I hear the song Wooden Ships, by Jefferson Airplane (written by David Crosby, Paul Kantner and Stephen Stills):
“Horror grips us as we watch you die, all we can do is echo your anguished cry, stare as all your human feelings die, we are leaving—-you don’t need us.”
Wooden ships = coffins coming home from across the ocean to a silver shoreline.
It was resonant anti-war ballads such as “Wooden Ships” and Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” that inspired a small group of my Canterbury School classmates and me to sneak down in the middle of a night in May of 1973 to the New Milford CT village green where we spray-painted a small pink peace sign on the town’s giant WW II army tank.
We were young enough to have missed the draft and old enough to feel the horrors of war from afar.
Then, I will never forget the day when a student of mine at Foxborough High School who knew I was an Arizona Cardinals’ fan asked me in front of the whole class what I thought of Pat Tillman enlisting to become a special forces ranger in the U.S. army.
I do not think I have ever had a prouder moment in one of my classes. I took the risk of showing the students Pat Tillman’s “I haven’t done shit” interview with the media of September 12, 2001, captured at the 1:30 mark of this tribute video:
I vividly remember how fired up the students were to see pat Tillman’s face and to hear his voice. Following the 2002 graduation, at Foxborough we had a record number of students, both male and female, enlist in the military.
The exceptional thing about America’s youth is—-at the times they are most needed—-they sure know how to take the ball and run with it.
I will never forget—-the very next class after showing the students the Pat Tillman interview, the same student who asked me the question and two of his classmates presented me with a poster they made that very day in CAD (computer automated design) class—-it was of Pat Tillman kneeling in his Cardinals uniform in front of the twin towers.
That poster graced the wall of my classroom for the duration of my career. Whenever students would ask me about it—-I would stop whatever we were doing to tell Pat’s story.
While growing up, my dad was my living legend hero.
After my dad passed away in 1987, Pat Tillman became my living legend hero of the post 9-11 years. My dad and Pat Tillman were nothing alike physically—-my dad was tall and skinny and mild-mannered, while Pat Tillman was shorter and rugged and uber-aggressive.
But what my dad and Pat Tillman had in common was insatiable intellectual curiosity—-both were voracious readers. In a metaphorical sense, both my dad and Pat spent a great deal of time at the top of their respective water towers thinking about life and all of its challenges and complexities—-while pondering the vast number of religious and philosophical ideologies they had accumulated through their impressive erudition.
I believe that my dad and Pat Tillman embraced a romantic view of life, even while experiencing the great horrors of war. I know that their belief in the United States of America and their pride for the flag, were at the heart of their patriotic outlooks on life.
My dad never wanted to talk about war or about the horrors he witnessed—-and neither did Pat. Pat didn’t want any of the local or national attention that he received—-he just wanted to quietly serve his country like every other soldier—-to do his part just like anyone else would or as he would say to do “his shit.”
My dad passed away in a VA hospital in Connecticut after years of battling the PTS that came with fighting in the war and then losing his job at age 50 because companies back then didn’t want to have to pay pensions and there were no laws or unions to protect faithful, productive employees like my dad.
Pat Tillman died on the dusty hills along the Iraq/Afghanistan border, killed by the “friendly fire” of his own men—-which the military and the commander in chief did their best to cover up—-and thereby Pat Tillman was propagandized as a military legend and honored posthumously with the Silver Star, the army’s most prestigious award for bravery—-but after the cover-up was exposed, some military purists had the temerity to suggest that a soldier killed by his own men didn’t deserve the medal.
These are added horrors that few Americans want to talk about—-until perhaps the silence becomes deafening or intolerable.
Thus on this Memorial Day, imagine what it must be like to find oneself crouched in a blisteringly hot, suffocating trench with artillery exploding all around you. Imagine what it must feel like to witness young, beautiful souls offer up the most selfless sacrifice of all—-:
Kudos and the most profound salutes to those of you who don’t have to imagine it, because like poet Wilfred Owen, you were there to witness it, and those of you, unlike Wilfred Owen, who were eventually fortunate enough to make it out alive.
But kudos and the highest of praise to those who perished in battle—-your legacies and sacrifices must never be forgotten.
Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori: