I traveled to Tinton Falls, New Jersey over the weekend in order to interview my friend’s father, a WWII veteran who served in the Pacific from 1943 to 1946. I wanted some details for the next book in my WWII series, Christmastime 1944.
Tom had a modest, understated manner when describing his time in the war, a trait so common in that generation: you did your duty to the best of your ability, and didn’t complain about it. (He also talked a bit about his years as a NYC policeman – which included delivering four babies!)
With an occasional reference to the album on his lap, full of photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and mementos, he described boot camp and then leaving from the Brooklyn Naval Yard on the U.S.S. Bennington, an aircraft carrier.
They sailed through Panama and stopped at Hawaii. In the album were the now classic WWII images of Hawaii: women in grass skirts dancing the hula, sailors with leis around
their necks posing against a tropical backdrop – just young boys, seemingly far too young to be in uniform. Then on to the Pacific.
Tom described being stationed at the gunnery, and how the kamikazes would often attack four at a time, two flying low, just above the water, two up high; one came so close that they saw the pilot’s face. “He came out of the clouds. If he had emerged another fifteen or twenty feet closer, I wouldn’t be here today.” And there were photographs in his album of night time kamikazes taking fire.
He described the typhoon off Okinawa in June, 1945 that snapped off the prow of their aircraft carrier, “bent it like a pretzel.”
Miraculously, no lives were lost. Besides the euphoria of having survived the typhoon, a surge of happiness filled the seamen– surely the battered ship meant they were going home!
But no. The ship was patched in the Philippines and continued on towards Japan.
After about two hours of reminiscing, it was time to let Tom take a rest. We would come back later to take a closer look at the photo albums.
At dinner that night, overlooking beautiful Tinton Falls, my friend and I wondered: what was it about WWII that so defined our parents’ generation? Why was that the topic of conversation they always wanted to talk about? After all, three years out of ninety-one years in her father’s long life seems a very short time.
For my father, it was his time in the Army Airforce, as it was called back then, that was his favorite storytelling topic. We grew up with his tales of WWII, and now that I think of it, I don’t really have a clear idea of his life before or after the war. As with Tom, it’s as if those war years remained in color and sharp focus, fresh in detail and charged with emotion.
Was it because it was a pivotal point in their lives, the transition between boyhood and manhood? The jarring experience of being a 17- or 18-year old boy with his eye on the future, college, the girl next door, suddenly pulled into a cause larger than his dreams, into a world-wide conflict? Was it the strong camaraderie in life and death situations? The pride of having served a purpose higher than the one they might have chosen for themselves? An unspoken: I was there. I was part of something great. In a war of values, I fought on the side of good. And won.
Before leaving Tom and the assisted living place, my friend and I stopped by its library to drop off a set of my books. We noticed that there were several shelves reserved for books about WWII.
My friend recognized one of her father’s dining buddies, Eric, and introduced me to him. There he was, well into his nineties, with an atlas opened before him, the seat of his walker serving as a table. He was intently poring over a map of Italy, his finger slowly traveling up the map. He was British and I thought perhaps he had vacationed there, or maybe he was checking a fact from a book or conversation. We asked about his interest in Italy.
With a twinkle of pride in his eye, he looked up and smiled. “I was stationed in Italy, during the war.”