As I wandered the city on this Memorial Day weekend I couldn’t help but notice it was Fleet Week, a tradition in which active military ships, recently deployed in overseas operations, dock in a variety of major cities for one week, including New York. Observing the sailors enjoying the city reminded me of my father.
I think about my father on Memorial Day more than at any time during the year: He enlisted in the Navy on his seventeenth birthday, seventy-three years ago this week. He served in the Pacific, during WWII, and then as part of the occupying force in the year following the war. And he would have been ninety this Wednesday, May 30, one day before the “original” Memorial Day.
Like many veterans, my father didn’t talk much about his war experience. Every now and then there’d be a “war” story, but they were often humorous and usually post war stories: How he’d finagle extra coupons for beer at beer bashes on Okinawa or how he and his cousin met up in Okinawa–he was on another ship–commandeered a jeep and drove it into the ocean. Must’ve been after a beer bash, I’ve often thought, but I don’t remember the details.
A story’s details are often not that important
to great storytellers and they didn’t much matter to my father, nor to his listeners. He’d begin with a “twinkle in his eye” smile. The ever present cigarette, punctuating his remarks. Delivering the punch line, pausing…and then…opening his eyes wide. Throwing his head back in laughter. Memorable laughter. You couldn’t help but laugh right along with him no matter how many times you’d heard the story, no matter how many times it’d changed.
He loved reliving the past, but only a small part of the past. There was little mention of his day-to-day life in the Navy. There were a few photos with notations on the back, but not much more. What was the experience of a teenager from Queens, thrust onto the world stage, in the midst of the greatest conflagration ever? I had no idea.
I study family history to get an understanding of the themes and moments that were my families and ancestors’ day-to-day existence. I wonder, how have the lives of those who came before me influenced whom I have become? Historian Shelby Foote once said, “So you get that thing and you get the weather, you get the soil and you get the coloration of things; get the true feel of it.” I’d ask, “How do I get the true feel of my father’s experience? How do I breathe of my father’s space and time?”
A few years ago I was searching the Internet, looking for information on my father’s ship, the USS Antietam, an Essex-class aircraft carrier. As I searched the website I noticed a book called, “Occupying Force” by D. Charles Gossman. The author’s father, who like my father, was “Charlie” and was also seventeen when he joined the Navy, had served on the Antietam the very same twelve months my father had. Gosman’s diary chronicles visits to Japan, China, and numerous Pacific Islands, while recording reactions to operating dangers aboard the ship, tidal waves and typhoons. I now knew where my father was for the entire year he was on the Antietam. For the first time, I felt connected to my father’s experience.
I remember my father telling me how he’d lived through a typhoon. But, thanks to Gossman’s diary, I learned that my father left out a major part of the story. On August 21, 1945 the USS Antietam was notified that it was one of the ships chosen to participate in the September 2nd surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay, certainly a great honor. Pride must’ve been running high aboard the Antietam as it set sail for Japan. But on August 24 the Antietam’s hull suffered structural damage during a typhoon–the storm my father had mentioned–and the ship was ordered to Guam for inspection. Repairs were initiated but they were pulled from the surrender ceremonies and redirected to Okinawa. My father had mentioned the typhoon but he never mentioned that he and his shipmates were to be part of the surrender ceremonies. I was incredulous when I learned this. Was this a major disappointment? Why hadn’t he told me? I’ll never know.
I’ve spent the weekend thinking of my father, his dreams, some realized, some dashed, imagining his life aboard the ship and I’ve been thinking of his stories, his smile and his laughter.
I wish I could hear his laughter one more time.