It is Memorial Day here in the United States and this is the day we honor our military veterans who have died in service, as well as those who have served and are currently serving. While we set this one day aside to honor our men and women, I grew up with men who served in World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. This story is about my father, who was a Marine serving in the Philippines and taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. Both my brothers were Marines, as is my Cousin, Frank. My Uncle Pete and my Uncle George also served during World War II.
My parents divorced when I was six years old. I remember being called to say goodbye to him as he moved out of the house. I was upstairs vacuuming the bedroom I shared with my older sister. My first thought was relief, “Well, they won’t fight any more.” All four kids lined up. We stood outside, in front of his car. He had one finger holding a hanger – maybe a suit or jacket on it, which was tossed over his shoulder. That’s all I remember of that scene.
I remember being a very small little girl and standing on the palms of his hands – hands outstretched to keep my balance and that marvelous grin of his and the glint of laughter and pride in his blue eyes.
With the divorce came weekend visits or being taken out to dinner on our birthdays on a one on one basis. He had a habit of emptying his pockets every night he came home, tossing his change into a jar or a tray, what have you. All year long that change grew and grew and at Christmas time, each child got $50.00 because of that collection of change. Years into this wonderful tradition, he decided to change it up a bit by getting us gifts instead. (We were appalled – we’d already planned on how we were going to spend our $50.00). I was somewhere around 17 or 18, a late developer who had finally bloomed and bloomed well. My father passed me the large gift-wrapped box and took a sip of his Johnny Walker Black Label scotch, watching me finally opening a box instead of an envelope. I lifted the lid, ripped the seal holding the tissue paper and my fingers touched a soft, glossy feeling fabric while my eyes took in the colors and my pupils retracted in self-defense. I lifted out the garment – it had every color in the rainbow – a halter dress to wear over the accompanying two piece bathing suit that matched perfectly. The size of the bathing suit was clearly for someone who was reaching for age 11, but still hovering around 10 years old. While the fabric was stretchy, clearly it would snap if asked to be worn. The halter dress would fit – but the effect might not have been what my father intended. There was a pause, while we both took in the details. At last, my father cleared his throat. “I may have bought that after a liquid lunch… It’s bright, isn’t it?” Liquid? This would have caught the attention of a heroine addict in full thrall. I held the bathing suit up to my chest. My father blinked, “Okay, I may have described you as a little, petite thing.” Ummm. Mind, I wore that halter dress one night, folk-dancing. During a memorable Greek or Israeli line dance, jumping and kicking with my arms resting on the shoulders of the people on either side of me, I felt a breeze and glanced down to see I had come completely out of the top of the dress… Well, it sure did stretch one more time as I kept dancing and pulled it back up and me back inside!
Being the youngest child of two boys and two girls, in that order, I was the least known quantity of the ducklings and I was an odd duckling. My father was a distant God. He had a rule that you never dropped by. You always called first and he would hand you a dime to call him if you forgot, closing the door and telling you to go down the street to the payphone and use it. The nice thing about being the fourth child is I got to learn by watching the others. That dime thing happened to my second eldest brother, who was the spitting image of my father, as his second son is the spitting image of him – it is eerie to look at photographs because you can only tell due to black and white vs. color and time period of clothing and company.
To his friends, clients and family, my father was a marvelous storyteller with that magical gift Irishmen have to tell tall tales, as well as some instructive narratives to his children. He had been a highly decorated Marine in WWII and a prisoner of war of the Japanese, taken in the Philippines. He went in at 6’1, 165 lbs and came out 6 feet, 95 lbs. Afterwards, he never went anywhere for years without a locker of food with him at all times. It wasn’t that he was silent about his experiences during the War, but he would tell the stories of horror with a little bit of humor thrown in, almost a deflective style so he would not hear pity or rage from the listener. He came home with a passion for rice and a couple of recipes that we make to this day. Family history records the day my mother ran out of soy sauce and the words that ensued for that unforgivable error. She promptly spent a large portion of the weekly household budget buying a case of soy sauce so that argument would never happen again… Both my mother and my father loved to read. They were famous for sitting on the couch at either end, reading the latest hardcover. One had the book and tore out the pages to pass to the other so that they could both read it at the same time. We caught the love of reading from them both.
While he was charming, he could be a very harsh man in his judgment. It is very hard to live up to a legend who survived being a POW and became a successful businessman. He was not a demonstrative man, neither in hugs nor loving words. It was hard for him as his own father had been harsh and one of the reasons why he joined the Marine Corps and lied about his age to do so.
I have these flashback memories, some flattering of him, and some not. He was underground in a coal mine when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. I was later to tour the facility at Hanford, where the Nagasaki bomb was built and my realization, as I stood in those rooms, frozen in time, and realized their extraordinary effort brought my father home at long last. He would try to pass on his wisdom. He said that the book, King Rat, by James Clavell, was the closest to his experience as had been written up to that time.
In trying to impress upon me the necessity to never give up hope, he spoke of the rail cars that would come thundering down the mine shafts – the ends hooked together. smashing and bouncing off one another as they hurtled down to be filled by the POWs digging coal. As I recall, anyone hospitalized got a second helping of rice and the POWs were not fed much to begin with. My father said that when a man got to the end of his endurance and couldn’t take it any longer, word would pass through the men in the coal mine that this was the day and to get ready for it. It was the act of the man inserting his foot between the coal cars as they came down and crashed together. The timing was tricky, too much and the man would lose his foot. That is what happened to this man that day. My father paused, shook his head slowly and looked me in the eye. “Two days later, the war was over. That soldier went home without a foot. Never give up hope, kid.”
They found out the war was over because the day Nagasaki was bombed, no guards came back for them. Think of that. That day that began as every other day had begun ended in freedom for some and death for others. I remember him telling about the air drop of food supplies to the POWs while they awaited liberation and transport. Huge, heavy bags filled with various food stuffs would be dropped from a plane. All the POWs would spread out, calling “Mine!” “I got it!” as those fast falling bags would tumble out of the belly of the plane and plummet downwards towards men who more closely resembled scarecrows than men. He admitted they lost quite a few POWs in the beginning, because in their eagerness, they would misjudge the trajectory and get squashed by a bag of Hershey bars or K rations.
My father died at age 58 from the worst form of lung cancer. He was an amazing man, at one and the same time a contradictory human being and a giant in spirt, whom I appreciate more every day. He used to say when we would argue, “Hey, kid, we’ll talk about this again when you’re my age and see what you think then.” I am now his age.
Pause. I had a question and went online to get an answer; then decided to just google my father’s name. I’ve spent several hours reading about the camp he was held at, testimony given by others about their treatment. To see his name listed is both a confirmation and gut-wrenching. The statistics on survivors of Nazi POW camps is significantly higher than those of the Japanese POW camps. And, all the survivors are dying now, faster and faster as time passes.
Thank you, Dad, Uncle Pete, Uncle George, my brother Patrick James, my brother, Sean Edward, and my cousin, Frank, Retired, still serving in Afghanistan. May God bless you and keep you. Thank you.