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Belated Veteran’s Day Reflections

November 16, 2010

My father spent almost eight (8) years in the Navy, in two hitches: 1934-38 and again 1941-1945.  He was one of  many who re-enlisted on Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor,  as soon as the recruiting offices re-opened after the weekend. He was a Chief Electrician’s Mate  on different battleships, including the Tennessee, the  West Virginia, and the  Maryland (the last pictured  above). He spent much of WWII on Midway island and was later fond of saying “it’s not the war, it’s the waiting”;  having to always be ready and on alert, never knowing if or when a Japanese attack would come. 

I did not serve during the Vietnam Era.  My experiences in the Civil Rights Movement had made me suspicious of US government propaganda,  its seemingly grandiose ambitions and dubious motives. I had already seen how “fighting communism” had been perverted into McCarthyism,  union-busting and anti-labor actions, and as a  defense of continued  racism and segregation. I didn’t think of soldiers  as either heroes or as villains.  I saw soldiers as victims, naive, unsophisticated young men who were pawns in politicans’ games. I didn’t want to be one.  I used doctor’s notes, student deferments and other legal stratagems to maintain deferments. In a more Freudian sense, I rejected my father as a role model and did not want to be like him or to follow in his footsteps. It did not occur to me at that age to wonder how much of his unhappiness, self-discontent, and  how  many of his disagreeable personality traits were products of  his military and wartime experiences.  There are degrees of PTSD, after all. But I knew nothing of that in my younger days.

My father was a politically conservative man and a culturally conservative man. He was from a working-class family of  Humboldt County dairy farmers and loggers on the Northern California coast  that had been impoverished during the The Great  Depression. As soon as he finished high school, he joined the service to escape.  He chose the Navy because he said he’d been told, “the Army does the work, the Marines get the glory, and the Navy gets the pay.”

He married my mother when he was 23  and she 21. They stayed married until his death parted them 37 years later. I am certain he always voted Republican. He never drank after th war and worked the same job he’d started in 1939, resuming it upon his 1945 discharge. He was a  ‘motor repairman” , a shop electrician who  repaired industrial machinery like overhead cranes, assembly lines, dredges, and Bay Bridges.  He went to work the same time every Monday through Friday, year after year, until a massive heart attack disabled him in 1971 at age 55.  six  years alter, another heart attack proved fatal.  He pinched pennies but would never touch a penny that wasn’t his.  He was even reluctant to accept anything for free, for fear of hidden strings or  expected obligations.  (“Gifts make slave,” an old African proverb says).

Growing up int he 1950s, I found a lot of interesting miscellany in Army-Navy Surplus sores, which seemed to be all over. As a Boy Scout, our canvas pup tents, for example, were Army surplus,  and trading cards, like baseball cards, depicted military aircraft of various nations and challenged us to  learn to recognize them by their silhouette as  “Friend or Foe”.  I collected some of the hundreds of colorful military patches and campaign ribbons the stores sold. I asked why father where his were.

He  showed me his “ruptured duck”, symbolizing honorable discharge from he miliary but nothing more. He said so many men got and displayed on ther uniforms battle ribbons and honors they hadn’t earned–to impress civilians with a load of “fruit salad” on their chest. This practice was so widespread that my father and his buddies were  disgusted to the point where they  didn’t even bother to collect their awards much less  sew or pin them onto their uniforms. Their uniforms were bare but for the mandatory insignia of rank.

They didn’t care about impressing others, , public honors,  or ticker-tape parades. They just wanted the respect of the men they fought beside, the men in their unit   They didn’t see themselves as “heroes”. They just wanted to be known as men who’d done their part, who’d shared the burdens and the dangers the men around them did.

Although a conservative Republican (he voted for Eisenhower and later, for Nixon,; supported “right to  work” laws in California, despite working in a union shop and  being a paid-up member of IBEW Local  #6), he had no use, and I mean no use, for groups like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).

He believed such saber-rattling, war-mongering  groups, usually  right-wing, were composed of men  who felt cheated because they’d never been in combat. They felt like they “missed out” and wanted another chance at combat. The  sort  of men with a lot unearned “fruit salad” on their shirt fronts, who imagined war as a Chance for Glory or a Heroic Test of Manhood.  He said real combat veterans ( like himself and his buddies) knew what service in combat zones really meant and had no desire for more of it. They knew it wasn’t some “John Wayne”   Hollywood fantasy movie.

With that, he warned me against phony “patriots” and  those who tried to hide their war-mongering under a cloak of  “honoring our veterans.”

It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. It’s a lesson we all need to remember, now more than ever.

Happy Veteran’s Day, Dad.  You are remembered.  












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