Archive for August 7th, 2010

My Old Man

By Ron Harris, Conway, SC

There was great relief and much celebration in America on August 14, 1945, as America noted “Victory over Japan,” or “V-J Day.”  Some three weeks later, World War II was formally over with the signing of Japan’s surrender on Sept. 2, 1945 on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Those events’ upcoming 65th anniversaries likely won’t draw much attention, at least not as much as they should.  When I think of what occurred the four years previous (1941-45) to those historic dates, I remember My Old Man.

As I grow older, I think about him a lot — my long-deceased father whom I rarely had time for as a teenager, young man, 30-something, etc.  He died in 1986 at the age of 65.  I passed the 67-year mark this past March and reflect periodically on that uneventful birthday: “Well, I’ve outlived my old man, for whatever that means from an anatomical and heredity analysis,” I muse.  Of course, my mother died in 1964 at age 40, so my mortality genes are likely quite confused.

With my family’s health history, I’m probably not likely to probe the treasure troves of life many more years, but that’s okay.  I live life on life’s terms now. For all the potholes and problems therein, my tenure on this planet has been good.  I have a comfortable retirement income, a wonderful spouse, two loving adult children, an outstanding daughter-in-law and the three cutest, smartest grandkids east of the Mississippi.

I believe I owe my good life, in some or large part, to the efforts of My Old Man, and his American brethren who have come to be regarded as the nation’s “Greatest Generation.”   The years are taking their toll, and those Greats are dwindling rapidly.

And now you’re muttering, “Oh, geez – here we go with another sentimental journey under the apple tree with those geezers that whipped the Axis powers and saved the world.  Put on Glenn Miller and Andrews Sisters’ music, old dude.”

Well, okay, let’s take that journey (sans Glenn and the Sisters), and I promise not to get overly sentimental.  If at any time you want to hop off this cruise, feel free…

…he was the youngest of five children raised in the Texas panhandle, kids of cotton farmers who squeezed out a living during the Great Depression.  College, of course, was out of the question for them.  His two sisters married in their teens and moved nearby, he and his two brothers helped on the farm, the oldest becoming a farmer himself, the other a tractor mechanic.

They did what they had to do and rarely complained about their situation(s), or lack of material things.  They were decent, hard-working men and women who loved their families and country, asking nothing from anyone.

My Old Man was the only one in his family to serve in the military and WWII.  He sought to enlist immediately after Pearl Harbor, but his eyesight nixed his admittance into the Navy or Air Corps.  He tried the Army, but was rejected for his “flat feet.”  He resigned himself to the notion that the military didn’t have a place for him.

But those feet must have miraculously improved in two years, because in the fall of 1943 (a few months after I was born), he got the “Greetings” letter from Uncle Sam – and he was off for basic training in the Army.  A few months later he was on a troopship to the South Pacific, along with hundreds of other troopships and thousands of GIs as the war in the Pacific raged.

Growing up, I learned in bits and pieces from family conversations that My Old Man – a muscular farm-kid who made PFC merely by toting a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and its belted ammo — had been at New Guinea, Saipan, and then the retaking of the Philippines in late 1944, the battles for Leyte and Leyte Gulf, particularly.

I asked him only once over the years if he had gotten any medals in WWII.  He commented, dismissively, “Yeah, I got a Purple Heart and a Good Conduct medal – both of which I could have done without.”

He fibbed a bit there, but I didn’t know it until after his death in 1986, because, as with most Americans in that war, he talked little about his experiences in combat.  The horrors of war are often unspeakable and something few people, particularly those in WWII, want to revisit.

In the summer of 1986, my wife, stepmother and I were going through My Old Man’s belongings and papers, as families do after a loved one’s passing. Therein we found the paperwork, and old hometown newspaper accounts, of some incidents on Leyte — his actions in combat that won him a Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster for bravery in combat.

I won’t go into too much detail here about those actions; he wouldn’t like that. The military report, I’m sure, was minimal, and the hometown newspaper article possibly hyperbolic.  Suffice to say that he provided cover that assisted most of his squad to slip away from a strategically-positioned Japanese machine-gun nest, before he was wounded twice in each leg in that firefight.  But he remained conscious and helped take out the nest before passing out.

When he awoke, he was on the ground in the jungle, not in the clearing where he had previously been.  His wounds had been partially tended, but one Army medic lay dead near him, another was severely wounded some yards away.  Other GIs around him were in a firefight with Japanese soldiers.  My Old Man, according to reports, dragged himself to the wounded medic, then dragged and pulled himself and his comrade to a ditch, away from the heaviest fighting, and used his body to cover his wounded comrade.

For those actions in that clearing and in that jungle, My Old Man received Bronze Stars.  That’s not a big deal to some folks, a lot of those medals have been awarded.  A veteran in Stephen Ambrose’s excellent work, “Citizen Soldiers,” a GI at the Battle of the Bulge, said about medals, “…almost everybody got a Bronze Star there [Bulge], or should have.”

But those Stars and that knowledge was a big deal to me, for I saw My Old Man in a different light than I ever had.  It was an epiphany that I cherish now.

He never mentioned the Bronze Star(s), nor the actions for which he received them, perhaps because he never considered his actions valorous, only necessary. And neither did any of the family talk about it when I was growing up.  My Old Man just didn’t care to speak of any of it, I’m sure preferring to forget rather than remember.

Valor like his, and much more from thousands of others, should never be forgotten.  We Americans should remember the price of freedom every day of our lives, and be forever grateful that My Old Man and thousands of other fathers, husbands, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters were and are ready to pay that price if necessary.

There are some in our nation who abhor and protest war so vehemently and absolutely that they disdain the people who must pay the price for their right to that protest, and some unequivocally hate the uniform and the symbols the uniform conjures.

My Old Man wouldn’t like that.  But, he wouldn’t say anything about it, except maybe, “They’re entitled to their opinions.  That’s what freedom’s all about.”

For all his human failings and the differences we had, he was a good man and a class act.  One doesn’t have to be a military veteran to be either good or classy, but I give all Vets the benefit of the doubt.  And I say “thank you” to every military person I see in uniform when it’s possible to do so.

I also wore the uniform, Navy whites and blues from 1964 – 68, but the closest I came to combat was a bar-room brawl in San Diego.  Not exactly something I like to talk about, either, but for totally different reasons than that of the Greatest Generation.

As for My Old Man, I salute you, Pop, and also say “Thanks.”  Thanks for doing what had to be done, and never carping about it.  You spent the rest of your life in a painful struggle on so many fronts, physical and emotional, but you never complained.  As you noted from time to time, “Keep your problems and troubles to yourself or within the family, son, and work ‘em out.  Ninety percent of people don’t care about ‘em, and the other 10 percent are glad you got ‘em.”

As horrible as wars were and are, they are a fact of life.  They always have been and always will be, unless or until a human-triggered Armageddon ceases all of mankind’s trials and tribulations.

I pray your great-grandkids will not have to face the horrors you did, Dad.  But if they do, I want them to remember the role models from the “Greatest Generation,” particularly you.


“There are no extraordinary men – just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.”  — Vice Adm. William “Bull” Halsey, following the Battle of Midway, June, 1942.

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