Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Son's Tribute to His Father and the Greatest Generation

Darrel Atwood

Darrel Atwood, far left, Okinawa

John Atwood, my husband, prepared this message several years ago in case one of the Pillars of Honor speakers failed to show. Although he didn't get a chance to share it in that setting, I thought it was such a moving tribute that it should at least see the light of day here on my blog.

            These speeches usually begin with an introduction describing the speaker’s credentials—and, since the speakers are usually military people, the credentials detail years of service, promotions in rank and areas of responsibility.  Well, I am not a military man, nor did I ever serve in the Armed forces.  My grandfather served in World War I, and my Father in World War II, and I grew up thinking I would probably do so as well.  But it didn’t turn out that way: I graduated from High School in 1970, during the final years of the Viet Nam War, and was exempted from the draft because I went to college. The War ended before I finished school. 

But then again, I believe it would be fair to say that most of the men who served during World War II were not military men either.  You may have been like my Father, who served his country during the War—and certainly that service had a profound impact on his life—but he went on to do other things.  I don’t know that he would want his epitaph to be “drove an Amtrac in the South Pacific during World War II.”  He was but a “Citizen Soldier”, like many of his contemporaries, who served not to pursue a career, but because the world, our nation and our very way of life were threatened by a great evil.

I think this an important notion to grasp.  For instance, since my wife and I started doing our History Singers programs, which involve many Veterans and Memorial Day performances, I have found myself being just a little—I don’t know, frustrated?--that for most Americans, Memorial Day is a day for picnics, barbecues, sporting events and maybe parades.  Little thought seems to be given to the fact that it is a day to remember those who gave their life serving their country.  But last May something hit me: in the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, and especially World War II, did men—and women—respond to the call, and lay their lives on the line, so that there would be solemn memorials in their honor in the event of their death?  Or was it more about making sure America could go on having peaceful holidays and barbecues without worry or fear?  I think next Memorial Day I will make a special point of firing up the grill, after we get home from singing at the local ceremony, that is. 

Similarly, did you know the number-one selling song of all time in America came out of World War II, and it is not at all a military song?  It was on the air during that same difficult 1942 as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”.  The end of 1942 was the first Holiday season of the war when huge numbers of Americans were away from home, either overseas—in the deserts of North Africa, or the hot swelter of Guadalcanal—or  in training camps, many of which were on the southwest coast or in the south.  The song was White Christmas.  Originally written to express a New Yorker’s frustration at being in sunny southern California during Christmas, it came to symbolize the world these GI’s were out to preserve.  They are the ones who propelled it—then and after the war—to its stratospheric sales of records and sheet music.

No, my credentials today are not military, but simply the fact that I am the bona fide oldest son of a World War II veteran.  That makes me someone who is a beneficiary of what you veterans accomplished.  In fact, since my Father, an Army gunnery trainer and Amtrac driver, was on Okinawa at the end of the war preparing for the invasion of Japan, I know that if the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not succeeded, I probably would never have been born. 

Here are the details. I was born in 1952.  I grew up watching Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo and Tom Terrific on Saturday morning cartoons.  My early heroes were Superman, the Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett (yes, I did own an authentic Davy Crockett coon-skin cap.)  I got polio shots in the butt, then in the arm, and finally by a sugar cube.  We practiced the Civil Defense “duck and cover” drill, talked about bomb shelters, worried about the Russians and The Bomb, and marveled at Elvis Presley, Roger Maris and Willie Mays, the US Space Program and then the Beatles.  I went on to do pretty much all of the things the baby boomers did, except drop acid and get into hard drugs.  I formed a rock and roll band that played at high school dances and sock hops.  I was one of millions of kids at the time who attended Woodstock “in spirit”, it was too far away from where I was to get to.  (I suppose I should also say that I missed the sexual revolution too.  I’m not bragging; some sins fail to materialize simply because one isn’t always successful.)

But the great backdrop of my formative years—the canvas upon which my story began to be painted--was the reality of World War II.  It was all around us when I was young.  Everyone had been in the war, or lived through the war, or talked about the war.  The movies were full of World War II.  The first drive-in movie I can recall, that I stayed awake for--I fell asleep during Old Yeller) was a submarine movie double feature: “Run Silent Run Deep” with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster and “The Enemy Below” with Robert Mitchum and Kurt Jurgens.  I read a children’s version of Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in 5th grade.

There were more tangible things as well.  My father brought back a Japanese rifle that we played with as kids.  He also brought back the nose of a 90mm armor piercing shell.  My brother and I admired it when we were very young, then used it to practice shot put when we got older.  And Dad had a lot of his GI gear—knife, mess kit, web belt, etc. that we used when we went camping and fishing.  I especially remember an army air corp vest loaded with pockets that Dad used as a fly- fishing jacket.

There were a couple of other things he brought back that we greatly admired, but which created a minor bit of trouble.  He had a short chain of live 50-caliber machine gun shells—the kind with the black metal links that would come apart when the shell ejected, as well as a short string of 30-caliber machine gun ammo, the kind that was held together in a kind of cloth belt.  The 50-cal ammo made a big impression on me as a kid—those bullets were so big.  I kind of had a sixth sense that when guys got hit with shells like that they didn’t just slowly slump over into the dirt or onto the deck of a ship like they did in the movies.  What happened with it really wasn’t a big deal.  My brother and I used to go down to the basement and grab it and bring it up into the yard to show and impress our friends.  One day the fuss-budget neighbor lady saw it and called the police.  They came and took the stuff away.  No reflection on my Dad however, women just don’t understand these things.

You see, for my brother and me, our favorite pastime, hands down, was to play Army, as we called it.  I remember when I was about 10 I got a really neato Mattel army set for Christmas or my birthday.  It had a toy Thompson submachine gun, a swell army helmet with camouflage netting, a canteen and a hand grenade you could put a cap in, pull the pin, throw it and it would go bang.  We played army all day long.  Why were we so fascinated with all that?  Well, I suppose because we were boys and boys tend to like that kind of thing.  But I think it was also because subconsciously we knew we were the sons of a hero—and all our friends were the sons of heroes.

That is the way things were supposed to be, after all. We took it all for granted—it was normal.  It was only a few years ago that I realized that that was how I felt.  And at the same time I realized that not all kids growing up are able to feel that way about their fathers.  Our dads answered the call, they, like Superman, the Lone Ranger and Davy Crocket were men who, when the situation called for it, would be there and save the day.  And we wanted to be just like them.

And at that time we had a President who was the collected symbol of all of our fathers.  He had been in the war, he wasn’t a dowdy grey old man, he had class, a kind of worldly wisdom and sense of humor.  He got us going to the moon, and encouraged us all to be physically fit.  He was all of our dads rolled into one perfect model.  Oh, I know, he had some problems—I am not saying he was a great president, just trying to tell you what he seemed like to a 9-year old boy.   

And being as fascinated as we were with our father, we always wanted to get Dad to talk about what he did in the War.  We would listen with rapt attention to any story he would tell us.  But the odd thing was, he didn’t like to talk about it that much.  He would tell more stories about quirky things that happened than he did about actual combat.  In fact, it often seemed that he would say things, almost under his breath like, “war isn’t what you guys want to think it is.”  He didn’t do it like he was trying to wet blanket our fun.  It was more like he was saying, “some day, when you are ready to understand, there are some things I probably need to tell you.”

One story I really remember is his story about the Army intake guy when he was drafted.  He graduated High School in 1940, and wanted to be a Navy Pilot.  But they wouldn’t take him because—get this—he had an overbite.  His older brother owned a welding shop down by Mount Carmel, IL, so he went over there from Kansas to hang around with him and wait to be drafted.  He helped out a little around the shop.  So, when he finally got called up, as he was ‘interviewed’ by the intake person—I think he said it was a corporal, but maybe it was a sergeant--the fellow asked him what he had been doing since he graduated, and my Dad mentioned his brother’s welding business.  The corporal said, “Welding, huh, hmmm.” and he grabbed a book about welding.  Opening up some page, he asked my dad what the difference was between an arc welder vs acetylene, which anyone who had hung around the shop and helped out would know.  Then he opened to another page in the book and asked some other equally inane question, which Dad knew the answer to.  He then closed the book and wrote on the page “Expert Welder”.  Dad couldn’t believe it, and endeavored to persuade the corporal that he was not a welder at all.  The conversation got a bit heated, at which point a “big sergeant” walked over and asked what was going on.  After one comment, then another, the sergeant tried to cut to the chase and said, “Look soldier, what do you want to do?”  Dad said, “Well, I’d like to be in the Air Corps, or I suppose in the Quartermaster Corp., but I don’t want to drive a tank.”  The sergeant said OK and wrote down AF on the page and that ended it.  Dad said they put him on an overnight train from there, and when he woke up in the morning and looked out the window he saw a sign that said, “Welcome to Fort Knox, Kentucky, home of the Armored Force.” 

Dad was there for an extended period of time.  Because he grew up pheasant and duck hunting in Kansas, he knew his way around a gun and was a fair shot.  He was promoted to the rank of corporal and spent some time at Fort Knox teaching other soldiers how to shoot.  But he wanted to see some action so finally, in 1944, he got shipped overseas.  He went to the Pacific Theater and his outfit got attached to the 81st Infantry, and saw action that September at Anguar and Peleliu.  Though he was with the army, the 81st was under the command of the Navy, and it seems that Dad may have driven an Amtrac for the Marines on the second day of Peleliu.  He always talked about driving off the LST in one of those open-backed Amtracs, loaded with Marines, and it went under the water a bit when it went in.  (His point being, looking out through the periscope he had up front, all he saw was water and counted the seconds before the scope rose above it.)  And he said his outfit had no supply line—they had to steal their food from the Marines.  He then stayed on Peliliu with the Army for the long, dragged out mopping up operation.  After that, he came down with jaundice and was hospitalized.  I remember him saying he spent time on Guam and Saipan and finally Okinawa, and was involved in the next to last Pacific landing, on a little island called Iheya Shima in the Ryukus.  He was discharged in 1946.

Actually, the first arguments we had about the Vietnam War were with me defending the US being there and him diametrically opposed.  I was the one who trotted out the domino theory, the one who asserted the need to resist Communism and not fall into the trap of appeasement.  But like I said, there was some insight Dad had about war—especially about wars in jungles and wars in Asia.  He often quoted General MacArthur’s comment that the US should never get involved in a land war in Asia.  I recall him being very disturbed as Vietnam began to escalate during the Johnson years.  I realize now that he understood where things were going, understood that he might have to watch his sons get fed into the same kind of horror that he had endured, and for what?  I always sensed that he understood that not everyone who held a high rank—even President of the United States—always had their head screwed on right.

But, of course, in time, our arguments about Viet Nam flipped around to the more traditional way, especially as he watched those who opposed the war seem to get weirder and weirder and I began to understand Dad’s earlier doubts.  In the end, things begin to divide along the generational lines—his world vs. my world, his music vs. my music, etc.  I don’t bring up this time to open old wounds—actually my desire now is to heal them.  The great grief that I have had is that the divide and disagreements of that era blocked out my memory of the early days for so long.  And I realized that I had never told my Dad that I viewed him with such admiration—in fact, despite any acrimony that arose, I know that deep in my heart I always did.  Like so many of my generation, it took all the force I had to keep from bawling like a baby at that scene in “Field of Dreams” when Ray says, “Hey, Dad… wanna have some catch?”

During the 80’s, I realized I needed to try to understand my Father better.  We were separated by many miles—he living in the Southwest and me in Chicagoland, and both of us without the resources to be able get together across those miles.  But when I contemplated where to start to try to understand his world, I immediately thought of the War years.  I have been reading about World War II since I was in grade school—including as a college History major, but in 80’s I set about it in earnest.  I began to read everything I could get my hands on—histories, photo collections, memoirs, etc.  In fact, during the early 90’s here in the Chicagoland area, there was an old time radio program on one of the classical music stations every Saturday afternoon, and beginning December 7 of 1991, 50 years after the start of the war, each Saturday that program played the music and programming that had been aired during the corresponding week 50 years earlier.  That lasted until August of 1995, so for that 3 and half year period we listened every Saturday.  I don’t think we missed a one.

And then in the new century, my wife started her music performance business, and she saw the need for a program about the music of World War I and World War II, music that so much of America was already forgetting.  As co-performer and accompanist, it gave me the chance to really explore my Father’s music—it was the next logical step.  You may wonder why we do the songs of that era accompanied by a guitar.  Well, for one thing, we didn’t have a “big band” in our pocket, and between that and piano, guitar is my best instrument.  But even more, the best way for me to get inside the music was to do it with the instrument I knew best, the instrument that became part of who I am back in the Sixties.

But as we have now been performing that program for about 10 years, I started to see another angle to the appropriateness of using the guitar.  I suppose if there was any topic that was more symbolic of the rift that developed between my Father and me during the ‘Generation Gap’ period, it was that of music.  We had the usual debates about new ideas and progress vs. the old tried and true, etc.  My position I now find a bit comic as a younger generation uses the same arguments to defend rap and hip-hop music.  So I suppose there is no better symbol of an intent to make peace on that point than for me to be playing my Father’s music using the very instrument that, frankly, was the symbol of the rift between us.  And though not all my opinions about our topics of discussion from that time have changed, I have to say that as a result of learning his generation’s music on the guitar, I have really grown to appreciate and love it.

But also over the years of performing the songs of World War II, something else began to become particularly clear to us: our parent’s generation is rapidly fading from the scene.  And though at one time there was this whole ‘gap’ thing going on, I have to admit that my first reaction to that realization was one of both fear and great loss.  The fear part I would explain like this.  We used to say in our callowness, “Never trust anyone over 30”, but truth be told, I am not so sure I trust my own generation.  Back in the day we liked to “talk about my Generation” as the song goes.  I am not sure there is much to talk about at this point.  Your generation saved the world.  We made a lot of noise at the outset, but I am not so sure we have accomplished very much. The thought of a world without your generation is, frankly, a bit unnerving.  And even though I am now 60 years old, I am not so sure my generation—much any that follow—is up to the task of handling our world.

But there is also a great loss that our country will experience as your generation finally passes on, your connection to important aspects of America’s past.  I was trying to explain this to a French pen pal a year or so ago.  I wrote, “We are losing that generation now.  In the US, that generation has its roots clear back to the 19th Century.  Their grandparents were part of the pioneers who settled the West.  During their youth, there were still people alive who had fought in the American Civil War.  Yet they were also the first completely modern generation.  During their lifetime marvels like the automobile, the telephone, the airplane, the television and the computer became everyday items.  Add to all this, that they saved the world from the greatest evil it has ever seen.  We are losing their experience, their wisdom, their perspective and their connection to all these aspects of our history.  Without them, and given all the forces at work in our society, we may well be cut adrift from our past.”

I was at a motivational meeting one time and the speaker said something that made an impression which has stayed with me ever since.  He said, “Maturity is when you begin to understand what it was your parents were trying to form in your life, and you decide to take on that program and become responsible for it.”  I suppose if there is one thing I hope I could convey to my Father and his generation it is that you can take comfort that at least a few of us have some inkling of what you all were about, and respecting what that was, we are committed to do our best to take on that program and to pass it on to future generations.

This World War II Memorial is but a symbol of the many things your generation represented, and in presenting it as we do today, we are honoring the values that you all stood for.  Neither the sands of time nor the fickle forgetfulness of popular preoccupations, will be able make your legacy fade, diminish or be forgotten.  Future generations will be able to look at this memorial and be moved to understand what is was that your generation thought and did.

My father is still alive, and last Father’s Day I sent him the first draft of this talk.  I don’t think it will ever be possible for him to hear me give this, but I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to express these thoughts to him.  If your own children have not expressed something similar, it may not be because they don’t feel like I do, it is just that it may never have dawned on them what they felt when were younger and that that it might be good to express it.  So, if it is not too presumptuous, please allow me to speak on their behalf and say what we all should have said a long time ago. 

Thank you for your service, for your example, and for your steadfastness through all these years.  Please know that we will always be grateful for what you did and cherish your memory.