Monday, June 21, 2010

The Greatest Generation

This is my favorite hat. It is easy to see that it gets regular use. It is 24 years old, and one of three that I own. It’s been washed many times, but each washing seems to be less effective than the previous washing. One day I’ll have the patch removed and transferred to a new blue ball cap, but only when this one falls apart. The value is in the patch. The nostalgia is in the entire hat.

I have recently become aware of how many stares this ball cap invites, especially in a town where soldiers and army paraphernalia are a dime a dozen, where Colonels are as common as quarters. You can determine my entire naval career by looking at this cap. At least the important parts. I was submarine qualified. I served in Antarctica. Most people assume that I went to the South Pole on a submarine, but that is impossible. Subs go underneath and/or surface in the Arctic Ocean. I know that many sailors live in Antarctica each year, but the number is so small that in the 24 years since I served on the ice I’ve never met another person on the street who has been there. I’ve met plenty of prior enlisted men, and many former sailors.

Last Saturday night, the Boss and I stopped in a Goodwill store on a whim. While I was there I met an older man who was himself a former sailor. He looked to be in his early to mid sixties. He saw my dolphins and shook his head.

“You sub boys,” he said. “I couldn’t do that. I was on a carrier.”

“Ouch, carrier duty,” I replied. “That’s a lot of people on one boat.”

Competition between surface and sub sailors can be fierce, but this was a genial conversation.

“Oh, it wasn’t so bad. I had three squares a day and a place to put my head each night.”

“I understand,” I assured him. “I was a cook. Of the sixty people in my cooking school class, 52 went to carriers. The other 8 went to subs. For a cook, subs were better duty.”

“I worked in the engine room,” he told me.

There was a brief pause and then man said something that completely changed this benign conversation about naval duty.

“We were docked in Tokyo Harbor when the armistice was signed.”

“Armistice!” I thought. “That means…”

“You were in Tokyo Harbor when the Armistice was signed?” I asked, just to make certain that I had heard him correctly. “You served in World War II?”

“I did,” he replied.

I extended my hand to shake his. “Thank you for your service to this country,” I told him. “I do not get the privilege of speaking with World War II veterans very often.”

“And thank you for yours,” he replied, shaking my hand.

“Carrier duty,” I said. “That was dangerous duty in the Pacific.”

“We never got attacked directly,” he explained. “But of course some of our planes returned shot-up.”

“I bet they did. So, did you lie about your age to enlist? You do not look old enough to have served in that war.”

He laughed. “My mom signed the papers for me. I was seventeen. I had read about the beating our boys were taking in Okinawa.  I did not want to be soldier because I knew that I would be sent there. I knew I would be drafted, so I enlisted in the Navy. I’m 84 now. ”

The conversation ended as nicely as it had begun after the man’s wife indicated that she had completed her shopping. I watched them walk out the door together, briefly wondering if the Boss and I would be blessed to be out shopping together on a Saturday night when I am 84 and she is 80. I hope so.

Can I just say, “Wow?” I cannot imagine being 17 and facing the choice of serving in the infantry of the army or the marines on the island of Okinawa or facing the threat of Japanese submarines or Kamikaze pilots on a floating city target in the middle of the ocean. Furthermore, I cannot imagine being so humble about serving my country in the time of war that I would casually mention my service on an aircraft carrier as if it had taken place during the peacetime of the 80’s like my time in the service. I’m glad that I took my turn and served my country, but let’s face it; my service was not the same as that man’s service, or the service of the men and women who enlisted during Persian Gulf One, Persian Gulf II, or any of the action that has taken place since I left the armed forces. That a man such as this one even remotely considers his service and mine to be equal only serves as a testament to the fact that his generation is aptly named The Greatest Generation.

I was honored to have spoken with him.


Kathleen said...

Wow! Ever wonder why God plans it just that you have a chance meeting with someone like that? Amazing!

L. said...

Kathleen started her comment off the same way I had planned to start mine. WOW! What a deeply moving and meaningful post, Arby. I am so grateful you had that experience. I think you and that gentleman did each other proud. Double WOW!!

Michelle said...

Truly awesome!! I will have Kevin look out for another hat or patch for you. If we find one, I'll let you know!

Oklahoma Granny said...

Your post makes me wonder if the gentleman mentioned the name of the carrier he was on. You see, my dad served on the USS Saratoga in the engine room during WWII. My dad passed away in February of 2000. He would have been 92 this year.

joysandrewards said...

What a moving post. I was just thinking recently how few of that generation are left...and how greatly we as a country are already missing their strength, their selflessness, and their sacrifice. I'm glad you had the privilege to have this conversation...I too would have felt very honored.

By the way, peace time or not, thank you for your service!

Some Guy said...

They don't make 'em like they used to.

Twisted said...

My father served in WWII as crew chief of a C46 transport. His crew flew from Biak Island on many missions to supply the troops. I love hearing these stories of our vets.
My neighbor (across the street) was in Vietnam. His picture is on the front cover of a book. You see him and his radioman calling in the helicopters for a pick-up out of a hot zone. I could listen to his stories for hours.
Thanks for the wonderful story.

TherExtras said...

Thank you for your service, Arby, and thank you for this story.

Have you ever visited the submarine museum near the base in Groton, CT? Very nice. I can also recommend the George HW Bush National Museum of the War in the Pacific in Fredericksburg, TX. I bet you might run into some great veterans at either of those 2 places.


L. said...

Oh, but they DO make'em like they used to. All branches of our wonderful U.S.military are chock full of them. As usual, many of them are very young and are ably performing extremely important, responsible jobs taught to them by more seasoned personnel. They're the ones whose parents often debated whether they were responsible enough to drive the family car. They are males and females, the same ones parents had a hard time letting go of, who are on duty 24/7 ready to give the same level of heroic effort vets in every war have been known to give in order to keep those of us at home safe and free. While they may not have had a clue of what they were getting into when they signed up, they become highly trained and skilled, doing their jobs just like those before them and they will be followed by more of their kind. They are why we must never, ever forget our vets and active duty personnel. The average American needs to be reminded that freedom isn't free. Every American would benefit from visiting a military base(s) and seeing what our very young citizens in the military do every single day of life. It's amazing! They are our future veterans who we will refer to with gratitide and respect for what they did for us and so on and so on. Remember the vets. Visit the VA hospitals. Bring books, toiletries, etc. to them. Many of them have nothing or no one. Do you have a talent? Please share it with them and not just at the holidays. To know they are thought of can mean the world to them. Yep...they DO make'em like they used to and God Bless Them All.

Bagel's Life @ Home & School said...

Wow! That's so cool! His story of how and why he enlisted reminded me of my granddad's reason for enlisting. He didn't want to be drafted into the Army and "made to crawl on the ground", so he enlisted in the Air Force instead. He graduated at the top of his class and was assigned to instruct other pilots on how to fly the bombers. He would have been 89 this year.

Brownie said...

Thanks Arby for this story. Even though you served during peacetime - if things had changed, you still would have been there. So my thanks to you - and to the others - who were serving in preparation.

My father in law is 90. He served in Okinawa during WWII. He has a purple heart.

The_Kid said...

Great story Arby. The Greatest Generation by far.

GingerB said...

Thank you Arby, and thank you for thanking that sailor too. I have heard that recently funding has been added to help our vets who suffer from PTSD and substance abuse issues, and in my town, we are looking at a "veteran's court" to facilitate channeling people towards services they need instead of just punishment. One of the saddest things I have learned working in criminal law is how shamefully we treat our veterans and how underserved that population is. One of those times I'm all for increasing public spending . . . veterans deserve a lot more support than they get.

Papa Bear said...

Guys like you are the reason we had peace in the '80s. Thank you.
And thanks for reminding us about guys like him.

Diana said...

Thank you for sharing your conversation with the WWII vet. I'm so proud of our servicemen and women, past and present. My dad was in N Africa and Italy with the Army Aircorp in WWII and my son is in the Army now and served in Iraq. I am honored to be an American. Thank your wife too for her service.

Linda said...

Very nice post. My uncle (long gone now) also went when he was 17. Signing those papers to allow her only son to go fly wasn't easy for Grandma to do.