My father didn’t die in the war. Technically, Memorial Day isn’t about him, but forgive me if I reflect on what his generation meant.
Memorial Day is set aside to remember the men and women who died in uniform while fighting for our country. Veterans Day is the more appropriate time to remember all vets, including those like my Dad who served and then went home to live normal lives and died of old age.
So excuse me if I reflect a little bit on what it must have been like to be my father in 1944. He was drafted at 18-years old and chose, for whatever reason, to be a paratrooper. Later in life I knew him to be a guy who didn’t much like heights.
He was training to drop into Japan as part of what was predicted to be a bloody invasion that would have made D-Day look like a stroll in the park. In other words, he was jumping out of airplanes, something that isn’t without danger on the best day, preparing to jump into a fight that had a very good chance of leaving him dead or seriously wounded.
As it turned out, Harry Truman used nuclear weapons to end the war before that became necessary. Instead of parachuting into Japan, he marched into the country in September, 1945 as part of the occupational forces. He spent the next year or so in northern Japan around Sapporo, where he learned how to ski. He told me that he only fired his weapon once while on duty. He was guarding a supply depot when some civilian Japanese tried to loot it — they were hungry. He shot over their heads, and that was that.
For most of his life, my Dad didn’t make a big deal out of his service. In fact, he used to refer to them as “the armed farces of the United States.” I suppose that was mostly because virtually every guy of his generation had served in some capacity. It wasn’t a big deal to him because it was a common experience of his generation.
One of the great mysteries of my young life was my father’s wings. He earned those by passing jump school. They were silver wings with a full parachute in the middle. He had given them to my mother, who kept them in a box in one of her drawers. Once in a great while, she would pull them out and show them to me. I was awed both for the beauty and romance of the thing itself, but also for the aura that surrounded it. Those wings were not proudly displayed, but tucked safely away in the most off of off-limits places — my mother’s bureau. Maybe the idea was to send the message that these weren’t play things for four kids, like my father’s sergeant’s insignia patch was.
But, over time, my father’s reticence to talk about his service weakened. I blame Tom Brokaw. In 2001 Brokaw published a book called, “The Greatest Generation.” A cynical person might suggest that he was pandering to his audience. Brokaw was the anchor of the NBC Nightly News and who watches the nightly news shows? Right.
Brokaw’s whole premise was that my parents’ generation was toughened by the Great Depression, then fought to victory over fascism, only to downplay their own accomplishments as they got on with the task of raising their families. That may have been mostly true… until Brokaw published his book. Then the floodgates were open. The modest Greatest Generation started referring to themselves as such. My father attached his wings to a WWII Veteran ball cap. Brokaw had spoiled the old people.
But that didn’t diminish what they had accomplished. They made the world safe for a couple of generations of consensus, at least in most of the Western World, around classical liberal values. In a word, they kept us free.
My father didn’t end up having to die in the war, but give him credit for being ready to do just that. When he died of natural causes a few years ago, I’m not sure exactly what happened to his wings. My mother may have buried them with him. Or maybe she put them back into her chest drawer, which, if I think about it, is really their rightful place of honor.