Monday, May 30, 2011

May 30, 2011 ~ Day 171
Saluting My Father,
Lieutenant Junior Grade

Memorial Day was originally created as a time to pause, remember, and give thanks for all those brave souls who have died in the service of our country.

My children, like many of their friends, are the descendants of veterans who enlisted to help protect and defend the United States of America during conflicts all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

Today I will share the story of my own father's service to our country, as he recounted it to me in 2007, two years before his death at the age of 83.

I hope that in so doing I will not only keep his memories alive but also inspire his grandchildren - our sons and daughter - to appreciate the valor and courage of all who serve in the United States Military... and the infinite sacrifices they make on our behalf.

* * * * *

"Louisville, Nebraska was about forty miles from Lincoln and twenty miles from Omaha. [As a child] I spent a lot of time at a swimming hole right on the river with my friends, and if we had a good rainy season the rain would crawl right up your sleeves. We loved it.

I played basketball in high school, as it was the only sport offered. (Later they tried to get 'uppity' and made a larger K-12 school with more teams.) I was sort of the prince - the golden boy - for my high school. I'd gotten to be one of the best violin players in the area for my age; they used to run competitions and stuff. My mother was very pushy with the music because she was so thrilled. She couldn't play so she did things like take me to national contests... she would drive me to them and my father let her do it.

While I was in high school, the war exploded on us... or at least, that was when it went full force. My parents wanted me to join the military - I couldn't get out of it. By that time, everyone was joining. My brother was very insistent that I get an officer's situation and there were Army ROTC camps everywhere. So, I missed my senior year of high school and he drug me in with him to the ROTC. When my high school had their graduation, I went home and they had me stand up with them on the condition I would play a violin solo.

By the time that happened I was already enrolled at the University of Lincoln, NE. My brother was Army and I expected to be Army. I trained as an Army ROTC cadet.

The Navy had put together a better program though to get the best recruits and they offered really good incentives. To enlist with the Navy though you had to go to Omaha, so I hopped on a train and spent the entire day being examined, taking tests and so forth. I figured I hadn't passed too well, but lo and behold they picked me!

(The program my father entered was called the V-12 Navy College Training Program. Initiated in 1943, the V-12 was meant to fulfill the Navy's immediate and long-range needs for commissioned officers to man ships, fly planes and command troops.

In 1942 the draft age had been lowered to 18. Foreseeing a coming shortage of college-educated officers for its operations, the US Navy began to collaborate with hundreds of national colleges and universities facing economic collapse without young people to fill their classrooms.

The Federal government stepped in to create the V-12 Navy College Training program, which accepted students already enrolled in Navy and Marine Corps college reserve programs, enlisted men who were recommended by their Commanding Officers and even high school seniors who could pass the national qualifying exam.)

Said my dad, "The new program I'd entered was all over the country. The Navy was creaming - taking the best people from all over the country, even the ones right out of high school who were about to graduate. I ended up at a small college that had turned themselves into a Naval Training Center. However, not long after that, the Navy pulled me out of there and sent me to the University of Minnesota because they wanted people that were well educated. They were training me to be a line officer."

(From 1943 through 1946, more than 125,000 young men were enrolled in the V-12 program at 131 colleges and universities around the United States. All V-12 students were on active duty, in uniform, and subject to 'very strict' forms of military discipline. Approximately 60,000 V-12 students were ultimately commissioned as Navy ensigns or Marine Corps 2nd lieutenants. My father was one of these.)

"I stayed in that program for five tours and then graduated and got my glittering uniform. My degree read "Naval Tactics and Science". The war was still on, but it wouldn't be for much longer.

My brother, the poor devil - poor man - poor brother, he was just about to get his Lieutenant's stripes in the Army but as he was running the final training course maze he fell, smashing his eye into a log. That was the end of his military career. He didn't see anything but hospitals for many years after that. I sure do feel badly about that - it was terrible. He probably saved my life by pushing me to become an officer.

By the time I got to look at a real ship, the shooting was over on the European front but it wasn't over for the people fighting the Japanese. A lot of people in the army were transferred over to that seat of battle. Some in our program were ready to go, but my friends and I weren't. So we were assigned to a cruiser division and they put us on a ship and rode us hard.

There was a lot of training - it was quite an experience. Our ship was stationed at first in New England. The first time I saw a real ship I was so impressed. They crammed all kinds of money stuff at us - knowledge, you know - about what we were supposed to learn. Since we didn't have anything else to do, we learned pretty quick.

One thing I'll never forget, was just as it was time for our ship to leave a Southern dock we got caught in a hurricane. Boy, that was the worst thing I ever experienced. We were out there, it was dark, and there was a terrible roaring, howling sound. I didn't think we were going to make it. Everything above decks was lost, and I think we may have lost more than one person. They had ropes there to catch you if you were going toward the sea, and I almost went overboard. It was really scary.

If you dared to take a bite to eat, you'd vomit - it would make you so sick! Finally the storm blew on and we continued our training about how the ship worked.

The war was over and I could have gotten out but I had spent years training to become a Naval officer and I chose to stay in. I wanted to stay! We did gunnery practice into the water - shooting into open water, and the Navy was fencing off areas so we could do live gunnery practice and not hurt anybody. We were all young Ensigns - all officers - although for that cruise they did not treat us like officers. So, we trained during the day and learned how to be nice people at night.

At the next stop we went to where the Navy trained folks to fight out of submarines. It was the US Navy's place to train and that was the only time I got to go somewhere in a submarine. It wasn't much fun. They gave us a tour and explained things, but I preferred to be on a ship."

* * * * *

Although this is where the tape recording of my father ends, I know parts of the rest of his story. As a Naval officer my dad was on a ship that passed through the Bikini Atoll in 1946 right after the detonation of an atomic bomb there.

Dad and his friends helped hoist the surviving target boats (that had been drenched in radioactive water spray at the time of testing) and load them onto their ship ~ so that they could be returned to the mainland for testing.

One of those target boats was located just feet away from his sleeping quarters on the ship and my father always maintained that it was his exposure to the nuclear radiation that predisposed him to the cancer he developed later in his life.

Though he returned to Minnesota at age 19 to marry his then-sweetheart, Dad was recalled to active duty during the Korean War ("Korean Police Action", per my mom) where he served first as a cryptographer (code-breaker) in Washington, D.C. but was later transferred to become Assistant to the Head of the Naval School of Music in Washington, D.C. in the early 1950s.

All told, my father served in the US Navy and the US Naval Reserve for at least a decade, ending his duty with the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade. He was truly dedicated to the Navy and loved his work, believing in both the cause and his country. When he chose the city where he would put down roots and work as a professor of music until his death, Dad chose a "big Navy town" where he made friends with many veterans and was able to gaze upon his beloved ocean every day.

Over time, my father grew more liberal in his political beliefs and often questioned the dropping of atomic bombs upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, when he attended his 50 year reunion for the University of Minnesota V-12 program, my father learned for the first time that he and his classmates had been trained to go as a second wave of officers to the Pacific theater of battle due to the Navy's privately-held belief that their first wave of officers faced possible decimation.

"If it hadn't been for the dropping of that bomb," he confided in me, "The Japanese would surely have fought until the last man - and I am convinced that I would have ended up in the thick of war. Who knows if my friends and I would have made it. Maybe," he admitted, "dropping the bomb WAS the right thing to do after all."

Up to the end of his life, Dad felt so proud to have been selected as a member of the elite V-12 program, whose members included senators, ambassadors, famous athletes, journalists and two of his personal heroes - Robert F. Kennedy and Johnny Carson.

My father's unusual Naval career reminds us that there are many different ways of serving your country with honor; and that the US Military has played a profound role in shaping our national education system, our citizens AND our future.

On this Memorial Day 2011, God bless and protect our brave and women in uniform... and all of those who have served and sacrificed for over two hundred years in the name of our shared values.

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