By the time I was old enough to understand my father’s war stories, he had long since stopped talking about the war. My brother, who is five years older than I am, had heard his terrifying tales of blood curdling banzai charges in the jungle night, and of men leaping into foxholes to escape the machine gun bullets of strafing Mitsubishi Zeroes.
My father had been a pattern-cutter in the garment industry in New York when he volunteered for service in the army. By volunteering, he was able to choose the Signal Corps. It was thought that this offered some extra measure of safety, but it did not. Someone in command had a brainwave. When the first marine hit the beach in each of the island-hopping Pacific invasions, a working telephone should be waiting. Installing that telephone line was my father’s job.
I don’t know what all my father did in the war. He entered as a private, and left as a master sergeant. He was mentioned in dispatches, and was recommended for the United States’ third highest combat medal. I have heard a scratchy, 78 r.p.m. Christmas recording made by a New York radio station. The large, heavy disc raced around the turntable. A radio newsman interviewed my father in the Philippines, after the Battle of Leyte Gulf. My father talked about how the “beautiful Lightnings [the twin-engined, twin-tailed, P-38 fighter aircraft] chased the Zeroes from the sky.” The newsman agreed, and from the tone in both their voices, rather than from their words, it is clear that they had been in great danger.
In the next sentence, my father sent greetings to his mother and father, and to his wife and his two year old son, Michael, my older brother. He was asked what he wanted to do after the war. He said that he just wanted to get back to Brooklyn and walk around Ebbett’s Field, the vanished stadium where the vanished Brooklyn Dodgers used to play baseball. My father was not a baseball fan.
There was one war story my father did tell though. About how one night he did not shoot a looter. He was guarding a supply dump on one of the Philippine islands. A young, Filipino boy was running away with a case of something held over his head. My father says he shouted the warning, “Stop, or I’ll shoot.” The Filipino boy, never breaking stride, replied, “I am not the one.” My father laughed. He laughed whenever he re-told that tale, and it was the only war story he ever told in his later years.
That story never seemed especially heroic to me when I was a boy. But now that I am no longer young, and in light of the conduct of some of our Canadian Airborne soldiers in Somalia, it seems the very height of humanity and good sense.
My father died this July. There are, almost certainly, no military medals awarded for not shooting a looter, for not killing a starving, terrified boy in his own war-ravaged country, but maybe there should be.