The only time I ever saw my father cry was on Christmas Eve, 1993. On that night, my wife and I invited my parents to go with us to a candlelight service at our church. Toward the end, we lit our candles and sang the final song of the service. About half way through, I could see the flame on my father’s candle flicker and wave in his trembling hand. His voice cracked as he raised a sleeve to his face to wipe away a tear and he was unable to finish singing. The song was Silent Night. While his reaction was out of character, I had a pretty good idea of what was behind it.
My father was a WWII vet and served with the U.S. Army Air Corp in the Pacific Theatre. He participated in campaigns in New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa before joining the occupation forces after Japan surrendered in September, 1945. As typical of males of his generation, he was somewhat “hard boiled,” tough and not given to displays of sloppy sentimentalism. Yet, he was affable and charming, and used his gentle sense of humor to make connections with people of all kinds. He was a natural salesman and had a knack of making instant friends with strangers. He loved kids and animals, but had little tolerance for pretentiousness and superficiality in adults.
For over 35 years, I observed this same kind of tough/gentle combination in the personalities of many of the residents at the veteran’s home where I worked as a caregiver. I think there is something about serving your country in wartime that sharpens your appreciation for what really counts in life. It’s difficult for those of us who did not serve to fully comprehend this perspective.
For many of the vets I cared for, the Second World War was the seminal event of their lives and helped define who they became as people. The average age of the U.S. soldier in WWII was 26, the draft age 18. At an age that these young men should have been starting work and families, or going off to college, they instead found themselves far away from home in harsh, lonely, and dangerous places. Unlike the other major combatants in WWII, the U.S. did not rotate troops. If you served overseas in WWII, you stayed overseas for the duration of the war. It’s not hard to believe that extended periods in this kind of environment must have profoundly shaped the lives of these young men in ways that heavily influenced their later life experience. And the wounds they suffered were not always visible.
My father enlisted in December of 1942 at age 19. He was sent to the Pacific in August, 1943 and did not return home until November of 1945. I grew up hearing stories about his time overseas. There were stories of the GI’s relationship with the local natives, the oppressive heat and humidity of the New Guinea jungle, the bugs, the snakes, the dysentery, waiting days on end aboard “that damn LST” before landing on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, of watching P-38’s dogfight with Zeros over Port Moresby, and of befriending Japanese children during his time at Tachikawa Airbase after the surrender. The kids were always the first to come out of hiding.
One story stood out above the rest. It happened on Christmas Eve, 1943. He was on New Guinea where the jungle made a cohesive front line difficult to define. He didn’t know if he would ever see home again, was unsure that he even had a future, and scared.
On that night, he and two of his buddies were assigned to deliver some kind of equipment (I don’t recall exactly what) to a location about an hour and a half walk from their camp. As they crept down the dark jungle path, they would halt every so often and listen for any indications of activity – friendly or otherwise – around them. About three-quarters of an hour into the trip, my father turned around and raised his hands, signaling to his companions to stop.
“Did you hear that?” he whispered.
They hadn’t heard anything. The three men listened in silence for a few moments, but heard nothing more, and they proceeded down the trail.
A short distance later, my father stopped again.
“You must have heard that. It sounds like something clinking.”
This time, all three men heard it. But there was something about this mysterious sound in the jungle that made them more curious than cautious. As they walked on, they began to discern musical notes. Someone was playing some kind of instrument out here in No Man’s Land.
Soon, they saw lights ahead. As they came to a clearing, my father and his buddies beheld a surreal scene, a sight that would be burned into his memory for the rest of his life: there, in the middle of the New Guinea jungle, was the Salvation Army handing out cookies and coffee to homesick soldiers.
My father simply couldn’t believe what he was seeing. But his astonishment soon gave way to a different kind of feeling. This was a tangible taste of home, something marvelously normal in this alien land. The idea that these people would volunteer to come out on this night and subject themselves to the extreme discomfort and very real dangers of this place just to bring him and his comrades a bit of home on Christmas Eve filled him with a feeling that transcended mere gratitude.
I don’t know if my father ever told us what instruments they were playing. But he never left any doubt what song he and buddies heard as they entered the clearing. It was Silent Night.
I’m pretty sure that there were other things about his experience in the war that my father felt just as deeply, but that he never shared with us. I did know that, as happens frequently with soldiers in war zones, he developed a very close bond with some of his buddies. And I knew that some of them didn’t make it home.
My father sacrificed his youth to serve his country. And he left a part of himself over there. Later in life, he became active in the DAV and other veterans groups. After his faith and his family, his participation and service in these organizations was the most important thing in his life.
When we take the time to recognize and thank our veterans for their sacrifice and service, it really does mean something.