My father was a radio operator and ship's caller on the USS Destroyer Escort Lowe when it was first commissioned in 1942.
He was a proud member of the "Coasties," the United States Coast Guard, under the Department of the Navy. The Lowe was part of the "milk run," a convoy of ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean to, originally, land troops on North Africa and later, Europe. My father, who loved the movie Casablanca, distinctly remembered the honor of being fired upon by the French Foreign Legion, which was under orders from the Vichy government to help the Nazi Germans and Fascist Italians repel the allies.
Actually, though he'd enlisted and been trained and aboard ship by the time he was 19, he remembered quite a bit all his life his experiences in the war.
I was never one of those kids who asked his dad about the war. I was always willing to listen, and remember. He told only a few stories. The most famous one was of what got him discharged--they called it "battle fatigue," and he wound up in a hospital bed next to his ship's captain for a while before being honorably discharged. The ship's captain, for whom essentially the ship was built, was famous in the Coast Guard and Navy. It wasn't hard or long for officers to distinguish themselves by what they did, or didn't do, in the war. John W. French was famous for, according to the ship's history, ordering all hands on deck--to line both sides of the deck--to observe two "high speed wakes" (the Navy term for topoedoes) heading straight for the ship's starboard broadside. French ordered his ship "hard a'port," and the Destroyer Escort, smaller than a Destroyer but bigger than a PT Boat (a torpoedo boat), "threaded the needle" between the two torpoedoes.
The ship's history documented French as having saved his ship and crew. My father remembered him as a cruel sadist who'd ordered the men topside to heave their guts over the gunwhales awaiting the explosion and dismemberment they knew would come if the high speed wakes stopped at the broadside.
What got my father, barely the "age of majority" of 21, discharged was another incident. I wasn't able to piece it together until two events suddenly gave me insight. My mother's version was that my father basically just had enough and "flipped out" and beat a helpless, defenseless Navy-issue transmitter receiver (transceiver) into submission and render it inoperable. The famous line, accurate according to my father, was "They keep sending! They keep sending!" Just that line alone was enough to cause giggle spasms of us children. Having lived with my father something like 8 years by the time the story started making sense, it was easy to picture the stoic, pipe-smoking man I knew, who loved his morning coffee and hated to be interrupted from his reading grow irrational and violent at a repeated annoyance. Heck. We'd seen his reaction when the secretaries called from his office at the University to tell him he was running late, as if catching him at home as he wolfed his breakfast or quaffed his hot coffee and lit another pipe would somehow speed his arrival.
In 1968, the police action known historically as The Vietnam War, though never officially declared one by Congress, was in full swing and the U.S. government needed more men. Besides the war, the draft was also in full swing. My father was 44 years old at the time I remember him watching the "lottery" on television and produce from his wallet a beaten up card. To see if he was still draft eligible.
I was 9 by then. My brother was four years older than me. My sister was four years older than my brother. The draft was very much on all our minds. My sister had friends in high school she loved who never came back. And some who were back physically, but couldn't leave the jungle mentally.
Once, I saw my father looking very carefully and curiously at a poor photograph in a paperback book he'd been reading. Both my parents were always reading, so the paperback wasn't unusual. It was the way my father kept poking either his pipe's bit or his finger at what appeared to me to just be a blank page filled with mostly black ink that piqued my interest.
"What're you looking at?" I asked.
"I think that's my ship," he said from a long ways away, "there."
The USS DE Lowe was caught in the Dardenelles. It was night. The German defenses had somehow managed to locate the convoy that filled the narrow waterway. The ships were trapped. There was land off either side of all of them, and the Destroyers blocked the exits. According to a description I read years after my father died, the Germans picked off the ships literally like shooting fish in a barrel. The men had to listen all night to their fellow sailors being blasted apart, drowned, and ships turned into sinking coffins. The worst, my dad had once managed to say, were the oil tankers, because the oil floated on the surface and caught fire.
I saw where my father was pointing. There was a flash of light, a flare, above a silhouette slightly greyer than black in the photograph.
The general order of the convoy was radio silence. That meant silence. No sound. No signal. Nothing that could be detected and used to locate the ships. My father that night, on duty in his "radio shack," had settled down for a nice cup of hot coffee to stay awake, and to read a novel. A message came in on the transceiver. He couldn't help hearing it--the protocol was to keep your headphones at least around your neck, so you'd hear the code tapped out electronically, when you were supposed to, without having to keep the headphones on your ears for hours. But orders were clear: do not respond. He picked his coffee cup up, took a sip, and started the novel at the same line he'd just read.
Apparently, messages kept coming in. Unable to respond, by order, and realizing he'd be responsible for giving away the ship's position if he did, my father couldn't take all the noise and interruptions in the darkness in the dimly-lit radio shack any longer, spilled his coffee, threw down his book, ripped out his earphones by their 1/4-inch jack and proceeded to beat the bloody hell out of the transceiver, shouting the line that had made the story so comical to our family.
And by doing so, my father protected the lives of not only his shipmates, but also others in the convoy who didn't succumb to what was obviously in hindsight an attempt to locate ships by the Germans.
I only managed to figure out that my father had been a hero after he'd died. We all assumed our fathers were heros, as they'd survived the war and become fathers. We emulated them. Where now, children too young are playing video games such as Halo and blasting aliens, we were "killing Germans" and "Japs" by the time we could speak, in the woods by our house or the field behind it in liberal Madison, Wisconsin. We didn't have high-tech simulated weapons that could be mistaken for the real thing by law enforcement. We had sticks, and fingers, and rocks for grenades. We watched "Combat" with Vic Morrow and read about the Korean war in comic books like Sgt. Rock and learned about the war by watching the old propoganda films as Social Studies in elementary school. That knife in the heart of Europe and blood spilling over the globe has never left the recesses of my brain.
Some of us who emulated them, and felt we had to prove we could be as brave and good as them, went to Vietnam. Both my parents fought and argued against and worked actively to stop the Vietnam war.
My father joined the Coast Guard to stop Fascists from taking over the world. He and my mother both had friends who had gone to Spain to fight Franco, and Mussolini, and Hitler. They'd both been factory kids, and union organizers, and Socialist youths, because when The Great Depression came, their fathers left to find work and never returned. And because they worked to keep their mothers safe, and to eat, and sleep at night, they hated that they and others in their situation could be exploited by people whose sole interest was enriching themselves at the least cost on the sweat and labor of others, who could be replaced like cogs in a machine capriciously without regard to their being human.
And they both knew that the "prematurely early anti-Fascists," the euphamism separating The Spanish Civil War veterans from the World War II veterans, were ridiculed, and jailed, and hunted down before World War II, and after. Because The Spanish Civil War was truly a war over ideology, over a "way of life," over freedoms. And World War II was really a war of revenge, because we didn't enter it until after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and we didn't really care what happened to Japan or the Japanese when we became the only nation in the world to use nuclear weapons in a war. In their minds, and statements, if we truly had wanted to stop Fascists, we would have supported Spain's effort at democracy as a nation. We would have defended the legitimately democratically elected government against the military invasion by Francisco Franco and his troops from Morocco.
How has my father's experiences--and my mother's, working as a riveter building Corsairs for the Navy while a new bride with a husband at sea--influenced my attitudes, my life, my understanding of that time?
I know a good fight when I see one. I recognize a fight to defend freedoms, and ideologies. I know that fighting it really is what killed my father--the origins of his heart attack--before his 71st birthday. I know, as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang during Vietnam, where to find the cost of freedom.
Ernest Hemingway, who my father idolized, was right about a lot of things. The world is, truly, a fine place and worth fighting for. Politicians and other manipulators, not so much.
My father died the night after trying to stop his neighborhood "covenants committee," of which he was a member, from imposing some enforcement action against a neighbor whose lawn height was apparently too tall. He'd tried to quit the committee. They'd said he couldn't, as he was a home-owning resident. He died with a smile on his face. I knew that smile. I loved that smile. It was his "I'll show you, you Nazi Fascist bastards!" smile.
When he died, my mother, who hated all wars, insisted on receiving the soft warm flannel blanket-sized flag folded into its tricornered hat shape, stars on the deep blue field facing skyward, and "the thanks of a grateful nation."
Causes Terin Miller Supports
Civil and Human Rights.
Amnesty International; March of Dimes; Operation Smile; Medicines Sin Fronteras; UNICEF