In March, the 10-part series The Pacific debuted on HBO, which focuses on the lesser-known battles of World War II. My husband and I were initially drawn to the intriguing, well-edited trailers. What carried us through the entire series, however, was the impeccable acting, extraordinary cinematography, and emotional storyline that grabbed our hearts and wouldn’t let go. Each episode began with actual footage from WWII, then first-person accounts by survivors of battles in the Pacific–islands and battles of which we had never heard. No one I have asked, since learning of its existence, has heard of Guadalcanal even though it was a pivotal battle. Naturally, my two grandfathers who served in the Navy knew about this epic fight, but it seems that outside of the WWII generation, it’s unknown to the general public. That really bothered me, and got me thinking that if such an integral piece to our country’s recent history is unknown, what else are we going to lose once the WWII generation is gone?
The Pacific inspired me to interview my grandfathers and create this post in honor of Memorial Day. I don’t know why I’ve never really asked them about their experiences in WWII, but I thought is was high time I did. Neither man is on the verbose side, but they had no trouble opening up the lines of communication with me on their wartime experiences. I was honored to hear their stories and loved every minute.
….it was an honor to serve, and a great time in which to live….
My maternal grandfather, John, was a radio operator with Pan American Airlines and served as a civilian sponsored by the Navy. His job was to relay messages through Morse code, maintain the transmitter and receiver, and know the “rules of the road.” Pan Am was the only commercial airline that could fly across the Atlantic at the time, so they were the ones that transported diplomats to their destinations. Their most notable passenger was President Roosevelt, who flew to meet Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference. It was common for German aircraft to fly alongside them to confirm they were only a commercial airplane.
Later on, the Navy put all Pan Am’s employees into the Naval Reserve and expanded work for the airlines by supplying them with Naval aircraft. They flew to Naval bases and brought much-needed supplies to the troops. The danger of seaplanes was the tricky task of landing. The pilot often found himself trying to land in less-than-ideal conditions, twelve-foot waves for example.
It disturbs my grandfather that some people have questioned the role of soldiers in WWII. He said that those who went into service did so only to defend their country, and did not have any hidden agendas of pressing their ideas upon the world or exporting their method of government. The soldiers did whatever they had to do to protect and serve the U.S. and help other countries that were in need of saving. To John, it was an honor to serve, and a great time in which to live–the whole country was more patriotic than it is now. He fondly remembers past Memorial Day celebrations in which people listened to patriotic songs, celebrated community, and honored those who had protected their country. When I asked if it bothered him that today Memorial Day merely represents the beginning of summer, he replied matter-of-factly, “Well, what can you do?”
They didn’t think of themselves as heros–the main focus when they returned to civilian life was gaining employment and supporting their families.
My paternal grandfather, Maurice, signed up for the war in 1943, fresh out of his medical internship. He was given the job of Navy doctor on the USS Forsyth PF-102, and was in charge of keeping 500-600 men healthy for combat. His ship was stationed between Brazil and Dakar (Senegal, Africa) to rescue those on shot-down planes or torpedoed ships. On a side note, Maurice’s brother, who was in the Army, was stationed in Guadalcanal. Having only recently learned of this spot in the Pacific, I was surprised to learn one of my family members had fought there and survived.
Maurice and the other soldiers didn’t think about their hardships during the war–it wasn’t a problem, it was something they accepted as a consequence of wartime. I asked my grandfather if he and his fellow soldiers ever talked about their experiences in the war. His answer was that they all knew what they had been through, so there wasn’t much reason to recount it. They didn’t think of themselves as heros–the main focus when they returned to civilian life was gaining employment and supporting their families.
Maurice, now 95 years old, has a different view towards Memorial Day than he has in the past. He feels it is “a solemn day, not for celebrating with drinking and joy, but to remember the people who served this country so that we are able to live as we are.” His view is this way because of the war still going on overseas involving American soldiers.
The Importance of Memorial Day
Memorial Day is a chance to remember and celebrate those who served their country–the ones who returned, and those who never came back to their loved ones. Let’s not forget all the soldiers, both past and present, who fought and served in the name of our freedom. Regardless of our political views or standpoints on war, there is no denying the bravery and sacrifice of our country’s soldiers. They should be honored and appreciated for what they risked and gave up in service. Since no soldier is without loved ones, also give thanks to the strong support system behind our men and women. These families keep soldiers’ spirits high and hearts full, and must stay strong in the face of constant uncertainty and sacrifice.
So while you enjoy your long Memorial Day weekend, please take a minute to remember our soldiers, and give them a mental salute. And if you are lucky enough to have some war veterans in your life, ask them about their experiences…I guarantee you will gain a greater appreciation for what they went through, and for what you have because of their efforts.
How will you honor our soldiers this Memorial Day?