Confession time: For most of my life, I've thought Veteran's Day was just a nice excuse to have a day off from school or work. I was aware that people had fought wars and that I should be thankful to them, but it didn't really sink in. I had even had members of my family serve in both the Army and the Navy, but once again--just a convenient federal holiday.
Then, last fall, I watched the fabulous Ken Burns documentary, "The War". All ten hours of it, DVR-ed off of PBS and enjoyed fully. World War II hit me then; I finally got the total enormity of it, and what people sacrificed. I realized that I couldn't let my grandfather not tell me about his time in the Navy because World War II veterans were dying all the time, and you never know what's going to happen in this world.
So when I visited my grandparents last time, way back in January, I made my grandfather sit down and try to remember as much about his time as possible. Here's what I recall, which is why Veteran's Day is now special to me, since it's about my grandfather--my mother, who reads this blog, doubtless knows a more complete history and will not hesitate to correct me in private, but as she's asleep right now, this is what I've got.
My Grandpa Danny is eighty-six years old. He joined the Navy during World War II, and was a radio operator. He was on a number of different ships, including a commercial vessel off the coast of Italy. He was the night radio operator on the ship, and at one point they got bombed by the Germans. During his time with the Navy, they tried to briefly train him to be a Navy SEAL (it did not work out), sent him to school at the University of Chicago to hone his radio operator skills, and he sailed in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific.
Towards the end of the war, he was stationed on the island of Tinian itself, working as a radio operator communicating with ships across the Pacific. His most potent memory of the island is that the food was shipped in from Australia and they served mutton in the mess hall, which he couldn't stand. I'm not sure how you could ruin a good sheep, personally, but apparently the US Navy managed to do so. For years, my grandfather refused to eat lamb chops, until he was ill one day and my grandmother fed them to him, without telling him what he was eating. When he mentioned that he liked them, she told him that they were lamb chops, and to his utter surprise, he's been a sheep fan ever since.
More importantly, I think are the things that my grandfather doesn't talk about. The things that he must have seen, the battles fought, the friends lost, the people who never came back. The reasons why his hair literally went from being blond and curly when he joined the Navy, to being brown and straight by the end of the war.
We forget so often, nowadays, quite how bad World War II was; it seems like a distant memory, sixty-three years in the past, with its soldiers and sailors and pilots dying off everyday. We fight newer wars now, with better technology, but with deaths just the same. There are still people who never make it back and if you get off the battlefield alive, you're one of the lucky ones.
For everyone who is a veteran or knows a veteran, thank you.
May there be peace in our future and no more wars for you to fight.