I always think of my parents on Memorial Day. Not because they died in World War II (I am not that old) but because they lived to tell about
their experiences and carried emotional wounds to their respective
Dad was not yet 18 years old when he joined the Navy. He was intent upon a career, following his dad and older brother. Grandad was a
distinguished naval Commander. He was soon assigned to the North
Atlantic supply ship fleet that moved food and medical cargo from
Iceland to England during the early days of the European war with
Germany. Early on, there was a kind of "gentleman's agreement" about
these unarmed supply ships sailing through U-Boat infested waters
surrounding the besieged British Isles. Because the ships were unarmed
and America had not yet entered the war, they were usually not fired
As the aggression and resistance increased, this perception of mutual tolerance ended, and Nazi U-Boat commanders began seizing or sinking
supply ships whenever they encountered each other. Americans and other
navies were completely unprotected by their status (neutral) and their
inability to defend against or out maneuver submarine torpedoes. My
parents told horrible tales of supply ship captains and crew being
marched into their own boiler rooms to die.
The North Atlantic became one of the most frightening places to be during this time. Dad spent several years making these mercy runs until
it became too dangerous for all but the most sophisticated war ships to
sail these waters. After 4 years at sea, as America entered the war,
Dad came back to the States for Officers Candidate School.
His training brought him to Norfolk, Virginia. Mom remembers well the day she looked into the pale turquoise eyes of a handsome redheaded
sailor sitting near the back of her classroom. An anti-aircraft Gunnery
Instructor, she was lecturing about artillery, gesturing with a pencil.
When her eyes met Dad's, the shock of attraction made her forget her
train of thought and stab the pencil tip into her palm.
On their wedding day, she wore pink satin and had dyed her hair to match his. They drove to Newport News for a brief honeymoon in a black Mercury with yellow wheel rims.
Fast forward a few years--having my sister and living in a rural Virginia cabin, Dad worked diligently to provide for his family. Mom
noticed his occasional rages and sullenness. She tried harder to keep
the cabin clean and have meals ready when he came home. They moved to
Charlottesville and both entered University of Virginia to study
architecture and engineering (Mom says she was the first woman to be
admitted to the A&E College).
Dad grew increasingly distant, had headaches and rages. Mom thought he was overworked, frustrated by their "starving students" existence.
Her letters to my grandmother are hard to read at times, knowing what we
now know about combat fatigue (as it was known then) and post traumatic
stress disorders. She tried harder.
In 1949, two kids in tow, they moved to California. Dad left school just short of graduation with the fantasy of easy money building spec
houses in a growing post war housing era. By then, Mom had some serious
concerns for her own safety with Dad. In a rage, he had threatened her
life, and seemed more volatile than ever. She decided it might do him
good to live nearer his family and soon followed him.
By the time I came along in 1950, Dad was a serious threat to our family, paranoid and out of control. My granddad had him committed to an
institution just 3 months after I was born. We visited weekly but I
have no conscious memory of him until I was 5 or so.
Dad had suffered a concussion during OCS, which probably contributed to his mental illness. In those days, there was no treatment for PTSD,
and he had received no treatment for the concussion; there is no way of
knowing what imbalances Dad may have had to begin with. What is certain
is that the years of living under constant threat of death had changed him.
My parents were honored and eager to serve their country during an unavoidable war. They were not physically wounded during those years,
but their lives were nonetheless shattered. Their personal remembrances
were always a poignant mixture of the exhilaration of those times and
the deep losses in the aftermath they shared.
Next to their wedding day photo there's one of Mom smiling and confident in her WAVE uniform and one of Dad, looking impossibly young
in his Navy blues, peering proudly through turquoise eyes, bearing the
same sideways grin my brother and I sometimes wear.
I remember you.