Born May 4, 1918, Dad was the youngest of three boys. He was a bit of a rake, he said. He was certainly a story teller. We never knew what to believe. Did he and his brothers really get sent home by the cops when they climbed up the old windmill at Ocean Beach? Did he really learn to swim when his brothers threw him off a pier into San Francisco Bay? And years later, did he really go on to swim across the bay from Alameda to San Francisco? He says he was one of the first to walk across the newly opened Golden Gate Bridge.
I could tell you a lot of stories about my dad. Some I really don’t care to tell, and some you would probably rather not hear about. But this first one is a true story.
Dad served as a civilian contractor on Wake Island during WWII. Not for long, though. He arrived on Wake mid-November and was just getting the lay of the land when the island was surprisingly attacked by the Japanese, just hours after Pearl Harbor’s bombing.
He’d been hired and shipped there by general projects contractor Morrison-Knudsen. He was one of a thousand strong army of builders, diggers, plumbers and other civilians stationed on Wake. They supported and worked alongside 450 U.S. Marines preparing a workable air base for the U.S. military.
This small band of Marine and civilian warriors resisted their attackers with no re-enforcements through 16 days of combat against a much stronger enemy force. No one was exempt in joining the shooting and grenade launching in any way they could. Eventually, though, the commanding officers walked out the white flag.
After days of threats and beatings by their captors, Dad and most of the men at Wake, dressed in their light-weight uniforms, walked across a plank into a dark and dank ship. They left that sandy and sweltering island and moved into a brutal life in filthy prisoner-of-war camps. The ones who didn’t die spent the rest of the war being bullied and tortured by their captors.
If you want to know more, you can take a peek here: Battle of Wake Island. For an in-depth read, I highly recommend Bonita Gilbert’s excellent book, The Epic Saga of the Civilian Contractors and Marines of Wake Island in World War II. Bonnie’s dad was also on Wake Island. She spent a great deal of time over the years getting to know many of the vets, including Dad. Their stories are in her book.
Decades later, after thousands of civilians like Dad petitioned the U.S Gov’t. to be recognized for their part in the war, Dad was happy, proud and financially relieved to be handed lifelong veterans benefits, an Honorable Discharge and three shiny medals.
He was 27 when he came home from war, when he met my mom – a candy-striper in the hospital he landed in – and they soon married. My brothers and I came along a few years later. Growing up in a working class family, much of the time we were on the economic downward slant of the road. Dad was mostly self-employed; money was a kind of what-if thing. When Mom worked, her earnings sustained us.
He was a salesman, always selling something. One of those guys. Sometimes it was insurance, or maybe cemetery plots. Yeah, I know; go ahead and laugh. But mostly I remember he was the cook in the family. He was a carpenter, a painter, a plumber and all around handy man. Later in life, he built fishing boats. He fished for a living. He could fix anything – one way or another. I don’t know if he ever read a manual in his life.
For some reason, I like to think I learned how to do certain things from my dad. I don’t really remember him teaching me – I guess I just watched, but I can pretty much troubleshoot any minor electrical problems at home. I can usually solve most plumbing challenges, and I can design and build something from nothing. I’m lucky to be able to string a few words together into my own stories, and I enjoy putting paint to canvas, or walls. I feel like I’ve got a good eye for photography and the arts, and for me, that’s a plus.
I know my brothers can do all of this as well. Maybe everyone in the world can. But I like to think we got it from Dad.
He died back in 2013, so he’s not around for a tasty birthday cake, candles and a card.
“Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me.”
I read that Albert Einstein wrote that in a condolence letter upon the death of his close friend, Michele Besso, in 1955. “That signifies nothing,” he said. “For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
I’m with Al. And with the help of my fine friend Tom John Flynn, I’ve learned I can have a nice little chat with Dad now and then, wherever he is, even if it’s only in my heart and soul. Or in the back yard.
Happy Birthday Dad.