Friday, May 30, 2014

A Story from World War 2 for Memorial Day


In honor of Memorial Day, here is a story that my father told us, my brother and I, about his time in the Solomon Islands as a writer for the US Marine Corps in World War 2.

Part of the charm of studying history is to figure out what you need to know to understand the events described.   People are people at some fundamental level, of course, but many other things are different and people at the time had strong opinions on topics we may have never even heard of.   And things are different in subtle ways that can lead to misunderstandings when we try to understand them today.

In the little story that follows, to really appreciate the story you have to know something about the people and personalities not just during World War 2, but after the war as well, in the 1960s in America.   And so while I think the significance of the story below was obvious to someone like my brother and myself, it would be less so to someone who was born in 1980 and did not know much about their own history, which is to say, most people in America.

Another part of the appeal of this little story, at least to me, is that it is possible, if one pays attention, to figure out the punchline of the story by little clues dropped along the way.   

My father was what we used to call in this country a “newspaperman” who was someone who made his living as a journalist for one of the daily or weekly newspapers. Many well known writers of fiction from the 20th century were newspapermen, including Damon Runyan and Ernest Hemingway. Many of these newspapermen knew each other personally as it was a small and incestuous community.

When World War 2 happened, quite a few of these patriotic newspapermen volunteered for the Armed Services and many went to war, often as what was called a “Combat Correspondent”, which is to say that they were professional writers in uniform for the newspapers that the military used for internal communications. In this case, my father volunteered for the US Marine Corps, hoping to get a cushy job in Washington but instead being sent to to the humid, disease ridden, dangerous and annoying Solomon Islands, famous for being the location of Guadalcanal. They gave him a cute little portable typewriter which we still have.

It is a truism of military life that most of the time is spent enduring incredible boredom and usually in uncomfortable circumstances. That was certainly the case for my father who was normally bored out of his mind, at least until he got malaria like nearly everyone else and got sent home within the year weighing about 80 lbs.

One day, while being bored, a friend of his came by that he had known before the war. This man was from Boston, also a newspaperman, and was Irish which of course is an important ethnic group in the history and politics of Boston. I think his name was Joe Flaherty, but I am not totally sure. Anyway, he said that he had received a letter from one of the leading society ladies (doyens) of Boston who had asked him to do a favor for her.

She was writing because she was worried about her son, who had been thought to have been killed when his ship went down a few months ago but had survived the wreck of his ship and had been hiding from the japanese on a nearby deserted island.  Her son had damaged his back and he was laid up in a Naval hospital.

This woman had recently lost her eldest son in the war in Europe and did not believe anything she was told. What she wanted Joe to do was to go visit her son in the hospital and report back to her.

So Joe was on his way to the island where the hospital was located and he invited my father to go along with him. Having nothing better to do, my father said sure, and they took a shuttle to the other island where they spent the day with a nice young man and future President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy who had damaged his back when his ship went down and was also bored, flat on his back, in this hospital.

Of course the woman who had written the letter was Rose Kennedy, daughter of Mayor John Fitzgerald of Boston and married to the US Ambassador to England, Joseph P Kennedy, Sr. The disaster that had nearly killed her son was the sinking of PT 109 by a Japanese destroyer on August 2, 1943.

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