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My Dad Was An Unsung WWII War Hero
May 12 2009

My dad,
My dad was an unsung war hero. He earned a purple heart, but he never talked about the wound or how it happened. There were millions like him from that, “Greatest Generation”. He did his job of war. He came home. He got married. He had a family. He worked. He died.

His birthday was on December 6th and in 1941 he turned 18. He was attending a small college in southern Illinois and was having the time of his life. When he woke on December 7th after too much partying the night before, he turned on the radio to hear the horrible news about Pearl Harbor. His first response to this momentous bulletin was “sh-t”. He knew that his college days were gone, and that he was either going to be killing Germans or Japanese within months. He was drafted the following month and was being trained as a rifleman within 180 days.

My father was an excellent shot with a rifle, a pistol or bow and arrow. He was born to hunt. He loved to find wild game and bring it to the table for a tasty meal. He had learned to hunt wild game from relatives. He was killing pesky crows with a .22 caliber rifle by ten, and he had bagged his first deer by age 14.

He was such a good shot and so cool under pressure that he was trained to become a sniper. His weapon was a high-powered rifle that had an optical scope that would allow him to hit a target the size of a small dinner plate at a range up to 1,500 feet (imagine five football fields laid end to end). His job was to walk (by himself) deep into a tropical jungle that was controlled by his enemy. He often couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of him because of the ground foliage. On a daily basis the thermometer hit a hundred degrees in the shade. His constant companions were giant mosquitoes and other nasty insects and snakes. He was in search of a superbly trained enemy who was quietly searching the jungle to kill him before he killed more of them.

My dad participated in the battles of Iwo Jima and Guam and 10 other small islands. He talked about the guns of the navy ships that would blast enemy targets through the night and all through the dawn. He actually saw the barrel of a sixteen-inch battleship gun that had melted because of too much heat from the constant firing of the massive cannon. Beach landings always began at a spot that looked like a moon landscape with huge potholes from the thousands of cannon and rocket rounds leveling everything within a square mile. The first time he raced off a landing craft, he thought, ‘there can’t be anyone or anything left’, but then a machine gun barrage cut down the first line of men as they were wading to shore. He lost two of his closest friends within 60 seconds of the landing. He didn’t have time to think or mourn. He just started shooting back and running for cover.

The army was either intense battles or intense waiting for battles. When they weren’t fighting the enemy, the men were building camps, runways or being trained. They were never allowed too much free time so they wouldn’t end up fighting one another.

The little free time they had was spent gambling; drinking and thinking of the girls they had left behind. My father was attached to the command unit because of his special skills as a sniper. When he wasn’t in the jungle, he was the unit commander’s bodyguard when the colonel went on patrol. He would protect the colonel’s life while riding, “shotgun” in the jeep.

The one main benefit of this job was that he became acquainted with the underground army economy by making friends with two of the unit’s supply sergeants. You see, supplies were never arriving on time nor were they evenly distributed. Ammunition was the only thing for which there was no shortage. As an example, they would need new boots for months and then the navy would deliver tons of boots, but there would be no socks. They would need new tents, and they would receive a whole ship full of helmets but no tents.

The biggest challenge was obtaining real food. Real food (not the dreaded k-rations) and real beer were never plentiful. So my father and the two sergeants “liberated” a certain percentage of the officer’s more generous supplies (often whiskey) for the benefit their less well-supplied fellow troopers. It was always in exchange for real meat, real fruit, cigarettes, chocolate or the latest movie. It was one of the greatest free market systems ever. The price of everything was flexible and never related to money. It was always the scarce items that were traded for other scarce items.

The latest Hollywood movies were highly prized and a film with a top “pin up’ starlet could cost a company an entire month’s ration of beer. And after viewing it for a week they would find another company that had another film or beer to trade.

To watch movies, my father’s unit “liberated” a projector from another unit on the other side of the island. They would show the film on white parachute sheets that were stitched together to make a big screen. With this primitive adaptation they would watch movies that featured Carole Lombard or Joan Crawford or Vivien Leigh with supporting acting from the likes of Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart. This was all going well as a theater until it was discovered that enemy soldiers were watching the film from the backside of their parachute screen. The screen was set up between trees at the edge of the jungle and only shown late at night. Unbeknownst to my father and friends, the enemy troops would sit in the brush and watch the films. Imagine these young men from different parts of the world and speaking different languages watching the same movie from two sides of the same coin if you will. They were sworn enemies divided only by some silk, but they would all sit and quietly watch the latest fantasy that Hollywood had to offer. There was never any fighting that occurred on movie nights but some general somewhere thought it was too dangerous and ended the outdoor theater.

My father never talked about specific missions as a sniper. Decades later, at the end of his life, he talked with my sister about that time as young man when he was shipped across the globe to fight for his country. He was still troubled by the war and all the killing. He told her that after a year of having success after success as a sniper, he was deeply bothered by all that his job entailed. He sought out a chaplain in the camp and asked the priest, “If killing is a sin, then why am I so good at it?” The priest responded tersely, “Right now, killing is your job. Keep doing your job.”

He kept doing his job.

He came home, finished his college degree at Northwestern University in Evanston Il. He married and raised 5 children in an upper middle class home.

After the war, he worked with the ‘Madmen” of the ad agencies of the 1950s and 60s. He even told a story about an afternoon spent with the great Leo Burnett. I don’t remember anything about their meeting other than how Mr. Burnett could power nap in a cab on the way to a client meeting. He actually turned down a job offer from Lew Wasserman. (Mr. Wasserman was the man who built Universal into the entertainment giant it is today.) He described a couple of meetings with Mr. Wasserman in the 1960s. Wasserman would push the competition between his subordinates so intensely that it would lead to fistfights. Instead, my father chose a quieter path for his career. He ended up running a TV station affiliated with NBC in a small midwestern town. It was all the action that he needed from his job.

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