Monday, November 11, 2013

The Briefcase

Seems there's a bit more controversy than usual this year about Veteran's Day and how and whether to celebrate it. However you choose to mark it or not seems a very personal decision to me, but I can't get behind the idea of telling others how they should treat the day. It's only a day, after all, and everyone has their own family history. But I find I do have a problem with other people telling me that marking the day ends up celebrating war. Not in my family.
I've mentioned before that my dad was a WWII vet; he served in the Navy on the USS Kitkun Bay. The Kitkun Bay was in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Battle of Samar and other battles in the South Pacific that aren't talked about now, but at the time were big news. The Kitkun Bay took at least one kamikaze attack and suffered a lot of damage, though fortunately not as much as her sister baby flattop the Gambier Bay, which was sunk, like many other ships during those battles.
My dad joined up when he was 17, though he lied about his age. He was young and cocky and a lot of guys were doing it; it seemed like the right thing to do at that time, under those circumstances. He went from this young man:
To this, taken shortly after he was discharged:

I've talked before about the kind of father he was: silent, moody, unwilling to put up with noise and frequently yelling. I had always thought he was unnecessarily harsh (at least until I had my own kids and found myself bellowing much like he had when provoked). He had a dark side which was always, unrelentingly there with him, wreathed around him. I couldn't understand it, as a kid, but I was aware of that darkness and learned very early when to quietly dodge around him and wisp away like a ghost.
He didn't talk about his time during the war, not until much later when he was closer to his own end. Veteran's Day wasn't something we celebrated, but I know he marked it in some way on his own. It wasn't a happy day, certainly.

Earlier this year, during the summer, I got a call from a lady I didn't know, claiming to have my dad's old briefcase. She had come into possession of it through a convoluted and very unlikely set of circumstances, and had looked into it after being asked to throw it out. Inside the briefcase was a treasure trove of old papers and photos that my dad had carried around with him for decades. I had grown up with that briefcase, but we were never allowed to look inside it and it was strictly off limits. He carried it with him all of his life through many moves; even when he lost all of his other possessions, he managed to hang onto that old case. I had thought it was lost for good after his death, since his second wife had kept it and we'd lost track of her. I arranged to go pick up the briefcase from Judy, the sweet lady who had found it and kept it for me, and we went to visit and there it was, sitting on her kitchen counter, the heavy black leather case that immediately brought back the scent of my dad and the memory of his hands opening that case with his permanently bent and broken little finger.

There were a lot of the usual things you might expect in it, though there was almost no record of his life with us as a family, but there was a surprising amount of things from his time in the Navy, including his discharge papers and photos he'd taken, like this one:
as well as magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and then old yellowed newsletters from the Kitkun Bay, printed and distributed while he was on board.
If you click on the pictures you may be able to enlarge them enough to read them a bit. There were a lot more of these in his briefcase. And in one manila envelope in the bottom of the case, were some letters from me to my dad, with my address and others to contact if he needed to in case of emergency, during a late period in his life when he was homeless for awhile. He did end up coming and living with us for awhile to get back on his feet, and he had his case with him. I thought at the time he used it for job hunting, but he also must have been carrying around these older documents and photos.
When my sis Leslie saw this last photo, of the hospital ship, she gave a little gasp and said 'he's just a baby!', which was my reaction as well. That injured soldier is just a kid. Look at how young he is. He served in a war and was injured and who knows what he saw and endured. He was lucky to be alive, of course, but even ones who lived were never the same again. My dad carried that darkness around with him until he died. He would have been a very different person, and a different dad, had he not been on that flattop and gone through those battles.

So when I hear or read about people saying that Veteran's Day or Remembrance Day glorifies war, I say they and all of the merchants who have sales may be missing the point. It isn't about that stuff at all, of course. It's not a comfortable holiday, actually. For me, it means to pause and contemplate war and how damaging it is to all of us. Pause and remember these kids, then and now, who serve their country. We may associate Veteran's Day with old men now in their uniforms, hanging out and maybe having a parade, but they were this young when they went through hell.Whether they volunteered or were forced or are pushed into it by economic necessity, at the very least they deserve our respect, not just for today but all the time.


  1. Hi! I came across your blog while researching information on my grandfather's time in the Navy. He served on the Kitkun Bay and while he was always proud of his service, he never really spoke about his time in the war. I wish now that I could have asked him more. Thank you for posting about the information you've discovered.

  2. My Chinese/american father and his four brothers all proudly served during WWII. Two Navy, one Air Force, two Army. All returned home. I too have found information about my father's time such as a copy of "The New Okinawan", published by Army Service Command I. It certainly was a different time, a different attitude and circumstances. Myself and my brother also served. Thank you for sharing your father's story.