My father joined the Army on May 18, 1942. A little more than 5 months after the Pearl Harbor attack. He was a private.
His terms of enlistment still make an interesting read:
Enlistment For The Duration Of The War Or Other Emergency, Plus Six Months, Subject To The Discretion Of The President Or Otherwise According To Law
My father was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Both his parents were born in Italy.
Italy declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941. There were millions of Italians and Italian-Americans in the USA in those days. Italians were the enemy. But they also were America’s largest ethnic group. So it was unclear what to do with millions of Italians.
By the end of the war, US government officials from approved ethnic backgrounds put a few thousand Italians (citizens and non-citizens) into American internment camps. Compare that with 11,000 Germans and 110,000 Japanese who were also interned.
Yes, people in the future. It can happen here. It already has.
I have two pictures of my father. In one picture he’s in his Army uniform standing against a white background. In the other picture he’s sitting at a kitchen table. His head is sunburned from the radiation treatments that tried, unsuccessfully, to erase the cancer that eventually killed him. In the picture he’s smiling at the woman I would marry.
My father enlisted on a Monday. I never learned what he did the weekend before he signed up to fight the Germans and Italians and Japanese. I’d like to think he enjoyed himself the same way any 24 year old American male would before going off to war.
But also he was a Catholic, so I suspect church was a part of that last weekend. Don’t want to take any unnecessary chances with one’s immortal soul before going off to war.
I never learned what he experienced during the Second World War. I hear there are people who talk about what they did in a war. I can’t recall meeting many.
My father met my mother in England. She was in the women’s branch of the Royal Navy, called the Wrens. They were married in 1943, on Armistice Day. It’s called Veteran’s Day now.
I was born 9 months and 8 days after they were married. My mother might have been in the Navy, but she also was a proper English girl.
The marriage ended 11 or 12 years later. Being married to a career military spouse is hard on a family. Too many moves. Too many wars. Too many deployments. Too much time away.
My father left the Army shortly after Japan surrendered. He got a job driving a truck in New York City. But he missed the Army. So he re-enlisted.
He was patriotic without being loud about it. He valued serving his country. He stayed in the Army for 30 years and left as a Sergeant Major. He fought two years in the Korean War, four years in the Vietnam War, and wherever the Army sent him. He rarely spoke about any of those experiences.
A few weeks after I joined the Air Force, my father visited me at Lackland Air Force Base. For a few hours on that sun filled December Sunday in Texas we mostly just walked around the base, talking.
He had his Sergeant Major Army uniform on, I wore my slick sleeve Air Force blues. It was a good day. I don’t remember anything we talked about. I do remember people smiling at us. I remember being proud to be with him.
He left the Army in the early 1970s. He died in 1984. In his time most everyone smoked. Cigarettes were cheap in the military. When he retired, he had a physical and chest xrays taken at the VA at least once a year, just to be on the safe side.
The Veteran’s Administration found something on one of his lungs, but for some reason it took 9 months for the VA to notify him. By then the cancer had grown into his brain.
He tried radiation. He even quit smoking. But he died anyway.
I went to a Michael Moore movie with my brother in 2002, called Bowling for Columbine. Two thirds of the way into the movie, my 56 year old brother started to cry.
After the movie I asked him why he was crying. He said the movie reminded him that Gabriel – our dad – fought in three wars so his sons would not have to fight in any.