On Memorial Day: The Heroics of Staying Alive

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The author’s uncle, Teddy Szczesny (left) in front of his Douglas A-26 Invader.

The romance of military service never existed in my family like I see so often in other circles. 

My uncle, my father’s brother, was a crew member of a Douglas A-26 Invader, a long-range, heavy bomber. My father always referred to him as a gunner, so as near as I can figure, his job was to man the Invader’s rear 20mm cannons. Some versions of the Invader had gun turrets mounted under the wings, and up to eight 0.50 caliber machine guns mounted in the nose. My uncle’s plane could fly as fast as 355 miles per hour, had a range of 1,400 miles and, finally, could carry up to 4,000 pounds of bombs.

She was powerful, and deadly. No wonder the plane was often referred to as the “grim reaper.”

I don’t know this because he told me. In fact, I know only the most rudimentary details about his role in the service because he refused to talk to me about it. Lord knows I tried. As a young man, such a job felt adventurous and, dare I say it, fun. I begged him for stories, but he’d just smile and shake his head. 

“Let your uncle alone,” my father would scold. “He didn’t do anything worth telling.” The two brothers would share a glance, and even at my young age I understood that look to mean that he did indeed do many things worth telling.

It was only much, much later that I realized that those things were horrible things.

My father was drafted into occupied Japan right at the end of the war. He spent his time there, overseas, as a supply sergeant. Unlike his brother, as near as I could tell he saw no engagement. But he did have to deal with being an occupier. My dad, unlike my uncle, was more than happy to talk about his time in Japan, a place and people he grew to respect and a culture – I believe – that fashioned his worldview.

He spoke often about how polite all the natives he met were, expecting them to hate him, expecting them to harbor anger or resentment. He recalled a day when he and his buddies decided to drive as far up Mount Fuji as they could. The Jeep broke down and it took a “little old Japanese man” to do the repairs. 

“But what did you do as part of the military,” I would ask him. I was looking for adventure. I wanted my dad – there in a foreign country, in a uniform – to be bold and noble and exciting. But he was not. At least not in the way my young, foolish self was looking for.

“Well,” he’d begin slowly, “mostly I didn’t listen very well and ended up walking up and down a lot of stairs. Mainly I peeled potatoes the entire time I was there.” 

Not long ago, I found myself at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, giving a presentation on Mount Washington. Facing a solid wall of about 100 vets, men and women of various ages, most wearing patches or hats signifying their station, many in wheelchairs, I talked about that mountain and I included its role in World War II. For the most part, everyone honored me by staying awake.

But after, a few members of the audience stayed behind to chat, and we gathered around a table – about a half dozen of us – and I asked each of them this: “Tell me about the thing that happened to you during your service that you best remember.”

Here’s some of the stories they told me:

  • A story about being in Korea, being cold and gray, and coming upon the dead bodies of three Korean men, each wrapped in filthy clothes and blankets. The American soldiers tried to take the blankets off the men for their own warmth, but the smell was too awful. “I told the men, just take these guys and toss them in the fire. We couldn’t just leave them here.”
  • A woman told me the story about how when she signed up, the Marines didn’t allow women to be combat soldiers so she was stuck doing office work. One of the women in the office got pregnant, which was not allowed, and when it was found out they put the baby in an orphanage and gave her a dishonorable discharge. “They came in, cleaned out her desk and walked her to the gate. They shut it behind her, turned around and walked away.”
  • A younger vet told me about the time he was stationed at Fort Devens in Massachusetts, and he never saw combat. What he did do though was drive supply trucks from base to base throughout New England and he recalled the first time he saw Mount Washington. “I just kept staring at it out my window and going slower and slower, until I realized I was barely moving. I looked out my rearview and there’s 50 cars lined up behind me! Me and the guys had a good laugh over that.”
  • Another man told me about his time in Rome, petting the stray cats. One said he had an easier time in the service then being a taxi driver in Boston. And one older woman, with a dreadful cough and teary eyes, wouldn’t talk at all about her service, just saying over and over again how she wished she could hike a mountain.

No tales of glory. 

Give vets some space and an honest ear, and the stories you will hear are deeply personal and human; tiny core moments that they have carried in their hearts for decades. Many will bring up comrades in arms. Some will talk about the places they were stationed. A few will mention food. Almost none, like my uncle, will talk about the hurt. 

And heroics? Not so much. Still, I think to myself, maybe THAT is heroic, maybe doing the best you can for an imperfect country that often asks too much from you and just coming home with your dignity and sanity intact… Maybe that’s heroic.

The author’s father, Joe Szczesny

Flashback to my eighteenth birthday. My father drove me out to the downtown post office where I was to register for the selective service. For the life of me, I can’t recall if this is still a thing or not. But at the time, he wanted to do this personally. He wanted to talk to me about what it meant to him and what was in his, and my, heart. 

If you knew my father, you knew he was a man of few words, but when he had something to say, he didn’t hold back. It was a long afternoon, but the thing I remember the most was his ultimatum, something I never remember my father ever giving me.

“The draft is one thing because if you ever get drafted like I did, I want you to do your best and make us proud,” he said. “By if you sign up on your own, if you volunteer, I’ll disown you.”

That was my true father. 

So, where does that leave us? What is the lesson for us on this day set aside to honor the men and women in uniform that paid the ultimate sacrifice? Would I disown my daughter were she to sign up for a military career? Of course not.

Maybe it’s just that I’m far less interested in the waving flags and speeches than I am in the stories. Maybe I’d rather put a microphone on the lapel of some of these folks while they are still alive than to salute their gravestone after they have passed. Maybe we should ask “How do you feel?” instead of “How did you fight?”

My father grew more cynical and distant about his time in the service as he got older. I remember a Memorial Day a few years before he passed, when I was trying to practice what I preached about remembering vets while they were still alive, so I called and thanked him for his service.

“I ain’t dead yet,” he said.

“Obviously, dad! I just wanted you to know I appreciate your service.”

“Daniel,” he said, using my full name which meant business, “the only way to honor them is to not make any more dead ones.”

Amen.