I was the one to sort through my parent’s papers and files after their deaths. Among my father’s various papers—drafts of short stories, travel essays, random thoughts and highlights from his career as a City Manager—were his military service records in the Merchant Marines and later in the Naval Reserve. The first piece of paper in the first file was a simple half-sheet form titled, “Employment Severance Notice from Douglas Aircraft,” which read,
I, LD Rose, hereby state that I am terminating, on my own volition, my employment with the Douglas Aircraft Company, Inc., on this 3rd day of April 1942 for the reason hereinbelow set forth: Military Service—Voluntary Enlistment.
On the back of the form was a note written in my father’s hand:
I know that I shall never be the same as I was the days that have past. It is something numb and bursting inside, like nothing within the compass of words. It is bitterly sad and jubilant and aches for a night and complete stillness it shall never know. A sad, thin, stretching voice. A face that is a stranger to the day.
My father was 21 when war was declared on Japan. Unlike so many of his peers, including his good friends, my father did not rush to join up. So, what inspired him to finally do so? I doubt it was at his parent’s behest. From the little I was told about them, I would guess them to be Isolationists. He might have been swayed working for Douglas Aircraft (later McDonald Douglas). He would have been surrounded by a lot of pro-war propaganda working for a company like that. Who knows. Whether he was spurred on by a guilty conscience, or a late-arriving sense of patriotic duty, he never said.
Jammed in the back of the files I found a small journal. It was wrapped in a plastic bag that used to contain Palmolive soap bars. The front and back hard-bound covers were ripped away, leaving the clusters of pages precariously clinging to dangling strings that once held them to the biding, and it was badly burned at the top where fire had once threatened to destroy it. I was confident the singed top was the result of a house fire when I was a child. It was a thrill to discover the journal survived.
From the first page, starting from just under the charred top:
…if I were about to take the most decisive step of my life I hesitate upon these words. For indeed, I have taken a decisive step, perhaps a monumental one, and the need for words of monument is impressive. I am, on this date, aboard my first ship, the Phillip Livingston…We are tied up at a smelter, discharging nitrates from Chile, Peru and Ecuador. Oh, the fascination of the far-sounding names!
I fight the death of youth, fight the becoming a man, wanting neither to the exclusion of the other.
I took the helm for the first time today while we moved to another dock. It was a magnificent sensation of importance and responsibility…
Gray ship, gray day…frantic bouncing of the gulls in the wind, a boiling, brutal wind sprawling on the face of the sea-top. We depart Bellingham at 6am and the adventure commences.
In the 1990s, my father was interviewed for a book—though I do not think it was ever published—about the Cadet Midshipmen of the US Merchant Marines during World War II. It was then that all the stories of his three or so years of service came pouring out, exactly as if a faucet inside him was turned to the open position. The interview inspired him to write it all down. I have a photocopy of one of his drafts, somewhere. For all his efforts at writing the perfect short story, opinion piece for the local paper or essay of my parent’s traveling years after retirement, his memoir of his war service was his very best work.
The only time I saw my father sob uncontrollably was during a televised Memorial Day ceremony. Though he did not know combat as those who served in the other branches of the military, he carried very close to his heart the ultimate sacrifice so many of his generation made. He was profoundly proud of his service and honored to be called a Merchant Marine.