Untold stories are only one of the tragedies of war. This little article is my attempt to describe an encounter I had with a WWII veteran.
This morning I had some business in Alton, Illinois. It's a quaint, little town on the Mississippi River. When I was finished with my assignment, I noticed a crowd near the water's edge. As I got close enough to see what was going on, I noticed there were many antique vehicles, war machines in a parking area. There were WWII jeeps, an amphibious vehicle, an ambulance and several other weapons and assorted historic memorabilia displayed.
Docked nearby I saw an old Navy ship. the USS LST-325. My heart skipped a beat because my dad had served on an LST in the Pacific and I'd never been aboard one.
Before I go on, here's a link to the site for this traveling tribute to our WWII Navy veterans:
As I reached the top of the gang plank I was greeted by a man in a red t-shirt and cap. We talked for a minute. He asked if I was with one of the groups and I said no. There were many groups of high school kids who were on a field trip to check out this piece of history.
I told him my dad had served on an LST and I just wanted to see what it was like for him. He told me he'd served on this boat during the war and she had been built in Philadelphia and served in the European Theatre. I told him my dad had picked up their brand new LST in Pittsburgh, learned their duties on the way down the river and taken her into the Pacific Theatre where he served for the last 3 years of the war.
You know, Dad finally talked about some of his experiences with me just before he died. I regret not taking more time during his life to find out about his memories. I guess, like me, he probably locked them in the back somewhere in that place where we hide the horrors we don't want to think about. There are so many stories which will remain untold because he took them to the grave with him.
Dad was an enlisted man. A Ship's Cook 3rd Class. When "Battle Stations" were called, he handed the 40mm rounds to the anti-aircraft gunner. Today I walked into the galley of this LST and took a picture of what my dad saw every day for 3 years. I heard stories from men who had served on this ship and I met some other veterans on the tour who told me their stories.
One of them was Harold Clarkson. Harold and his lovely wife walked with me for a while and we were allowed to enter the galley together even though it was off limits to the tour. Harold was around 85 or so and he needed a cane to help him walk. His wife was adorable. The man who let us into the galley was the son of an LST vet too. He asked Harold if he was on one of them.
Harold said he had been on one in the Pacific near the end of the war. He was a Navy CB. We talked and I enjoyed hearing Harold and his wife tell about how they'd written letters back and forth. Harold was 18 when he'd left and she was 16. My dad was 20. I had my 21st birthday in Vietnam just before TET in 1968. I found it moving and profound to think about this elderly, wonderful little man being where my dad was. I thought about some of the things I keep locked up in that dark place. In a strange way, it was like we were brothers of a sort.
After we left the galley and continued the tour, we finally made it to a stairway down into the hold of the LST. Harold took a few minutes with his cane but managed to reach the bottom where we stood together. I wish I were a good enough writer to describe what happened next.
The doors on the bow were open like they would have been when the LST hit the beaches to unload her cargo of tanks, jeeps and men. Harold looked up at me and, with an expression I'll never forget, said: "I remember them doors opening."
Somehow I knew exactly what he was feeling. I said, "I'll bet you were scared." He nodded.
Over 60 years have passed since he saw those doors open but he was reliving it as I watched.
"It never goes away, does it?" I asked. He shook his head. I don't know if I saw a tear but it was the first time I'd noticed the moisture in his eyes.
I wish my dad were here tonight. I'd love the opportunity to tell him this story. I'd ask him to tell me more of his stories. I vowed today to write my story so my kids won't have to feel this way.
Well, I'm sitting here at the keyboard with tears running down my cheeks and I know if my daughter walked in right now, I'd break down and bawl like a baby.
If you know a veteran of ANY war, talk to them. Ask them to pull a story out of that darkness and share it with you. It will help him, I promise, to know someone cares enough to listen. And no matter how difficult it is to drag the words from him, do it.
Untold stories are a tragedy of war. There are many tragedies of war. Well, I'm rambling now so I'll post this in hopes it touches someone enough to ask Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Joe about when they served. Tell them you don't want their stories to go untold.
And if they get a tear or many tears, hug him, know you've helped them take that first step from the darkness. Help pull their hearts out of that place where the untold stories hide.