Monday, November 20, 2017 / by Meagan Henry
I am something of a history nut. And I have been reading books, mostly on WWII, for 13 years now. AND...my Dad was a retired Captain in the Navy. He served in the Korean conflict on a minesweeper.
Dad made the unfortunate mistake of telling me once that the ship he served on had a wooden hull. This was strategically very important, considering that the floating sea mines were magnetic. However, it gave me fodder to tease him for years...
My "old man" was 40 when I was born, so you can imagine the generation gap between us. When I heard that he'd crossed the seas on a wooden-hulled ship, I began telling my friends that my Dad had served on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
Luckily, Dad had a good sense of humor. He retired from the Naval Reserve as a full Captain in 1975. I was 6 years old, and his change from a stark white uniform to a grey business suit confused me, but was soon forgotten in my youth. I mean, after all, the Longhorns had Earl Campbell, and the Cowboys were being led by Roger Staubach (a heisman winner at Navy) through the playoffs...what did a 6 year old understand about military service? I was more concerned with the Wishbone Offense in Austin and the Doomsday Defense in Dallas.
The point is that for years, the only time I really gave any thought to my Dad's years of service was when we'd watch the Army/Navy game and root for the gentlemen in blue.
Dad died at age 71 on Veteran's Day 2001 - exactly 2 months after America was attacked by terrorism. He was buried with full military honors.
As I cleaned out decades of files and stuff from his office that winter, I found old black and white photos that I'd never seen before. Photos of him as a skinny ensign somewhere at sea in the early 1950’s.
Against the backdrop of September 11th, it finally occurred to me that Dad had really done something.
I read a book called In Harm's Way about the U.S.S. Independence being sunk just weeks before the end of WWII. If you don't know the story, the sailors were not found for about 4 days as they floated, without fresh water, among sharks and a hot sun.
Then I read The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. This book absolutely blew me away. How I wished I could read it with my Dad, to get him to explain some of the Naval maneuvers that completely defied the odds against a far superior Japanese Task Force.
Not long after that, I found myself in Midland, where I went to the Commemorative Air Force's museum. What an amazing place to wander and imagine being 19 years old in a far away place.
As I toured the collection of nose art from the old airplanes, tears filled my eyes. I thought of my own little family, and how those painted ladies on those airplanes were there to remind our boys of who and what they fought for. Wives who prayed for their safe return. Girls they’d hoped to start a family with someday. All the relationships that make a home out of lumber and stone.
Those books really gave me the perspective of what it took to be a Navy Captain. Responsibility. Skill. Strategy. Stability under duress. Courage. Loneliness, created both by distance from loved ones and authority over all in your presence.
That museum allowed me to feel the fear and uncertainty of being in a combat zone far away from those I love dearest.
I think my Dad would have discovered a different son in this skin, had he lived to see me experience these things. I'm over 40 now, and a father to two children of my own. How I wish that in the rage of my youth, I had recognized better the difficulties in achieving the rank of Captain in the Navy. Many folks don't know that the next step up is to be an Admiral.
If you are a Veteran, especially one who is feeling unappreciated, it is my hope that my story will honor you. Often, we are too self absorbed to know what we have before it is gone. I salute you with all my heart and the pride I take in my Dad's service.
Today, I proudly display the American flag that draped Dad's casket in my office. On top of the triangular wooden box rests his hat, complete with the "scrambled eggs" on the bill. And I'm pleased to tell anyone who notices it that my Dad served on the U.S.S. Gladiator.