Lately I’ve been chasing my father all over Hell – figuratively speaking. I don’t expect to catch him; he died seven years ago, taking with him some secrets I wish I could have asked him about, and others that I know I couldn’t have. He left behind some intriguing clues about himself, but remained something of a mystery to the end.
As a posthumous attempt at understanding, I’m writing an essay about his formative experience in World War II, when he was sent to the Pacific as a cryptanalyst for the US Army Signal Corps. He served aboard the USS Blue Ridge, a command and communication ship that took him to New Guinea and the Philippines. The Blue Ridge was the flagship for Rear Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, leading the VII Amphibious Force, during the invasion of Leyte Gulf, when American forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines. My father liked Admiral Barbey, an expert on amphibious warfare who planned and executed some 56 landings in New Guinea and the Philippines. When I was very small, one of his nicknames for me was ‘Admiral.’
A few months ago, while exploring how my father’s war experience shaped his later life – and how his generation came out of World War II to produce mine – I came across an interesting book titled “Lost in Shangri-La” (2011) by Mitchell Zukoff. It describes an odd occurrence in New Guinea in May 1945, seven months after my father left. An American DC-3 carrying some two dozen soldiers and WACs crashed while on a sightseeing flight over the interior of the island. They were looking at a vast network of native villages, a primitive culture that had only been discovered by outsiders a decade or so earlier, and which had not invented the wheel.
The three survivors of the crash were ultimately rescued, but getting them out required a massive month-long effort. They had taken off from a base at Lake Sentani, Gen. MacArthur’s headquarters, where my father had stayed for a while in 1944. I can’t help wondering whether he knew any of the survivors or rescuers.
My father was lucky: he didn’t have to carry a rifle through hell. But he saw action between New Guinea and Leyte, and may have witnessed the first successful kamikaze attack, which struck the bridge of the HMAS Australia during the battle of Leyte Gulf.
He and I differed, but didn’t argue, about the atomic bomb. He thought it had been necessary to avoid an invasion of Japan, and that such an invasion might well have cost him his life. Based on what he knew in 1945, his reasoning wasn’t unsound.
But while researching my essay I learned something interesting about that subject as well. Operation Olympic, the planned US invasion of the Japanese home islands, had been secretly abandoned in the summer of 1945. Japanese radio intercepts at the time (not made public until the 1970s) showed a massive build-up of enemy forces on Kyushu, and the projected invasion became unthinkably costly. So, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, President Truman and his war planners scrapped it. The actual alternative to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was further bombardment and blockade, not invasion.
It goes to show.
I grew up in a very different and more divided America than my father. That’s the luck of the draw. He remained an enigma to the last, but a loving one. He taught me to laugh, and we practiced a lot together.
Digging into the past has a way of turning things up that don’t fit the puzzle, or hitting rock; it’s worth the effort, but only if you know when to stop. I’ve stopped trying to figure out my father. There will be no more digging. The essay is nearly finished – a son’s small gesture. and a last long salute.