I had a nice visit with my 84 year-old Dad yesterday, (Memorial Day) and had the chance to see some of his mementos from World War II. Of special interest was a diary he kept along with several old black and white photos and a few yellow sheets of V-Mail (Victory Mail) - correspondence between Dad and his girlfriend (later to become his wife - my mother).
Dad joined the Navy in 1942 as a 17 year-old. He had never traveled more than 50 miles from his home in the Mississippi Delta before boarding a train for boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Facility. From there, he served a stint at the Naval Hospital in San Diego with the Shore Patrol before shipping out on a Liberty Ship in 1943 to "island hop" along with the Marines. It was at a base exchange in San Diego that Dad picked up a cloth and cardboard bound journal with a gold anchor embossed on the cover. Technically, it was a violation of wartime regulations to keep a journal in a war-zone, but apparently it was a rule seldom enforced. I enjoyed reading through Dad's old journal, it's navy blue cover somewhat faded, and the pages dog-eared and yellow. The old blue fountain pen ink in Dad's workman-like handwriting still looked sharp, though moisture had caused some feathering on a few pages. Dad said it was hard to keep stuff dry when a ship is caught in a storm - even below-decks.
It's almost surreal to read the accounts from my Dad written when he was only 17 or 18. He wrote of rough seas, bad food and sleeping on the open deck to escape the cloying heat below-decks. Once he wrote of the ship behind them in the convoy going down after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. I was amazed at his ability to put down his thoughts so clearly in such a stressful situation.
Many of the entries were humorous. While stationed on one of the Gilbert Islands, he drove an ambulance - transporting wounded Marines to a base hospital. He wrote of a time the ambulance got away from him on a steep down-grade and how he accidentally ran the base commander's Jeep off the narrow road before he regained control. Fortunately for Dad, the Captain never learned who drove the ambulance.
The photos were an added bonus, filling Dad's old journal the way Dr. Henry Jones "Grail Diary" was filled with drawings and notes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Dad even kept an old rubber band around his journal (though the original rubber band gave up the ghost long ago.) The photos depicted Dad in cut-off khaki shorts and combat boots. He was bare-chested and dark from the tropical sun. Usually he sported aviator sunglasses. I had to smile at a shot of Dad, by himself, dressed in his tropical attire while guarding a group of Japanese prisoners. Dad had struck a fanciful pose, cradling his M-1 Carbine, while the incarcerated Japanese soldiers behind the barbed wire mugged for the camera. Dad said they were happy to be out of the war.
The few surviving pieces of V-Mail are interesting. Most are generic letters from Dad to Mom about how he was doing, etc. Military censors would cut out references to location, weather, ship names, etc., so much of his writing was simply asking Mom about how things were back home. He showed me one V-Mail letter, barely legible, that had been recovered from a cargo plane that had been shot down over the pacific.
When Dad passes on one day, I'll inherit these archives of his past. I hope he realizes how meaningful the old journal and the V-Mail are to me. They give a glimpse into my father's life that I can pass along to my own children. It's a reminder that when we take time to write down our thoughts, we do more than pass the time - we leave a legacy.