War is failure of the human spirit on a very grand scale. It exacts a heavy toll on those who are forced to fight.
The small card is turning brown with age. The words on it are ordinary, but once they held secret meaning for just two people. They are the code my parents used during World War II so she would know where in the world he was.
If my father used the word "green" in the next-to-last paragraph of his letter home, it meant his ship was in Hawaii. If he wrote "OK," he was in Okinawa. Truck garden would mean Japan.
The card, carried in my mother's wallet decades ago, came to light as I went through her personal papers after her death. I was reminded once more of the sacrifices their generation made for mine.
My father and five of my uncles served in the military during World War II. One was in Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed. One was a bombardier on 27 missions over Europe. One went into Normandy on D-Day, and later survived two weeks isolated behind enemy lines with another soldier. The fact that they were hospitalized afterward may have saved them from death in the Battle of the Bulge, where much of the rest of their company was lost.
My father and his two next younger brothers grew up in rural Spanish Fork. My mother's two brothers came from a tiny Texas town on the Mexican border. Like many of their generation, they found themselves fighting and serving in places across the globe with names they might have heard briefly in some half-remembered geography lesson.
The mothers and wives they left behind sent love and prayers to support them. My father's mother cherished and saved every letter from him after he left home in 1940. Those, too, turned up in my mother's papers.
When my father proposed to her in 1943, he said, "I can't tell you what the future will bring, but if I live through this war, I want to spend the rest of my life with you." They took a leap of faith.
My mother had worked as an aviation instrument mechanic at NAS Corpus Christi (Texas), helping repair the planes that Navy pilots flew. After their marriage, she followed my father to duty stations in the Northwest. He left her there, expecting their first child, when he was sent to Officers Candidate School. After being commissioned in 1944, he served as radio officer on a landing ship tank running supplies and ammunition through war zones in the Pacific.
He and his brothers and brothers-in-law were fortunate enough to live through the war. Afterward, they took up the lives that circumstances brought them. The sailor who survived Pearl Harbor became a sheet metal worker in Oregon, near the home of the woman he had married during the war. The soldier who survived European campaigns made a life as a plumber in California, near the home of the woman he had married. The bombardier made a career in the Air Force, rising to colonel, and then taught at Arizona State University after retirement.
My father went back to being a radio announcer, a career that began in the late 1930s to help support his schooling. But the life he had planned with my mother was cut short in a way no writer would ever have scripted because it would have seemed too contrived. It was in June 1946, the first time since before the war that all of his family had been together. They were a block-and-a-half from home in Provo, headed out for a picnic, when there was a car accident. He was killed instantly, leaving a 22-year-old widow and a toddler son. It was my parents' third wedding anniversary, to the hour. For about half their marriage, he had been away at war.
My mother went back to work at NAS Corpus Christi, helping keep Navy pilots flying up to and through the Korean War. We lived not far from the base, so I often saw planes and air shows and pilots practicing touch-and-go takeoffs and landings. (Vaguely I can remember seeing pilots in World War II propeller planes, wearing old-style leather flying helmets, even as the Navy was switching over to jet fighters.)
I knew my father and my uncles had done something hard and noble during the war — something so difficult, apparently, that they didn't like to remember or talk about it very much. While I couldn't fully understand the sacrifice they had made, I was proud they had been willing to do it for all the rest of us. I can remember strapping on the Japanese bayonet my father had been given by a fellow officer from a stockade in Okinawa and marching around singing "The Marine's Hymn" at the top of my lungs. I didn't really understand the meaning or implications of the words. I can remember playing war with friends, hiding in the tall weeds with our broomstick rifles, heroically defending against the imaginary enemy. There was war in Korea. Perhaps we too would face war when we were actually old enough to fight.
Then I grew up. Then came Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. The issues were not clear-cut. Friends from high school and from my college classes died in Vietnam. Where was good and bad? Who was right and who was wrong about the purpose of those wars? Was there really a purpose? I remember a line from a serious moment in the old "MASH" TV series: the first rule of war is that young men die. Is there truly no alternative to this? Can we as human beings with a common heritage really find no better way to resolve our problems?
Through the decades since I began to wonder about what my father and uncles did "over there" during the war, one issue has remained constant and clear-cut for me: Those willing to put themselves in harm's way in the fighting forces of our country are deserving of all the honor and respect we can give them.
I recently read a book we gave to my mother, "The Greatest Generation." It was about her generation, but figuratively speaking, I knew some of the people Tom Brokaw spotlighted in that book. I knew them well. I wish I had the opportunity to listen to some of my uncles later in life, when they finally could talk about what they did and what they saw in the war. Among my mother's papers there is a one-page account apparently dictated by her brother who was in Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed. Relying on memory decades later, he said:
"On Dec. 7, 1941, we were anchored about 100 feet away from the USS Utah. ... (A plane) came in and pulled up just over our stern cable. He waved at me and I waved at him, just before he sunk the Utah. The next plane sunk the cruiser behind the Utah. The officer of the deck came running down the side of the ship (U.S.S. Alwyn) and told me to take the cruise boat and go get the captain. I got over on the end of Ford Island between Ford Island and the Whitney when the Arizona blew up. ... I took the cover of the seat from the boat I was in and put it over my head for protection. I ran along battleship row while they were being sunk."
I can understand why it was difficult for him, until many years afterward, to talk about some of the things he saw.
War is evil. War is failure of the human spirit on a very grand scale. It exacts a heavy toll on those who are forced to fight. Some of them it destroys, even though they still live. I have seen Auschwitz, with its undeniable evidence of what was done there. Still, I cannot comprehend how torture and murder could become mere procedures to be dutifully recorded for the purposes of study. How can the human spirit become so warped?
I have known people who were forced to deal with the horrors of war in Korea and Vietnam and Iraq, yet who, like many of that "greatest generation," are gentle souls living lives of service to others. My uncles were such men. The few things I have that my father wrote indicate he was such a man.
What makes the difference?
At some level I think the people I know chose to be more than their experiences in the war might have made them. They chose to raise responsible, caring children. They chose to give back to their communities. They chose to go on giving back to the country they had already served so well.
In the early 1950s when I was still a boy, my mother chose to quit her secure job and start at BYU as a 31-year-old freshman to study something that would help her serve others. During my early years, I watched as she made her way in a world where women did not have many of the legal protections they now enjoy. (Why, for example, did my own mother have to be declared my legal guardian when my father was gone?) In some sense she felt in her studies that she was continuing what my father had started and been unable to finish. After her graduation in 1957, she built a career as a counselor and teacher, at the high school, then college level. From her I learned the value of pursuing dreams — and I learned that it was my privilege to choose what dreams I would pursue. Their sacrifices had made this possible for me.
Even with the hindsight of maturity and the lessons of the wars in my lifetime, I may never fully understand the sacrifices made by my parents and their contemporaries. But I can never forget what their generation did for ours. Because of them, we were able to grow up with opportunity that was not available to much of the rest of the world. I will always love and respect them for the examples they set. They willingly served when their country called, and afterward, they kept the will to serve others, even though history might never record what they did as individuals.
Don Searle Jr. spent 27 years as an editor and managing editor for the LDS Church's Ensign magazine. He has also worked for the Deseret News and taught journalism at BYU.