My Dad was an eyewitness to history. Lucky for me, he survived.
When the U.S. entered World War II, my Dad was three months shy of 30, the upper limit for the military draft. But Pearl Harbor inspired the college-educated engineer from the Bluegrass region of Kentucky to enlist in the Navy in early 1943, leaving my Mom at home in Kenmore, New York (suburb of Buffalo) with my sister, then two. He knew it was his generation’s moment, and he didn’t want to miss it. My grandmother would move in with them for the duration of the war.
When he enlisted, he also enlisted his Airedale, Rex, in the Army K-9 Corps. Rex died of some tropical disease in the Pacific.
After a stint in radar school at Harvard, Dad served the entire war as an officer on a little converted freighter, the USS Catoctin, which was quite an important ship historically, first as a fleet flagship in the Mediterranean, and then in the Pacific. He left the war as a first lieutenant, then reenlisted five years later in the Navy Reserve, where he would be promoted to command the Seabees (naval engineers) squadron in Niagara Falls, retiring in the 1960s at the rank of Commander.
His ship was the commanders’ ship for the invasion of southern France, and one night hosted King George VI. In August, 1944, the Catoctin sailed from Naples, Italy, for the amphibious assault, with legendary Secretary of the Navy J.V. Forrestal aboard. Three days after the initial assault (after Forrestal left) German Stukka dive bombers attacked the ship, killing 6 and wounding 31. My Dad was hit by shrapnel in his leg and back, and lost some friends and shipmates. The ship suffered only minor damage. Dad never talked about the attack, his injuries or the pain of his fallen comrades, only joked about the nice Italian nurses at the hospital in Naples. He had to wear a lift in his shoe and had back problems for the next 50 years, thanks to the pieces of metal still in his leg.
After spending the fall of 1944 in Naples, then Palermo, Sicily, the Catoctin sailed to Sevastopol, Russia in January 1945, on a top secret mission, where it served as the advance communications ship for the Yalta Conference. In February, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Admiral W.D. Leahy stayed onboard the ship overnight after conclusion of the historic meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
The Catoctin sailed back to the U.S., spending a couple of months in Philadelphia, where my mom and sister got a chance to see Daddy. In June 1945, he sailed for the Panama Canal, on his way to Pearl Harbor on a mission he kept from his family: leading one of the invasion fleets for China, then Japan.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the mission of the ship’s fleet. When it arrived in Korea in mid-August, generals and admirals sat on the Catoctin’s deck a accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in Korea. Its fleet then sailed to Okinawa, then China. During October and most of November, the ship was headquarters for negotiations with the Chinese Communists, in power in Shantung and Manchuria, in which attempts were made to allow the officially recognized Nationalist Government to reestablish itself.
The week of Thanksgiving 1945, the Catoctin left Shanghai, China, for Norfolk, Virginia, arriving in December. The Catoctin served from this port as flagship for the Atlantic Amphibious Force, until September 1946, when it was taken out of service. My Dad had come home by summer’s end, in time to see my sister enter the first grade.
I was born nine months later. My Dad died in 1997, after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. His khaki uniform hangs in my closet. The folded flag from his funeral is in its triangular wooden case in the kitchen window today, in honor of Veterans Day, 2010. Here’s to you, Dad.
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- Kilts, bagpipes and meat pies at the Kirkin o’ the Tartans and St. Andrew’s Feast Day Nov. 20 in Ben Lomond, Calif.
- Dad joined the Navy…to SAVE the world