RELIVING A FATHER'S MEMORIES
By George H. Gurley, Jr.
(Copied from the Kansas City Star dated October 26, 1993)
My father's Navy uniform hung in a closet of my childhood home enveloped in mothball fumes like an effigy in a shrine. Mortuary black with glowing gold bands on the sleeves, it emanated magic.
A boy's self-esteem in the 40's depended much on how he answered the portentous question: What did your dad do in the war? Like a caretaker of a secret museum, I showed that uniform to my friends - enough said. The apparition inspired me with pride and wonder. It suggested that I had another, heroic father besides the gentle quiet man who went to the office every day.
He could have avoided service, but destiny summoned. Like so many others he answered the call of duty, jumped at the chance to fight on the right side in an ambiguous conflict that pitted Good against Evil.
Last spring a postcard, mailed to the 60th Terrace address he hasn't lived at for 25 years, miraculously found its way to me. It announced the reunion of his shipmates.
I wrote back and said that my father probably wouldn't be able to make the trip. He's in his 80's and doesn't travel much any more. Nevertheless, a packet arrived two weeks ago with the details of the reunion and a history of the ship. I sat down and began to read.
The U.S.S. Chilton steamed out of San Diego in January 1945 to participate in operations that culminated in the invasion of Okinawa.
Enemy airplanes attacked it in the mornings and evenings using the blinding sun as cover. The ship survived suicide plane attacks and shelling from the shore. Tokyo Rose taunted the men with fabrications of Japanese victories and infidelities of their wives at home.
There was a poignant story of a wounded 17 year old
soldier dying on board who dictated a letter full of plans for the future to his
girlfriend back home.
Some of the stories I'd heard on rare occasions when my father talked about the war. Some I knew from poring over a pictorial log of the ship when I was a kid. I'd been on the Chilton in imagination many times.
The reunion was a week away. On an impulse, I called my dad. Would he have any interest in going? The outlandish notion puzzled him at first. "I haven't done anything like that for a long time" he said. He thought it over, then he blurted out a yes. He wanted to go.
This weekend the two of us took of for Philadelphia. I met his shipmates, listened to them swap tales and nautical banter. I wore a Chilton hat with the legend: Any time - Any beach.
I learned that my dad was a "fine gentleman and officer" who'd relieved his shipmates of many dollars with his crafty game of bridge. He denied it all, but his eyes lit up I sensed an inexpressible bond between the men. The war was the defining experience in their lives. "When you stood night watch in a fog with the lives of a thousand men in your hands you grew up quick," one of them said. As young men they faced a dangerous enemy with the world at stake and proved themselves. I envied them.
We took a cruise with an interminable floor show on the
river. When we returned to port and lined up for the gangplank to deliver
us, someone shouted "No liberty!" His shipmates responded with a
chorus of hoots and laughter. For a moment, we were back in the Pacific. A
shipload of raucous sailors was ready for shore leave, having won a war. I
almost had the sense I'd been there with my dad. It was a good trip for both of
us. We haven't done anything, just the two of us
together for a long time.
George H. Gurley
George H. Gurley, Jr.Ex-Lieutenant United States Naval Reserve, Columnist Kansas City Star