Harry Briscoe, who makes fly rods and hunts for oil, in his warm and generous way sent thanks to me, of all people, for my service in WWII. I responded with the email below. Harry says that I should post it on this Decoration Day Sunday.
And so, since I am nothing if not obedient, in or out of the Navy, here it is.
Dear Harry, I bet you say those nice things to all the girls.
When I was close to being sent home, when the war was over in '45, I felt guilty that I had done little to help win the war. I had merely kept the stills cooking, making fresh water, for a Sea Bee outfit stymied on a tiny island in the Philippines. We were an outfit detached to rebuild wrecked rolling stock and commissioned for a longer war with fewer resources, but, in the end, the U.S. got ahead of the war, and so we were not needed after all-- not needed.
I knew that when I got home this "education thing" (the GI Bill) was waiting. I was sure to reap greater benefits than I ever deserved. And such was the case. I have never ceased feeling that I owe the Nation a great debt. School teaching felt like an appropriate way to pay back the loan of my full life.
You and my nephew-in-law send out similar gestures of thanks on this big spring holiday. Here in Boulder, the running of its popular foot-race shuts down access to the grave yards and the honored dead lying in them. But I shall find a way through the blockades.
I know some veterans who really deserve your kind thoughts; for instance, my 93 year old barber, Fred Saiz. But not I, Harry, not I. It may be fairly said of me that I followed orders, did mostly as I was told, and might well have been told to go another place and die-- as did my most excellent of friends Ralph Metcalf in his first hour of combat on Luzon. I was, all the while, safe and sound down on little Calicoan cooking the salt out of sea water for my buddies to drink and wash their socks in.
I was barely an 18 year old in a Naval Sea Bee outfit full of middle-aged construction men, the greatest of men, for whose association I am grateful beyond the power of telling. Had I not been given that war, I would never have been given those guys.
And so, on Decoration Day, I wish I had been really useful and done something more than just privately memorable. Still, I am proud beyond the power of telling that I was part of it, ready to go, got there, and did my lowly job. I was among superb men.
Back home, in the excitement of my undergraduate education, I felt I must somehow pay back for that education and the benefits accruing to it. I was obligated to the Nation I had served. I was obligated to its community and its welfare. I never got over it. That war was really something. There are things worse than war.
Thanks for thinking of my good old ship-mates.