What My Father Never Told Me

January 20, 2016
Susan Kweskin

If my dad looked back on those ferocious battles he fought in the south Pacific, he never let on.

My dad and I were locked at the hip. I got him. I think like him, and-many times a day since he died in the snow of a heart attack 12 years ago today-I channel him. We had each other’s backs. When I grew up, he became my best friend. He told me his secrets when I probed- and sometimes when I really didn’t want to know.

I thought I knew almost everything about his life.

Until this past weekend.

I was looking through his box where he kept his important documents and pictures. I unfolded a copy of his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. Somehow, I’d never seen it before. It was dated August 1945. Dad was 22.

The document listed 4 battles dad fought in the Pacific during WWII. I knew he’d been on Iwo Jima during the 5 weeks of the bloodiest fighting the Marines ever endured. 26,000 Americans died during those 5 weeks. Dad had never mentioned Saipan. Or Tinian. Or Kawjalein.

Wikipedia says that the 4th Marine division sustained 17,000 casualties during its 4 major “amphibious assaults.” It earned 2 Presidential Unit Citations and a Navy Unit Commendation. On November 28, 1945, the division was deactivated.

By then, dad had come home with schrapnel in his leg, a tattoo of a black panther that took up most of his left forearm, and another that said “Trigger” on his right. He left the service with a check for $178.32 and got on with his life. Within a few years, he got (and stayed) married, joined the police force in an affluent Connecticut suburb, bought a house, had 3 kids and, over the years, brought home several scraggly mutts. He even caught a rapist once. He played semi-pro baseball, lost (mostly) at poker and the horse races, and never could figure out how to grow grass in our front yard. Not your average Jewish boy.

He was a man’s man. He was great fun. Carefree. A character. He flaunted the rules. He was patriotic. He drank seldom, possibly because he couldn't hold his liquor. He was always telling my mom to stop worrying. True: he had a few triggers that made him go from 0 to 60 in the furious department- my sister loved to instigate.

I remember only two things dad told us about Iwo Jima, despite my probing. His platoon was the third to hit the beach. This was lucky. Guys in the first and second waves didn’t stand a chance. And this story: he and a buddy found a cave that hid a stash of blackberry wine, which they drank. Both got very drunk and pretty sick-- and had to be carried back to camp by fellow Marines.

I've wondered if that story could be true.

Many, many, years later, dad and fellow police officer went to see the Giants play football at the Meadowlands. On a cold winter afternoon, they shivered under blankets and nipped at a bottle of blackberry brandy, which took the edge off the cold. The more they drank, the easier the brandy went down. Dad got drunk and pretty sick. My brother had to carry him back home and put him to bed.

The men I knew from the Greatest Generation came home from WWII and got on with their lives, seemingly unscathed by their war experiences. When asked about their war experiences, most of dad's friends would say only, “I was there.”

If my dad looked back on those ferocious battles in the south Pacific, he never let on. I wish I had him around to try again with the deeper questions. But on this one subject, I know he’d never give me the deeper answers.

[Editor’s note: Do you have story about someone from the Greatest Generation and how he dealt with the traumas of WWII? Please leave your comments/tributes below.]