For his 79th birthday, my father requested Ghost Soldiers, a nonfiction book about U.S. Army Rangers rescuing 500 American POWs at a Philippines prison camp during World War II.
My father served in the United States Army during WWII, in the Pacific Theater, but didn’t talk about his own service until he finished that book. Then he spread his artifacts on the dining room table for us. A black and white photo of him, looking young and slim in his army uniform. An edition of Yank - The Army Weekly. A cloth badge from his unit with the Amphibious Engineers. A hand-written postcard he’d mailed to his sister from Kamakura, Japan.
In 1943, my father was sent to West Virginia University, to study engineering in an army cadet leadership program called the Army Services Training Program (ASTP). He was 20 years old. The U.S. expected a long war, and wanted future officers who were college graduates. But in 1944, the program suddenly shut down, and sent enrollees to load ships in New Orleans, then work at a cannery in California before being shipped to the Pacific.
Now, my father opened up maps of the Philippines and Japan, and traced his finger along the paths his unit followed during the war. He shared sad stories, humorous stories. He requested other historical nonfiction books for his birthday and the holidays. We gave him Citizen Soldiers, Lost in Shangri-La, Flags of Our Fathers, With Wings Like Eagles, Shadows in the Jungle, The Girls of Atomic City. I bought him a WWII Vet cap, which he proudly wore when we took him to Veterans Day celebrations, military concerts, and the 75th anniversary of D-Day held at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, IL.
Tom Brokaw’s book of personal stories told by World War II vets, called The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections, appealed to my father. “I’ve been waiting for someone to say this happened!” he said, after reading one vet’s account of one thousand U.S. planes and bombers filling the sky when the Japanese surrendered on the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945. My father had witnessed the surrender and airpower flyover from the shore. But surrender didn’t mean he sailed right home -- my father was assigned to stay on in Japan for the U.S. occupation.
He was deeply moved by Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, about the survival and resilience of WWII airman Louis Zamperini. I'd bought him the author’s previous book, Seabiscuit, about a racehorse that electrified the sports world in 1938. He passed the book on to me after finishing it. It’s fun to think about how my family watched another amazing horse named Secretariat win the Kentucky Derby in 1973 -- and then go on to win the Triple Crown. My father was as thrilled as his children, and talked about that horse often.
My father eschewed novels, mysteries, science fiction. He preferred nonfiction books with a historical bent (some of which read like thrillers). An employee at Women and Children First bookstore in Chicago raved about The River of Doubt, which covered Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing adventure in the Brazilian rainforest. I gave that to my father, then bought him Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten City, which is also set in the Amazon.
Since he had an interest in how things worked (he could build, fix or repair anything), I gifted my father The Path Between the Seas, which was about the building of the Panama Canal, then The Wright Brothers, both books by David McCullough.
When he worked as a patent attorney, my father read and wrote about inventions. Plus, his father (my grandfather) was a printer at the Chicago Tribune. So I bought Paper, a fascinating book about paper and printmaking, following author Mark Kurlansky’s book discussion at the 2016 Printers Row Book Fair.
For Father’s Day 2017, I gave him Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific 1944-1945. My father treasured the book. He filled it with bookmarks, wrote in the margins, talked of favorite passages, shared even more memories with us.
Over a year later, it became hard for him to read due to eye problems and cognitive issues, and he thought it best that we stop giving him books. That was hard for me to accept.
September 1 marks one year since my father died, at age 97. Losing him has meant struggling with a huge hole in my life. There are overarching feelings of sadness, and a tremendous sense of loss. I find myself in a wrestling match, trying to ensure happy moments can rise above unrelenting pain.
I take comfort in knowing these books enlarged him, enlightened him, and informed his life. I’m grateful for the sacrifices he made. I feel we can never thank him enough. And I’m glad that many of these books helped my father process the emotions that he’d shut down related to WWII.
Stacks of books. Peace and pain. A jumble of memories, a lifetime of love.
-- Sarah Klose
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