I come by my emotion honestly. For as long as I can remember Daddy would always stand with his hand over his heart whenever "The Star Spangled Banner" was played or whenever the flag would pass in a parade, and many times he’d unashamedly have tears in his eyes.
One morning long ago, looking for an envelope in my parent’s cherry wood secretary, I came across bundles of cards and black-and-white Polaroid pictures, with the dates 1944 and 1945 on the borders. Those were letters, made into miniatures and known as "Victory mail," or V-mail, which my parents had written each other after Daddy’s Seabee unit had been transferred from England to the Philippine Islands. Having never seen them before, I took them to Daddy and asked him to talk about World War II.
Daddy told me of England, how he’d been stationed in Wales, how he’d worked out a code to let his family know where he was, a code which the censors could not break as it was based on the names of family members.
The morning I found the V-mail and photographs, Daddy thumbed through the pictures and his mood alternated between laughing out loud and staring straight ahead in silence. He looked at old friends, remembered some of the good times and told me how his Seabee unit had to build raised, wooden-plank walkways above the sea of mud prevalent there in the rainy season.
Daddy thumbed to the next picture, stiffened in his chair, gasped audibly and quietly began to cry. Gathering himself, he told of having to pull what was left of the man in the picture, one of his best friends, from a bomb crater. And he spoke of atrocities he’d seen perpetrated not only against American military prisoners, but against Pilipino civilians by the Japanese.
Daddy put away the V-mail and the pictures, and we never spoke again of those matters, despite my curiosity. And before he died, my dad drove a German car, but he would never allow us to bring anything into the house that was made in Japan.
Today is the 67th anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. On a Sunday morning, while their diplomats in our nation’s capital still spoke of peace, Japanese naval and air forces infamously struck our Pacific Fleet. Americans, literally caught asleep in the harbor, returned Japanese treachery with countless acts of heroism that day.
Eventually our Navy named 16 ships for individuals, commemorating their actions at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. One of them, USS Miller, was named for cook 3rd Class, Doris "Dorie" Miller who, as battleship USS West Virginia sank beneath him, manned an anti-aircraft gun, shot down a Zero, and carried dozens of wounded shipmates to safety. "Dorie" Miller, later killed in the sinking of USS Liscome Bay, was the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross, presented aboard USS Enterprise by Admiral Chester Nimitz.
I believe Admiral Nimitz would have been similarly proud of the recent presentation of the Silver Star to a 19-year-old female Army medic.
Specialist Monica Lin Brown, of Lake Jackson, Texas, is only the second woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star.
Brown was in a four-vehicle convoy near Jani Kheil in the eastern Afghanistan province of Paktia when, on April 25, 2007, they were ambushed. Attached to the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, Brown ran through heavy fire to a burning vehicle and pulled seriously wounded men out. As ammo cooked off inside and a withering hail of bullets from the firefight rained down, Specialist Brown covered her patients with her own body while treating them.
The front lines in the war against terror are everywhere and nowhere. Bravery comes in many forms, be it the athletic form of an African-American Navy cook on a battleship in Pearl Harbor, or the diminutive form of a female Army medic in the mountains of Afghanistan.
I watched on the news this week as Monica Lin Brown rode in a parade through her home town. I heard two men old enough to be her daddy — her commanding officer that day, and a general — say that she unequivocally saved the lives of her comrades, and that her Silver Star was well deserved.
And suddenly I saw my Daddy, a Navy corpsman, pulling a friend from a bomb crater in the Phillipines 64 years ago, and I saw "Dorie" Miller carrying his shipmates at Pearl Harbor, and the television set became a blur. All I could do was stand amazed in the presence of those who loved their country more than self, and mercy more than life.
I think from now on, when I think on Pearl Harbor, that I’ll also remember a 19-year-old girl in Afghanistan, Monica Lin Brown, and a Silver Star.
Silver and Pearl - Let us never, ever, forget.
Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.