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The War Chest

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Since non-veterans can contribute to this forum ...

I stumbled across this newspaper column in my basement the other day. It's hard to believe it's been close to 20 years since I wrote it for a small-town weekly that I edited. At the time, many families in town had loved ones in the Armed Forces, and local National Guard members were being mobilized for active duty. All of this prompted me to think about my dad's military service in World War II ...

Moved by a chest full of war items

Feb. 18, 1991

I call it the "war chest." Never before has its contents evoked such pride in me as now, during this time of conflict in the Persian Gulf.

The medals, pendants, photos, newspaper clippings and patches were packed away in the old cedar chest in the attic. These mementos, and what my older brothers and sisters told me, are my only sources of information about my dad's WWII experiences.

He never talked about the war much. I never prodded him, either. I guess I didn't want to stir up painful memories.

I know Dad was in the Ninth Air Force; he flew on planes that dropped cargo and supplies to the troops. His plane was shot down once, he contracted malaria, saw his buddies killed and was decorated.

One of the few "war stories" he told, my family says, was of the time his plane dropped goods to the Germans by mistake.

I look at the photos of Dad -- in the chow line, working on a plane, shirtless with other soldiers, on a motorcycle, and in front of a plane that has "Helen," my mom's name, inscribed on the side. The turbulence of war seems hidden in his constant smile. His expression is typical of his "Don't worry, everything will turn out all right" attitude. He is in his early 20s and lean. This is before marriage to Helen, before eight children, before me.

I wonder who took the pictures. I wonder if the soldiers pictured with Dad are still alive. I wish I knew their names. I wish I could talk to them.

Dad must have wanted to preserve some lighter memories, but I never saw him show the photos to anyone. Maybe they recalled a time of killing. I don't know how much direct fighting Dad was involved in, but it was hard to imagine him killing; then again, it was hard to imagine him not having to kill.

Questions rush through my mind as I examine mementos in the chest.

"What's this medal for?"

"Were you scared?"

"Tell me about the time your plane was shot down."

I know Dad saw much of Europe during his flights. A letter he wrote to my grandmother was excerpted in the Stars and Stripes. Dad wrote about the sights of Paris and told his mom to tell a friend that he was awarded an air medal.

Several years ago, after Dad retired, he went back to Europe on vacation for the first time since the war. How thrilled he must have been to see Italy, Paris and Germany again, only this time on the ground, at his leisure and during peacetime.

In the chest there is a framed letter from a military public relations officer addressed to Dad's mother and father. It commends Dad's effort toward inevitable victory for the Allies. My pride swells.

There is also a red, white and blue valentine card with Dad's picture in the center. The message: "To my Honey, From Your Sweetheart in the Service."

There is foreign currency in the chest. There are war annuals and individual photos of Dad in military uniform. All remnants of a short chapter in his life almost 20 years before my time.

* * *

(Somewhere, I have a photo of Dad on his motorcylce and Dad in front of his plane. When I find them, I'll post them here.)

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My father, Charles H. Cecil, was also WW2. He was stationed aboard the USS Gunston Hall, LSD6. He was in the South Pacific and he saw a lot of action.

He was mechanic/driver/gunner on a Higgins boat that hauled the Marines ashore. At night he hauled in food, gas, ammo, and all the ''needed things'' for the Marines on those little islands. His battle station on the ship was a 50-cal anti aircraft machine gun.

Back in the '50s we would watch CRUSADE IN THE PACIFIC on TV. Poppa would watch intently when they showed war footage of warships. He would watch for the ''Hall'' but he said he had never seen it on there. One night we were watching the show and they were showing air combat between us and the zeros. Poppa sat there and watched and said he had never seen combat between our planes and the zero but he SAW A LOT OF ZEROS.

When I get the time I will be glad to relate some of the war stories he shared with me when he came home. My father was a good man and I think about him and miss him every day. He served this country with pride and dignity and helped win the freedom we so take for granted today. We are losing our WW2 vets at a thousand per day now, so if you know someone who served in that great war, give them my thanks for their service. They don't make guys like them anymore.


Seajay the sailor man ...

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