The Captain Goes To War
On Sunday, December 7, 1941 the newspaper headlines screamed it all.
Pearl Harbor has been attacked by the Japanese Imperial Navy as 353 Japanese fighters flew over Hawaii destroying all eight United States battleships.
President Roosevelt declared it a day of infamy. We declared war against Japan the next day. That Monday was also the day my father announced he was enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.
“At your age?” my mother demanded. “Bill, you're forty-five. You already served in the first World War. What are you thinking?”
“I'm thinking my country can use me,” he answered proudly. His decision was adamant and within two weeks he had joined up.
Although reluctant, Mother closed up our house and we wound up in Miami Beach, Florida, where my father took his basic training. Mother may not have admitted it, but it was an exciting time for us as we watched the troops march past our hotel window each morning heading for the camp grounds that had been set up. Six weeks of basic training, and my father was promoted to Captain and told he would be based in Mississippi.
We made the journey to Mississippi and Dad looked for a place we could stay. With his gift of gab, he cajoled an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lang, to rent us their guest house in Long Beach, a twenty minute drive from the camp in Gulfport, Mississippi, where he would be stationed.
It was a beautiful little cottage surrounded by acres of various colored camellias. There were three bedrooms, a small living room with an outside porch, and a large kitchen. Outside the back door was an ice box. Our rental of the cottage also included maid service. A young black woman, Naomi, would come in each day, make beds, clean the house and even cook supper for us if necessary.
It was evident to me that Dad had really charmed the Langs because they would even invite us for mint juleps and sometimes supper. As we grew closer to them, I realized they never had children and enjoyed the companionship of younger people. I was their special favorite.
“Mercy, child, you could be my grand-daughter,” she'd laugh and hug me.
I was enrolled as a freshman in Long Beach High School and Mrs. Lang had her chauffeur, Julian, drive me to school each day. The first day I hopped into the front seat next to Julian.
He frowned, almost embarrassed. “No, Missy, you sit in the back. You don't sit next to me.” I didn't understand why, but from then on I rode in the back seat. Long Beach was a four block town so I could have walked, but Mrs. Lang wanted Julian to drive me.
By now, Dad headed to camp every day. His job? To train the young soldiers how to fight jungle style. The camp had set up an area called Guadalcanal. It was similar to the islands they would be heading to. Enormous trees, thick clinging vines and heavy undergrowth was where my father spent his days. He loved every minute and each night would bring home some critter he had found. There were turtles, a small squirrel, and caged snakes which he claimed were harmless.
One day a snake got loose and Naomi ran around trying to bat it with a broom.
“I ain't gonna work with no snake underfoot,” she declared. The snake finally slithered away and I had to convince Naomi it wouldn't return.
My father's pet was the baby squirrel he had caught and caged. He'd come home at night, pet it, and feed it peanut butter. Strange diet for a squirrel, but Dad always had a handful of nuts that he fed him, too. I'd never seen this side of my father. He actually bonded with that baby squirrel. Unfortunately, the bonding didn't last too long.
For my birthday, Mr. Lang had given me a tiny rat terrier. He was so small and cute I named him “Sniffles”. He kept eying the squirrel from a distance and would sometimes run up to the cage and bark. To “Sniffles, whether a squirrel or a rat, he was meant to hunt them.
I don't know how it happened, but the squirrel managed to wiggle out of his cage and fell to the ground. “Sniffles” saw his chance, attacked and killed him. When my father came home that night he was furious, grabbed the dog and sent him hurtling through the air. The dog refused to come near him after that. I was just happy he hadn't killed “Sniffles”.
After getting permission from Mr. Lang, Dad started bringing three or four young soldiers home for fun on the pier and Sunday supper each week.
During the week he worked their butts off, but he was right there side by side with them, struggling through the swamps and wild terrain. Those young soldiers had nothing but admiration for him because he never asked them to do something he couldn't do. He loved those boys. They were like the sons he'd never had.
Every weekend there were different faces coming to the house. At fifteen I was having the time of my life surrounded by all these handsome hunks. Of course my father warned them I was off limits.
Then one weekend a young soldier named Milton was on the guest list. We hit it off immediately. He was a bit older than me, but I loved his warm, brown eyes and quirky smile. We swam away from the rest, and I found myself underwater kissing him. When we broke to the surface he was blushing.
“I – I'm sorry,” he stammered. “I shouldn't have done that, but you were so tempting. Your father will kill me.”
I assured him I was fine with the kiss and we'd keep it between us. I never saw Milton again, but we did correspond until the war was over.
One day I received a strange letter from someone named Earl who was a soldier in Milton's platoon. He had seen a bathing suit picture of me that I had sent to Milton. He wrote that I now had sixteen lovers. He suggested that, in fun, I would send a duplicate picture signed “To the guys I love in Hut K-3.”
I was touched. What a simple time it was that those lonely soldiers wanted me as their pin up girl. Most would have wanted pictures of Betty Grable.
I wrote Earl back and explained why I was declining. I didn't think it would be fair to Milton.
It's funny how war changes people in subtle ways. We become closer to those in service. Today, every time I see a soldier in uniform I walk over to him or her, shake hands and profusely thank them for helping to keep our country free.
Author: Audrey Frank