I think of my dad this Memorial Day. Like so many young men of his time he dreamed of becoming a pilot, but after Pearl Harbor the Air Force was inundated with enlistees and could not accept them all in flight school. Dad had a magnificent bass voice and a way with words, so he was quickly assigned to radio communications. He ended up near Chichiang, China, in a coastal area directly west of northern Japan.
Dad was a great storyteller, and to this day I have vivid images of some of his experiences there: how every morning the egg delivery man loaded his baskets with fresh eggs, but that by the end of his route the last eggs were far from fresh; and how the landing strip grew up over night through the wizardry of a thousand Chinese hauling dirt in baskets.
But the story I remember most vividly happened after one of the many bombing missions that flew over Japan. It was not unusual for pilots to lose their bearings after completing a mission and start heading out to sea. As a communications specialist Dad’s job was to radio the correct coordinates to the pilot until they were safely over land. What set this night apart was that the plane was also running out of fuel. For endless, nerve-wracking minutes, he and this pilot raced against time as they barked coordinates back and forth. Just as the pilot reached safety, he broke military procedure and asked Dad for his name. Dad fired back, “Delta uniform golf alpha November!” (Military code for Dugan).
Months later the war ended and Dad headed home on a troop ship. He gladly took his turn at watch so he could get some fresh air and smoke a cigarette (in those days that was not an oxymoron). Another soldier joined him in conversation, and it wasn’t long before they discovered that this was that pilot and Dad was that radio operator! They exchanged addresses, and not long after Dad returned home he received a gift from that pilot—a piece of the parachute that he had used to float to earth and safety. That was how close that call was!
I have always loved that story because it is full of drama and heroism, and a surprise twist at the end. But on Memorial Day it takes on more meaning, because it was the story my father recalled, one more time, on the night before he died. In his eighty-fifth year Dad learned he had lung cancer (those damned cigarettes) and he chose to have a third of his lung removed. It was a brutal surgery, but he surprised everyone by recovering and coming home to play golf again. Well, he puttered on the green in his back yard. It wasn’t long before complications from the surgery landed him back in the hospital, then a nursing home, where he ended his days on earth.
I live only five minutes away from that nursing home, so one night I decided to visit him again to tuck him in. When I approached him he struggled to see me, not from blindness but because he was deep in reverie. He asked me if I thought his military service was valuable. I said yes, and we recalled the story of the lost plane, the broken rule, and the parachute. I could not have known it, but Dad was spending his final hours in his own, personal memorial day.
So on this Memorial Day I cherish one unforgettable story of heroism in honor of countless others.