FAITH: The Call to Sacrifice and Commitment: The Letters of a WWII Sailor

Published 12:59 am Sunday, September 13, 2020

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Dr. Jim Thrasher

Since my dad’s passing, I have carried his dog tag on my key chain. I wanted a daily reminder of my dad and his sacrificial service to our nation in World War II. My dad was the classic WWII vet who did not often speak of his time in the war. I regret not asking him more questions. Personally, I missed the mandatory draft by a few years, turning 18 in 1976. But I had two older friends, the Harris brothers in my neighborhood, who went to Vietnam and never came back. I have always believed that my generation, and those to follow, have not had an appropriate level of appreciation for all that was put on the line by those who have served in the military. I know that I have lacked a true acknowledgment of this dedication and willingness to commit one’s life to the defense of American freedom.

Well, that feeling has been uniquely confirmed. In the last few years, we sold my family home, bringing my mom here to live until her recent passing. Clearing out the attic revealed a treasure. To my surprise, my grandmother saved 133 letters written to her by my dad between June 1943 and October 1945. These letters were tucked away in the attic of our house, now to be found and read by her grandson. I have no idea if my dad was even aware of their existence. I have carefully opened and read each letter. These letters reveal the experiences, fears, feelings, hopes, and dreams of a sailor. I had no idea regarding what my dad went through from boot camp to the news that the war was over.

Weeks after graduating from high school, my dad reported to boot camp in Camp Peary, Virginia. He left behind a mother who raised four children on her own and who now had all three sons in the war. My grandfather was an alcoholic who left the family shortly after the fourth child, my dad, was born, leaving them to fend for themselves. In going off to war, my dad was very concerned about my grandmother’s ability to support herself. He consistently sent home most of his combat pay to help his mom and the support of a granddaughter under her care.

After boot camp, due to his poor eyesight, he was designated to a special assignment. He was assigned to the Seabees Construction 13th Battalion unit. The Seabees worked very closely with the Special Operations Forces. Special Operations Forces would secure an acquired position and then the Seabees would quickly build airstrips, roads, and bridges to facilitate these advances. I remember my dad’s friends, who served in actual combat duty, kidding my dad that he unloaded banana boats. This was far from the truth.

My dad never fired his weapon, but he was acutely aware of the dangers around him. The Seabees were susceptible to attack throughout the war, as they were key players in expediting troop movements. One of the few things that my dad mentioned to me about his war experience was his awareness of ships being sunk due to torpedo hits. The German and Japanese submarines were very active in sinking Navy ships. As he moved about in the Pacific, he was fearful of going down at sea. But it was very apparent in his letters that he tried to be very reassuring to his mom regarding his safety, never speaking of these torpedo strikes.

A personal faith in the Lord was not a part of my dad’s life at this point. Based upon my grandmother’s prodding, he mentioned numerous times his willingness to attend the chapel services. The realities of war and its uncertainties have a way of directing one’s thoughts to the most important questions of life. The Lord utilized these services and other seeds planted over the course of his life to bring him to faith shortly before he died of bone cancer.

My dad’s sincere desire was to return home a credit to his family and his country. Throughout the letters he shared his concern for his mother, his devotion to his country and fellow servicemen, and his constant yearning to be home. He wondered about and wanted to know the happenings of life back home. I am sure the hopes and dreams of my dad were on his mind as he continually alluded to his safe return. He did not know that the Lord would bless him with a wonderful wife and two children.

As we have just observed the 75th anniversary of the end to WWII, we must never take for granted the sacrifice and the selfless commitment of those who have gone before us in service to our country. The letters of a sailor sent home to his mother have made that very clear. My dad left western NY in 1943 as a boy; he returned as a man who was transformed by the opportunity to serve the country he loved and by the dangers and experiences of war.

So to all active and retired men and women in the U.S. military, you have my utmost respect, my deepest thanks, and my heartfelt prayers.

Dr. Jim Thrasher is the Senior Fellow of Grove City College’s career services office and the coordinator of the Institute for Faith & Freedom’s working group on calling.