Dad was a Brit, born 11/11/1899. At 17 he joined the Merchant Marines and became the radio officer on a converted minesweeper.
November 1917 his ship was torpedoed off the Irish coast. The sub surfaced and machine- gunned the survivors. Dad was one of the few, creased in the scalp and bloodied in the right knee. He and mother married years later; younger brother Ken and I came along. We moved back from England in 1937.
WWII, Dad left Otis Elevator to join British Naval Intelligence and in 1940 transferred to the British Ministry of War Transport. He participated in the swap of 50 WWI U.S. destroyers for British territories in the Caribbean. Another story we heard as kids was the shipment of 100 mules to India with their tongues cut out so that they couldn’t be heard traveling through the brush.
Sundays after church and lunch Dad tuned into CBS’s World News Round Up on the den radio. At 2:30, 12/7/1941 John Daly broke in with the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Dad was very calm, sorry for the devastation and loss of life, but overjoyed that we would be in it finally; that his beloved England would get the help it needed.
Dad worried constantly about his parents, two sisters, and brother Ken, an officer in the Commandos fighting with the Gurkhas in India. We also heard of cousin Joe Woolfenden, then Lt. who received the Distinguished Service Cross for sinking German Submarine 401. To prove the kill they retrieved body parts and iced them for the trip home. Joe later captained the Cunard liner Coronia.
Dad diagramed and showed us on a map where epic sea engagements took place; the sinking of HMS Hood, engagements between British and German cruisers and battleships (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), the sinking of the German battleship Bismark, the cornering and eventual scuttling of another battleship, the Graf Spee, in Montivedo, and the sinking of the super battleship Tirpitz 4/9/1941.
The Queen Elizabeth’s Captain Ernest Fall, Dad’s friend, visited us during layovers, before returning to England with a fresh shipload of GIs. She sailed without escort. Her speed enabled her to outrun the German Subs. His house present was a rasher of Canadian bacon, in scarce supply here.
The war was our constant companion. Pearl Harbor was indelibly printed on us all. We were conditioned.
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November 11th took on added significance for me after Dad died in 1986. He was born on November 11, 1899, in Gorton, England…. Every Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) after 1986, at 10:30 a.m. I would drive alone to the neatly tailored Memorial Park adjoining the Islip, Long Island Town Hall, set on a large corner lot facing Main Street, to observe the ceremony honoring the men and women who gave their lives in defense of our country.
Each year the crowd dwindled. The ceremony is simple. The weather alternated between blustery gusts with leaves blowing, to overcast with scudding gray clouds or occasionally rain and temperatures that chilled and hinted at the winter to come. Memorial statues and plaques with names and wars etched in stone are ever present throughout the park. Each year a speakers-rostrum is set-up at the back of the park. Members of the VFW and the Islip Town Supervisor deliver short speeches. A band accompanies the singing of our National Anthem. Hats and caps are doffed. A member of the clergy leads us in prayer. A lone bugler sounds taps. The honor guard fires a rifle-volley. The flag on the Memorial Flag Pole is lowered to half-mast. At exactly 11:11a.m. a bell chimes at intervals as the flag is slowly raised to its original position.
The service is solemn. Those present, some in uniforms that no longer fit. Old proud veterans, some in wheelchairs, some on crutches, none too proud to shed a tear.
I stand each year by myself, on the edge of the sparse crowd alone with my thoughts and memories of Dad, and my brother Ken, with whom I served aboard the USS Abbot (DD-629). He died in 1995. It’s a time to reflect and a time to take stock as the years pass by. To me, this has always been a very special occasion, an hour to be especially proud of my family and proud and humble to be an American.