By Anthony R. Thompson:
I miss that Bronxville Memorial Parade, watching Chief McNichols drive by the crowds in that old fire engine which was stored in the Cedar Street Garage, after having been replaced by the big shiny, state-of-the art, American La France hose truck. I would be waiting for my Dad, dressed in his Lt. Commander Naval uniform (which he managed to fit into year-after-year), to march by in a “loose” formation with his American Legion buddies.
He had tried to join the Canadian Navy before we entered the War because he thought Hitler was a shit. That was about the time when Roosevelt had put a stop to allowing Americans to join the foreign fighting forces of those already committed to the WWII engagement. He bided his time, and as a business analyst, he consulted for a munitions factory in Philadelphia.
He was 32 with three boys when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and when he lined up to join the Navy’s submarine and/or destroyer fleets, he was told he was too old for those assignments, that they were too dangerous, and that he did not have to serve because of the three kids.
My mother was relieved, but my father, raised in Arizona by the son of a Montana mining family, pushed at the Navy, and though they had not want Pop to be in harm’s way, they allowed him to go to Officer Candidate School, at Dartmouth College, and receive a commission as a US Naval Officer in charge of the small guns (Oberlikons and Boefers) aboard a Merchant Marine Liberty ship.
Out of harms way? These are the supply ships that sailed in convoys, dodging the U-Boats on zigzag courses at the incredibly slow speed of 7 knots. After the war, like most boy’s would, I asked him if he ever shot any one. He replied, “I don’t know, we could hear the German planes overhead and we shot like hell at them.”
He told me that at night they would see a flash and an explosion on the horizon, the death of another Liberty ship whose crew and cargo would not make it to England. They would see lots of things floating in the water, but they were forbidden to break pattern to help another ship; they could drop life jackets into the sea, but they could not stop.
He told me about the quiet days at sea when he played chess with the Merchant Marine captain, gained a fondness for hard-tac spread with peanut butter and topped with chunks of stale cheddar, and got to know the Merchant Marine crew. One boy had lied about his age; he was 14 and afraid of the dark.
Back in the mid 80’s, at the time that Meany and Pop died, I found some old files in their Pasadena apartment. Among the treasures was a small stack of V-Mails. V-Mails were the cryptic, 3×5″ communiqués that soldiers and sailors used to write back home. They were censored; so they had to be careful what they said.
I remember one of them in particular. It said, “Hope Billie, Boyce and Tony are OK… Hell of a night last night, lots of noise but no one went swimming… the boys in the crew were very brave.”
I looked at the date on that V-Mail, and it read June 12, 1944… D-Day Plus 6. He was off the shore of Omaha Beach.