How not to celebrate Memorial Day
Rolling Thunder 2009

Memorial Day: Remembering My Uncle James

Sometimes, the war within isn't in the mind.  Sometimes, that war is literally on a cellular level, as things move or grow.

My Uncle James was always somewhat larger than life, at least to me.  I remember him as tall, well built (plush on occasion even), not a lot of hair, and a mind that was sharp.  There was a bit of an engineer there in the way he could figure out what was going on, and find a way to use it or deal with it that was efficient.  He also had a large heart, that he took care not to show too much. 

James and my Dad were rivals in some ways as much as they were anything else.  Who got their garden plowed/planted first, who had the first tomato, who had the first ripe tomato, who had the largest tomato -- You name it, it was a competition.  This provided a certain amount of amusement to their respected spouses, along with some good food and good times.  From what I can find out, this had been going on almost from birth, and I learned later that it had been er, enhanced, by James getting Dad into some difficulties in their youth.  In point of fact, James left Dad twisting in the wind a time or two for a while, and while he always did finally take care of things and get Dad out of the situation, Dad never forgot (and never was able to quite get him back in the same way, so...). 

When WWII came along, Dad tried to get into the Army instead of back into the Corps -- and didn't make it.  James decided on Army, and did.  Dad got out of what was a suicide assignment by quick thinking and seizing an unexpected opportunity.  James ended up in supply/logistics.  Fate brought them together in the Pacific. 

A lot of people don't realize to this day that most of the logistics for the Pacific Campaign were handled by the Army.  As the Marines went ashore, the supplies going in with and to them were from the Army, and Army troops were there to manage and do.  James was one of these people, trying to be sure that the Marines had what they needed, when they needed it.  It was not a safe assignment, as in the Pacific the rear echelon was often up with the "teeth" and subject to the same vagaries of fate. 

Late in the war, the supply ships came under attack from kamakazies and it was here that Dad did something that Hollywood would never dare write:  he saved James and his ship.  While Dad was orderly and bodyguard to Adm. Spruance, when battle stations came his position was often manning an anti-aircraft gun.  When building a model as a child, I discovered that from an almost off-hand comment that one such position had been the .50's on top of the forward turret of the New Jersey.  I don't know if it was from there or another such position on a different ship that Dad saw the plane aim at the supply ship with his brother on it.  It didn't matter, it was within his shoot area and it was about to kill his brother -- and Dad blew it out of the sky. 

At some point later, Dad and James got to talk about that battle, and Dad asked if he had seen the plane coming at them.  James allowed as yes, he had; and, that with nothing else to do, he had tried to dig a foxhole in the steel deck.  A little more talking revealed that James had seen the plane hit and destroyed just short of the ship.  Thanks was given for that bit of providence, at which point Dad just smiled ( I suspect a large one, with a bit of the smirk that he sometimes had), and said "You're welcome." 

At some point in the war, neither Dad nor any other brother were around to stop the torpedoes that sank James' ship.  He spent what I am told was a considerable time in the water, and picked up a microbial hitch-hiker described as some sort of algae-type organism that got in his lungs, and was with him the rest of his life. 

After the war, James went back to life and to politics (an involvement of the family that Dad vehemently rejected) and did well for himself.  He was a staple of local politics and held his position for decades.  There was even a successful foray into national politics, that came about in part as a result of that heart, for veteran's affairs was the driver.  It was during a campaign event that his brothers taught James a lesson and got a bit of their own back for things that happened growing up. 

James had involved them in the campaign, for it did not hurt to show brothers who covered most or all of the wars in the century.  The problem was, James could get going and forget things such as time, meals, other obligations, and such in pursuit of his goal.  This had apparently been discussed with him, and one night he had made the usual promises and from accounts promptly forgot them.  The Waltons my Dad's family were not:  the brothers looked at each other, got up with their spouses, and all quietly left the stage and headed to the bar.  At some point later, James finally got around to introducing his brothers and turned to point -- at empty seats.  While he was quite unamused, it would appear that the audience (who had seen them leave) and the brothers were quite amused.  James did amend his ways the rest of that campaign. 

That his heart was large was seen when he died, for people in the area who had never gotten a tax bill suddenly started getting them.  It seems that James had been aware of people in his district that for various reasons could not meet property taxes levied on them as government began to grow.  Coming from a generation that realized the responsibility of power as well as the rewards, James apparently paid for some of those taxes himself, quietly, and may have arranged for others to chip in as well.  I doubt that we will evern know how many people he helped like this, or for whom he did other things.  I suspect it was a few, and why there was no large cash estate left behind. 

It was that heart that got him in the end.  That, and his hitch-hiker from the war.  The growth in his lungs that they could never fully get rid of placed a strain on his heart, which grew and wore as time progressed.  When he died, I'm told that a hole had literally worn in his heart as a result. 

He taught me much, on many levels, and any tendency I have towards politics came from his embrace of it (and a bit from Dad's rejection of same).  He led by example, in the war I'm told, and sure as hell in his life after.  You take care of your own, and where possible you do it with no fuss, no muss, no glory.  Where there are problems, people or otherwise, you fix it, again quietly if possible.  If not, go at it hammer and tongs.  That national campaign I mentioned?  National Commander of the American Legion. 

Death from war comes not immediately to all.  Sometimes, it leaves things behind ticking like time bombs in our vets.  Their deaths are no less from battle than those who died on the spot.  Remember them too this weekend. 

Thank you Uncle James, for your service during and after.  You, Dad, and Sam left one hell of an example to try to live up to.