A Silent War Hero: My Dad
On Veterans Day, remember
It had been a long, exhausting day, and I was looking through my dad’s old files.
He was a businessman and kept an array of documents in a haphazard manner — the Billy Way, my mom always called it. I had been through these same documents when he died in 2009. But then I was dealing with the Veterans’ Administration concerning a complicated pension for my mom in the wake of my dad’s unexpected death and my grieving. Ultimately, the VA screwed my mom on the pension and she received a much smaller amount than she should have.
The document I found was a copy of my dad’s honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. Perhaps, I had read it thoroughly before, but maybe it never hit me that he received ribbons that I have never seen in my life. Maybe he threw them away; maybe they are in a box somewhere.
According to his discharge papers, he received ribbons for National Defense, Korean Service, United Nations and Good Conduct.
He never mentioned these medals. Then again, he didn’t talk about the Korean War much at all.
When my mom and I would talk about traveling to England or France, he would say he’d seen enough of the world when he served in the Navy during the Korean War. In fact, once my dad landed in San Francisco from Korea in 1953, he never left the United States again.
And for years that’s all I knew about his time in Korea. He never talked about his war days. He didn’t go to reunions or keep up with military buddies. He tightly locked that chapter of his life shut.
Occasionally, as he got older, my dad would mutter something about how the men who served in Korea never got the recognition they deserved. And they didn’t.
The Korean War wasn’t even considered a war when the United States first got involved. President Harry S. Truman simply called it a “police action” since military activity was conducted under the United Nations. By the time this conflict rolled around, Americans suffered from fatigue from the long years of World War II. Sadly, Korea became known as the “The Forgotten War” or “The Unknown War.”
Sometimes he would say that no one protested the Korean War like the Vietnam War because no one even knew the United States was in a war. When I asked what he did in the war, he would say only that he worked on a hospital ship, and that the weather was bitterly cold.
It was only after my dad became sick with diabetes and congestive heart failure and started visiting the VA Hospital regularly that I learned the true nightmare of Korea. My dad would dribble out pieces of his war time in waiting rooms, chatting with other veterans. He never participated in combat but served on the USS Repose where he saw unspeakable horrors — men buried at sea, men with body parts blown off, men who cried at night for God to let them die.
As my dad talked, I started piecing together why he was often withdrawn and moody. For years, he suffered silently from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and told no one. His generation of men didn’t believe in therapy and pills to make you feel better. They returned from Korea and got on with their lives — landing good jobs or starting their own businesses, marrying and becoming fathers. They buried their nightmares in drink and career. That worked for a while until the gloom began seeping into real life.
After my dad nearly died in 2006 from a heart procedure, his visions of Korea emerged and never vanished again. It haunted him to think that those young men who were buried at sea — or dumped as he would say — would never return home. He talked about a young man who had both feet shot off in combat. I sat in his hospital room late at night, watching him struggle with painful memories and spiraling into panic.
Many of the young VA social workers and nurses weren’t even aware of Korea or the fact that veterans suffered from PTSD from that war. They would often loop Korea with the Vietnam War and talk of jungles and heat instead of mountains and cold. I would try to explain that those two wars were not the same, but my explanation often fell on deaf years.
Even after my dad went home from the hospital, he couldn’t sleep at night, fearful of the dreams that would visit him if he closed his eyes. His horror became our horror as my mom and I tried to talk him away from darkness. I know my dad died having never received the adequate treatment he needed for his PTSD.
When I found the file the other night, I googled — as I have many times — the USS Repose. Usually, I’ve come up empty-handed. But this time, I discovered a site with more information that I previously had known.
The ship was called the “Angel of the Orient” and was active during World War II. But it was her time in Korea that proved what I always suspected: My dad, who served from 1951 until 1954 — three years, nine months and twenty days, to be exact — saw more injured and dead bodies during that war than he ever admitted.
From January 1951 to January 1952, the ship had a total of 11,025 patients, and thousands more until it was decommissioned just days after my dad was discharged from the Navy in December 1954 in California.
Sure, my dad wasn’t a war hero in the vein of receiving a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor.
But the fact that he witnessed so much unimaginable horror and kept it to himself for most of his life has always made him a hero in my book. That remains true today even if I don’t a picture of him in a uniform or the ribbons.
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