My father was a great story-teller. He had a story for every occasion and could enthrall an audience with his wit and humor. His memory and stories often come to my mind this time of year with memorial day just past and the anniversary of the WWII D-Day invasion just coming up this next week on the 6th. He could take the simplest event and spin an engaging story about it – often with a punch line. The story always had a point, either humor or something he was trying to teach.
When I was a boy I especially liked his Army stories. Father served in WWII as a radar maintenance man in the 279th Army Coast Artillery Corp in the Aleutian Islands. He repaired and operated the SRC-296 gun sighting radar and later the SCR-584. He served time on different islands but most often talked about Attu. Shemya and Kiska. He was always bit fuzzy about the exact dates he served but I dug though an old box of his things and found his discharge papers.
He was drafted December 1942 and entered service on January 6, 1943 at the age of 18, just a few days short of his 19th birthday (a birthday he celebrated on a troop train). He was then sent to basic training and radar school. He was sent to the Aleutians in September 43, likely with the first build up of garrison troops after the recapture of Attu. His unit was charged with the defense of the harbor and coast in the event of a Japanese invasion.
My father never really cared much about the bigger picture in his stories – as a solider and technician 5th grade he only saw the war from inside a radar shack. His stories were told from that perspective.
One of my favorite stories was the day a captain did a briefing for the radar team on the defense plan for the island (I believe father was on Shemya at this time).
Just a little background on my father’s job in the Army. The 296 radar was a gun laying set. It helped the artillery battery site and target its guns but there were also what was called, “base end stations” which were basically observation post that could also be used to target the guns. The radar was mostly used for night or foggy conditions when visibility was poor. Target observations from both the end stations and the radar were fed to the plotting room where the artillery officer did the needed calculations for firing the guns and directed the firing by telephone. The radar hut was slightly inland and just above the hut was a tower that housed the radar antenna (dad said the thing looked like a water tower and could be confused as one from a distance but he knew a good radio man on a ship would figure out what it really was).
So the story father told went something like this:
“The Army is very complete in making plans for all contingencies and emergencies. You see, in an emergency you’ve got to know what you’re suppose to do without having to think about it. You just have to react and do what you are trained to do. You don’t have time to figure it out.
Well one day this captain came down to brief our unit on the plan to defend the island in case of a Jap invasion. We hadn’t see even a Jap sub in weeks but headquarters needed to have a plan on file so we had to sit through the briefing. Here was the captain said we radar men were to do in case of an invasion:
- Operate the radar set and feed target information to the plotting room until the antenna is destroyed.
- Then move to the power house and keep electrical power running for as long as possible.
- Go to the plotting room and help out with plotting until the base end stations are knocked out or all the artillery is silenced.
- Draw weapons and fall back to the airfield.
- Defend the airfield until the last airplane takes off.
- All base operations cease when the last airplane leaves the runway.
The captain asked if there were any questions and I had one, “Captain, do you mean that we are still on the ground when the last airplane leaves? How do we get evacuated?”
To which the captain replied, “Reynolds, what the hell are you worried about? You’ll most likely be killed in the first salvo the Japs send a shell into that radar antenna you sit under. You’ll be long dead before any airplanes leave this base.”
You see I was a bit worried about be captured since we been told that radar was still a big secret and I thought they wouldn’t want me to fall into enemy hands. That when I realized that in the plan I was highly likely to be killed at each step. If they shelled the power house I’d be inside same thing at the plot room. So I just stopped worrying about invasion plans and knew the captain was right. I had nothing to worry about.”
After the story father would either go on to lecture me how important it is to have a plan and know what could happen you. Or he’d lecture me on why we shouldn’t make plans for events that aren’t really likely. On a couple of occasions he talked about waste of war and how the cold hard reality of combat made an airplane more valuable that a single man. He always seemed to have an unspoken anti-war twist to his stories as if the point he was trying to make to me was to be against war.
That was the strange thing about my father’s stories – he could make one fit just about any message he wanted to give. Of course sometimes he just told stories to be a story-teller. I’ve often thought that he told this story to complain about Army life.
After all one of the few privileges of the enlisted man is to complain.
Or so my father told me.