My father served in WWII as a radar technician in the Army Coast Artillery Corps. He didn’t see combat and did nothing heroic. He spent three years siting on a rock in the Aleutian Islands polishing his radar set and watching for an attack that never came.
Unlike the combat veterans of that war, my father talked freely about his experiences in the Army and during the war. It’s an interesting difference I’ve noted among veterans – those who suffer in battle are the least likely to talk about their experiences. Just too painful I image.
For my father the war past him by. He was drafted, trained and went where the Army told him. He didn’t like being in the Army and likely wouldn’t have volunteered, but when the draft notice came he did his duty. He put on the uniform and tried to be a soldier.
He wasn’t much of a soldier. Physically uncoordinated, not physically fit and no idea which end of a rifle to point at the enemy. Father often told the story of how on the obstacle course while he was trying to climb the wall an exasperated sergeant just yelled, “go around Reynolds, just go around you’re holding up the platoon.”
It’s very likely that had they turned my father into an infantryman, father would have done more damage to our side. Seeing my father in later years, I could just see him walking along, falling into a foxhole and injuring his squad.
We’ve all heard stories about the dumb things that military organizations do, but in my father’s case the Army did the right thing – they took away his rifle and sent him to radar school. Likely the best – father was smart, mentally tough, detail oriented and learned fast. Everything they needed in a good radar man.
When I was a teenager listening to my father’s war stories, I often wondered how good a radar technician he was. After the war father didn’t carry on in electronics, becoming an accountant instead (a damn good one). He couldn’t really fix anything – not even changing a tire, so I often wondered about some of the stories he told.
Then I turned 18 and decided on a career in electronics for myself. I signed up for an electronics school and proudly brought home my text books. Showing them to my father, I was astonished to have him start lecturing me about the applications of Ohm’s law and correcting my inductance calculations. His theories on troubleshooting electronics helped me move ahead in my career.
But that was my father – more theory than practice.
What I’ve come to realize is that he only really knew how to repair two radar sets – the ones the army taught him. The two he was ordered to operate. The two that were used at his base. Other than the general theory, he wasn’t really interested in radar. He was willing to do his duty and take part in the war. He was told to learn how to fix the radar and so he did. Knowing my father, I suspect that if they had told him to learn how to repair tanks, he would have done it.
Father often told this story about the first time he was on duty as an operator – he was both the repair man and operator. During the day the radar wasn’t used and radar was used mostly at night, or in foggy conditions – anytime that the men at the base end stations couldn’t get a good view of the ocean. One foggy night, father was watching the set and noticed an echo. He swung into action.
Quickly he calculated the position, speed and size of the target. Then he called the battery commander with the sighting report. It was a worrying target, about the size of a submarine conning tower and in a likely place in the harbor for a sub to sit itself.
The battery commander was a bit confused by the sighting – odd place for an enemy vessel and in the dark and fog, what could a Japanese sub hope to accomplish? Plus the fact that the officer hadn’t received much training on radar and knew little of its capabilities.
So they watched. The whole thing took on a very odd, surrealist quality. The target dropped out of sight once or twice. Then it got bigger and slowly moved about 100 yards to the right.
At dawn, after calling in position reports every fifteen minutes, father was ordered to shut down the radar set and report to the base end station (an observation point for battery). There, a slight harassed officer pointed out to the harbor and said, “specialist, you’ve been tracking that rock all night.”
Yup, there was a big rock in the harbor that was only visible during low tide. Father had just come on duty as the tide turned. Over the next few days the radar men were ordered to plot the position of every rock and obstacle the radar could see and where given the tide tables with orders to record high and low tides in their logs.
Father’s version was much funnier and went on for much longer.
But on this memorial day, he is on my mind and I remember.
Father died in 2001 at the VA hospital in Menlo Park, California.
On this memorial day, join me in remembering all those who served – however they served, from just doing as ordered to those who were called to do more.
Till next week,