In the Ken Burns' PBS documentary, "The War," it said a thousand World War II veterans die every day. My dad was one of those soldiers. His day just happened to be 30 years ago when he died prematurely from a heart attack. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Sunday of Pearl Harbor, my father was 33 years old. He had once been stationed in the Hawaii Territory at Schofield Barracks but had been rotated back to California before the killing started. Not a young man any longer, he was still a boy from a small town in Nebraska. He had left the Great Plains orphaned to seek his fortune during the Great Depression. Somehow he ended up in the U.S. Army, although he never was a real military man.
When comrades were slugging it out with the enemy on two continents, he was stationed at Fort Douglas, Utah, far from the Presidio of San Francisco and far from any sea threats from Japan. He would say that he fought the war of the Wasatch.
His weapon during the conflict was not a carbine but a typewriter and probably a lot of pencils. He was a financial clerk with the 9th Service Command Headquarters in their counterintelligence unit. He was never a spy, but he said that he knew secrets he never shared, even though there were times when he would have loved to shout them out from a hilltop. His only admission was as a money-numbers guy he did remember dollars going to something called the Manhattan Project.
He was finally transferred with his family to the battle zone of Okinawa some eight years after the shooting had stopped. As children, we saw the ruins of Shuri Castle, not knowing about the carnage of Operation Iceberg, code name for the invasion of the island. He took us to see where the soldier's friend, Ernie Pyle, was initially buried. The war correspondent was killed in the last battle of the war reporting about ordinary soldiers. My dad probably thought he was pretty ordinary. I remember him telling my brother and me about suicide cliff, where Japanese women and children had leaped to their deaths rather than be captured by the devil Americans. However, the only actual remnant of war we experienced was an undetonated bomb lifted up from its own rusted grave in downtown Naha.
After his medical discharge for heart problems, like so many other vets, he moved to the Sunbelt. Just like he wasn't a warrior, he wasn't a farmer, either, and the sun just suited him fine. There weren't any stories of heroism or valor. But we made up our own with the barrel of old Army shirts, belts and a real helmet and steep pot. He didn't attend any meetings of the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. There were never any reunions for financial clerks, but he visited a friend from those days, Muzzy, as if he were a brother.
Dad never said we had to be soldiers, but we flew the stars and stripes every day. He also managed the local Boy Scout troop in its fund-raising of planting American flags along Main Street businesses. He loved his country even though he hadn't shed any blood, though he probably knew a lot who had.
This week as our family watched the series on television about the ultimate sacrifice of so many — not just the fighters but everyone — it made me think about my dad and his far too early death, not from bullets but from coronary heart disease, obesity and hypertension. It made me wonder; if we can be victorious over foreign evil, why can't we defeat the foes of our own making? We mobilized a nation but can't get health insurance for all. We vanquished whole armies but can't agree on caring for our own citizens. There were generals galore, but no one leads us now. We certainly won the war but lost the peace to better health care.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.