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During the worst of WWII starting with Pearl Harbor, my mom didn’t know if her husband, Vernon, was dead or alive for many weeks. She first learned from the news about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. She also knew that Dad was aboard the USS West Virginia (BB48) at the moment the first torpedoes struck his ship. I can only imagine what was going through her mind at the time as a new mom holding my older brother Jerry in her arms… just 3 months old at the time. For weeks it must have been a heart wrenching emotional roller coaster until she learned that Dad survived and that he would soon come home…she prayed and prayed. Mother always had great faith in God and was raised as a Catholic in St. Paul, Minnesota.But Mother waited, and waited, and waited some more. Dad joined the Harbor Patrol right after his ship, USS West Virginia (BB48), was sunk in Pearl Harbor on that fateful day. Mother had no idea when or how he would come home since in those years it was very difficult to communicate with loved ones who were fighting for our freedoms around the globe. Then, Dad showed up one day many weeks after the start of WWII, but only for a short time to see his first born son. Mother said good bye again a few days later not knowing whether her husband, Vernon, would return again. I can only imagine how mother felt at the time. I know she prayed constantly that he would return home safely.
I think of the strength and faith needed for military spouses and moms of that time to endure the emotional turmoil connected with the war. Military wives like my mom had to keep the home fires burning and hold on dearly to faith that loved ones would return home safe. They also knew that caring for the young children born before the war and during the war was of paramount importance to winning the war itself. Military families serve too!
So, it was during this terrible period of American history, that Mother spent the next 4 years as a single mom waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more. Finally, Dad returned home from the war in June 1945. She was so happy and grateful that God spared her husband’s life when so many of her friends spouses were killed in action during that time. But then, she soon discovered that the war came home with Vernon, starting with an extended post war “readjustment” period of mental health treatment at the US Naval Hospital in Shoemaker, Ca., near Oakland. We didn’t know much about post trauma stress at the time. It was called “battle fatique” but never discussed in any great detail nor did families know of the life long consequences of experiencing severe trauma in combat as we learned decades later following the Vietnam War.
I honor and remember my mother’s service to America and all the military mom’s and spouses who served too! For it is my belief that without the enduring love and faith of families everywhere, especially spouses and mothers, America would not be free today. Remember the moms who love us unconditionally! Pray for the mothers who are no longer with us…they live in our hearts and souls forever…
I wrote this for my brother shortly after his death. Thank you to all veterans.
NOVEMBER 11, 2015
The medals came in early January, about one month after my brother Jerry’s death. He was 64 years young, a passive suicide by alcohol, as I came to think of it. Also in the box, the belt buckle from his River Boat Patrol unit – the Delta Mod Squad – and the plaque presented for Outstanding Service. But the citations I recalled from childhood were gone.
I called his widow Deb in Pennsylvania. They’d been married just short of 10 years, but she knew of only what she’d sent, found tucked away in his dresser drawer. She seemed puzzled that it should matter so much and I, with only vague and uncertain details, didn’t know how to explain.
What I remembered most was when my brother first returned from ‘Nam, still not even of legal age to drink, and how he talked about those medals, imitating in a high singsong voice the Viet Cong who, knowing Jerry’s boat was trapped, teased, ‘Hey Joe, Hey Joe.’”
He was discharged two years later, but by then, long haired, bearded and anti-social, he’d quit talking about it all together. Despite the angry façade, I could always find the big brother who once rode me around the neighborhood on his bicycle handle bars, rose early in the AM with me to watch “Cisco Kid” and the “Lone Ranger,” and perpetually called me “kid.”
Five months after I wrote to the National Personnel Records Center for my brother’s records, I received a response: “We regret to inform you that the citations you are requesting is (sic) not a matter of record.” Further attempts to contact them by phone or e-mail were unanswered.
So this was how it ended, I thought. A man goes off to war, still barely more than a child himself, then comes home to spend the rest of his years fighting the demons met there. And that’s that.
His service would disappear, his medals rendered meaningless without context. And it seemed there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it. But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t try.
I contacted Tom Towslee in U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s office for help. Tom wrote back to say I’d hear from someone in 24 hours. Sure enough, a day later, there was John Sanford offering his aid.
Last week, I opened a fat brown envelope from Sen. Wyden’s office and found my brother’s records, including the citation for an Achievement Medal – given for leadership achievements clearly of a superlative nature, as well as combat valor; and the other for the Navy Commendation Medal, awarded to those who distinguished themselves by heroic action, outstanding achievement, or meritorious service. Both are affixed with the Bronze V device denoting awards for combat valor.
I read each page slowly, the story of the March night on the Vam Co Dong River, when his patrol was ambushed and my brother “trained his forward fifty caliber machine guns … and delivered a deadly wall of suppressive fire enabling his craft to clear the kill zone …” When I came to citation for the Commendation Medal, just like yesterday, I heard that deadly tease, “Hey Joe, hey Joe.”
On that December 1970 evening when his unit came under fire, my brother’s weapon was hit. “…remaining calm, he coolly cleared the weapon and delivered a barrage of fire…” The boat was again fired upon, throwing the captain overboard, seriously wounding the patrol officer and causing the boat to beach out of control. “Attempts to fight the fire proved futile, therefore Fireman TOBIAS remanned his weapon … and continued to deliver an intense and deadly fusillade of fire into enemy positions until his cover boat was able to come to his rescue… Once aboard the lead boat he detected the voice of his boat captain and aided in his recovery. Fireman TOBIAS’ heavy and accurate fire played a major role in preventing a force considered to be of reinforced battalion strength from crossing the river… Fireman TOBIAS’ professional skill, sense of responsibility, courage and calmness in the face of a hostile enemy fire, reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service.”
I finished the report, picked up the phone and, reaching my brother’s widow, began to read again.
For a time, I heard only silence, then, “Huh,” she said, puzzled. “I never knew. He never talked about it.”