Two Veterans, One Veterans Day
My World War II father and I are celebrating military anniversaries this Veterans Day. If he hadn’t passed away in 2009 at the age of 89, my dad Jack Bradley would be commemorating the 75th anniversary of his return from Japan in 1945 where he’d served as part of the U. S. occupation after the Japanese surrender. For me, November 11 marks 50 years since my military transport plane landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in 1970, and I began my 365 days as a U. S. Army soldier in Vietnam. The next year I took the same flight home and became a veteran.
That’s a curious coincidence for a father and son to share. Made even more karmic by the fact that as part of the U. S. Army Air Forces’ 5th Bomber Squadron, my dad’s 1945 locale at Sayama, Japan was less than 11 miles from Yokota, Japan, where my Vietnam-bound plane stopped for refueling in 1970. The ultimate serendipity is that I’ve lived in Madison, Wisconsin since 1974, the site of my dad’s Army Air Forces training during World War II at Truax Field. Originally known as “Madison Army Airfield,” Truax had been commissioned during World War II to train guys like my dad to be radio operators on the big B-29 Superfortress planes. Those were the planes that firebombed Tokyo and dropped the two atomic bombs.
But, like most World War II veterans, my dad never talked about any of that. Not a word, except the Madison connection, because 30 years after he left Truax Field, I arrived here having fallen in love with a wonderful woman from Madison. I’ve lived here ever since and moved my parents here, which became their final resting place, in 2006.
What Jack Bradley did talk about was how much he liked Madison and its surroundings. Having grown up in inner city Philadelphia, he was especially captivated by Madison’s four beautiful lakes. He’d rave about the city to my mom and told her that he wanted them to move there after the war. But he made the mistake of mentioning that local residents were “ice boating” on one of Madison’s frozen lakes. My mom quickly put the kibosh on their ever moving to a place as cold as Wisconsin!
Every November 11, my dad and I would wish one another a happy Veterans Day, without taking the conversation any future, Still, the fact we were veterans linked us in ways only other soldiers could know. And while we never talked, in detail, to the other about what we did and what we saw, our eyes told the honest stories. The truth about fear and courage. The reality of pain and loss. The truth about coming home, but never, even though we both came back “whole,” never completely making it…
So I continue searching, trying to find the connections — and the disconnections — between my father’s war and mine, between 1945 and 1970, between our years as soldiers and the rest of our lives. I’m still searching, which is maybe why I always revisit my own Veterans Day ritual — re-reading the one letter I received from my dad when I was in Vietnam. My mom was the one who usually wrote the letters, but this one time my dad sensed I was anxious about my relationship with the girl I’d left behind and about what I was witnessing in Vietnam. In the letter, he told me how his love for my mother had kept him alive during World War II, and he reassured me that my girlfriend would likewise stand by me. He also said how sorry he was that he didn’t keep me from having to go to Vietnam in the first place. “I got lazy and I stopped paying attention,” he admitted.
And he closed with these lines: “I can’t tell you how proud I am of you. Not just for being a soldier. But for being my son.”
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(Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle and co-author, with Craig Werner, of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine. His latest book, Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, was released by Warriors Publishing Group in December 2019.)