When I was a kid, my father was more than my dad — he was my No. 1 “hero.”
In World War I right out of college, he had volunteered in the U.S. Infantry and gone to France to fight in the trenches against the Germans.
He had lived through horrible experiences about which I, his curious son, was anxious to hear, but he managed to skirt around everything except the most innocuous.
The day after Pearl Harbor, Dec. 8, 1941, I took the subway from Harvard Square in to Boston and joined the U.S. Navy.
Somehow, a few weeks later, my over-age father — probably because of his knowledge of languages — was allowed to volunteer as an officer in the Navy! In World War II we both thereafter wore the same uniform. My father had a patriotism and “pride of country” that was an inspiration to me.
Even today, at 91, I would gladly don the uniform if they would take me, blind as I am.
Naval warfare in the South Pacific in the ’40s was a “kill or be killed ” proposition, and, after 3,000 Americans died at Pearl Harbor, our mission was to kill Japanese. We became quite efficient at the job, and there was no doubt in our minds about who was to win the conflict.
I am writing these words on Memorial Day, and am remembering in particular my Navy friends and college classmates who died in uniform in World War II.
I could just as easily have been one of those who did not come back, however I did come back to this great country and all that the American life offers.
As an opera singer, I sang in some 11 countries and lived for a considerable period in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Each country had its own charms.
However, when I returned to American soil, the soil from which I sprang, I knew in my heart that the good old USA was a “special” place on God’s earth, and that I was a lucky guy to have an American passport.
It is not uncommon for Americans to express gratitude to their own country. The many other countries that we have “saved” in wartime may often express less appreciation than we have a right to expect. The “noblesse oblige” that pervades all that America does is one of the qualities that make us “special” indeed.
At Harvard in 1940 and ’41, I helped form a group dedicated to saving England, when and if the English were invaded by Germany. England is, I thought, the home of our mother tongue and much of our background, customs and history.
We were told from the pulpit in Harvard Chapel at a recent class reunion (this is my 70th!) that our class had suffered the greatest loss of life in World War II. I never heard anyone across the Atlantic express to me any gratitude for the U.S. having “saved its ass!” What I think it was that we saved was Western civilization, and we were the only nation with all of the knowhow, guts and power to do the job.
On Memorial Day, it is fitting that I, and those of my comrades still alive, think of those heroes past and present who fought so that we can all be free Americans today. These remain our shining heroes, and always will be.
Harvard’42—Distinguished Prof, Em.—UCF
2004 Fla. Alliance for the Arts award
(Assisted by beautiful wife Joy Roney)