On Memorial Day, Memories of My Father

Bill Sherwonit

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A few years ago, I wrote a posting about my father and his military service during WWII. In what has become something of a Memorial Day tradition, I present it again to honor my dad, my memory of him, the meaning of Memorial Day.

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Like many veterans of World War II – and likely many veterans of all wars across the ages – my father didn’t talk much about his time in combat once he returned home to family and friends. Ed Sherwonit served in the Pacific, fought against the Japanese military. He brought home some medals, ribbons, pictures, his Army uniform, a trench knife, and likely some other belongings and memorabilia that I didn’t see or have forgotten. He also brought home memories he didn’t wish to share. And, I suspect, some internal scarring that he kept hidden.

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I don’t recall asking Dad many questions about the war, either as a boy or later an adult. I was certainly proud of him for helping to defend our country and the “American way of life.” I’m just as sure I wanted to know more about his experiences and, at least when younger, what I felt sure must have been his heroics. But Dad was never much of a storyteller, at least around his kids. And eventually I got the message that the war years weren’t something we could talk about. Not that we talked much about other things.

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As an adult, I’ve always had the sense that my dad and I were close when I was little, up until around age 3 or 4. But something happened and he backed away. It may have had nothing to do with me, but for a long time I wondered what I’d done wrong, to drive my father away. He hardly ever hugged me and for many years never said “I love you.” I’m now certain he did love me, but for much of my young life – and perhaps even into my early thirties – I really wasn’t sure. That was hard, because I loved him so much. There was a time when I loved him more than anyone else in the world.

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Sometime in my late teens or early twenties, I began to think of my dad as a “mystery man” – someone I just couldn’t figure out; someone who wouldn’t reveal himself, or at least his vulnerabilities. I now think he’d been wounded deeply in ways he himself didn’t entirely understand. Some of that, but not all, likely happened during the war.

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I think about all this now, on Memorial Day, while sitting with a few dozen photographs from Dad’s war years and a pile of letters he sent to his sweetheart, eventually to become my mom, while stationed in the U.S. before shipping out. The photos give hints of my dad’s service, remind me that he was part of an artillery crew and, after being shipped overseas, was based in Hawaii before being sent to “the front.”

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I’d forgotten where he fought, but these images offer clues. There’s a picture of a memorial to journalist and famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle: “On this spot, the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945.” Pyle, it turns out, died on le Shima, an island off Okinawa, when hit in the head by a machine gun’s bullet. That reminds me Dad served in the infantry and it doesn’t take much more of a leap to figure it must have been the 77th. Another picture shows the entrance to the le Shima Island Cemetery. And if I recall correctly, Dad was also involved somehow in the battle for Okinawa, “the bloodiest battle of WWII.” If so, that could help explain his haunting.

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Other pictures show soldiers posing with machine guns and what appear to be anti-aircraft guns and again my memory is jogged. I recall Dad saying he was part of an artillery unit and in fact (I learn from Googling) the 77th had a field artillery battalion. Eventually promoted to sergeant, he may have even been in charge of one of the guns. Many pictures show Dad and the guys who must have been his infantry mates, his buddies. Sadly, none of the photos are labeled. The details, like much of my knowledge of dad’s life, his thoughts and feelings, have been left blank. And now my mother’s memory, too, has largely gone blank, so she can’t share what she once knew.

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The fact that Mom didn’t jot notes on some of the pictures suggests she may never have known a lot. I do seem to recall a time, after Dad died in 1990 at age 70, when my mother and I paged through his collection of war pictures. I asked Mom what stories Dad had told her. “Ed didn’t talk much about the war after he came home,” she answered in a voice that suggested sadness and regret.

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Even more haunting to me are Dad’s wartime letters to Mom. I have a pile of them beside me, some three dozen letters sent between February 1942 and October 1943. There must be more somewhere, because all of these are from stateside military bases. And this pile is small compared to my original find.

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I discovered the letters while rummaging through the attic of my family’s house in Trumbull Connecticut, a house built on Old Town Road by my dad, his father, William, and my dad’s younger brother, Peach. I must have been in my early to mid-twenties when I found them, a time when I’d begun to explore my roots in the hope of better understanding myself.

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The discovery shocked me for various reasons. First, I was stunned that Dad had written so many letters to Mom. There had to be scores of letters in the trunk that I’d innocently opened. My dad had never written a letter or even a short note to me after I’d gone away to college, then on to graduate school and seasonal work in Alaska. (Eventually he would correspond, but only many years later.) Mom was the family’s designated letter and card writer. Almost always she’d sign both their names; it was, I believe, a common practice at the time.

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Just as surprising, if not more so, was that all the letters were addressed from Pvt. (and later Cpl., then Sgt.) E. Sherwonit to Miss Victoria Schmollinger. I couldn’t find any from Mom to Dad. What had happened to her correspondence? Had Dad somehow lost all her letters while at war or during the long (and likely hectic) return to the states? (That would be one of Mom’s great sadnesses, that he hadn’t kept her letters.)

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All were written by hand in beautiful penmanship. That part wasn’t so surprising, because I knew my dad had elegant handwriting.

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But nothing shocked me like the content of the letters. They were so . . . so, intimate in a romantically mushy kind of way. “Darling Torie,” one letter began. “Here I am in the ‘sunny’ South in a camp that is about fifty miles from nowhere. I am in Camp Pickett Darling and missing you so very much already. Honest Sweetheart it’s going to be tragic not being able to see you. You know Torie the last time I was in Va. I wasn’t so much in love so I didn’t mind it too much. Of course I was corresponding with a beautiful girl in Waterbury and that helped tremendously, but now that I’m so very much in love with that same girl things are a little different.”

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Then deeper into the letter: “There is a nice looking moon hanging in the sky tonight Darling, it doesn’t have the same effect on me now as it does when I’m with Honey but it does bring back some wonderful memories Torie Dear.”

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And it ends, “All my love, always. Eddie.”

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This couldn’t really have been written by my dad, could it? This was a side of him I’d never glimpsed (or been given an opportunity to glimpse). Or even imagined.

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The letters were so gushingly sentimental they embarrassed me a bit. But some also had a lightness and playfulness to them that I’d rarely experienced. All of that fed the anger I felt toward my dad in those days. What had happened to emotionally expressive Eddie? Instead I got stern, demanding Ed, the I-may-not-always-be-right-but-I’m-never-wrong disciplinarian who rarely gave out compliments (at least to his sons), not to mention affection.

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Many years and much healing later, I appreciate Dad’s letters in ways I couldn’t back in my twenties. I am utterly delighted and fascinated by his unfettered expression of the love and yearning he felt for Torie Schmollinger, later to become his wife and my mom. A part of me still longs to know why he changed. What happened? I wonder. But the letters are a wonderful gift, sent by a soldier long ago, now kept in trust by a son who still loves his dad deeply and sometimes misses him terribly, a son who remains proud of Ed Sherwonit, once and again a hero.

 


Bill Sherwonit
Anchorage Daily News Bloggers