Finalist, 2018 International Book Awards
A young man from a gritty Pennsylvania mill town enlists in the Army Air Corps and heads for Hawaii, the "Paradise of the Pacific." There, he and his buddies defend Oahu while it explodes and burns in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As the war surges, his bomber squardron ships out to prmitive Pacific outposts. Amid air raids, stifling heat, and outbreaks of tropical disease, he clings to sanity through the letters he and his wife share, letters found years later saved in an attic. His daughter, Hunted by his terrifying rages decades after his death, his daughter delves into the letters for clues to his turmoil. The letters lead her to discover a shocking family secret, not only fulfilling her quest but also revealing a story of war, love, and forgiveness.
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They sent me to Hawaii, Where I became a boot, They handed me a rifle, But the damn thing wouldn't shoot.
— Airman's Song, Anonymous
My father fought two wars in his 51 years of life. One he waged with the Japanese as a soldier in World War II. The other he waged with himself.
I tiptoed through girlhood to keep my father's bark at bay. No one knew when Daddy would bare his teeth. He ranted when my sister, April, dated a Catholic boy. He forbade me to wear bangs.
One Saturday afternoon when I was 11, Daddy charged from our living room through the dining room. Glowering and gripping April's gray and pink bottle of hair tint, he pushed open the swinging door to our tiny kitchen. The door smacked the kitchen table. Trying to keep April from bleaching her hair, he splashed the bottle's contents down the drain. I watched, cotton-mouthed, holding my breath as if under water. My stomach churned. I picked and chewed the cuticles on my thumbs and forefingers until they bled.
The week I left for college in September 1970, Daddy died of leukemia. At the funeral, in a favorite brown dress that Mother deemed too chintzy for the occasion, I sighed with secret relief, not heartache: The chaos in our household would end. I could finally exhale. Though Daddy left us, my curiosity about the cause of his rages remained, submerged in my mind like a submarine in the sea, surfacing periodically.
For 57 years, my parents' wartime letters braved the attic of my girlhood home in suburban Philadelphia until I rescued them in 2003. In torn-open, yellowed envelopes, the nearly 300 letters written from October 1940 to May 1945 bore strange addresses and stamps. Some letters Mother had scribbled in pencil; others were carefully scripted with her fountain pen. Some featured her lipstick-print kisses and smelled of floral-scented perfume. Stylish military insignia, airplanes, or tropical scenes adorned Daddy's stationery. The letters urged me to sort them, to read them, to make sense of them.
Handling the letters quickened my pulse. Who was Daddy as a young man? Was he even tempered before the war, as Mother said? What did he do in the war? Did combat plant a smoldering fuse in Daddy's head, sparking his explosions, or was it something else?
My search for answers began with urgency given the uncertain longevity of my then 80-year-old mother. I started quizzing Mother by phone, composed questions for her to answer, and mailed them to her. She lived in a town 170 miles north of my central Pennsylvania home. She responded as best as she could but was mining memories 68 years old. Besides that, she and Daddy were just friends before the war; she knew only basic, but telling, facts about his early life. The sixth child of his parents, he had the status as well as the onus of a firstborn son. His two older sisters, Dorothy and Viola, preceded him by 10 and 8 years, respectively. Viola disgraced the family by bearing three illegitimate children. After Viola came Harvey, who died from pneumonia as a toddler. Then twin boys, Bradford and Harold (nicknamed "Bud"), arrived. Diphtheria took Bradford's life at age 4, and fever from the disease broiled Bud's brain, disabling him physically and mentally. So perhaps his parents gave their next son, my father, Herbert Russell Gilmore, special treatment after he thrived beyond age 4. His brother, John, joined the family three years later.
Months after my first inquiries to Mother, I drove east to my father's hometown. A map, notebook, and directions lay on the passenger seat, within easy reach. A water bottle sat in the cup holder. Only bathroom breaks would interrupt this trip. As I traversed a bridge over the Schuylkill River, I knew where I was: Norristown. "How did I know this?" I wondered. I hadn't been there for more than 40 years. I headed for the Montgomery County Historical Society.
There, in old city directories, I found three addresses for the Gilmore family, all in the city's West End. The last of these, on Kohn Street, was where we visited my father's mother, already a widow, in my childhood. I drove to the house, a narrow, three-story brick row house, which my grandparents had rented. I parked the car. My eyes moistened as I looked at the house and recalled the narrow living room and the pet parrot perched in a cage there. I imagined the pudding NaNa made just for me and my delight in piercing its skin with a spoon before scooping up and tasting its chocolate sponginess. I took in the streetscape: the houses had no front lawn and sat only a few steps from the sidewalk, the street just feet farther away. Seeing the houses intact — now part of a historic district — thrilled me.
I drove around to the alley behind the row of houses. Chain-link fences separated the narrow backyards from each other. In the yard of my grandparents' old house, where NaNa once grew vegetables, two Hispanic-looking men sat in lawn chairs. I waved to them and got out of the car. The sound of a Latin tune floated from the house.
I asked them, in Spanish, if I could please enter the house and told them my grandparents had lived here. One of the men answered, also in Spanish: The owner is not home, so we can't let you in.
"Está bien," I said, smiling as I left. No matter, the inside of the house, so changed from the late 1950s, would disappoint me, like finding a parking lot where your old high school hangout once stood.
Still a working-class area, the West End of Herb's day housed the mill and factory workers of Norristown, 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia. According to Mother, he worked in a woolen mill after graduating from Norristown High School, but she didn't recall which one. Hoping the names of the old woolen mills would jog Mother's memory, I'd copied them from the city directories.
Back at home, I called her, reciting the names of the mills, "Wall ... Scatchard ... Norristown ... Smith ... Bry ..." Bingo.
"Herb worked at the Bry Woolen Mill," Mother said. Herb, who rarely used "Herbert," had earned $17 a week as a mill hand. A dapper dresser, he'd hated the filthy, steamy, and unsafe mill. From the letters, however, I learned he'd also hated the army. Aside from escaping the mill, why would he join?
Herb, like many Depression-era young men, had never ventured much beyond his hometown or state. Naïve and facing the prospect of low-paying jobs, his generation of men fell prey to recruiting posters promising adventure in exotic locales, such as Hawaii and Panama. Young men trotted off to enlist in the U.S. military's Hawaiian Department, in many cases not even sure where Hawaii was. Though 2,400 miles of ocean separated the U.S. mainland from Hawaii, Herb and thousands of other men bound for Hawaii felt lucky to be so assigned — as if taking a vacation on the government's dime.
Herb had read the news about the pending passage of the Selective Service Act. If he enlisted, he could choose the branch he wanted and get the best possible posting. So, four days after Independence Day 1940, at age 21, he enlisted for a three-year term as a private in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army Air Corps' Hawaiian Department. One of 53,500 men who enlisted that year in the Air Corps, he chose Hawaii, Mother said, because he thought it would be lovely.
Herb left for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, later in July. After that, he headed for California. From San Francisco, he sailed on an army transport ship on August 15, 1940, bound for Oahu, Hawaiian for "gathering place." After climbing the gangplank onto the ship, he entered a troop hole in the ship's hold crowded with men on bunks stacked atop one another at two-foot intervals, a multi-decker sandwich of men and bunks. Once underway, the swaying ship sickened most of the men, whose vomit and body odor stunk up the place.
The ship rounded Diamond Head on August 21 and docked near the Aloha Tower in Honolulu Harbor. Herb arrived to a typical Hawaiian welcome. A rousing march blared from the Royal Hawaiian Band, serenading the men, and Hawaiian girls placed fragrant leis around their necks. Native boys in swim trunks splashed into the harbor, diving for coins the soldiers threw into it.
As Herb formed ranks dockside with the other GIs, beads of sweat glowed on his forehead from the sticky tropical air. Small bursts of sea breeze relieved the heat. He had finally set foot on the land that had lured him there: lush mountains looming over sandy beaches, crystal-blue water, and tall swaying palm trees. After 20 days of quarantine at Fort Armstrong, a coastal artillery post on Honolulu Harbor, Herb reported to Hickam Field, next to Pearl Harbor.CHAPTER 2
PREPARING FOR WAR
As a ... Pearl Harbor survivor, I am often asked what ship I was on. When I reply that I wasn't on a ship but was stationed at Hickam Field, I am usually asked, "Where is Hickam Field?" The Japanese certainly knew!
— Master Sgt. Thomas J. Pillion
Fortification pierced the abundant calm of Hawaii. As wavelets lapped at their hulls, warships crowded Pearl Harbor. A khaki green caravan of tanks, armored cars, and jeeps rumbled through Honolulu's streets, where barefoot children walked. Airplanes on military missions roared above. Poised sentries guarded important plants, buildings, and other sites as carefree tourists lounged on beaches. Newspapers reported a possible air attack. In a state of "limited emergency," Hawaii gave way to its military role in the Pacific. There, one of the largest gatherings of U.S. troops anywhere in late 1940 defended Oahu against the Japanese, whose incursion of China raised alarm about Japan's intentions elsewhere.
Like a blade smith tempering steel for a sword, the army conditioned Herb. He pushed his strength and learned to shoot, pitch a tent, and wash himself the army's way — from top to bottom. He marched in close order drills and learned to use a gas mask and patrol inside a building. After additional training, he moved on to the 307th Signal Aviation Company, a soldier.
October 10, 1940
307 Signal Company Hickam Field Honolulu, Hawaii
Received your long expected letter. Why do you hesitate to write? Why do you think I've forgotten you? The pictures you sent are lovely. Please send some more. I can never have too many of you. I think you can tell how I feel now. I miss you very much. Your picture is here in front of me. I look at it to get inspiration.
I worked today in the Signal Corps warehouse; it's not hard but tiresome. I will have a chance to go to school soon to study telephone maintenance. I think I will like it.
How is the weather back in Pennsylvania? I will miss winter, which is the season I like most. Which is your favorite? The weather here is hot right now. We are in the tropic of Cancer, which is about 20° above the equator. The only relief we have is the cool breeze from the ocean. If it wasn't for that, it would be hot as h. Above all, it is a lovely place, and I wish you were here.
How are your parents? Give them my best regards.
For several months Herb worked on telephone equipment at the Signal Corps warehouse, set in a cable yard outside of Fort Shafter, the home and administrative center of the Hawaiian Department. In the drab warehouse, Building 307, the fledgling Air Warning Service (AWS) took shape. Controllers monitored incoming aircraft using data from mobile radar sites, long-range reconnaissance, or surface ship contact. Aircraft plotters marked planes' flight paths on a huge table map, where the center's director, along with liaison officers from the Hawaiian Air Force, the navy, and civilian aviation would identify any planes as friendly or "unknown." If a plane was unknown, director would order fighter planes to take off to intercept it. Though the Hawaiian Department acknowledged the importance of the AWS, it would be neglected, much to everyone's dismay later on.
The oldest military base on Oahu, Fort Shafter was far from the only one. The Hawaiian Department oversaw units from all branches of the service. On Oahu, this included those of the Hawaiian Air Force, in which Herb served, and the Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbor. Hickam Field housed the bombardment wings of the air force; Wheeler Field housed the pursuit wings. Oahu also claimed the largest U.S. military base at the time: Schofield Barracks. On a picture post card campus, Schofield hosted knife fights, broken-bottle brawls, sadistic company punishments, and guard house brutality. It provided the setting for the novel and subsequent movie, From Here to Eternity.
October 20, 1940
Thanks for the swell letters and pictures. You look more yourself in these last ones, and you seem more like yourself in this last letter. It was the nicest one you have written.
It has gotten colder here, and the leaves are turning colors; some of the trees are already bare. In fact, we had our first snowfall last night. We woke up to a two-inch blanket of snow on the ground. You said winter is your favorite season. I think mine is fall. I love the beautiful colors and the crisp, cool air.
It's swell that you are going to study the telephone. It will form a good basis for a life occupation after you leave the Army.
I am still studying away at [Norristown Business] school. I hope I will finish in 5 or 6 months, and then I hope to get a job as somebody's secretary. I think I will like office work.
My next door neighbor, Sara, and I still pal around together. We go skating fairly often. Friday evening we won first prize for "best dressed" at a masquerade skating party at Ringing Rocks roller rink. I wore one of my tap dance outfits, and Sara wore a matching one that belongs to my sister. We won $4.
Everyone here is fine. Mother and Dad are still working hard, and Sis is busy with her schoolwork. She's a junior this year. She thought it was awfully nice of you to mention her in your letters.
As Ann looked at Herb's photos, she admired his classic features: perfect teeth, clear and ruddy skin, straight nose, and dimpled chin. He stood 5 feet 8 inches tall, and his "fighting trim" in the army never topped 140 pounds. His warm green eyes, quick to see the humorous side of a situation, and defined muscles made up for his lack of height. With his city-boy suavity, he could charm the flies away from a picnic lunch. Women loved him. He liked to entertain and make people laugh. His thick, dark brown hair with a slight reddish tint earned him the nickname of "Red" in Norristown, where everyone had a nickname.
Just 15 miles from gritty Norristown, the two-bedroom bungalow where Ann read Herb's letters sat in an apple orchard in Schwenksville, a town of 483 souls. When graduated from Schwenksville High School in 1940, third in her class of 27 students, Ann knew everyone in town.
Sun Krest Orchard stood just up the road from Pennypacker Mills, the country estate of former Pennsylvania Governor Samuel Pennypacker. Across a bridge and up an ascending lane, the "Sun Krest" sign came into view. Beyond the sign stood my grandparents' home, the apple storage building, apple barn, and the home of the Muttarts, who owned the orchard. Across from the residences, the apple trees grew, their blossoms delicately scenting the air in the springtime. In a creek near home, Ann and her sister, Mary, fished for "sunnies" — a type of sunfish — which their mother ("Granny" to me) fried for breakfast, making the kitchen smell like the inside of a greasy spoon.
At a dance recital in June 1938 given by Miss Annie Louise Herbert, Ann swung her slim hands and wrists above her head and tapped her feet while Herb's sinewy fingers pounded out "American Patrol" on the piano. As Ann danced, she stood out from the other dancers. Herb noticed her slender ankles as well as her exuberance. Her pointy nose made him wonder if she were a rich Jewish girl; her mother did have a foreign accent.
After the recital, Ann stood statuesque next to her mother and sister. Her red frock flattered her hour-glass shape. Her curly dark brown hair framed an oval face, and her tan enhanced her green eyes. Fresh country air and farm produce gave her complexion a healthy glow. Her bearing erect, Ann's mother laced her fingers across her waist as her handbag dangling from her forearm, looking like a squat Elizabeth, future queen of England. Impressed by Herb's looks and neat attire, she commended his musicianship and introduced herself and her daughters. In the weeks afterward, she prodded Ann in her thick Ukrainian accent, "Vy dun't chu call Hairbrt and aask heem to deennair?" Sent to Germany from her home at age 9, along with her sister, to toil as a farm worker, Ann's mother sailed to America in 1913, never to see her parents again. No one opposed her, least of all Ann, who, from age 3 to 6, had often heard her mother lament the loss of three stillborn babies that preceded Ann. Ever obedient, Ann called Herb, and he came to Sunday dinner.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Ordinary Soldier"
Copyright © 2016 Liz Gilmore Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Burkwood Media Publishing.
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