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Veterans Day brings back memories for lots of Americans

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On Veterans Day, we remember those who served in uniform, as we should. Most often, however, we miss the "rest of the story." I refer to life back on the homefront. To stories of wives and children — what they were doing, what they were going through, their fears, all the while trying to make do. These stories are not often told.

Here's mine: I was born in Boston on Oct. 1, 1938, at Massachusetts General Hospital, which welcomed all under an archway that read (so my mother told me): "For People of Modest Means."

Prior to and during WWII, for me it was all about "Growing up Navy."

After graduating from Annapolis in 1935, my father went to sea on destroyers operating in the North Atlantic. His next tour of duty returned us to Annapolis and married student housing. He was sent back to school to learn all about this new discovery called "radar."

On that fateful morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Dad and some other junior officers in our kitchen were all speaking in hushed, worried tones. I was sitting on the floor just outside the door; it was right then I heard the word for the first time: war.

Having completed his studies, Dad was ordered to report for duty on the battleship USS New Mexico, home-ported in San Diego. Another move. My parents purchased a small bungalow on Nautilus Street in La Jolla, located a few miles north of San Diego. This would be our home for the duration of the war.

Shortly after we arrived at Nautilus Street, the New Mexico went to war. I have so many vivid memories of life on the wartime homefront: the anti-aircraft guns firing at the target planes just off the beach; the blackouts; the tin drives; the blocks upon blocks of camouflage that hid the aircraft plant from expected Japanese air attacks. The war always seemed close by.

And us kids were always on alert. I, along with one of my urchin friends, actually broke into a house just up the block after the reclusive owners drove off — we suspected they were Nazi spies. We searched inside the house for the wires. We didn't find anything but an open jar of peanut butter. But we were on the job and involved with the effort, and that's what counted.

The New Mexico would see action at Attu-Kiska, the Gilbert and Marshall islands, Saipan, the Philippine Sea, and later Okinawa. The ship took two deadly kamikaze hits — the first in January 1945 at Lingayen Gulf, the second at Okinawa in May 1945, after the ship's gunners had sunk eight attacking Japanese suicide boats.

When my mother received word of the death of yet another of Dad's classmates, she would try to explain. Submariners were at great risk, and the class of 1935 produced over 50 WWII submarine skippers, the most of any Annapolis class. Mom knew and was friends with a number of their widows. Navy wives, especially those married to Annapolis graduates, back then were members of an exclusive club.

Upon hearing the news of the Japanese surrender and learning that the New Mexico was heading to Boston, Mom did what Navy wives always do — and usually alone. She just managed to manage. She sold our La Jolla house and arranged for our move across the country. We departed from Los Angeles aboard what was one of the last steam engine locomotives still in service. Oh yes, early into the trip I was stricken with mononucleosis. We took the Union Pacific to Chicago where we transferred to a New York Central steam engine. Next stop, Boston.

The Boston train depot, shrouded in a fog of steam, was packed with family, mostly women waiting for their husbands. There was also this one very sick little boy. Mom asked the porter to carry me off the train, there to meet my father who knew nothing of my condition. Sizing up the mayhem at the station, he contacted the ship's doctor who instructed him to put me on a launch and bring me out. The New Mexico at the time was anchored far out in the bay. I would spend two weeks on board in sickbay. In the meantime, my parents moved into the Miles Standish Hotel, which today serves as a Boston University dorm.

We spent only about five months in Boston. Dad was ordered to report to the USS St. Paul, a heavy cruiser home-ported in Long Beach, California. At then end of that tour, having been at sea for a decade, he opted for a new career path, "engineering duty only."

He would never go to sea again.

There are hundreds of thousands of homeland stories out there just waiting to be told. Veterans do come in many forms. ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined "Homefront Stories"