Yesterday floated away

Veteran's Day was a "floater" where I work. That means it's not a day we automatically get as vacation, but if we work it, we get to take another day off at a different time. I guess it's done that way to make sure we have enough coverage since we're open for business, but it does tend to make the day go by without giving it the true attention it deserves.

Even though this post is late, I want to tell you about one of the most special gifts I've ever received.

Born and raised in Italy, my wife's grandfather was sent to this country at the age of seventeen by his father. Two years earlier, Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia, and sending him overseas to America was the only way he knew to keep his boy safe. Italy required mandatory military service from all eligible men, and the writing was on the wall. The year he arrived in the United States, Italy withdrew from the League of Nations, and shortly thereafter, things started going south in a hurry.

He arrived here with almost nothing, and knowing not a single word of English. He got a job as a dishwasher, and learned English by watching five-cent movie matinees between the morning prep and the lunch rush. Serial westerns, mostly, from what he told me. Within the next few years, he became a citizen and worked his way up to become a cook.

On May 18th of 1942, at the age of twenty-two, he was drafted into the United States Army as a Private. He then endured a grueling, 19-day voyage to North Africa, one of thousands of men packed into a ship made to hold hundreds. They slept in 4 hour shifts because there weren't enough berths, most of the time in makeshift hammocks, and shipboard conditions were so unhygienic most men were sick by the time they reached their destination in Casablanca.

I don't know much about WWII and the North African campaign, and I'm sure that I show my ignorance of world history every time I talk to him. He doesn't like to talk about the war, or the part he played in it. Even now, I can see in his eyes that he remembers it like it happened yesterday, and I can tell that he has seen things he would rather forget. I try not to pry, even though my curiosity sometimes gets the better of me. I don't ask him about it much any more, not since the time I saw that my innocent questions had upset him to the point of tears.

I don't know what he experienced. I can't even imagine. But I do know this -- he fought for our country, against his own countrymen -- against the country where all of his family still lived -- because he was an American, and it was required of him. Yes, he was drafted. No, he didn't have a choice. But he did what he had to do, and he did it for his new country, and his new home.

A couple of years ago, he gave me these:

His dog tags and his ID bracelet. I thanked him, and told him that it was an honor. He waved his hand away like it was no big deal. Maybe it wasn't for him, but it certainly was for me.

I called him up on Tuesday, just to tell him I was thinking about him. Even though I never came right out and thanked him for those years of his life sacrificed to make our lives better, I think he knows how I feel.

And to all the rest of the veterans reading this: Thank you.


To end this on a humorous note, one of my favorite family stories is about my wife's great-uncle. He too, served in the US military during WWII, but he wasn't a grunt. He was a Navy man. He also had it pretty rough. How rough, you ask? Well, he served his entire hitch working as a bartender in an officers' club in Hawaii. At first I thought he was a little confused and actually remembering the plot to an Elvis movie, but he has the pictures to prove it. Go figure.


  1. What a great tribute to an honorable man.

    My grandfather was a veteran, and even though he passed a couple of years back, I'm still thankful for what he and the thousands of other men and women did for our freedom.

  2. Thanks for helping us remember what people are willing to do so that we can sit around saying anything we want on the Internet. And nice reminder at the end that every veteran's experience is different. My uncle reputedly received a Purple Heart in WWII for cutting his hand on a beer can during a practice air raid.

  3. That is a wonderful tribute. Thanks for sharing it. My grandfather, a WWII veteran, never talked much about his service, either. But last week, he sat down with me and opened up about it. I wrote about him on my own site on Veteran's Day, if you'd like to check it out. He has a great story.

  4. Thanks for the reminder that we don't show our gratitude to these folks nearly enough. I had the honor of attending my father-in-law's Navy reunion in September; there were veterans there who had served on his ship from the time of its commission in the early 1940s through the Vietnam War. Listening to their stories (both funny and heart-wrenching), was just so humbling. I'm still in awe of their courage, and I need to remember to tell my father-in-law more often.

  5. Heh..

    It never ceases to amaze me that folks sometimes don't understand what some of these valiant men (and women) have gone through in order to serve our country.

    Me? I'm a vet. I have a father and six uncles who dealt with Vietnam. Both of my grandfathers were in WWII, and I've even got some great-great-great something or other that was a general back in the Civil War..

    I thank God for their service and sacrifice, and hope that some day my efforts will be as appreciated as the ones given by the rest of my family.

    For now? I just sit back and listen to the extremists and alarmists who tell us about how useless and stupid the current war is, and how we need to stop each and every action and pull these troops back home.

    The sad part is, that if we were to do this, then each and every other country out there with an axe to grind against our country would take this as a sign of weakness, and see if they could potentially take us on our own turf.

    I'd much rather deal with a war on someone else's soil than deal with a war here in our own country.

    I'm done, read or ignore at your leisure.

  6. Anonymous9:31 AM

    That's a great story Johnny V. I've read some about WWII and it seems that American presence in North Africa is overshadowed by the antics of Great Britain's Gen. Montgomery and his cat and mouse "games" with Nazi Germany's Afrika Corps.

    But the GI's who went into N.Africa ultimately invaded Italy and that was a brutal campaign. They were battle hardened by the time of the invasion at Normandy.

  7. My husband spent his entire Navy service playing basketball for a Norfolk Naval Base team.

    You should be proud to have your relative's dog tags. That's an honor.

  8. What a great post! I read your blog quite frequently, and i really enjoyed this one.

  9. Thank you! It's never to late to remember and thank!

    In Canada we celebrate Rememberance Day on the 11th. It's not a stat holiday everywhere, but it should be, and everyone should take part and attend the ceremonies. I'm glad it's still a focus in the schoold system.

    I'm lucky, I live in the nation's capital, and the march to the war memorial goes right by my office window, and you can hear the guns go off for our moment of silence.

    Next year, I'm booking the morning off to attend the ceremonies myself. The last of the WWII veterans won't be around much longer to remind us of what was and what could have been. We need to remember the stories and the people who told them to us. We need to keep remembering and keep thanking them.

    Thank you for helping us remember to remember. :)

    (and for the little sniffle and teary eyes this afternoon...)

  10. Awesome story. My great-grandparents came from Italy and when their two sons (my great-uncles) went to fight, they were also fighting against family back home in Italy. I'm sure that many German families went through the same thing, as well as Japanese-Americans. That war was just so global in scope...hard to fathom how it touched everyone's lives so deeply.

  11. Anonymous1:29 PM

    OK JV, you've made me cry now - I hope you are happy...

  12. Anonymous3:22 PM

    Thank you Mrs. Virgil's grandpa and all you Vets out there. We owe you our right to make choices and so much more!

  13. Anonymous4:46 PM

    Please thank your grandfather for me.

  14. Anonymous9:30 PM

    Talking to our older people, and vets, is such a privelege. I wish I had known sooner, when my gradparents were still living, but I've gotten a second chance with my husbands grandparents; his grandad was in Hawaii for 3 years after Pearl Harbor and has some wonderful stories.

    Next time you see your wife's grandfather, raise a glass to him for me. He's an inspiration.

  15. Thank him for me also.
    My dad's a vet. In (state side) during the closing months of Korea. Then, the Cold War. Remember the Cuban Missle deal? We were in Alsaka. Can you say Armed Nuc-le-ar...I knew you could. We saw dad once in those 10 days. For about 30 minutes. Clean cloths and fresh bullets and they left with full after-burners on the jets, heading out to the remote sites to stare the Russians down. Then, Vietnam, a horror story every day. He's written a few books about it. To share with family and the other vets.

  16. My Grandad was a cook in the RAF during WWII, and I don't know much about what he got up to during his time there (nor will I now he's gone). However, my great uncle (my grandads brother-in-law) was involved in a mutiny in North Africa I believe it was and was threatened with execution.
    The reason for the mutiny? The commanding officers barred them from playing cricket.
    (there may have been more to it than that, but apparently the cricket thing was the final straw).

  17. Anonymous6:02 AM

    Nice tribute to a brave man!!!

  18. I am a veteran, and I had it really rough too. One year of school in Monterey California and then three years in Hawaii. I wasn't a bartender, and worked shift work, but my life was never on the line, unless you really can die of boredom and an overly full bladder. I came pretty close a couple of times.

  19. This is seriously awesome. Thanks so much for sharing.

  20. Anonymous2:01 PM

    Please thank him for my family's freedom.

  21. I couldn't afford college so there was no student deferment for me. But I had a good tour in the Navy anyway.

    I never got any closer to Vietnam than across the South China Sea in the Philippines, but I WAS hit in the head by a golf ball once while stationed at San Miguel Communication Station there.

    Later I happened to be a crew member aboard the USS Hornet when we picked up the Apollo 11 crew and capsule ... on my 22nd birthday. Would have missed "Hornet Plus Three" if I were in some boring ol' Biz 101 class.

    So, it all turned out good for me. I got my degree later on the GI Bill, my wife and I bought our first home with a VA loan, and maybe someday a nice, new American flag will tell everyone at my wake that I was a veteran!

  22. Thanks JV. My dad is also a veteran of WWII, and Korea. The only thing he will tell me about his Silver Star and 4 purple hearts is he lead some guys up a hill and not too many guys died. Amazing. I think it was in Band of Brothers (the book) that one of the guys said "How do you explain the worst of humanity to the people you love?"

  23. Great post, Johnny. I hope he knows there are a lot of us who appreciate what he did.

  24. great post...thanks for sharing. i like looking at my grandfather's old army national guard field manual from time to time--especially the part about dealing with venereal diseases.

    my "vets' day" post:

  25. Anonymous8:45 AM

    My dad served in WWII in the Navy along with his three older brothers. He volunteered on his seventeenth birthday because he new he would be drafted and his brothers all told him to join the Navy. They told him it had to be safer than the Marines or the Army.

    He served on an LST. A ship filled with landing craft to storm the beaches. It was 1944.

    His first battle was Iwo Jima. His second was Okinawa. As his ship was pulling into the dock, a swarm of kamikazes attacked.

    He was climbing up the conning tower to get to the radio room for "on the job training."

    A kamikaze slammed into the Bridge taking out everyone on the Bridge and the radio room. My dad, who was wearing only his dungarees and hat, was blown off the ship and burned on his hands, feet and face.

    two months later, when he got out of the hospital, they put him on a wooden mine sweeper. They were going to be one of the ships designated to sweep the harbor before the invasion of Japan. They all knew they were dead men.

    When the news came over the ship's con that the Japanese had surrendered, the men broke into the Bosons Mate's chest and took every bottle of pills they could find, dumped them into a barrel full of canned fruit juice and water, and the entire crew (except for the Captain and a few officers) proceeded to drink the whole thing.

    They woke up three days later.

  26. Anonymous10:05 AM

    It wasn't until just a few years ago that I learned Italians had been interned by our country during the war, similar to (but in smaller numbers than) the Japanese - turns out a lot of people don't know about this. Anyway, I thought about this while reading your grandfather-in-law's story; in light of the historical knowledge, service such as his in such difficult circumstances is, to me, even more valiant, and valuable. Thank you for this entry.

  27. Anonymous9:01 AM

    Thank you for your big heart and wonderful story. We all love you....Petunia

  28. Bob, that's incredible! Shake his hand for me.

  29. The military is oft-misunderstood, at least where I'm from. I don't know if you ever pegged me for the military type but that's where I've been the past little while - a year and some months in the Marine Corps under my belt now - and being in it gives you an entirely different perspective.

    I can't imagine what it was like for him to go fight against the land of his birth, where his family still lived, however. Jesus.

    Incidentally, if you get a chance to read or watch Generation Kill, it is, for the most part, an excellent depiction of what Marines go through every day.