The Realities of War
Updated: Jul 3
"I have seen the whole world, except at the time I saw it, they were blowing it up." I remember my father saying those words. Not exactly the idle travel plans. We have all seen images of war, but Dad, along with thousands of others from "The Greatest Generation", had center stage.
This post includes excerpts, like the one above, from a book written by my brother Tom in 2009, sixty five years after WWII and one year after our Dad, John P. Whiteman, passed away. They are based on his recollection of conversations with Dad growing up about the realities of war. The photograph above is of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, taken in1965 on the first of two family trips to Washington DC.
Dad never talked much about the war, at least not the horrors that I now know he had faced. I guess he tried to protect us from that. I was born about a decade after the Second World War and grew up with a cousin and two friends who were about my age. We were all children of World War Two vets. My cousin's father was a Master Sergeant and my two friend's fathers were a Tech Sergeant and an Electrician in the Navy. Our exposure to the war was primarily from television, which was black and white in those days and still considered to be a fairly new media. "Combat" and "The Gallant Men" were two of the shows which depicted World War Two. A particular favorite of mine was "McHale's Navy", a comedy.
As a signalman, Dad, or "Flags" as they would call him, would be the one standing on the edge of the ship waving his red and yellow semaphore flags signaling to the other ships in the area. Dad would also be the one flashing the louvers on the ship's signal light. I always remember seeing one of these on an old TV program from the early sixties called "Ensign O'Toole". The opening credits showed a signalman flashing the ships signal light. I believe the message read "Ensign O'Toole". After watching that show and then seeing a photo of Dad operating one of those on his ship, I thought it was cool.
In the movies, "The Longest Day" portrayed the Normandy Invasion and Cliff Robertson played John F. Kennedy, the current President at the time, in "PT 109". I was a fan of Abbot and Costello's "Buck Privates Come Home", another comedy. These images from an entertainment media were our experience with war, and at such a young age, we really didn't grasp the reality of war. We played soldier and sailor and tried to emulate our fathers, yet we were sheltered from the horrors of it all.
I remember once when we were watching a movie on T.V. there was a scene showing Air Force planes dropping bombs on an enemy village. I looked at it as another T.V. adventure and blurted out "that's cool". Dad immediately looked at me and said "you think that's cool, do you?" and with that he explained to me about the killing and the maiming that resulted from those images of war that I was watching. I never forgot that and had a new respect.
Dad was really not a fan of war movies and as an adult, whenever I called him to tell him about a movie I had just seen pertaining to WWII, he seemed to show no interest, but would remark about the war, "I just hope it never happens again". I also remember that Dad was against some comedy programs that were on television in my youth. "Hogan's Heroes" was one of them and "M*A*S*H" was another. He felt that shows depicting prisoners of war and field doctors dealing with the wounded in battle were not subjects to be, well, comedies.
I remember one day as a boy my two older brothers were playing a board game named Summit, which was a game about the Cold War and global strategy. When my father came home from work that night and saw them sprawled out on the floor with all kinds of playing pieces across the world map that was printed on the Summit board, he jokingly remarked, "Why couldn't you fellows figure this stuff out before the war. I could have gotten killed!" With that my brother asked him if he was involved with any of the big global events, to which I distinctly heard Dad say, "Are you kidding. I was in the Normandy Invasion!".
The Normandy Invasion? I was a young boy that day when I heard my father say those words, and even though I didn't really know what the Normandy Invasion was, it wasn't completely unknown to me. I really didn't know what it was at the time, but I had heard of it before. Probably some historic event mentioned in school that I didn't pay particular attention to, even though I did think it must have had some big important significance to it. I don't remember much about that day when my big brothers were playing that game. However, I do remember my father mentioning the "Normandy Invasion" and I would soon learn later in life that it was the greatest invasion force in the history of warfare, and Dad was part of it.
In 1965 our family took a trip to Washington DC and then again in 1976. The photographs below are from the trip in 1965. The newspaper clipping photograph was taken at the wax museum.
Regarding the second trip to Washington DC, Tom writes:
In 1976, the Bicentennial year, my family took a trip to Washington DC. That trip we visited the National Archives, which houses the Declaration of Independence, among other national treasures. While we were milling around looking at different documents, my father came across a paper, which he had not seen in many years, that had a great effect on him. It is commonly known today as "Eisenhower's Order of the Day". It was Dwight D. Eisenhower's notice to the troops about the "Great Crusade" they were about to embark upon, the Invasion of Europe. Dad said it gave him an uneasy feeling to see that notice again after so many years. It is definitely worth reading to experience any insight as to what Dad and the crew of the YMS-346 must have felt that day when they discovered what they were about to encounter.
When I was ten years old I watched a CBC television special called "D-Day plus Twenty Years". It was the twentieth anniversary of D-Day and General Eisenhower, actually a former US President at that time, and News Anchor Walter Cronkite were visiting the beaches at Normandy. I remember Dad explaining to me what it was all about. It's hard to believe it was only twenty years at that time, when now at this writing we are past sixty five years and many of those who had participated in it are now gone.
(*This was originally written in 2009. Next year, June 6, 2024, will commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day.)
Since my father was in the US Navy during World War Two, I always assumed he fought the Japanese, but I was wrong. Again, the influence of the media at that time had led me astray. "McHales's Navy" and "PT 109" both depicted the Navy in the South Pacific fighting the Japs, and since my Dad was in the Navy I just assumed he did too. Since he spent most of the war in Europe, he actually fought the Germans. I remember as a child asking my Dad if he had ever shot anyone. I'm sure a lot of young boys whose father's were in the war had asked that morbid question. Dad answered "no, but I was shot at". And with his experiences in Normandy, I know now that those were some big guns that shot at him.
When I look at the staggering figures of casualties from the war it horrifies me. (*The National WW2 Museum website states: "More than 400,000 Americans—and an estimated 65 million people worldwide—had died in the conflict." https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/v-j-day )
To me it brings to mind Dad's words, "I just hope it never happens again." When Dad was in the South Pacific, he once saw a flyer posted somewhere that caught his attention. It said "The whole civilized world is at war, and the savages are at peace." It made quite an impression on him.
One thing my father told me I never forgot. Whenever he spoke about all the grand US Navy ships with the Admirals and high-ranking officials that got all the credit for being the first ships to enter the harbors of Japan after the war, he said that it just simply was not true. No ship could have entered those harbors unless the minesweepers had already been there. That was Dad. "Where the fleet goes, WE HAVE BEEN".
Next: A Veterans Day Story