WASHINGTON – I was there to work, to report on the trip organized by the Cole Land Transportation Museum to take nearly 140 veterans and community members last month to the World War II Memorial.
But standing in the 43-foot Pacific Pavilion at one end of the monument – looking down at the World War II Victory Medal reproduced in the walkway, looking up at the bronze eagles carrying the victory laurel – I thought about the trio of WWII veterans no longer with us that I would have given ‘most anything to take with me.
Motor Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Gayland Moore Jr. tops the list, of course. Just 20 years old when his LCI 565 fired its rockets “and dusted out of there” ahead of the big ships at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, my dad was my forever hero, the sailor whose many years of marching in Memorial Day parades never let me forget those who gave their lives in the war.
My dad never met Capt. John Hoctor of Orono, but they were certainly kindred spirits. Hoctor started the football program at Maine Maritime Academy, and had served on the same type of “landing craft, infantry” as my dad, the LCI 365, which lost seven sailors when the ship was hit in the Battle of Guam.
Captain John always teared up when he talked about his boys on the ship, and he was so thrilled when Wes Mossman, the son of one of those sailors, made the trip from Texas to Orono to hear about the dad he had lost when he was just 4.
After my dad died, but while John was still alive, I received a record from another sailor who had been in convoy with my dad’s ship during one leg of the war in the Pacific. Listed in the same “row” as the 565 was John’s 365. He and my dad were closer than any of us realized.
The third veteran I would have taken to Washington would have been Charlie Sweeney, who I believe saved countless lives. The pilot of Bock’s Car, he flew the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki – and never forgot what a terrible thing it was to use a nuclear weapon, something he always said he hoped would never need to be used again.
Years after he retired as a major general in the Air Force, Sweeney wrote “War’s End,” partially in response to those who viewed the Japanese strictly as victims.
At a book signing in Bangor, he shook the hands of numerous veterans and insisted he wasn’t a hero when person after person told him, “You saved my dad’s life in the war.”
I couldn’t take these three veterans with me to Washington on Sept. 23, but I had my dad’s dog tags in my hand. Surely there would be some small ritual that would make tangible the connection between their souls and this sacred place.
At the memorial, a flash of white caught my eye, the uniform of a young Navy officer on duty here after serving in the Iraq war. Devere J. Crook was deep in conversation about ships and historical novels with Navy veteran Tom Hardy Sr. of Bangor.
What a history lesson, I thought, as six decades of history met on a few steps of granite. When they finished, I started asking Hardy about his destroyer, the USS Conner, which screened other ships from the Japanese. Over a period of two years in World War II, he was everywhere in the Pacific, it seemed. The Navy awarded him nine battle stars.
Soon I was telling him about my dad and how I’d interviewed him at different times about his war experiences. I took out my dad’s dog tags and asked Hardy to hold them up for a picture.
So that was my ritual – a conversation and a photograph of a World War II sailor from Maine, holding one of my most cherished possessions.
And a big hug – an embrace with Tom Hardy, for my dad, for John Hoctor, for Charlie Sweeney and the rest of the 16 million men and women who served in World War II.
Moments later, all of us from Maine stood on the granite plaza of the memorial, joining Washington County student Rianne Barker in singing the National Anthem.
Roxanne Moore Saucier has interviewed veterans from as far back as World War I. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.