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But throughout my long and bitter tribulations I never allowed myself to believe I was unfortunate; instead I told myself that I was privileged far beyond most men. For I had the faith that some day I would return to the heaven that is America and that when I did my happiness would far surpass any pleasure that I had experienced in the past. Adversity taught what all too few people learn – the lesson of appreciation for even the slightest of the many things our great country affords. – F.J. O’Gara
Note: I had originally intended this post for Memorial Day, but it proved a bit unwieldy to complete. But today is Flag Day, and my father’s birthday, June 14th, 1912. God rest his soul.
This is one story of World War Two, as told by my father.
He started out dead.
But he wasn’t.
My father was a tough man, smart, and lucky.
He was educated by Jesuits at Saint Joseph’s Prep and St. Joe’s College in Philadelphia.
His mother refused to attend the christening of the ship, insisting her only son was alive. Denial? Or mother’s intuition?
He had been a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer before the war. Sportswriters described games and events to people who didn’t have televisions and couldn’t watch replays. Not so easy, but it was what they did.
Daily circulation of the morning paper of back in 1945 was over 600,000, with the Sunday edition getting over 1 million readers. The evening paper was The Bulletin. Some people got both.
The series was called, Back from the Dead. The editors were naturally and rightly proud to feature his story. There was a thrill of war’s end and victory. They had their man, someone who wrote for them who went to war and came back to use his descriptive skills.
He wrote a series with ten episodes recounting his experience which is summarized here:
Two months later, I-8 was involved in another atrocity when she struck the 7,176-ton American Liberty ship SS Jean Nicolet with two torpedoes. The 100 crewmen abandoned their burning ship and took to the life-rafts. Again, the survivors were gathered on the submarine’s deck. The massacre took several hours, as they were made to walk one at a time past the conning tower, where they were murdered.When an aircraft approached, the submarine dived, plunging the remaining bound prisoners into the ocean, where most drowned. Sources differ, but it is believed 23 men made it to a life raft, from which they were picked up by the armed trawler HMS Hoxa30 hours later. Five prisoners were taken to Japan by the submarine; one of them, Francis J. O’Gara, was found alive in a prison camp after the war. A new Liberty ship, SS Francis J. O’Gara, had been named after him, making O’Gara the only living person to have a Liberty ship named after him.
The Nicolet’s captain and radio operator were taken below along with my father in his ‘American Consul’ position.
My father a 32-year-old civilian escaped the more severe torture since he knew of nothing military.
A story of an experience for which I would not take a million dollars, but one which I would not undergo for twice that today.
On a night when nature’s many wonders conspired to make war’s macabre threats unreal…
This is a newspaper read by millions. This is, at worst, Shakespeare’s second cousin prose here. But readers didn’t have to get the dictionary out for the definition of macabre or have trouble following the structure.
His sense of humor likely saved his life.
It was interesting for me to learn of the story he tells below, having experienced him as having a wry and offhand sense of humor. He also liked to tell jokes. Everything reminded him of a joke it was always pertinent, the joke was an aside. He taught me to think logically from a young age. He corrected my grammar and other things incessantly, but it was never harsh, and he was right. It almost never bothered me. Call me “son of a tough guy” Hand-me-down Jesuit training.
A blessing and a curse, thinking logically.
The Captain of the I-8 , Arizumi has been hearing Japanese propaganda. The war is going so well according to reports, American women are now being conscripted to replace men because of massive casualties. All of the ingredients of a viral rumor, using the trick of reporting news that prompts the reader or listener to come to his own conclusions without having to be too overt. If women are being conscripted we must surely be winning. And how barbaric of those round-eyed brutes!
We don’t know if he believes it, or is just trying to get his news from all sources.
The Submarine surfaced and commanded the survivors in lifeboats to come alongside and board the Japanese vessel.
A Japanese-American, attending a school for Japanese language in Tokyo, was forcibly conscripted when the war began – giving “studying abroad” a whole new twist. The Americanized lad of questionable loyalties was assigned to a submarine service, placed in the charge of possibly the most fanatic Japanese Imperialist, Arizumi, where he is closely surrounded and isolated from any communication. The commander no doubt relished the asset of translation services.
He lived happily through the rest of his life with bumps in the road he seemed to take well, and he used his typewriter to send letters to lawyers and was always working on some project around the house as well as various business schemes even after his retirement.
Aside: Exercise in Perspective
I was a picky eater. My mother tended to indulge me, and my father fought her on those issues.
Generally, I saw even then that he was looking out for me in these battles. Although I still wanted the cookie that would “spoil my dinner”.
One time I could not eat undercooked eggs. My father yelled, “eat it!” I don’t remember much after that. They were disgusting. I’d rather endure my father’s wrath than eat those puke-inducing things. But he was generally benign. He could let things go.
But now I understand his perspective. He starved in a prison camp! Such a thing as an egg would be a precious luxury.
Here is a random example of his sportswriting:
Because these heroes sacrificed so much and did what it took to achieve victory over barbaric imperialist racists, my father and his family were able to live a relatively happy life. He usually seemed happy with some wry observations.
He died in a hospital in Philadelphia in September of 1980 in a room overlooking Franklin Field, where the Philadelphia Eagles played during their heyday, and where he took me to experience my first Pro Football game as a kid.. By that time they were playing in Veterans Stadium but there was Penn football and the famous Penn Relays Track and field competitions.Published in