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During the Second World War, Theodore Herbert Robinson spent some three years as a boiler tender on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Roger B. Taney, pictured above. He would spend hours at a time in the boiler room, where he regulated the oil that was piped into the boilers to keep them burning and the superheated steam that was piped out of the boilers to power the ship’s engines. Deep in the ship, next to the boilers. That would have been a bad location if a torpedo or kamikaze had ever hit–and during the Battle of Okinawa, I learned when I did some research, the Taney came under repeated attack by kamikazes, sounding general quarters 119 times in just 45 days. In my father’s place, I’d have spent every moment frightened of finding myself scalded or trapped. As it turned out, that would have been the wrong fear. The pipes in the boiler room were wrapped with asbestos, and the vibrations from the ship’s engines, which were located in an adjoining compartment, kept the air in the boiler room swimming with asbestos particles. Thirty years after the war, my father lost part of a lung to asbestosis. A decade-and-a-half later he died, of conditions exacerbated by asbestosis, becoming, in effect, a delayed casualty of the War.
He never complained about his service–for that matter, he scarcely mentioned it, even when, once or twice over the years, I tried to get him talking about it. As he saw it, he had simply done what he had to do, just like millions of young American men like him. In one sense, I suppose, he was right about that–during the Second World War, heroism became almost commonplace. Yet on this Memorial Day, six-and-a-half decades after a young man from Johnson City, N.Y. found himself belowdecks thousands of miles from home, my father has two sons and seven grandchildren who are in awe of him.