28 May 2011


On this Memorial Day weekend, I am remembering some of the men who are my heroes. Number one on the list is my Dad, Chief Pharmacists Mate John J. McCarty, U.S. Navy.

Dad was born in Stanberry, Missouri, a small farming and railroad community in the northwest part of the State. He was the eldest of 11 children of James M. and Gertrude (Kurtright) McCarty.

Stanberry was where he became the man he was. In that dear little town, at my Grandmother’s knee and observing my Grandfather, he learned about duty, honor, integrity, and all the other essential characteristics that make up “a good man.” I suspect that until he was 25—with the exception of a tour with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Yellowstone National Park after high school— he was probably never further from Stanberry than a trip to Kansas City, eighty miles to the south. Like so many men who come from the heartland, he was never one to complain, one who did not have to be told to take the initiative to help a neighbor or a stranger, and one who instinctively loved our Country.

When I hear Garrison Keilor talk about Lake Woebegone, Minnesota (where “all the men are strong, all the women are good looking, and all the children are above average” ), described as “the little town that time forgot and memory cannot improve…”, I am transported to Stanberry. The extended McCarty clan was raised to know in our very marrow that, as my Uncle Charlie often declared, “All roads lead to Stanberry.” If home is truly where the heart is, then Stanberry is my home as it was his.

Now, contrary to current understanding, the Great Depression did not end in 1932. FDR did not wave a magic wand to end it, and the Country was still suffering from its effects as late as 1940. In that setting, on 2 July 1940, Dad joined the Navy and headed for U.S. Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois. He was paid $21 a month, and sent some of that home. His Uncle Jim Kurtright, a WWI Navy vet, counseled Dad to go Navy because “you’ll always have a warm rack, three squares a day, and no mud.” Alas, the best laid plans…

After completing boot camp, Dad was transferred to US Naval Hospital, San Diego for training as a Hospital Corpsman. He then reported to USS Relief (AH-1) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in late 1940. He remained in Relief, a hospital ship, and at sea until mid-November 1944—just shy of 48 straight months. She returned to the Atlantic Fleet in early 1941 via the Panama Canal and was anchored in Argentia Bay, New Foundland on that infamous Sunday afternoon in December 1941.

By the time Relief got back to the Pacific in early 1943, Dad was a Chief Pharmacists Mate and was the leading CPO (i.e., the senior chief petty officer) in a collecting and clearing company in Relief’s embarked hospital. Those companies would go ashore in the early waves of a landing to conduct triage and evacuate casualties requiring hospitalization to the ship. In that capacity, he landed at Tarawa, Kwajalien, Saipan, Tinian, and Pelelieu.

Although he was never wounded in action, he narrowly escaped injury when a Jap plane dropped a 500 pound dud between his landing craft and another carrying the rest of the company at Saipan. At Tinian, he was saved by his shipmate, Chief Raeder, from falling overboard and being crushed or drowned. Chief Raeder was a distant relative of Grand Admiral Erich Raeder who was Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy. A landing craft carrying wounded collided with the ship, tossing Dad into a stanchion and knocked him unconscious. He started to collapse overboard, but Chief Raeder grabbed him by his belt and pulled him back aboard one-handed.

Dad didn’t talk much about the war with us, although he would share sea stories with other vets. I do remember being impressed by an event shortly after we got our first TV in 1954. St. Louis had only two stations, and KWK was just starting up. They used a lot of WWII-oriented programming to fill their air-time, including Navy Log, which opened with the call to General Quarters—a bosun’s call and a gong. One night, my brother was excused from the supper table and went into the living room and turned on the TV, contrary to my parents’ rule, volume all the way up, just as that gong started. Dad jumped up from the table, sending his chair flying. He reached the door before he realized what was happening.

When Mom asked, “What in the name of Heaven are you doing?”, he replied simply, “I was going to my battle station.” It was that night that I first began to consider the Naval Service as a career.

Mom told me two other stories that reveal the effect on Dad of his war.

First, she said that from his return from the war in 1944 until his death in 1963, several times a month, he would wake up, screaming and drenched in sweat. When she got him refocused, he would apologize, saying only “I thought I was back at Pelelieu.” [NOTE: If you ever watch Victory At Sea (Episode 18 “TWO IF BY SEA: Peleliu and Angaur”), about mid-way through the episode, there is a shot of Relief and a one or two second clip of two Chiefs—one of whom I believe is Dad.]

Second, Mom and Dad married a couple of months after Pearl Harbor. They were both 26. (When he died at age 47, I can remember Mom saying, “I’ve been in love with him since 4th Grade”—the year that she moved to Stanberry. I can attest that that love never failed, even though she was a widow for twice as long as they were married.)

Relief came back to the States in November 1944 for overhaul. Dad was detached and transferred to the command that was establishing US Naval Hospital, Yosemite National Park in anticipation of millions of casualties from the invasion of Japan.

Mom and Dad were both 28, and that ol’ biological clock was a-tickin’. However, Dad refused Mom’s desire to start a family saying, “I won’t do that to you. When we invade Japan, they’ll send me back. I won’t come back from that one; I’ve used up all my luck. I won’t leave you a young widow with a baby.” [History will note that on 14 August 1945 (US time), the Japanese announced that they would accept the terms of the Potsdam Conference and would surrender unconditionally. I was born on 13 May 1946—exactly nine months later. It lends a whole new meaning to “VJ Day celebration!”]

About two months before Dad died, I was writing a term paper about Tarawa. I interviewed Dad, and got an A for using a primary source. His description of Tarawa in particular and the Pacific islands that he landed on in general was laconic and of the “I was there, but the real heroes were…..” genre. Still, I treasure that short conversation. I have often regretted that he did not live long enough for us to talk after I returned from Vietnam. It might have helped.

After his discharge in July 1946, he and Mom returned to Stanberry. We later moved to the St. Louis area where Dad was the assistant station manager for Eastern Airlines until his death.

Some of my earliest memories are of meeting at my Nana’s house, Mom's mother, on “Decoration Day, i.e., Memorial Day, to collect peonies to place on the graves of our war dead. The American Legion Post would then fire three volleys and Dad, the Post Bugler, would sound Taps. Things haven’t changed much: my cousin Kathy just e-mailed that she and her husband, Milton, had gone to High Ridge Cemetery to put flowers and a flag on Dad’s grave, among others. All roads do lead to Stanberry.

My Dad and Mom were truly great members of the “greatest generation.”

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