My father came back to life on the first anniversary of his death.
A Bible-thick book bound in red leather with the word "Memoirs" gold-stamped on the spine was the key. My mother brought it down from the shelf at a family gathering after we had visited his gravesite on a snowy January afternoon. It was a collection of the letters my father had sent her during World War II. She had typewritten them on deckle-edge paper and then taken the stack to the M.M. Bork Bindery on Main Street.
The first was written Friday, Aug. 18, 1944, off an island in the South Pacific. He wrote, "We are on board ship, but the censorship prevailing here prevents any mention of the type of ship, speed, other passengers and just about everything else. However, the food is very fine, and the ocean bluer than you would believe."
The last was the uppercase yell of a telegram dated Friday, Dec. 28, 1945: "ARRIVED SEATTLE. AM STILL ABOARD SHIP WHICH WILL NOT BE UNLOADED FOR SOME TIME. NO TROOP TRAINS AVAILABLE. LOOKS LIKE A BIG DELAY."
In the intervening 16 months, my dad wrote more than 200 letters. Boredom and battle were the major players, with the natural world, food and his fellow soldiers playing supporting roles. He used adjectives like "swell" and "punk" and slept in trenches and tents.
Thursday, Oct. 12, 1944: "It's dark now and the light I'm writing by is drawing a million air-borne bugs of every description." Wednesday, Feb. 7, 1945: "Regarding water buffalos -- one charged one of my sergeants the other day. He used a tommy-gun on it, but didn't kill it. Just knocked it down. Sparks actually flew when the slugs hit the horns."
He wrote about nursing his "beautiful" Colt .45. "I watch it like a hawk and keep it swimming in oil." He described his battery commander's scope: "It has 15-power lens, sits on a tripod and you can see the hairs on a fly's nose at two miles."
He reflected on his comrades in the Army. "The American is an unprepossessing soldier most of the time, in actions, attitude and general appearance. Yet I can't imagine a higher average skill anywhere in the ability to do things quickly and easily if necessary. Answer must be that Americans are realistic and skeptical, and largely guided by self-interest."
Triviality alternated with terror. In March 1945, he recounted an enemy attack. "It was like a movie sound track. Machine guns going like mad." In the next paragraph he wrote, "Put two more tire patches on my air mattress and last night for the first time I can say it worked 100 percent." Later that month he expressed pleasure over a new kind of C-rations that contained "wonderful Cudahy sliced bacon." In his next letter he wrote, "This business just drags on and on. We take one objective and they give us another, on up through these murderous hills."
He fought in the 8th Field Artillery Battalion in the 25th Division of the U.S. Sixth Army. They were in the Caraballo Mountains on the Island of Luzon, the Philippines, where the fighting was hill by hill and cave by cave and sometimes hand to hand.
I heard snippets of these stories when I visited him on weekends in the last few years of his life, but not with any of the detail his letters revealed about himself and his experience. That was waiting for later. Thanks for coming back, Dad.
Mitch Flynn is one of three children of the late William J. Flynn Jr. and his widow, Carolyn Flynn.