A Generation's Gift

The true value of our fathers' war stories? Priceless.

My life in Orange County is as close to perfect as it gets: a loving family, trusted friends, and a serene existence in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The closest I've come to danger is PCH at rush hour, unless you count the time my husband nearly grounded our rented Duffy in Newport Harbor.

Such glorious well-being makes it all too easy to take for granted that my good fortune is due in large part to the dedication and sacrifices of the soldiers we honor Nov. 11.

Like many of my neighbors, I participate in the occasional fundraiser. I've donated clothing, toys, and phone cards to families of troops stationed at Camp Pendleton, and volunteered to help when my sons' school put on shows for veterans at the VA hospital in Long Beach. I've followed news reports on our two ongoing wars, and I've listened as Michelle Obama spoke eloquently about the needs of military families. Still, I can never fully understand or appreciate the full cost that others pay to keep me safe and free.

But as this Veterans Day approaches, I've decided I should at least try to express my gratitude, and a good place to start is with my father.

Like a typical self-absorbed baby boomer, I tuned out for most of my life when my father told his stories about World War II. I was born many years after the war, the last of my parents' four children. I lived a classic suburban Southern California life-two cars in the garage, summer day trips to the beach, backyard barbecues. We were far from rich-I recall looking at the beautiful cliffside houses in Corona del Mar, thinking that my life would be complete if I could just live there-but I was secure and well cared for.

It took a visit to the hallowed beaches of Normandy to awaken my interest in my father's military service. Dad was one of the lucky ones; he made it home safely and died an old man. Yet, a few years ago, as I stood amidst the seemingly endless rows of white markers at the American Cemetery and wept just as the title character in the movie "Saving Private Ryan" had done, I knew my father easily could have been in one of those graves. I felt humbled and small.

After I returned home, I spent months tracking down my father's military records. I found documents detailing everything from the number of shots he fired during target practice to the campaigns in which he'd served-names well known to veterans of the war in Europe: Normandy, Rhineland, Ardennes.

Those places were a long way from the small Arizona mining town where my father was born, and the Texas farm where his grandparents raised him after his mother died when he was 7. He later graduated from the University of Arizona, and, like many young men, drifted aimlessly for a while, working at times as a store clerk and insurance salesman. He dreamed of becoming a writer, and managed to make a few bucks penning jokes in Hollywood.

Then the United States was dragged into the war, and everything changed.

He reported for basic training at Camp Roberts in Central California in April 1942, and met my mother in New York City while awaiting orders to be shipped overseas. They met at a dance for servicemen sponsored by Time and Life magazines, where my mother, a Brooklyn-bred graduate of Barnard College, worked as an editorial assistant for such well-known writers as John Hersey. They'd planned a date one particular night, but my father never showed; he'd been ordered to ship out on the Queen Elizabeth, which was ferrying troops to Scotland.

He arrived in France shortly after the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion. My father served in a military intelligence unit attached to the 10th Armored Division as it swept through France, Belgium, and Germany. All this was documented in the records, but the files also offered some insights into my father as a young man eager to make his mark.

There was, for instance, a copy of a Feb. 12, 1943, letter he wrote to his friend Will Rogers Jr., a California congressman and son of the famed humorist. In the letter, Dad passionately beseeched Rogers to help his stalled application to the intelligence unit move forward. He complained of being a "little flunky" mail clerk since he'd completed basic training. "I am almost at the end of desperation with all this waiting while the world is ever more aflame," he wrote. "I fear that if something doesn't happen soon in my case I will be unable to serve our country where I believe I can do the most good."

Before long, Dad was on his way to Hamilton College in upstate New York, where he took foreign-language courses. After that he was sent to Camp Ritchie in Maryland to be trained as a photo interpreter. He studied aerial photographs, and his findings about enemy movements and tactics may well have saved American lives. While not in a combat role, he certainly was at or near the front lines as he rushed to get intelligence reports to officers in the field. I know this not only because his presence in combat zones was documented in his files, but because he once described to me the sound bullets made as they buzzed past his ears. At times, he said, he was close enough to the action to hear enemy soldiers speaking German. 

When he accompanied U.S. forces liberating some of the Nazi concentration camps, my father was overwhelmed by the sight of the sick, emaciated survivors, their bare, bloody feet leaving crimson tracks in the snow. My usually stoic dad once told me that he desperately wanted to give them his rations, but he didn't because a sudden intake of food could have killed the starving prisoners. As he spoke, he thrust his hands forward, as if still trying to ease their suffering.

After the war, my parents married and joined in the mass migration west-to the Promised Land, as they saw it, where they dreamed of raising their children in peace under the California sun. Dad never became a writer, and settled instead for a job selling industrial cleaning supplies, while Mom became an elementary school teacher. These were the people I knew.

Yet there was a time when Dad-like generations of soldiers before and after him-had been torn from the life he knew and cast into one of danger and hardship. The man who had settled into middle-aged complacency by the time I was born once had the mettle to pursue his own small place in a world gone mad. He served well and did his part. Years later, in rare, unguarded moments, he would tell my siblings and me that his military service was the most important and fulfilling thing he'd ever done.

As I sit now in my lovely Newport Beach home, I know that my comfortable life is a priceless gift made possible by veterans like him.

Thanks, Dad.

 Patrice Apodaca's last story for Orange Coast was her profile of molestation survivor and activist Joelle Casteix (September 2010).

 Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell

 This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.