Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Father, the Veteran

I can't believe a whole year has gone by!  Here is a re-post of my Veterans' Day tribute to my father, Frank Carr.

My late father didn’t live long enough to hear Tom Brokaw refer to men and women of his time as “The Greatest Generation.”  Had he done so, I’m sure Dad would have embraced the idea—not because of anything he’d done himself, but because of those with whom he’d served and whose valor he’d witnessed personally.

Frank Pearce Carr, Army Serial Number 01 010 262, had just turned 23 when he signed up for the National Guard in Memphis in 1939.  His Army papers list his civilian occupation variously as an office equipment salesman and as a meter reader.  When war erupted, Dad, who had two and a half years of college under his belt, applied for Officer Candidate School in Fort Knox and was accepted.  In May of 1942 he won the rank of lieutenant and was assigned to a unit of lightly armored M5A1 Stuart tanks.  The Army sent him to the Pacific.

The war changed my father’s life.  But you wouldn’t have heard that from him.  The whole time I knew Dad, he spent maybe a grand total of ten minutes talking about his experiences.  I learned that he had served on islands with such strange-sounding names as Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Saipan and Tinian.  He told me that he’d had two very close calls, including one incident where a Japanese-fired round hit his tank turret, causing him permanent hearing damage in his left ear (for which he did not receive a Purple Heart).  That was it.  He just didn’t talk about it.

Lt. Frank Carr, U.S. Army
I learned on my own that Saipan was one of the most important battles of the Pacific.  It put our B-29 bombers within range of the Japanese home islands for the first time, which marked the beginning of the end for Japan.  Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who’d led the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Midway, committed suicide there rather than face capture.  3,426 American servicemen died taking Saipan.

After he passed away in 1986, my mother gave me Dad’s Army papers.  There I found a priceless document that filled in some of the details of his experiences.  After his return from Saipan, the Army had him give a talk to freshly minted tank officers at Fort Knox.   His remarks were transcribed.  I now held the transcription in my hands.

My father’s unit, Company D of the 766th Tank Battalion, participated in a fight on Saipan known then, and now, as the “Battle of Dead Man’s Valley.”  By this point, he’d been field-promoted to captain (a rank that was made permanent on his discharge in 1946.)  Here is what he said about his part of it.  “Of the 900 men sent in, only 100 survived.”  He describes the terrain he and his fellow soldiers were ordered to attack as a valley one mile long and 900 yards wide, and says the Japanese defenders on higher ground had plotted their artillery and mortar fire well in advance.  “I lost 4 out of 5 tanks in this engagement—my tank being the only one to escape.”  If you suspect that the experience of leading a platoon of tanks into a battle from which his was the only one to roll out again might impose an emotional burden, you are correct, as we’ll see in a moment.

The talk was filled with useful advice—such as the need for tank commanders to choose their routes carefully and make sure they stopped only on flat ground.  “I lost my Ex. Officer and members of his crew when they tried to dismount from the turret,” he said.  The tank had been hit after stopping on a hummock, which blocked the escape hatch located under the tank.

Captain Carr said that toward the end of the campaign, the Japanese began deploying 125-pound aerial bombs as mines.  “They buried them in the ground except for the detonator which stuck slightly above the surface.  I won’t have to tell you our reaction after relating an incident when a tank ran over one.  It blew the tank into the air, landed on its turret, then rolled over on its side.  All members of the crew were killed.”  He went on to describe the conditions of their bodies, which I will not recount here.

Not mentioned in the talk was one of the few incidents that he had related to me personally.  After watching a tank hit one of those bombs (I do not know whether it was the one referenced above) my father had three choices:  proceed fearlessly ahead, turn around, or stop.  He decided to stop.  He had his men dismount, and then Army engineers cleared the field.  He told me they found a detonator sticking out of the sand about a foot in front of his left tank tread.  If he’d given any order other than to halt, he and his entire crew would have been killed.  Others might have been as well.

Dad describes dispassionately one other incident on Saipan that nearly cost him and his crew their lives, when his retreating tank came under attack from Japanese gunners firing 75mm rounds.  “The shells were dropping just behind me until I was crossing the last ridge before getting under cover.  A shell exploded under the engine compartment and blew me out of the turret.  None of my crew was seriously injured.”

This talk was devoid of emotion.  But his first letter home after the engagement was very different.  He wrote his father, “My boys particularly distinguished themselves especially on July 7th, the day of the great... counterattack at Tanapag Harbor, of which you will read and hear more of later.  We were thrown into the breach with orders to hold to the last man, and we held.  I offer the fact that I am able to write this letter as evidence that we held!”  I offer this essay as evidence of same.  He added, with obvious pride, “I wish you could have seen that sight, Dad!”

Later in that letter he adds the following.  “I did nothing in particular to distinguish myself.  But I can bask forever in the reflected glory of Co. D, 766 Tank Bn.  My officers and men were wonderful.  I feel an intense pride in commanding such a splendid body of men.  As you know, I formed this company last October, trained it, and it is a great personal satisfaction to lead it in combat, and to strike a great blow for the good old U.S.A.”

Captain Frank Carr, U.S. Army
My father would never lose his love for the “good old U.S.A.”  It was a major feature of his character from that point forward.  But nor would he ever get over his experiences.  These days army doctors would have a fancy diagnosis for the emotional storms that afflicted him the rest of his life.  But not back then.  Although Dad never talked about it with his kids, he confided to my mother than he could not shake the feelings of guilt at having lost so many men under his command.  This emotional burden manifested itself in dramatic mood swings and verbal outbursts.  His first marriage did not survive the emotional buffeting.  His second one, to my mother, did.  She and her children forgave him for what needed forgiving.  Life went on.

At the height of Dad’s post-war civilian career, he was the general manager of a Chevrolet dealership in Memphis.  He worked hard and did a good job of providing for his family.  But by any measure, his was an unremarkable life.  He was just an ordinary man who had been thrust, for four amazing years, into extraordinary circumstances.  Captain Carr won no medals, but he acquitted himself with honor, carrying out his duty, and doing his part to save the free world from tyranny.

When he died, the White House sent us a certificate of appreciation.  “The United States of America honors the memory of Frank P. Carr,” it reads.  “This certificate is awarded by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States."  It bears the signature of “Ronald Reagan, President of the United States.” 

The signature was mechanically rendered, of course.  But even so, Dad would have been very proud of that certificate. 

As am I.


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