The Sailor’s Log
The author's father and the journal he kept from 1942-45
“A Navy destroyer had been cruising for days thru the wide expanse of the far-off south Pacific. No land in sight for days … nothing … except for sunrises and sunsets changing the blue skies to a heaven of twinkling stars. On the deck of the ship was a lonely, 22-year-old sailor, far from home, from his church, from his family, from his friends …” begins a note found in a World War II journal my father, a warrior-poet, kept from 1942-45.
The leather-covered, spiral-bound book contains accounts of his travels, a personal description of the 22-year-old sailor, a list of friends and shipmates, and his poetry, including a love poem he’d written for Pat (a less poetic sailor from East 114th Street in New York City) to send home to Dorothy in March 1943. Called “Still I’ll Love You,” it couples lines of rhyming verse with the repeated title.
The stars may fall out of the sky—
My dreams may fade and die—
You may never tell me why—
Still I’ll love you.
It reminds me of Bruno Mars’ hit song I heard this morning while driving to work. The little book offers a glimpse of what my dad was thinking during WWII, which is about all I have. Like many veterans, he didn’t talk about what he’d seen and done. “You don’t want to hear all that,” he’d say.
He was probably correct, but I wish I knew more. Isn’t that the way? Much of our past is lost due to inattention, but sometimes the stories are not told or preserved.
As Veterans Day approaches, we shouldn’t forget that we’re surrounded by those who have risked their lives—lost their limbs—for the freedoms we often take for granted. Kentucky is a state literally founded by soldiers. Nearly any long-term family farm began as a land grant awarded for service in the American Revolution, and I’d wager my genealogical skills that there are few Kentuckians who cannot trace their family tree to a combatant in the War of 1812, which some considered the second Revolutionary War and others called “the forgotten war.” Astonishingly, more than four of six eligible Kentucky males—25,705 in all—volunteered to serve between 1812 and 1815, including 59-year-old George Vest and three of his sons.
While Revolutionary War soldiers largely settled Kentucky, the War of 1812 produced the heralded names we see daily without realizing their source. An example: Gov. Isaac Shelby, Shelby County’s namesake, sent 2,000 mounted volunteers north in August 1812 under the command of Maj. Gen. Samuel Hopkins (as in Hopkins County), and by mid-January 1813, Kentucky’s first 1,300-man column marched toward Canada under Gen. James Winchester (as in the city of Winchester). Of those, more than 500 were captured, more than 100 killed and others were wounded or missing.
In July 1813, 62-year-old “Old Daddy Shelby” appealed for more volunteers and promised to lead them personally to Canada. Within a month he, future Gov. John J. Crittenden (as in Crittenden County) and 3,500 mounted Kentuckians left Newport for Detroit. In gratitude for their service, Shelby commissioned many of them colonels, a tradition still celebrated today.
Of the 2,500 Kentuckians who fought in the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815, half were armed with only shovels and pitchforks.
After the war, Shelby turned down an offer to become secretary of war and instead became the chairman of Centre College’s first board. The Isaac Shelby Medallion is the college’s highest honor. Nine states have counties named for Shelby. There are also three military bases and at least 11 cities named in his honor.
Kentucky is home to two major military bases and more than our share of Purple Heart, Silver Star and Medal of Honor recipients. You don’t have to look far to find someone to honor or thank, living or dead.
In April, I visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., with my 22-year-old son and youngest daughter. We posed in front of the “Kentucky” pillar, and I told them what I knew about their granddad’s service. “He was a gunner on the USS Caperton, a destroyer, and once shot down a kamikaze before it could crash into his ship.”
The kamikaze was close enough that he and the pilot looked each other eye to eye before the Japanese plane went into the water. He shuddered retelling the story some 30 years after it happened. “I’d really like to think I didn’t shoot anybody,” he said, “but I was aiming at them.”
I gather Dad was a reluctant warrior, but he did his duty, and from his poem “What We’re Fighting For,” he knew it well.
We’re fighting for the privilege
To bury Hitler’s bones
Along with Hirohito’s—
Down there with Davy Jones.