Our friend W.C. feels awkward on certain occasions, such as Memorial Day, when they ask veterans to stand in church. “I’m embarrassed,” he says. “I never did nothin'.”
That goes for yours truly. Sunday, at the end of Mass, the priest asked the veterans in the church to come up to the altar. We hesitated, until the wife nudged. And so we stood there, about 20 of us, and the priest read some nice things and then gave us a special blessing and the congregation applauded. There was nobody up there old enough to have been in the Big One, but maybe a few saw time in Korea, and certainly some were in the Vietnam era. Others, we suspect, just put some time in at some safe place, just like W.C. did.
We trained with W.C. in artillery at Fort Sill, Okla., and then went through jump school at Fort Benning. We were on active duty at a time when the army was giving people six months active and eight years in the reserves. So, if you count four years ROTC, we both were associated with the military for 12 years, but the truth is we did nothin’. Had we not slipped in between Korea and Vietnam, we might have been forward observers, which can be dangerous business, but W.C. went ahead with plans to be a farmer and we wandered into this business.
The high point of that wandering was our reserve time. Our unit was civil affairs, a pretty safe post even in time of war, but our outfit, headed by a Pennsylvania state senator, and loaded with officers who were also college teachers, doctors, lawyers, Mercedes-Benz dealers and such, was so much fun that nobody ever quit. It was the other way around. In 1966, as Vietnam was heating up, the army threw us out. It considered us useless, and disbanded the whole unit. Some of the guys, mostly Korean War vets, were trying to get their 20 years in for retirement benefits, and most of them transferred to other units. But our eight years were up, so we put the uniforms in the closet and only bring them out some times for Halloween. However, it was in that unit that came the contact that led to Philadelphia Magazine, which, as our recent book details, was inventing the kind of magazines we have in Florida. Far from serving the nation in any meaningful way, we were remarkably well-served by the military.
So standing there in church, feeling silly with our military secret, we thought of Tommy. Tommy McCormick was a cousin, considerably older, and he died at Iwo Jima. He was a Navy pilot, flying an observation float plane (pictured above) catapulted from the battleship Tennessee. Recently, through Paul Dawson, who runs the USS Tennessee Museum in Huntsville, Tenn., we learned of a “confidential” after-battle report in the ship’s files, suggesting that Tommy was killed by friendly fire. The Navy suspected that his plane, at low altitude over the beach, was struck by an arcing long-range shell from one of our own ships. Something hit his plane, and without exploding, broke it in half and sent it immediately into the sea.
For obvious reasons, a man who deserved recognition on Memorial Day was not there to receive it. So those of us who did nothin’ accepted it in his memory.