Time travel as close as your local cemetery.

The gift of oral history – don’t let it slip away

November 13, 2014 / by davidwalton


My dad poses with his father before he was shipped off to war in 1942.


America celebrated Veterans Day this week and I was right there along with the others thanking our fine men and women in uniform for their service to our country.

Working for the U.S. Postal Service — the largest federal employer of military veterans — it’s not uncommon to hear work colleagues talk about their time in the service.  I have also been fortunate over the years to hear my dad talk about his tour of duty in Korean and his father’s tour with the Pacific Fleet during World War II.

My grandfather Elmer spent four years in the U.S. Navy and worked as a draftsman drawing up invasion maps. He spent the majority of time at sea. However, before he left for his tour, my dad and grandmother traveled to New York City where they waved goodbye to show their love and support as he sailed from the Brooklyn Navy Yards.

According to my father, my Grandpa Elmer was in the thick of battle and would spend months at a time at sea. He was right there when America troops fought for and won the battle for Okinawa. At night, American ships were targeted by kamikaze pilots — Japanese students who were only taught to take off in planes filled with TNT — who aimed for the largest American ships. The attacks grew more frequent as American ships got closer to Japan. The sailors were given the option of coming topside during the raids which increased their survival rate should the ship be hit. My dad said he always remembers a story about one of the guys telling my grandpa he couldn’t swim and always chose to remain below the deck.

My grandfather happened to be on the ship USS Teton which was the first to enter Tokyo Bay right after the peace treaty was signed with Japan.

Grandpa Elmer kept in touch with my grandmother regularly through the now-dying art of letter writing. He would sometimes include a letter for my father too. All of the military mail was censored in case it contained classified information that could be used by the enemy. For updates on the war, my grandmother and father would head to the local Scoop Theater on Chestnut Street in Louisville, KY where for 75 cents they could watch a “news reel” on the war.

When my grandfather completed his time in the service, he brought back with him a trove of treasures — several invasion maps, a Japanese compass from a ship, a Japanese flag, a Japanese carbine and “Japanese invasion money” — a replacement for local currency used in Japan and by islanders in other regions of the Pacific for buying things. Fortunately, my dad is still in possession of all of these things which I hope to inherit someday.

I often write about how we need to talk to our relatives in order to piece together our own genealogy. I am fortunate that my grandfather and father were generous men and shared this time in their lives – as the sailor and as the son waiting for his father’s safe return.

What have you learned from your relatives about their military duty? Please write and share these memories.

Until next time…

3 thoughts on “The gift of oral history – don’t let it slip away

  1. I enjoyed reading this post David. My Dad also served in the Pacific during WWII. My parents were dating at the time and I enjoyed hearing my Mom talk about how important their letters were. My Dad injured his back while on board ship. When the ship came into dock, he was having a hard time lifting his sea bag. A young man helped him. Years later, my Dad recognized this young man who, at the time, was serving as Vice President under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was Richard Nixon.

  2. sue ann mattox says:

    Great Story and love the photo.

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