I didn’t know my father well but what I knew made me proud. I remember his visits to our little apartment in the Bronx when I was in nursery school; his visits were short but I have retained the memories of his stories of how he left his home in Russia and walked across Poland and onto Germany with his older sister, brother and brother-in-law to eventually board ship to America. I am not sure of when he left Russia and arrived in New York, he must have been about seven or eight years old according to my mother’s recollection. He was something of a legendary figure on his side of the family; he was raised by his sister and brother–in-law and was the “big brother” to their five children. He was a substantially smaller figure to my mother’s family. My mother however loved him until the day he died although they had been separated and then divorced for many years, a love that lasted until her death many years after his passing.
My earliest recollection of my father is of a tall man in a spectacular blue uniform with brass buttons and a white belt and hat. When I was four or five, I was awakened from my nap at nursery school by my teacher and told my parents had come to get me. My mother said: “ this is your Dad.” He picked me up and off we went to get my brother from elementary school. As I have grown older, the rest of that visit has become mostly a faded memory; I don’t remember where we went or what we did that day, but I have never forgotten walking the streets of New York in tow to a United States Marine, my dad.
Although the world was at war, for the second time, back then, somehow life was simpler, or so it seemed to me. My father visited again perhaps two or three more times before the war ended and he returned to civilian life, taking up where he left off, without my Mom and his sons. We spoke by phone at times but it was awkward for both of us; he did much better with my older brother. Nevertheless as time went by and I learned more about the man, some of it from his own lips as he lay terminally ill in a New York hospital, my first impression of him developed some fourteen years earlier remained intact. The uniform was gone by then but he still wore the gold ring bearing the emblem of his beloved Marine Corps. He gave me the ring for safe keeping, to hold until he was released from the hospital, a day that never came; I wore it proudly for him for many years after his passing. My Dad was truly part of the so-called “Greatest Generation”, he loved everything about this country and most of all he cherished its liberty; like so many other immigrants he was willing to defend it without hesitation. He was thirty-six years old when he joined the marines.
This past Sunday, my wife and I fulfilled a long held dream of mine: we flew in a B-25 medium bomber, similar to the one my father served in as a tail gunner in WWII. I wore his wings as we climbed aboard this proud “warbird” sitting on a runway in Long Island’s Republic Airport. I hadn’t expected the same pride I had felt as a little boy awakened from a nap to meet his Dad for the first time back in 1943, the same year this particular airplane came off the assembly line, but I did. The airplane was little more than an airframe for carrying its two massive engines, assorted machine guns, a canon for ground combat, a pay load of six 500lb bombs, sometimes a torpedo which when carried required that the bomb bay doors be left open in flight, and of course a crew of brave young leathernecks ready to give their all for their country. How could an American boy or girl not be proud of a Dad who was a part of that?
Since world war two, millions of other American kids have had their Dads and Moms too go off to other wars around the world to defend America’s national interests. Little stirs our patriotism more however than when Americans are attacked at home as was the case on December 7, 1941, and on September 11, 2001. Within five years of the end of WWII we found ourselves in another bloody contest in the pacific, this time protecting South Korea as part of a United Nations force sent to the Korean peninsula to stop the spread of communism in the pacific. Despite the fact that some fifty-five thousand Americans were killed in action in the three years of combat it took to reach a truce, the Korean War has become the “Forgotten War”, a war that failed to capture the attention of war weary Americans, a war in which we had not been attacked. Within a decade, we were once again engaged in a vicious war, this time in Viet Nam, a nation little known to Americans at home before our involvement there. After eight years and the loss of another fifty-eight thousand troops, we withdrew from the battlefield, leaving that country which had no memory of freedom to unite under the communist government we fought so hard to prevent.
Since that time, we have known other wars in other places: We have fought in Africa, Central America, Eastern Europe and the two wars in the Middle East in which we remain engaged. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan our troops have been called to duty multiple times, our fighting men and women seeing more time in combat than at any time since WWII. We are growing weary once again of fighting other people’s wars, wars unlike WWII in which we struck back after being struck. And while I agree that sometimes we must fight to stand for what we believe in even when an aggressor has not aimed a military blow directly against us, it is to be expected that we should grow weary of the years of battle and death of still more American soldiers as we defend freedom for others as well as ourselves.
On this the eighth anniversary of 9/11, with its signs of a tendency to allow the horrific events of that day to gradually to slip into the shadow of history, I ask myself what would my dad have done if he were around to see his beloved America attacked again. Too old to fight would he have at least fought to have the memory of the day remembered every day until the terrorists responsible for it were no more. Surely he and his generation would have seen to it that the site of that unspeakable attack not remain just a hole in the ground year after year but rather a solemn place of remembrance to serve as a constant reminder of how fragile our freedom can become if we aren’t willing to defend it. The war on terror is not a war about which we can afford to become weary; this war, like WWII, it began at home with a long and well-planned sneak attack of the kind experienced at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Now as then, it requires a commitment to ensure that our enemies are punished and our troops returned home in victory; to honor the dead of that day and in the many battles since requires no less. This time too we are fighting for America.
This past Sunday I was able to revisit childhood memories of my father in a setting that put me in touch with who he was in a way that I could not have otherwise experienced. Perhaps he and I never got to say much to each other; yet I was always proud of him because of what he represented to me about duty and love of country. Now that I have finally seen where he worked for two short years of his life, I have no doubt that my feelings about who he was as a man were correct all along. He has been at rest now for fifty-two years in the same blue uniform with brass buttons and white belt he wore the first time I saw him and the last time as well; for me he remains symbolic of the America I hold so dear.
In memory of Herbert Slepian
Born: Minsk, Russia, 1906 – Died: New York, N.Y. 1957