By Katie Kieffer
Whether chilling on a beach or grilling out on a patio, Memorial Day is a perfect time to remember the sacrifice of our fallen soldiers with their stories of bravery. Today, I’ll share some war stories with you that will hopefully encourage you to in turn share your own family’s stories.
War stories can inspire the next generation of young Americans to grow up with respect for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom. If these stories are not shared, they will die. Pull up a chair to the bonfire, gather your family around—and tell a story that will impact young hearts and minds forever.
Prayer and Kamikazes
I had one grandfather in the U.S. Navy and another in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. Both were nearly killed in Kamikaze attacks. Kamikazes were Japanese fighter planes packed with explosives and flown by suicide pilots.
My grandfather in the Navy was a gunner on the Fletcher class destroyer USS Franks (DD-554). Franks garnered nine battle stars during WWII. Fun fact: Franks carried the very first Navy SEAL rescue diver, Mel Collins, who risked his life to dive deep into the sea and battle high waves to retrieve U.S. Navy pilots after their planes were shot down.
One day, a kamikaze plane emerged out of the sky and barreled straight toward Franks. My grandfather said the entire crew on his ship began praying—thinking prayer was their last hope. Sure enough, the kamikaze pilot missed the ship and landed in the ocean. My grandfather recounted how the pilot began waving his arms and screaming for help—even though he had just tried to kill himself and every American onboard Franks. But the admiral told his men, “Shoot down that SOB.”
My Marine grandfather had his own near-miss with a Japanese suicide pilot. One day, he was going down the cargo net on a troop ship—to reach a smaller boat that would take him to shore—when he looked up and saw a kamikaze pilot cruising straight for his boat. He was halfway down the cargo net and did not have time to decide if he should continue down or go back up. Thankfully, he did not need to—since one of his American comrades shot the plane down moments before it would have hit. This was one of my grandfather’s most prominent memories.
Girl with a Victory Garden
To help support the troops and free up resources for the War, my grandmother and her six siblings grew a ‘Victory Garden’ so they could be more self-sustaining. She recalls: “We would be weeding the potatoes and when we’d pull the weeds out, we’d say: ‘This is for the soldiers!’ That was our way of trying to help. It was a terrible job—pulling out the cockoburr. They can be really painful—you get all the burrs stuck in your hand.”
My grandmother’s family made other sacrifices dealing with food. She told me: “Our butter was rationed. That’s when they started making margarine, which they called ‘oleo.’ It was white. Eventually they sold it with a little packet inside that would turn the spread yellow when stirred. Gas and sugar were also rationed. Our older brother told me and my five sisters, ‘If you girls are going to start drinking coffee, you can’t have sugar in your coffee!’”
Playing Poker in the South Pacific
War is not a game—it’s a high stakes battle in which losing means death. My Marine grandfather knew as much and did his best to stay sane while caring for his family back home. He was the only boy and felt a responsibility to care for his parents and five sisters.
During his free time, he played a great deal of poker—a game at which he excelled. But he also saw his friends getting killed nearly every day. So he would always bet high, knowing that the next day, he could join his fallen comrades. He sent his prize money home to his parents.
He was also a “sharpshooter,” which is now referred to as a sniper. He was a very sure shot, and would shoot at the Japanese from long distances. This was a risky job and he was paid a little extra every time he took on this role. He sent this money, as well, home to his parents.
Losses and Love
Both my grandfathers—like so many other American servicemen—lost most of their hearing during WWII. For my Navy gunner grandfather, the loss was especially pronounced on the side where he held his gun.
But when they returned home, they found a loving family—and eventually wives with whom they started their own families. Here’s an excerpt from an exchange between my Marine grandfather and my grandmother during the war. It shows how love can conquer—and make lighter—even the load of War. It gives us hope that we too can do great things through love.
I sure hope that you come home at Christmas, but you haven’t written or rather I haven’t heard from you for three weeks. I won’t be fit to live with if I don’t hear from you pretty soon.
I sent your Christmas present this week. I hope you get it in time. It sure seems funny to do your Christmas shopping in October.
Well, hon, I hope I see you soon. Write soon won’t you? Love and kisses. Yours, Edna
He wrote her back:
My Darling Edna,
… It has been a long time since you and I have spent New Year’s together but it is worth the waiting, I think?! … It’s all up to you now. You better make up your mind. I’ll be home when you’re through [with nurse’s] training and we are going to get married then or not at all … All my love and kisses, Chuck
On this loving note, I encourage you to spend Memorial Day reflecting on the stories of bravery, hope and love that you carry in your own family. Thank a veteran, and ask them to share their stories. Encourage the young people in your life to hear these stories. Happy Memorial Day!