“We come, not to mourn our dead soldiers, but to praise them.”
Francis A. Walker (1840 – 1897)
John Patrick Kilroy Junior walked briskly south on 23rd Street past George Washington University having just exited the Metro Station at Foggy Bottom. There was a bounce in his step. It had been a long time since he had been with a woman and Cynthia proved to be more than just another woman. She was spectacular.
It was a rather mild day for January with a moderate southerly breeze just strong enough to blow his thinning hair out of place. The sky was the kind of cloudless blue panorama often referred to as “severe clear”. The street traffic and tourist crowds were normal for lunchtime on a weekday in Washington, D.C.
Soon after J.P. turned left on Constitution Avenue he crossed over and entered Constitution Gardens adjacent to the National Mall on Henry Bacon Drive. He had been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial only once, shortly after it was dedicated in 1982, and had not been back since.
The Wall, with all of its inscribed names and bequeathed flowers and mementos at its base, was barely visible until standing at the top of the sloped paved walkway. The path declined gently to the apex of the V that divided the Wall into two distinct sections at an angle of 125 degrees, 12 minutes. The bright sun was low in the southern sky over the Potomac and glared brightly off the 144 black granite panels that comprised the structure. Kilroy started to walk, apprehensively at first, but soon steadier. He was looking for Frank West and as he walked down the path, the Wall rose on his left. Soon it was well above his head and the breeze stopped. The quiet stillness was overpowering. The hairs on the back of his neck stiffened and chills ran through his body. He looked at the endless sea of names and began to perspire uncontrollably. It was as if the souls of the 58,000 fallen were all crying out to him at once, where were you?
Kilroy recalled the controversy that surrounded the 246-foot wall when the design was first exhibited to the public. It was radically different than the figurative memorials most people had become accustomed to for thousands of years. In addition, a young undergraduate student from Yale University by the name of Maya Lin won the public design competition over more than 2,500 applicants. Yale was a hotbed of anti-war protest and this irked many veterans. However, it was the American people who were the final arbiters. They flocked to the Wall by the millions and were universally moved by the understated symbolism of the sacrifice of American youth. The acceptance by the people, and ultimately the living veterans, validated the selection of the peculiar and emotionally moving design.
As a concession to those who initially criticized the design as too unconventional, a more traditional bronze statue was erected in 1984. The Three Soldiers statue, depicting GIs easily identifiable as African-American, Hispanic and Caucasian in combat accoutrements, stood close enough to the Wall to appear as if paying silent tribute to their fallen comrades, yet far enough away so as not to interfere. It was next to the Three Soldiers monument that Kilroy spotted Frank wearing a windbreaker with a Screaming Eagles emblem on the back and a baseball cap. J.P. ambled over to him. Frank was examining a rubbing he had taken from the wall. Probably a friend or relative, thought J.P. Hopefully, not a son.
J.P. extended his hand. “Thanks for meeting me.”
Frank accepted it. “You’re welcome.” He placed the rubbing in his wallet. “Thanks for meeting me here. I just needed to stop by to get this rubbing.”
They both looked over toward the wall. Frank said, “This is an amazing place. I get goose bumps every time I’m here.”
J.P. nodded in agreement. Frank looked at him. “Did you serve?”
J.P. shook his head in the negative and changed the subject. “Are you hungry? I know a great place for lunch.” He was anxious to leave.
“I can eat,” replied Frank.
They walked to Constitution Avenue where J.P. hailed a taxi. “Two thousand Pennsylvania Avenue,” he instructed.
In a few minutes they were outside the door of Kinkeads Brasserie, a restaurant well frequented by Washington insiders. Frank took off his baseball cap as they waited to be seated. The room was large and already filling with the lunchtime rush. The long bar was heavily built from sturdy dark wood. A piano plinked out a soft tune in the far corner. Frank leaned over to J.P. as he smoothed back his black hair. “I don’t think I’m dressed properly for this place.”
“No problem, Frank. They know me here.”
They were seated at a table for four in a far corner away from the piano. The table was behind an artificial floor plant. A young waiter approached with menus.
“Welcome Mister Kilroy,” he addressed J.P. while placing the menus on the table.
“Hello Andrew. How’s school?” J.P. answered. Andrew was a student at George Washington University.
“Graduating in June, sir. Everything is going well, thank you.”
J.P. scanned the menu. “I’m ready. I’ll have the Fish and Chips.”
Frank looked at Andrew. “The Maine lobster roll looks good. I’ll have that, please.”
J.P. closed his menu and looked over to Frank. “How about a nice white wine? Unless you want to order another Prop-Blast,” J.P. smiled.
“That was just for memories. I never really liked the drink. Wine will be fine.”
J.P. looked at Andrew. “A nice Riesling then. Lingenfelder, if you have it.”
“Of course, sir.” Andrew picked up the menus and left the table.
Frank looked around, a bit self-conscious about his casual dress. He removed his windbreaker, folded it and placed it along with his baseball cap on the empty seat of an adjoining chair. “I know I agreed to meet you today, Mister Kilroy, but I’m not sure what I can tell you over lunch that would satisfy your curiosity. You had a lot of questions last night.”
“Well, Frank. I took the day off so I have all afternoon. I really need to know everything you can tell me about my father. This is really important to me.”
“I’ll do my best.”
J.P. started out slowly, hoping to lull Frank into a comfort zone that would loosen him up and permit him to speak more freely than he could last night. The absence of Harley should help in this regard. In addition, J.P. listened to the recording made at the dinner table the previous evening. He learned that there was something and it certainly didn’t appear to be the Rome Job. On the recording Harley had asked both of them, “Do you think he knows?” Knows what?
They all agreed to keep their word and not reveal anything. The most important thing J.P. learned from the recording was that there was in fact a secret, they knew what it was and they swore never to reveal it! Armed with this insight, he would have to proceed carefully.
“First time at the Wall?” J.P. asked.
“No, but this time I came to get a rubbing for my sister,” he tapped the pocket holding the tissue. “My nephew was killed during Tet in sixty-eight.”
J.P. lowered his head. “I’m sorry. That was a lousy war to die for.”
Frank stared directly at J.P. “Any war is a lousy war to die for.”
“Well at least everyone in the country was behind your war. Not like Vietnam.” J.P. had intended to start slowly but quickly triggered an emotional reaction in Frank.
“The whole country was involved in my war. Men, women and little kids. Everyone served in some capacity. Most people accepted the hardships and inconvenience. No one felt exempt. Very few tried to shirk their responsibility and get out of it. The social pressure was immense to contribute. Politicians and their sons served. Rich, poor, black and white…everyone was all in. It was the greatest feeling in the world to know so many Americans came together, took common cause and sacrificed to defeat our enemies. This nation was one hundred percent mobilized behind the war effort. It wasn’t always all perfect but we didn’t have any ‘Hanoi Jane’. Hell, even Hollywood was on our side back then.”
J.P. smiled. He wondered how fantastic it would be if the country were to ever come together the same way again. “I guess that’s why they called it ‘The Good War’ ”
Frank looked at him strangely. “I think I heard that phrase before but I don’t know anyone who served in it who would agree. No war is a good war.”
“I didn’t mean to say any war is good…”
“I would rather call it a just war,” Frank interrupted. “It was a war of survival for us. They started it; they made the rules and were hell bent on our annihilation. To be fighting for your survival, in both a personal and national sense, is a great motivator. It allows brutality to exist where it could never thrive before and brutality is necessary to wage total war. And total war is the only way you can win. Especially against the evil we were fighting.”
J.P. had underestimated Frank. Not only was he once a proud warrior among warriors, he could articulate the conflict intellectually. J.P decided to protract the discussion as a way of loosening him up. “You’re saying we had to hate before we could fight?”
“No. I’m saying that we had to be brutal to win.” Frank let the words sink in. “And we will never again be allowed to be as ruthless as our enemies and wage total war. Consequently, our instant gratification, touchy-feely society will never win another war.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” J.P. mused. “I mean to put wars behind us. Hitler was a horrendous man but we had our moments of brutality, too. Like the bomb.”
Frank cocked his head and looked at J.P. in a peculiar manner. His voice softened as he raised a hand toward J.P. “Whoa, there.”
Just then, Andrew returned with a bottle of Lingenfelder, two glasses and an ice bucket. He opened the wine, handed J.P. the cork and poured some wine into his glass. J.P. smelled the cork, sipped the wine and Andrew poured two glasses and slid the bottle into the ice bucket.
“I never know what to do first,” J.P. lifted his glass. “Sip the wine or smell the cork?”
Frank didn’t touch his glass. “Before I drink with you, there is something I have to get off of my chest.”
J.P. put his glass back down. Perhaps Frank was ready to level with him. “Please do.”
Frank cleared his throat. “I don’t know what they taught you in school, Mister Kilroy, but I hear the same thing almost everywhere I go. That we were nearly as bad as they were. There is absolutely no damn truth to that! Germany and Japan were run by regimes of pure evil. America was good. Not perfect, by any means, but deep down we are a decent people. It was simply good versus evil. That’s why it was a just war.”
J.P. leaned back. He had touched a nerve and could see it in Frank’s expression. “No offense, Frank. It’s just that we had to be brutal too, you said so yourself.”
“Brutal? Yes,” Frank agreed. “Because we were fighting with the tactics the other guys started with. They callously bombed cities as a terror tactic to kill civilians and break our will to fight. We bombed Europe in daylight to try to hit only military targets. Our casualties were enormous. We lost a lot of our boys over daytime Europe trying to spare civilians. Japan was another story.” Frank reflected on that for a moment then continued. “They relied on cottage industries for much of their war material manufacturing. Many were small shops in the middle of cities. It was a hard decision but we had to take them out.”
J.P. stared blankly, unconvinced. Frank continued.
“Near the end of the conflict we were hardened to the horrors of war. Our enemies saw to that. Whatever we did, it was about ending the War quickly and going home. So we firebombed Tokyo on March nine of forty-five. Operation Meetinghouse. We created a huge firestorm. Probably killed over a hundred thousand Japanese and made a million more homeless. And we did it again and again to other cities and they still wouldn’t surrender. Finally, the bomb did it.”
“So, how were we better?” J.P. challenged.
“Look, Mister Kilroy, we had to learn some lessons the hard way. American boys are, and were, mostly about fair play and mercy. That’s part of our culture, our way of life. It was hard to get them whipped up but when they saw their buddies get killed by Japs who were faking surrender, it got them really angry. Soon the word got out that the Japs weren’t surrendering. They refused to be taken prisoner. They would rather die. So, we killed them. It’s brutal but it was war by their rules. Meanwhile, when they captured Americans, they did things like cut off their heads with samurai swords and ate the organs of our dead soldiers like cannibals.”
J.P. leaned back in his chair, shocked.
“The Japanese didn’t even have field medics to take care of their wounded. If they cared so little for their own, how much contempt do you think they held for their enemy? Ever hear of the Bataan Death March or what they did in China? The Japs raped and killed civilians as a matter of course. It was not only accepted, their senior leaders expected it. Whole armies were sent into China without food supplies and were ordered to live off the population. So they stole whatever they needed and killed hundreds of thousands of civilian men, women and children in the Rape of Nanking. Over eleven million civilians in total.” Frank paused to let that huge number sink in. “They performed medical experiments on captured civilians. The Germans did that too. And I saw the concentration camps we liberated…the way those poor bastards looked, barely alive, skin and bones, starving, filthy, scared out of their minds. And they were the lucky ones.”
“I didn’t mean to…” J.P. started to say.
“Nobody means any harm when they start talking about something they know nothing about.” Frank was angry. “It’s frustrating to me when people who were not there and don’t know shit start rewriting history. That’s a slap in the face to everyone in our country who fought in the War. Especially those who didn’t come back.” Frank paused. J.P. looked contrite.
Frank leaned forward. “My recollections of GIs, the images that stay with me, are young guys smiling and sharing their chocolate bars with little kids and exchanging cigarettes for fresh eggs with their parents. Young boys barely out of their teens would slip K-rations to civilians while their officers looked the other way. Our medics would treat injured civilians whenever they could.” Frank paused, looked down at the table. “War desensitizes a man. Otherwise, men could never do the terrible things required to survive. These acts of kindness by American boys, that I witnessed so often, were their way of trying to retain their humanity. It was fairly common in our army, rare in the enemy.” Frank looked up at J.P. “Sure, some of our guys went crazy and did bad stuff. I know some prisoners and civilians were shot and killed and there were rapes. But these were isolated incidents. They happened, but they were not supposed to happen. On the other hand, the concentration camps, medical experiments and the inhumane torture of people and prisoners by our enemies were systemic. They were policies from the highest levels of malicious, immoral governments. In Europe we had a madman hell bent on ethnic cleansing and was well on his way to doing just that. In Japan we had a brutal military regime practicing genocide in China led by an emperor who they believed was a divine God on earth.”
Frank took a deep breath. “What we did was in self-defense. It wasn’t for conquest or for treasure. We only wanted to end the War and go home. What they did was vile and vicious and a great sin against mankind. That is what the world would have been subjected to if the Japs and Nazis had won. But we stopped them cold!”
“I apologize if I gave the impression…” J.P. tried to calm Frank down.
“No need to apologize,” Frank interrupted again. “But there’s one thing you really need to understand. There was no moral equivalence between our enemies and us. They were malevolent as a matter of national policy. We were not. We weren’t perfect but we were light years better than those savages.”
Frank shook his head slowly as if not believing that all Americans didn’t understand this. He went on. “The decision to drop the atomic bomb was made in the context of the alternatives. Our only other choices were to invade Japan or starve her out. If the Japanese people defended their homeland with the same fanaticism they fought with on Okinawa and Iwo Jima, millions more lives would have been lost, mostly Japanese. And I’m serious when I say millions. But I’m glad they ended the War when they did for the American lives it saved. We already had too many gold star mothers by then.”
J.P. had stupidly stumbled through a tripwire and it blew up in his face. Frank had worked himself up and was breathing heavily. J.P. gave him time to recover.
After a moment, Frank continued. “Winning the War was the high point in our history and I’m very proud to have served in it.” Frank began to tear up. “We’ll never again be as united as a nation.” He choked back a sniffle. “And you would never learn the truth by reading what is taught in school these days. They teach our grandchildren that America was the evil one. I’ll never understand it. All I care about now is that we, all the living veterans, record our stories for posterity before the bastards wipe out our legacy and obliterate the truth.” Frank leaned across the table, whispered, “So help me God, John, we were the good guys!”
J.P. lifted his wine glass. “To good and evil. May we always be good.”
Frank lifted his glass a few inches off the table. “To the difference between good and evil. May we never confuse them again.”
J.P. smiled and touched Frank’s glass. “I can drink to that.” Both men sipped their wine.
Satisfied he had weathered this near-meltdown, J.P. decided to confront Frank about the secret. There were just the two of them, no distractions and no Harley. The timing was perfect.
“So Frank, can you tell me about this hush-hush secret involving my dad and his buddy?”
Frank looked at him over the rim of his wine glass. “Sure, it’s not a secret anymore.”
J.P. felt a surge of energy through his body. He never expected it would be this easy and was surprised his excitement was so strong. He leaned forward anxiously.
Andrew suddenly appeared and placed some fresh bread and butter between the two men. Frank picked up a warm slice and buttered it as he spoke. “History tells us General Taylor and another officer snuck into Rome just before the Salerno landings. They met with the new Italian Prime Minister in secret to work out the details of an American airborne drop on Rome to secure the city and protect the new government.”
“That’s interesting.” J.P. started buttering his own slice of bread. “I didn’t know that.”
“It’s not well known.” Frank took a small bite of his warm, buttered bread. “But when they got to Rome for the meeting, the Italians recanted and wouldn’t support the drop. So, Taylor cancelled the mission and took a lot of crap from some higher ups and even a few historians after the War, but he was convinced our boys would have been slaughtered if they jumped.”
“Was he right?” J.P. asked.
Frank nodded in the affirmative and took a sip of wine. “Ike announced the surrender over the radio anyway and Prime Minister Badoglio was compelled to do the same. Italy was out of the War so the aborted Rome drop was inconsequential and slipped into the margins of history.”
“What does this have to do with my father?”
Frank took a deep breath, sipped his wine and put his glass down on the white tablecloth. He looked left and right elevating the suspense. “Taylor and the other officer didn’t go into Rome alone. Your father and Jake were their bodyguards.” Frank paused to let the words sink in.
“Go on,” J.P. prodded.
“Don’t you see? They were part of the secret mission but they were under strict orders to remain silent. When they got back with their unit, division staff panicked. They didn’t want to risk the boys jumping back into Italy again.”
“After Badoglio made his surrender announcement, he had to flee Rome. He and his ministers snuck to a city called Pescara on the Adriatic coast. Otherwise, the Germans might have killed him and the Allies needed him alive to try and hold his new government together. No one knew exactly how much your dad and Jake knew and paratroopers were always more susceptible to capture. No one wanted to risk that.”
“I suppose that makes some sense.”
“Problem was they were already en route to the Salerno drop zone when the brass finally figured out where they were. As soon as they landed they were whisked out of the drop zone and sent by boat back to Sicily. They received orders back to the States. They got a priority flight home and then were transferred to the Screaming Eagles.”
“Sounds like a pretty good deal,” J.P. smiled.
“The other problem was their records were altered to cover the time they were on that secret mission. Neither of them got credit for that combat jump or for participating in the Italian Campaign. It was as if they never made that jump or set foot on Italian soil. Their records were not corrected until after the War ended.”
Andrew approached with their meals. He refilled their glasses from the chilled bottle.
J.P. grabbed a chip with his hand, blew on it and popped it into his mouth. Frank cut a slice from his lobster roll. He nodded in approval as he chewed vigorously.
“Go on, Frank, let’s get to the secret.” J.P. was anxious, his curiosity about to explode.
Frank looked at J.P. quizzically. “That was it. What I just explained to you. The top-secret, hush-hush mission the boys went on. They couldn’t talk about it for a long time. I didn’t find out about it until the end of the War.”
J.P. exhaled, deflated by the letdown. While this story was fascinating, it could not possibly be what his mother had encouraged him to talk to his father about. It certainly didn’t fit the context of the recording made the previous evening. Talk about being clever, he was just played by one cunning old man. There was only one approach left, the direct appeal.
“Frank, I’m convinced there is something else; something besides this Rome thing. You see, I accidentally left my recorder on when I left for the men’s room last night.” J.P. pulled the recorder out of his pocket. The tape was pre-positioned. He flicked the switch.
Harley: Do you think he knows?
Frank: He’s pretty smart. If he doesn’t know for sure I’m convinced he’s at least suspicious.
Harley: He hasn’t said anything or asked any questions that would lead me to believe that he’s suspicious. What do you think, Sky?
Sky: He may be playing it (inaudible) but I don’t think he knows. Actually, I don’t think he has a clue. He may find out if he (inaudible) but (inaudible) I think he is absolutely (inaudible).
Frank: I wouldn’t be so sure.
Harley: Well, in any case, we made a pledge. An (inaudible).
Frank: I know, but maybe we should reconsider since his (inaudible). If it were me, I would want to know.
J.P. turned off the recording. Frank had a mouthful of lobster roll and was chewing slowly. “Even though some of the words were garbled, Frank, it’s pretty obvious to me that the secret I’m looking for has nothing to do with the Rome Job.”
Frank finished chewing. Took a sip of wine. He had the look of a kid caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. “Accidentally left it on?” Frank smiled. “You seem to be a man on a mission, Mister Kilroy.”
“I’m just trying to find out the truth.” J.P. was exasperated. “Will you help me?”
Frank slowly shook his head in the negative.
J.P. lowered his head, disappointed. “So you won’t help me?”
“Actually, I’m conflicted as you can probably tell. On one hand, I gave my word. On the other, I truly believe you have a right to know. But my word trumps my belief. As much as I would prefer to help you, I’m bound by my promise.” Frank swallowed the last of his wine and looked J.P. in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
J.P. nodded. He was extremely disappointed. His hopes were high for this meeting and now they were dashed by the scruples of this wise old man. “My mother wanted me to talk to my father about this secret and I didn’t. Now, I feel as if I can’t give up. I have to figure it out, somehow, before it dies with the people who know it. I’m working against time. So, please know I intend to pursue this.” J.P. had a grin on his face. “So let’s enjoy this excellent lunch and you can tell me more about my father. But I must warn you, I will try to trick you into revealing what you refuse to tell me.” J.P. was deadly serious despite the congenial grin. It was game on!
Frank ignored the warning. “I would be honored to tell you about your father.”
“Before you begin, can you answer this question?” J.P. asked. “When I find out this secret, and I will eventually find it out, will it have been worth the effort?”
Frank pursed his lips and considered the question. “Definitely!”