Charleston, South Carolina – June 20, 2007
“Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation,
not as women…this was a people’s war and everyone was in it.”
Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby (1905 – 1995)
J.P. Kilroy walked stiffly into a salty, brisk wind coming off a restless Charleston Harbor. The numerous American flags that flanked both sides of the concrete causeway snapped and fluttered in the vigorous, humid breeze. The walkway was about 700 feet long and led from the parking lot of the welcome pavilion directly to the wharfs and the ships. He walked inside the painted yellow line that separated the narrow walkway from the wider driveway. At the end of the causeway was the massive bulk of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10). She was the 900-foot long centerpiece of the Patriot’s Point Naval and Maritime Museum. What he had come specifically to see was situated on the hangar deck of the vintage World War II aircraft carrier.
J.P. Kilroy followed the signs that led to a series of switchback metal stairs. He ascended to a platform level with the hangar deck and stepped inside the cavernous space. The breeze was less forceful within the ship even though some of the sliding shutters that adorned both sides were raised open. In front of him was the visitor’s Information Desk, a long counter staffed by three people, one elderly man, a middle aged man and an elderly woman.
While he waited his turn, J.P. stared off to his right down the huge hangar deck. There were numerous World War II aircraft on display as well as many exhibits and memorials with period pictures. There were tributes to the heroes of carrier aviation as well as aviation and space flight. He could barely see the theater at the bow and concluded it showed continuous documentaries of the ship and its collection of artifacts.
It was a weekday and there were not many people in attendance. Most of the tourists were older couples. Some of the men were very old, a few in wheelchairs. He observed them as they explored the ship and their own frail memories with obvious emotion.
When his turn came, J.P. stepped up to the man in the middle. The man wore a Vietnam Veteran baseball cap with a Military Police designation. J.P. did not recognize the four ribbons embroidered on the peak of the cap. While the man was sliding over a pamphlet, J.P. snuck a look at the baseball caps on the man and woman on either side. Both caps were black and simply said USS Yorktown (CV-10) in bright yellow letters. They looked old enough to have actually served aboard the ship in wartime except one was a woman.
“Welcome aboard, sir,” the man broke J.P.’s concentration on the other hats. “We have six self-guided tours here on the Yorktown but if you don’t have time for them all, I recommend tours number three and six, along with the hangar deck.” He opened the pamphlet and pointed to the small map, which showed the starting places for all the tours.
J.P. lifted his head toward the area behind the Information Desk. “I’d like to start there,” he said referring to the light blue structure trimmed in white stripes. The name over the entrance said simply, “Medal of Honor Museum”.
“Of course,” the man agreed. “It just opened last month. Very popular although you’ll have it all to yourself today.”
The museum was about a hundred feet wide and took up half the width of the huge hangar deck. J.P. pushed the entrance door open and stepped into the dark. The warm, moist air gave way to a dark, cool and dry space. It surprised him. He blinked to adjust his eyes. On the near right wall of this first room was a floor to ceiling rendition of the Tomb of the Unknown. The scene was comfortably familiar to him. A soldier facing the Tomb was holding a salute. The left wall revealed the history of the Medal of Honor. Continuing on the right wall were randomly placed flat screen televisions showing various pictures of Americana. The pictures were accompanied by a continual audio track of what it means to be free in America. There were many voices but J.P. recognized Tom Brokaw’s voice immediately.
The next room was small and circular. Across the top of the room, close to the ceiling was a metal banner, which read “Medal of Honor Society”. This society of living recipients was the curator of the Medal of Honor museum. On the right were replicas of the Medals of Honor for the three armed services of the United States. They all shared the common ribbon scheme of white stars on a blue field and differed only slightly in the design of the medal itself. Above the replicas was a quote from President John F. Kennedy.
A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces,
but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.
J.P. turned to exit this room and stepped into a corridor he would later learn was called the Combat Tunnel. It was a long darkened enclosed walkway with handrails on each side. Beyond the rails and at angles above and below the walkway were darkened battle scenes from a number of wars.
For the second time, J.P. was startled as a motion activated sensor lit up the screens on each side of him. As he walked, the sounds changed to match the pictures of that particular conflict. The noises ranged from musket and machine gun fire to aircraft engines and bomb explosions. The walkway was about thirty feet long and each panel lit up in turn with the accompanying audio sounds as J.P. made his way along. At the end of the Combat Tunnel was an exhibit honoring the youngest Medal of Honor winner, twelve year old William “Willie” Johnston in the Civil War.
J.P. then entered the Hall of Heroes with alcoves alternating left and right. He went from exhibit to exhibit, each one emphasizing a different conflict. He noticed the name Dr. Mary E. Walker who won her Medal during the Civil War, the only woman ever so honored. He recognized some household names as he passed through the various alcoves; names like Sergeant Alvin York, Audie Murphy, Eddie Rickenbacker, Teddy Roosevelt and Senator Daniel Inouye.
He finally found what he was looking for in the next room. It was a large round room with kiosks containing four touch screens encased in plastic and metal. They were obviously designed for rough use. He stepped up to one of the screens and touched it. It immediately lit up. On the left side of the screen was a list of search filters. He selected CONFLICT and then SECOND WORLD WAR. The next filter was BIRTHPLACE. He scrolled and selected NEW YORK. A list of names appeared and he used the touch screen to scroll to K. There was no Kilroy. He reset the screen and started over. Same result. He moved to another touch screen and repeated the process more deliberately. There was nothing between KIDD and KIMBRO. He stared at the screen, nodding his head. Then he reset the criteria by touching NEW SEARCH and repeated all the previous criteria. When he selected BIRTHPLACE, instead of selecting NEW YORK, his fingers hovered above VIRGINIA. He hesitated.
“Having difficulty? Maybe I can help.” The woman’s soft voice startled him. It was the elderly woman he had seen at the information desk; the one with the Yorktown baseball cap. She was tall, slim and rather striking for her age, which J.P. figured to be between seventy and eighty. Her hair was silver-white and well manicured. She carried a walking cane. There was a small mole on her upper lip.
“Ah…I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t think so…”
“Move over,” she interrupted with a smile and nudged him over with her hip and shoulder. She then selected VIRGINIA.
“No, no,” he corrected her.
“Shush,” she answered and started scrolling down the names. She came to the name John Kilroy and pressed it. Up on the screen flashed a picture of his father. He stood there in silent bewilderment. Next to the picture was information on Birthplace, Rank in Action, Service Branch, Conflict, Unit and Occupation. He read the Citation quickly. Everything matched what he knew about his father except Birthplace. His suspicion was starting to gain traction.
“What just happened here?” he asked the woman.
“You probably never read your father’s citation carefully enough or you would have found out years ago. They were all afraid you would.” She appeared relaxed and confident.
“Found out what?” he asked, still totally in the dark. “Who are they?”
“All in good time, John.” She slid her right arm under his left and clutched it with her free arm. “If you might help an old lady to a seat, I’ll explain everything to you. You’ve traveled a long way and it’s long past time you knew the truth.”
“How did you know my name?”
“I was expecting you, John. I recognized you from your father’s funeral although I had to lay low for the short time you were there. I’m Macie Vance.”
J.P. was stunned. His knees buckled slightly and he dropped his pamphlet. He smiled sheepishly as he bent to retrieve it. “Nice to meet you.”
She led him through the last few rooms of the museum, past the video testimonials of living Medal recipients and the large bronze memorial wreath and guided him out the exit and toward the stern of the big ship’s hangar deck. They walked slowly in silence, her steps matching his. They headed toward the snack bar where there were a dozen large round wooden tables. She took a seat at one of them.
“You need to get me a nice hot tea, John,” she smiled at him. “They don’t like it when you just sit here and not buy anything.”
“Of course,” he sprang up to the counter and ordered two.
At last, after years of probing and searching, interviewing and interrogating, he would finally get some answers. He had buried his mother and his father and everyone else who knew his father in wartime and had all but lost hope he would ever get to the bottom of it all. After ten fast years in which he alternated between his own life and the search, he had metaphorically thrown in the towel after Frank West died. When they all passed on, all hope of fulfilling his mother’s last wish was dashed. Now, at least, he just might find out what so many people conspired to keep from him. He would finally learn the truth. And then, perhaps, finally find peace.
He brought the two cups of steaming tea back to the table. He took a seat right beside her. Macie was waiting patiently.
“The Hall of Heroes is my favorite,” she whispered as she tested the hot tea with a small sip. “Last month on May twenty-third they cut the ribbon, opened the new museum…forty live Medal recipients. NBC News and that Williams guy were here. Then we had a gala party on the flight deck. Quite a show.”
”Yes, ma’am, I imagine it was quite a show.” His impatience was tearing at him. He put some sugar in his tea and a dash of milk. He smiled at her and waited for her to continue. J.P. glanced up and noticed they were sitting directly underneath a B-25 Mitchell Medium Bomber hung from the hangar deck ceiling by thick cables. It was part of the Doolittle Raid exhibit. Were bombs about to drop? He watched her sip her tea. “You had something to tell me?”
She looked at him. “The man you knew as your father, the man who raised you was…John Kilroy of Bedford, Virginia. We all called him Jake.”