This year, the process is operating in reverse for the Kirby Family. In addition to us honoring my Dad in the usual ways, he has given us an extraordinary gift: copies of his new self-published memoir of his service in the Pacific during World War II as a non-com in the Army Air Force. (The Air Force was not yet a separate branch of the service.)
My Dad — also named Joe Kirby, and now a spry 89 — grew up in the South Carolina mill village of Pacolet Mills and titled his memoir “From Pacolet to The Philippines (And Then Some): Invasion and Japan Occupation Duty With the Army Air Force, 1942-1946.”
Dad had a “good” war, surviving three campaigns and four typhoons without being killed, wounded, captured or drowned, and was always willing to answer whatever questions we asked about it as we were growing up. But we mostly heard the same few stories over and over.
That changed as we were enjoying Easter lunch at my parents’ home in Spartanburg, S.C., in 1995. Out of the blue, Dad began telling us how on Easter Sunday 1945 he and a small, lightly armed patrol had been sent to a remote Philippine village on an intelligence-gathering mission, and how as they were about to return they had learned that Japanese troops had blocked the trail they would have to take to get back to U.S. lines.
They were cut off, in other words, and had to spend the night in the village. One of the inhabitants had just died and the night echoed with the voices of Filipinos singing at his wake in their native tongue, Tagalog.
“Their singing was beautiful, mournful and haunting,” he remembered in the memoir he finally around to writing last winter and self-published this spring. “Many of the tribes had their own dialects and could not understand each other except by speaking English. Many tribes could speak and understand only Tagalog.”
Dad and his detachment were rescued the next day by several armored vehicles.
“What a relief!” he wrote. “The only weapons we had were rifles and the officer a .45-caliber pistol.”
Dad’s memoir fills in lots of other blanks about his wartime service, which included the invasions of Leyte and Luzon in the Philippines. He rode out two typhoons aboard troop ships, including one so fierce that it swallowed several destroyers.
“Soon the tempest began — high winds, heavy rain, darkness — and the storm turned into a monster with waves as high as the ship’s superstructure,” he wrote. “The ship would ride the crest of a wave, the bow would fall into the wave’s trough, while the stern with two rudders would slam into the next crest with a furor that caused the ship to vibrate violently and make a terrible noise. ... Waves were up to 60 feet high. One of the huge waves knocked our front gun-mount loose and also cracked the ship’s hull. We spent 12 days riding out the storm, staying about 400 miles from the eye. ...
“Throughout this awesome ordeal of howling winds, mountainous waves and torrents of rain one could only think of how violent the weather was and how insignificant was man. Mariners throughout the centuries had encountered this same philosophical question. One thing that helped calm my fears was the words of ‘The Navy Hymn’: ‘Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm does bind the restless wave ...’”
He survived two other typhoons ashore in a tent on the island of Ie Shima off Okinawa. That was the island on which famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper a month after Dad arrived.
Dad was a corporal and later a sergeant as a radioman in the Signal Corps of the USAAF. As he learned while researching the book, his unit was slated to land on Day 3 of the planned invasion of the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. Had that happened, he very well might not have survived to write his memoir, and I very likely would not be writing this column. But Truman dropped the A-bombs instead.
Some of the best stories in his book are about his experiences in post-war Japan, where he landed several weeks after the surrender and quickly came to appreciate the kindness and humanity of the Japanese people. As for some of their customs, well, that was a different story.
“The large department stores in Tokyo were equipped with unisex bathrooms, no commodes, but did have porcelain-lined ‘slit’ trenches in the floor. That was quite an experience,” he writes.
He shipped back home in January 1946 and got on with his life, which included a career working for the government in Washington, D.C. By his retirement in 1984 he was an acting division director at the Environmental Protection Agency and had spent three stints working in The White House as a member of various task forces.
After his retirement he made our family’s genealogy his hobby. I’m glad he finally focused on his own story.
Dad inscribed my copy of his book with the words, “Joe — the best editor in the world.” I don’t know about that — but I’m positive that my Dad is the best Dad in the world.
Happy Father’s Day!
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Bell Bomber Plant” and “The Lockheed Plant.”