John Kerr, soldier

Like many veterans, my grandfather remained intensely private about his military experiences. My childhood memories are limited to stories handed down from my father and the only fear I ever saw in John's eyes — when the fireworks exploded on the 4th of July. He would try, but always failed to remain outside. Even as a pool drenched six year old shivering under a beach towel, my excitement about the festivities was dampened by that look and his eventual retreat inside. 

John grew up to work in the steel mill. It was his destiny as surely as the four generations of mill workers who had come before, to continue the legacy of the Industrial Revolution.  He went into the mills in 1932 after graduating high school and started a family. 

Then, in 1942, he was drafted into the US Army Air Force 305th Signal Division Company.  (I may have the wording wrong b/c of conflicting documents.) He did his basic training and eventually ended up in the Philippines and then … well I'll get to that.  He was a radio man, a fascination that stayed with him throughout his life. Always a transistor radio at his side. 

The few things I know either from family lore or his discharge papers.

– He survived a tsunami in the Philippines.  It just reminded me that he went to the beach every year, but never swam. Hmmm. His records don't list this stop along the way, but my father assures me he somehow ended up there.

– He was sent to Puerto Rico and then Okinawa.  Yes. I know what that means. 

– He was on Ie Shima when the Japanese formally surrendered.  We have some photos (I can't post them b/c they are somewhat racist) of the surrender. 

– He earned a Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Service Medal and Asiatic Pacific Medal.

I also have letters, dozens of letters he wrote to my grandmother from 1942, throughout his years overseas and ending with his last six months of service when we was stationed in New York. Her letters are lost to history, but I think she saved every scrap. Cards, notices about financial matters, post cards, military camp PR materials and memorabilia from her trip to visit him in San Francisco.

In the letters, he makes very little reference to anything military related except for mundane things like laundry, food and the boredom he experienced. A few times, he apologized for interruptions due to “being in the field” or away from paper and pen.  The overwhelming emotion in the letters is loneliness. While stateside, he describes going out with friends and the occasional homecooked meal from a friend's wife. Once he left the US, it was all about a craving to recreate the every day lives of his family through written word. 

This is what remains of his military service.

Once he was home, that was it. Obviously, he shared some with my father and I believe his brother, our Uncle Jimmy, had some stories to tell as well.  Jimmy was in Africa and Europe flying airplanes.  That's an entirely different story.

I really don't know much about the military history prior to the WW II generations. My great-grandfathers and great-great uncles signed up for the draft for WW I, but I've no evidence they were ever called up.  One great-great uncle disappeared, so I assume the worst. My aunt's husband was in the Navy. HIS uncle was a fighter pilot for Kaiser Wilhelm II and left Germany before WW II, eventually settling in Canada. My great-uncle worked on the Manhattan Project (allegedly). My uncles both served in Korea, but also never speak of it. My father went to sign up for the draft for Vietnam, spoke fluent French and was turned down for medical reasons (Thank God).  Since then, no one in our family has enlisted, at least in my immediate family. We do have a slew of engineers who work on all sorts of projects they can't discuss, but who knows why?

I'll never know the experiences my grandfather had. I'll never know what it was like for him to live with the memories, good and bad.  I'll never know what he would think of desegregation, women enlisting and things like DADT.  None of that really matters.  He did what he was asked to do.  Then he came home and did what he needed to do.  The every day story of men all over the world whom we remember, along with their fallen comrades, on this day.

John and his sister Diddy on Decoration Day 1942 (now known as Memorial Day)

History is filled with accounts of heroic actions, daring escapades and sacrifices. It is important that we remember the everyday women and men whose quiet sacrifices are oft overlooked.

The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected– Sun Tzu, the Art of War

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