Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remembering the Greatest Veteran I Knew

About a week ago as I was rummaging around among the piles and debris of my desk, I stumbled on the picture you see above.  It was taken in January of 1990 at a memorial service for W. M. Murfin, my father and the greatest veteran I ever knew.
Dad died in a Missoula, Montana hospital on December 17, 1989 after a painful battle with brain cancer.  The American Legion Post that he founded in his retirement home of Alberton, Montana gave him an old soldier’s service with full honors.  His remains were cremated.
The next spring his widow Rae would take the urn to his pre-war home of Hardin, Montana which is not far from the Crow Reservation and the Little Big Horn Battle Ground.  His surviving buddies there would give him a Masonic service and then take his ashes into the high country above the Yellow Tail Reservoir where they would scatter them on the sunny side of a mountain overlooking his favorite trout stream.
I missed the Legion service and would miss the trip to the mountains. 
I had last seen my Dad in November after I got a call from Rae saying, “If you want to see your father, you had better come.”  I flew into Missoula via Salt Lake City and spent a few days with him and Rae in the former log school house they called home in Alberton.  I was shocked when I saw him.  He was shrunken and shriveled.  He was in great pain and week.  He could walk a few steps, but was mostly in a wheel chair.  To his great embarrassment, he was incontinent. 
We talked a good deal and looked at old scrap books.  But we never said the Big Things that men don’t say, at least men of his generation and the sons that idolized them.  He never acknowledged that he was dying and neither did I.  We said good bye with a handshake.
Six weeks later he was dead. 
I didn’t have money for another airfare to Montana and couldn’t get more time off from the elementary school where I was a night custodian.
But I needed to say good bye and pay my last respects.  So I organized another Legion service at the Veteran’s Memorial next to the train station in Crystal Lake, Illinois.
Dad was not a conventionally religious man and would not have wanted a church service, which is why he never got one out west.  Besides, at the time I was un-churched myself.  But I knew that the Legion was important to him.  He had been a member since mustering out of the service in 1946 and had founded two posts himself.  Somewhat ironically, his last Legion position was chaplain of the Alberton Post.
Dad entered the army as an over-aged volunteer, enlisting right after Pearl Harbor.  He wanted to use his skills as master woodsman as a ranger or scout, but was assigned to the Medical Corps. 
After training in the high deserts of California and rapidly promoted to first sergeant, his Field Hospital unit was loaded on the Mauritania, the sister ship of the Lusitania which had been converted to a troop ship.  Sailing from San Francisco, they joined a ship already crowded with Anzac troops and made the long sail around both Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, up the east coast of Africa and into the Red Sea where they were finally off loaded in Egypt. 
His Field Hospital was assigned to British and Commonwealth troops under Field Marshal Montgomery and was with that army as it battled Rommel’s desert army and pushed west out of Egypt to finally link up with the Americans in Libya.
After that campaign was over, Dad was sent back to the states for Officer Candidate School.  He was sent to the Pacific Theater as the administrative officer of a forward Battalion Aid Station.  His first action was the invasion Guam in the summer of ’44.
Then he was among the first to land on Leyte in McArthur’s return to the Philippines.  It was during that campaign when he won the Bronze Star for rescuing several men wounded and separated from the battalion under heavy machine gun fire. 
Dad made one more landing, on Okinawa.  He saw heavy action in the Pacific and was on board ship for the planned invasion of the Japanese Home Islands when the war ended.
Promoted to Captain, he finished out his service in Mantilla.
Not that I learned those details from him.  Like most men who saw heavy action, he seldom spoke about it.  I learned about it from my mother and from pouring over the scrap books that she had kept during the war and rummaging in his foot locker.  Which is how I found his Bronze Star medal and his Boy Scout Eagle Scout medal that he kept in the same case.  Without bragging about either, they were the proudest possessions he had.
So it was a no brainer to honor his service at my memorial.  I called the Crystal Lake Legion Post, whose hall was only a couple of blocks from my house.  I only asked if their chaplain could say a few words.  Instead, they turned out the color guard in full uniform.
It was a very cold Saturday, the temperatures hovering around zero with a brisk wind.  There had been a light, dry snow the night before.  When I got to the monument, I found that city crews had not cleared the area around it or the sidewalks up to it.  We went back home and I got a shovel and cleared the snow, finishing just as the Color Guard arrived.
It was a small gathering.  My brother’s ex-wife Arlene and her son Ira, Dad’s only grandson, were the only relatives.  My wife’s family was well represented.  Kathy and all three daughters were there.  Caroylnne’s first husband Mickey Bailey taped the ceremony on a video recorder I borrowed from school.  My youngest daughter Maureen, then seven years old stayed solemnly by my side,
The service was brief.  We laid a wreath that I had made up at a local florist.  The chaplain read a prayer and said a few words.  I gave a short eulogy and then read Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.  Taps was played and the firing squat snapped off three sharp volleys in salute.  That was it.  Maybe ten minutes.
Family members returned to the house on and had a big dinner.
I think Dad would have approved.

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