Everyone has someone who inspires them. I am not talking about mentoring or coaching here, but inspiration. Perhaps I am too picky, but it takes an extraordinary person to inspire me. I am going to tell you about my grandfather. I have chosen to do it now because of something extraordinary that is happening on May 14, 2017. My grandfather is getting a memorial highway named for him in Kentucky, the state in which he was born and raised for the first 17 years of his life. His story is not a short one; it’s complex, like he was. To understand why he was my inspiration, you need to know at least the minimal details of how he became the man he was.
I look at this picture of my grandfather and am amazed by how young he was. What you may not realize is that this photo was taken the day he had just become a number; number 540, a POW in Japan. Bear with me so you can get but a tiny bit of history to understand what shaped him into the man he became.
My grandfather was born in 1920, number eight of 10 children, the son of a schoolteacher and farmer. When he was 17, he quit school to join the Navy. The appeal to his 17-year-old self was the glamor and the adventure it offered, and he wanted to fight for his country. He traveled the world and got an adventure. Little did he know the profound, life-altering impact this adventure would have on his life that would literally last until the day he died.
In the Navy, he became a submariner. On April 22, 1943, his submarine was badly damaged and sunk to the bottom of the Straits of Malacca off the coast of Malaysia. Sitting on the bottom of the ocean floor, 200 feet down, it seemed all hope was lost. However, the clever men of this crew managed to get the engine started and had enough power to surface but were unable to move. As they watched the Japanese ships get closer, they knew it was just a matter of time before they were captured. At the last moment, the captain scuttled the sub. For my grandfather and the crew, this was the beginning of years in hell.
The first of many traumas for this young country boy was the trip to Penang, as the crew was forced to stand on the deck of the ship for three days. If they sat or lay down, they were shot. My grandfather learned to sleep anywhere.
The crew was brought to the Convent Light Street School, closed during the war, but reopened afterward and still in existence today. They were kept in several classrooms and tortured brutally for two months. In reality, they didn’t think they were going to survive. In their despair, they didn’t want to disappear, never to be heard from again. So, in an attempt to leave something to show that they had been there, they used a belt buckle to carve their names into a wall in a classroom. The carved names were preserved behind glass after the war and are still on display in the classroom today. This photo was an amazing discovery my family made a couple of years ago on the internet. I was very moved when I saw my grandfather’s name on the list (highlighted in yellow).
My grandfather and the crew were eventually sent to Japan and put into prison camps there. My grandfather was brought to the Fukuoka Internment #3 Camp in Kokura, Japan. The stories I’ve heard of what happened there are horrifying. In truth, war is horrifying and drives people to do things they never imagined they would do to another human being. During his time in the camp, between starvation, beatings, sickness, and death all around him, he survived. He labored in the iron works located nearby. This time in the camp gave him a lifetime of nightmares. It was so bad he just couldn’t speak of it until later in life, except to my grandmother who was there when his nightmares occurred. One example and an incident that I can’t imagine experiencing is the day he woke up in a pile of bodies in a shed. He had become ill and was placed in the small clinic. Most of the men around him in the clinic died, and eventually, they thought he too had died. What must it have been like for a 24-year-old to wake up 48 hours later surrounded by the bodies of men he knew? He had cigarette burns and other marks on his body, but the worst scar was inside his head. And, it was the deepest scar of all.
One interesting fact about the city of Kokura was that it was the primary target for the Nagasaki bomb. The morning the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the prisoners woke up to overcast skies and the sound of planes circling the city. Knowing nothing about an “atomic bomb” they cheered, knowing something was happening. However, because of the cloud cover, the plane moved on to Nagasaki and the rest is history. The day the war was declared over was like any other day. The prisoners were told nothing. One morning they woke up, the guards were gone and the gates open. They were free.
My grandfather returned home to his first wife, who he eventually lost to cancer. He married my grandmother and lived his life, raised his kids, and went to work every day. My grandfather was brilliant, but he had his demons to fight and he did his best to fight them bravely. But the war always haunted him. I never met him, but his legacy was profound and his touch significant on those who knew him. He passed on his love of learning and his love of reading anything and everything he could get his hands on. He passed on the lesson that anything is possible if you put aside fear and put your mind to it. He was self-taught for most of his life, and his conversations are legendary in my family. Passionate debates could go well past midnight on topics from politics or science, as I’ve heard, anything was fair game. He taught his children to keep an open mind and to never fear the unknown and that it is never too late to start something new.
When my grandfather was 59, my grandmother had just finished her master’s degree at Harvard. She encouraged him to apply to the undergraduate program, even though he didn’t have a high-school diploma only a GED. He interviewed with the Dean of Admissions, who listened to the story of his life. When my grandfather was done speaking, the Dean looked at him and said; “you should be teaching here”. So, with that, they skipped the requirement for a bachelor’s degree and put him straight into graduate school. At the time, his professors had rarely seen anyone sit in class and not take a single note yet get straight A’s. So, again, my grandfather’s brilliance shined through as he learned from not only reading but by listening as well.
After he graduated, my grandmother got her Ph.D., they took my mom and aunt and began to travel the world. During this time, there were many videos made and I am so lucky to have hours of recordings of his musings on life. It’s amazing how his insights and experiences have broadened how I looked at people and have given me an appreciation and open mind, to learn from all of the other cultures and people I meet.
My grandfather is gone now and has been for 24 years. Ironically, it was a disease of the heart that he got in the camp that killed him 50 years later. So, in essence, the war did kill him. But his voice rings true through the years and his message is clear. He tells me to listen and to ask questions, that in listening to the answers; I would learn more than was said because there are always spaces between the lines. He teaches me to look at everything and to keep the big picture in mind because the devil may be in the detail but looking at situations or the world from a holistic perspective provides me with the greatest value. The echoes of his voice show me that a young farm boy from Kentucky could be one of the bravest people I wish I had met, at first simply because he had to be and later because he chose to be. He never gave up and, in his example, he has taught me never to give up. I continue to learn about him and the more I learn about him, and his strength, the more he inspires me. My grandfather was brilliant. My grandfather was brave. My grandfather was complex. My grandfather was a war hero who sacrificed a great deal for his country and for freedom for so many others. His story is not unique for a POW, but it is fascinating. In getting a highway named after him, he represents all of the soldiers that have sacrificed so much for all of us. At the end of the day for me, it’s simple; my grandfather, my hero.
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