Memorial Day: My Father

I wrote this eight years ago but it is fitting that I share it today.


October 18, 2010

There is no other way to say this, my father is dying. He is in the V.A. hospital in Minneapolis fighting for every breath and slowly slipping away.

I visit him when I can and we talk but there is not much to say anymore. We have said most everything we needed to say long ago and besides it is hard for him to speak. Still, it’s awkward saying nothing. So we talk.

We crack jokes, we swap stories, we speak of small things knowing it is the small things that make up the big things.

I suspect it is all the comings and goings from the V.A. over the last months that has him telling army tales. Like so many men his age, he kept a lot to himself. He did this to shelter us from the things he feared but now that he is dying and we are grown, there is no need to hold back. So he tells stories. Not so much war stories but war time stories.

My favorites are the simple ones. The ones that answer questions like “What did you do?” and “What was it like?”

One story that answers both questions goes like this.

In 1943, the army shipped my dad to New Guinea to serve in the military police. When he got there he found they didn’t need police as much as truck drivers. So he drove a truck. The thing was – New Guinea had no roads.

So the army built roads – and the rain washed them away.

In New Guinea it doesn’t just rain, the water pours from the sky. On days when it rained a mere five inches the guys in my dad’s unit held picnics – because those were good days.

Most days it rained a lot more – then came the monsoon. The monsoon washed away the few roads and bridges that had survived the earlier rain. What remained after that became so mired in mud that supplies couldn’t move. Ammunition ran low. Food ran low. Everyone had to make do.

When the wet season ended, the roads turned to dust, dust so thick and fine that it got into everything. It clogged filters. It contaminated gas and oil. It scratched eyes. It scoured lungs.

At the beginning of the dusty season, my father was sent in a convoy to deliver supplies to an interior base. The base was located in a cloud forest high in the mountains in terrain so rough that even the locals were unaware of people living just over the next mountain. It had not been supplied in months.

When his convoy arrived, my dad and his buddies were surprised to see how well the base was doing. Everyone looked healthy. In fact they looked better fed than the guys back on the coast.

The base supply sergeant noticed how scrawny the truck drivers were too, so he ordered them to the mess to get something to eat before unloading the trucks.

In the mess tent lay a miracle – a generous supply of exotic fruit set out on the tables for anyone to eat. The drivers found the fruit so delicious that what they could not eat, they stole.

They spent the next few hours unloading the trucks and stacking supplies then returned to the mess to see what else they could steal. They were shocked to find the tables once again loaded with delicious fruit.

So they set about stealing that too – but midway through the caper, an ogre of a mess sergeant banged through the screen door. “That ain’t for you,” he thundered, then added in a quieter tone, “and uh, by the way, how are you boys feeling?”

The drivers wondered aloud, why the concern for their health?

The sergeant explained, “It’s the fruit. We don’t know what it is.”

The drivers looked at each other.

“What I can tell you is this,” the sergeant said, “the locals who gave it to us are cannibals. We don’t trust them, so we’re testing the fruit out on you.”

The drivers now began to inspect each other.

“I hope you boys have a great night,” the sergeant said, “You’ll let us know if you don’t, right?”

The fruit didn’t harm them but the jungle did. My father lost his sense of smell and taste, the sight in one eye and contracted asthma, all in New Guinea.

His asthma got so bad that the army put him on a hospital ship and sent him back to the states. It was how he missed the Battle of Manilla where most of his friends were killed.

The asthma is what is killing him now.


John W. Schiller 1921-2010

Author: Almost Iowa

50 thoughts on “Memorial Day: My Father”

  1. What a story, Greg. Funny, intense, sad, and full of twists. The greatest generation had some amazing experiences and somehow found ways to endure, return home, and make good lives for their families. Not all, but a surprising number, it seems. I’m glad your dad made it home and was able to live a long life.

  2. My Dad served in Europe in WWII. A German machine gun did a number on him. All he’d say is it was in the Belgium/Luxemburg area – he didn’t much care to talk about the war. He passed about 20 years ago, but even now his sacrifice, and that of his peers like your Dad gives me an appreciation of what real men are. We’ll never forget them.

  3. I am in awe of the people who were able to serve in such challenging conditions. I hadn’t even realized we had troops in New Guinea, much less how hard it was on those soldiers. Your story does an excellent job of showing the true cost of the service, and how much harm was done to ordinary men caught up in a situation where they had so little control. I’m so sorry for what your dad went through, but so glad that he was able to share some of those stories with you. And thank you for sharing this one with us.

    1. My father always warned me that one day I would become him and I swore that would never happen. Now that I am older, I understand what he was talking about and wish I could be – more than I am.

  4. Great story! Really brings the scene alive. I had no idea there were troops stationed in New Guinea. I’m glad your father shared this with you (and you with us). Incredible what they endured.

    1. New Guinea was a major field of operations. The Japanese had 350,000 on the island and the allies over 250,000 – but the conditions were so rough that they rarely came in contact. Disease and starvation accounted for most of the casualties.

      1. Now I recall a book about a plane crash there during the war. It seems that occupation had a rather detrimental effect on the native population.

  5. It’s fitting that he finally had peers who could empathize with each other and share tales. That was a late occurrence for my father too. His WWII experience was classified for decades until they were free to discuss it in around 1996. Until then we knew very little of his service. Once freed to speak of that time, fortunately we listened and even have recordings of him telling his story. This is a beautiful tribute to your dad. Such tales and times with our parents are so precious to remember.

  6. Greg, I’m smiling, frowning and shaking my head! What an incredible, moving story about your courageous Dad. He honorably took on the perils of war and paid the price like so many veterans. We must remember them today and everyday for our freedom. Thank you for this personal, heartwarming post! 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸Christine

    1. He never was one for Memorial Day or parades or honoring his service. It was always, “save it for the guys who did something.” Amazing…but that is what those guys were like.

  7. Thanks for sharing this, Greg. My dad served in New Guinea and in the Philippines. He was a mechanic, trying to keep those trucks on the road.

    He died over 30 years ago, and we never really talked about the war. We talked a lot, but he was always focused on the life he had provided for us. I knew about the harsh conditions, but I don’t remember him talking about the dust. Thanks for adding a piece to the puzzle.

    1. It’s interesting, Dan, we have three people on this thread who had fathers in New Guinea. Most people don’t know that anything happened there. Like I mentioned upthread, the Japanese had 350,000 troops in New Guinea and the allies had close to that number.

      1. The Pacific didn’t get as much attention during or after the war. History classes were predominantly about the war in Europe. I’ve learned more from GP Cox’s site than anywhere.

  8. Thank you for sharing your dad’s stories on this day, Greg. My dad died when I was ten and I didn’t know enough at the time to ask about his service. I learned a lot since then and know this day is set aside for his and your dad’s generation who were the greatest.

    1. Sorry about your dad. That must have been rough.

      The military allows children to access the service records of their parents that have passed away, it is not something we have done – but one of these days.

  9. Wow. I remember my dad telling me he once ate snake; that innocent childhood amazement I felt is still a part of knowing one small snake was shared among a hundred as protein in the prisoners’ rice.

    1. Those camps were brutal and when one reads about the brutality that existed within the Japanese army, it becomes more comprehendable (I avoided the word ‘understandable’).

  10. My father served in the Philippines and New Guinea too. He loved his country and was proud of his service. He shared very little with us until his later years. He framed all his ribbons and awards and grew up never knowing what each one was for. One day I asked him to tell us his story and explain what each one was for. My children and grands gathered round and sat patiently listening to him explain each one. I remember dad saying “Oh no one wants to hear about that”, you could have heard a pin drop, even the adults were enthralled with his stories. Here I was almost 60 and finally hearing about his service to our country. He left us a few weeks after turning 92. We honored him with military funeral.

    1. It is so wonderful that his grandkids got to hear those tales. It is one thing to read history or watch movies, it is quite another to know that someone you love was there.

    1. I remember him telling exotic tales about a place called Bougainville. He described as magical place, full of flowers and wild tropical plants. Only later did he tell me it was hell.

  11. New Guinea is still a harsh place, but the fruit is good. Sorry your dad took away the worst from a place, rather than the best. Glad you shared his story.

    1. I never made it to New Guinea but I managed to travel to Northern Queensland. Maybe New Guinea is a little like that. I had hoped to get a taste of what he experienced.

  12. Powerful piece Greg. A true insight to what our troops endured. We are forever indebted to them.
    🔹 Ginger 🔹

    1. Thanks Ginger. I’m glad that Dad spent time in the VA. He never joined the VFW nor the American Legion. He never spoke of his service. He couldn’t stand to be reminded of it. In many ways he felt guilty that he was shipped home and his friends were fed into the meat-grinder that was the Battle of Manila. In the end, he reconciled with all of these things and enjoyed being among men who had gone through the same struggles.

  13. There is nothing like a real life story to hit you right where it should. Your father and all of his fellow soldiers were asked to serve, they did, and for that we are eternally grateful. And, then, of course, there is the irony of life – asthma. Thank you for sharing your Dad’s story on this special day.

    1. When I was at that age when kids pepper their parents with questions, I asked him, ” what did you do in the war.”

      “Nothing,” he said, “I got sick so that sent me home to work as a guard in a German POW camp in Roswell, New Mexico.”

      “What was that like?”

      “Someday when you are older, go to Roswell and see for yourself. Go in August.”

      I did.

    1. Every month, my father would get a dark brown envelope from THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT. Inside was a check printed on a pale green IBM card. The amount was for $1.00. It was compensation for losing an eye, his sense of smell and taste, and contracting the COPD that eventually killed him at 89 (those old guys were tough).

      We used it to buy milk down at Paul’s Dairy store.

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