June 19, 2016 (Father’s Day)
Honoring a military father
Hale Bradt, Special to Military Times
On Dec. 1, 1945, my father went into the basement of our Washington, D.C., home and shot himself in the heart. He had been home a mere six weeks after three full years in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Can one honor a father who took himself away from his family — my sister of 13 years, my mother at 40 and me at 14 — forever? He deprived us of his love, companionship, leadership and emotional support for the remaining decades of his natural life. Bitterness on our parts could well be the lasting result.
Yes, bitterness was in our thoughts, but the situation was much more complicated. His wife and beloved partner of 18 years had fallen victim to her need for love and security and had conceived a child by another man during her husband’s long absence overseas. That was not all. Our father had left close friends six feet under in the Pacific. He did not want to return to his job as a chemistry department head at the University of Maine; a postwar career in the Army was closed to him; he was living with a piece of headache-producing shrapnel in his eyebrow; and he was suffering an attack of malaria symptoms the morning he died.
Moreover, he had been commander of 4,500 troops (the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont) who were to be in the first waves ashore on the Japanese homeland, a bloodbath he did not expect to survive. But with his unit demobilized, he was suddenly without any military responsibility. He was being treated for depression at the Fort Meade hospital in Maryland.
His suicide becomes almost understandable when one considers all this. So, yes, we are proud of his military service and continue to honor him each Father’s Day.
Perhaps with this understanding, my sister and I should have instead directed our bitterness toward his wife, our mother. Well, despite the examples of Hamlet and Elektra, who vowed to avenge their fathers’ deaths under similar circumstances, we chose instead to remain true to her. She had been left to fend for herself and her children during her husband’s long absence and had to face her own personal challenges. She and our father had agreed that she should invest in herself during his absence so she could better support the family should he not return from the war. Accordingly, she took her preteens to New York City, the artistic hub of America, to improve her musical and writing skills. It was there that she became pregnant. She chose to carry the pregnancy to term and did so amidst great secrecy and subterfuge.
All through our father’s absence — even during the pregnancy and the subsequent nursing months — Mother wrote him positive morale-building letters and sent him things he needed or wanted: special foods, a new watch, cleats for his shoes. She did the same for my sister and me when we were away at boarding schools one of those years, and also ensured that her newborn was well cared for. She was the captain of the home-front ship, which she led to the best of her ability during her war. In the end, she did not quit the scene, as did our father, but continued to serve her family to the end of her days. So, yes, we do honor her also, on each Mother’s Day. How could we not? She was, after all, our mother.
Our father left us a great gift: a treasure trove of highly literate letters he had written home to his family and parents. He was an educated 40-year-old National Guardsman when his unit entered federal service in 1941 and knew he was partaking in history. His letters detail the war in the Pacific theater as viewed by an Army artilleryman, with poetic descriptions, vivid insight, tender and explicit love, fatherly advice and, on occasion, humor. He was writing for history and held letters with censorable details until it was legal to mail them, typically a month after the described action.
Through happenstance, I came upon a few of these letters in 1980. Realizing then their literary quality and value to the historical record, I sought out the backstory with visits to archives, interviews of his colleagues, siblings and even a Japanese army opponent, and visits to the battlefields of the Pacific. I believe I could have done no more to honor our father and our mother than to bring his letters and their story before historians and the public, which I did this past August, on the 70th anniversary of V-J Day.
Hale Bradt is the author of “Wilber’s War: An American Family’s Journey through World War II.” He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean conflict. He is a professor of physics, emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lives in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife of 58 years. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Military Times or its editorial staff.
November 11, 2015
Honoring The Fallen: Veterans Day In The Solomons, 1943
At 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, World War I ended with the signing of an Armistice. From that time on, November 11 has been a day of celebration and remembrance of the fallen in that war and in all following wars. In the U.S, it is now known as Veterans Day.
On that day in 1943, the troops of the 43rd Infantry Division, a New England National Guard outfit, gathered to honor their fallen comrades. They had recently completed three months of intense combat in the New Georgia group of the western Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean. The first phase was the month-long drive on the Japanese-held Munda Airfield, leading to the airfield’s capture on August 5, 1943. During this action, two junior officers of the unit my father commanded, the 169th Field Artillery Battalion, were lost to Japanese fire. They were Forward Observers who, from the front lines, would spot and adjust where artillery shells landed.
The next island to be cleared of Japanese was nearby Baanga Island. While ultimately successful, it did not go well. My father, Lt. Col. Wilber Bradt, wrote, “It was a depressing and unfortunate affair in several ways.” Thirty-four American soldiers were stranded on a Japanese-held beach for nine days and 20 of them did not survive. Here, my father lost yet another of his forward observers, Lieutenant Norbert Heidelberger, whom he had sent into Japanese occupied jungle with an infantry company.
The third phase of the division’s Solomon actions was the taking of Arundel (now Kohinggo) Island, a stone’s throw from Baanga and New Georgia. American troops of the 43rd Division made unopposed landings on the southern end of Arundel and then encountered Japanese resistance at the northern end. The situation became chaotic with American and Japanese units interspersed. My father was about to send another young lieutenant into the jungle with an infantry patrol of 21 men, but then decided he did not want to lose a fourth officer; he went in himself instead. His detailed written account of that patrol and the next two weeks he spent with another unit is a remarkable tale of tense patrolling, firefights against the Japanese, tank attacks, artillery fire on boats and an airplane, and the unexpected appearance of U.S. Admiral William (Bull) Halsey, the Area Commander. On September 20–21, the last Japanese withdrew from Arundel Island.
After these three months of intense combat, the 43rd Division needed a rest. It was assigned defensive duty in the areas recently captured, which became a chance to clean up, rest, clear up jungle infections, and then reinstitute training. Seven weeks into this period, the troops of the 43rd Division prepared for the Armistice ceremony at Munda cemetery, a beautifully prepared site on a hill near the airfield. On November 10, my father wrote my mother:
“Dearest Nana — …The Armistice Day will be a religious service for our dead who are in this island. It will be a sad Armistice for us for Lieutenants Payne and Malone and Heidelberger will be there in the cemetery from the 169th. However each was doing a grand job when his time came. I think I feel the worst about Payne because he had a boy a little younger than [our son] Hale. It doesn’t help much to know that each was where I had sent him but of course that is one of the aspects of the commander’s responsibility.”
A week later, he described the ceremony in a letter to my 11-year old sister Valerie:
“Dear Valerie — … We attended a religious and military memorial service on Armistice Day in honor of our dead comrades. We stood at salute while the firing squad fired a volley for each battalion or regiment that had one or more men killed. For us the speaker said ‘For 1st Lt —, the first to fall in the 169th, and his brave comrades that followed.’ Then the volley was fired. It was a beautiful spot that had been made into a cemetery and the service was lovely but so, so sad. I hope too many more don’t ‘follow’ in the next year.”
Thus went Veterans Day in the Solomon Islands in 1943.
Hale Bradt is the author of Wilber’s War: An American Family’s Journey through World War II and a Korean War veteran. His discovery of his father’s letters from the Pacific has given him an unusual basis for exploring new aspects of World War II history, as he scoured the National Archives and even visited the Pacific battle sites where his father fought. He is currently a professor of Physics Emeritus at M.I.T.