This is the first of three related essays about my father-in-law, Floyd Anderson Woody (13 Aug 26 - 24 Jan 97
). I didn't plan to post it today, it just worked out that way.
A couple of years ago, while I was brassoing my menorah in preparation for Chanukah, my wife asked if I would also polish her father's medals. Anyone who has ever polished military 'brass' knows what a filthy job that can be, so I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of cleaning a bunch of old medals that hadn't seen polish in decades—especially someone else's. Even so, ever the dutiful spouse, I reluctantly agreed and got to it. Again, as anyone who has routinely polished trophies, boots, or cars knows, after a while the task stops being work and starts to become a zen-challenge of sorts. I suppose it's the knowing and accepting that done right, the task will not be done quickly, so the challenge becomes to do a perfect job, to not leave one spot of tarnish or old varnish coating, nor a single fingerprint or even a speck of lint. Of course, being essentially mindless work, one has the opportunity to think about whatever whimsy dredges up, to let the mind wander where it will. Given the objects at hand, my thoughts naturally turned to my father-in-law's 22+ years as a U.S. Navy Corpsman and what those medals represented.
To be sure, none of the medals were awarded specifically for valor or for duty 'above and beyond.' There were no silver or bronze stars, no crosses, palm leaves, hearts, or V devices; yet, knowing what I know of the man, and what those bits of cloth and metal represent, I could not help but feel the weight of the past and the burden of gratitude our nation owes to people like him, nor ignore the bitter truth that such trinkets are wholly inadequate expressions of that gratitude. My wife's father was never a hero as we account such things in America, but like the crew of Jason's Argo, he travelled to distant lands and did heroic things while sharing equally the dangers, and he made it home alive, not just once or twice, but four times. For all of that, when I knew him, he was quiet, unassuming, and almost always congenial, and he rarely ever spoke about his military service, even though he had been an eyewitness to and up-front participant in some of the most noteworthy events of the 20th century.
In many ways, Floyd Woody was like most of the old war veterans I've known who never seemed to feel comfortable talking about their military experiences except with other old war veterans. He did talk in general terms about big events or about humorous things he remembered, and about his two years in Antarctica, but it wasn't until long after we met that he would talk about the horrific things he had seen or survived. Even then, he would leave out parts of the story, either to avoid sounding like he was bragging or to spare his listeners and himself. More than once I saw him physically recoil from a memory or an unpleasant topic, at which time he would either immediately change the subject or he would stop talking and begin looking for something else to do—just like that, the conversation would be over.
Certainly, Woody was not unique. What he lived through was experienced not only by his Marine and Navy comrades, but also by all of the people who've fought in America's wars. The difference is that I knew this man for almost 17 years. He was not a character in a book or someone else's story. He was real, and although he was indeed a decent and gentle man, there were times when the damage done to him in the wars was evident. My wife remembers her father's nightmares and I saw firsthand how he would try to avoid any kind of confrontation at almost any cost, even if he were being cheated outright. Also, to the day he died, Woody generally had little good to say about anything Asian. He was not by any means overtly racist, but he once told me "those sonsabitches tried their damnedest to kill me three times, and came pretty darn close more than once," which was just a little hard for him to get past. I figure he was entirely entitled to his opinions.
In any event, as I was polishing the medals, I realized I didn't actually know a lot about Woody's time in the Navy beyond the few memorable stories he'd told, or the self-conscious cassette tape recordings he'd made for my wife around ten years before he died. It also occurred to me that what I thought I knew might not be accurate or even true, though knowing the man, I dismissed that last notion without a second thought. And of course, thoughts about Woody comingled with memories of my Army service, and the unavoidable comparisons between his wartime decorations and my peacetime Cold War awards. Then all of that got bound up with thoughts about my own step-fathers' service, and then other people I've known, and before long, I was considering all of that in light of the current misguided tendency to call every military person a hero
. It was a lot to sort out, and even now, I'm not completely settled in my opinions and thoughts.
With all of the above in mind, I decided to learn more about Woody's military career and to write a short biography about him. The effort was both immensely gratifying and very educational. I not only learned a great deal about the man but, more important, I also learned a great deal about a number of events and their contexts that before I had known little or nothing about. As for Woody, he was a Navy Corpsman from August 1943 until June 1966. He participated in the diversionary amphibious invasion of Okinawa; the Korean campaigns of Summer and Fall 1951, including the battle for Heartbreak Ridge; the establishment of the first permanent U.S. base in Antarctica (where he 'wintered over') and the construction of the first science station at the South Pole (1955-57); the Thailand (& Laos) expedition of 1962; and the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade deployment to the Caribbean in anticipation of the invasion of Cuba (the 'Missile Crisis
By rows, from left to right, in order of precedence: Presidential Unit Citation (ribbon only), Good Conduct (5th Award), American Campaign, Asiatic Pacific Campaign, World War II Victory, Navy Occupation Service, National Defense Service, Korean Service, Antarctic Service (Wintered Over), UN Service, Republic of Korea War Service.
Although I was in the Army for 14 years and have worked for the Department of Defense for all but about six of the past 36 years, I have never been to war, so my opinions about it are all second-hand. I think I can safely say, however, that even though combat today is not more nor less terrible than it has ever been, the men who fought in WWII and Korea had a much harder time of it than the men who've fought in the wars since. I am reasonably knowledgeable about U.S. military history, and I am aware of many exceptions in both directions, but I contend that the totality of what my father-in-law experienced has not been experienced by anyone in any American war since the mid-1950s, including one of my wife's uncles, who was a 2nd Lieutenant with B Company, 1/7 Cavalry
at Ia Drang in November, 1965. Unquestionably, many of the men and women fighting today's wars are indeed heroes in the old-school tradition, but most of the service members today deserve to be called Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines, not heroes. More to the point, not one of the men I consider heroes (and I've known more than a few) ever claimed he'd done anything other than what had to be done. The few times I've heard a person say he was a hero, it was meant derisively, as in "Yeah, I was a real hero that night!," meaning, of course, exactly the opposite.
Woody was no exception, but considering what he survived and what he did, even if he never felt he'd been a hero, it was only because in his time—as Admiral Nimitz is reputed to have said about the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima—uncommon valor was indeed a common virtue. I believe that this has been true since before our Revolution and that Americans like my father-in-law are not nearly as uncommon as our media and professional cynic-class would have us believe. The United States has been and is still a great nation because in every endeavor of any merit, whether at war or at peace, its citizens have done their duty with unfailing devotion, integrity, and honor—just as they are doing today in a thousand places around the world. My father-in-law served our nation for more than two decades and he did some fairly noteworthy things, but he would just laugh at the idea that he'd been a hero, and then he would tell me for the umpteenth time that he was just doing what had to be done.
That's what they all say. . . .
Petty Officer 1st Class (HM1) F.A.Woody, being awarded the Presidential Unit Citation on 30 Apr 1959, by CAPT D.A. Harris, USN, Cdr Florida Gp, Atlantic Reserve Fleet. The PUC was awarded for service as a Corpsman with the 1st Marine Div, 3rd Bn, 7th Marines for its actions 21-26 Apr, 16 May-30 Jun, & 11-25 Sep 51.
By The Way . . . .
If you know a Vet, don't only say thank you for serving, ask that person where, when, and what. And don't take no for an answer, at least not the first couple of times. Some people just need to be coaxed, to believe that the person asking is actually interested, and will really listen. Then, if he or she is willing to talk, actually listen without judgement. If you think that what you know is interesting, wait until you hear history from a person who helped make it, especially if you are related to or have known that person all your life. The things our military people do every day, whether at war or during peacetime, or at home or abroad, are nothing short of astounding—and that's just the people who are only doing their duty
, as most of us have done. For those who go 'above and beyond', neither words nor medals are adequate, and to hear them tell their own stories is an honor and a privilege without compare. In fact, asking a vet to tell his or her story is almost always a rewarding experience, but sometimes, it can be priceless:
From the Bataan & Corregidor Survivor's Reunion, 17 May 2001, in Hampton, Va. I bought the book, Ghost Soldiers, asked the author to sign it, then I went into the main hall and started asking anyone who wasn't talking to sign the book. It was among the best three hours of my life. Note the autograph of Nurse Eunice Hatchitt Tyler in the middle image. It was her 90th birthday the day she signed that. She passed away on 14 Jan 2003
1. On Aug. 20, 1999, DoD approved the acceptance and wear of the Republic of Korea War Service Medal (ROKWSM). Approximately 1.8 million U.S. veterans of the Korean War are eligible to receive it, but next-of-kin to eligible deceased veterans can also apply for the medal. In May 2000 the Korean government announced it would provide the ROKWSM to eligible U.S. veterans of that conflict, or to their surviving next-of-kin, at no cost. USAF was designated the lead agency to receive and distribute the medals.
2. I'm fairly certain my father in law also qualified for the Navy Expeditionary Medal for service in Thailand in 1962, but the evidence is only circumstantial for now.
The two Korean War battle stars, the Antarctica 'Wintering Over' device, and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal were added on 16 Nov 09. Minor changes were made to this essay on 2 Jan 10. Photo caption for PUC award was added on 10 May 10.
[ Note: The ribbon images are from GruntsMilitary.Com. The book pages are scans of my copy of
Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides. The photo of Woody belongs to my wife. All other images are mine.