The year that I was a sixth grader stands out because that was the year that I gave my first-ever public speech. As I recall, the topic could be pretty much anything, or at least I don’t remember any particular restrictions on subject matter–a rather brave assignment by the teacher, really, considering we were 10- and 11-year olds. In retrospect, it occurs to me that the speech was to be some sort of exposition–a story.
Since from all accounts–especially Mom’s–my Dad possessed ‘the Gift of Gab,’ I asked him to help me write my speech. After all, Dad was chock-full of stories about his growing-up years during the Depression in Council Bluffs, Iowa, about his years in the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps), and about his service as an enlisted Marine onboard the battleship U.S.S. California (BB44) in the Pacific during WWII. Unlike some other combat veterans, Dad shared easily with us many stories of particular battles-at-sea, and vivid accounts of life aboard a Navy vessel as a Marine. My brother, Michael, and I had heard these stories over supper for our entire young lives . In fact, Victory at Sea was a weekly TV staple for us because there were times that the battles in which Dad served were right there in black-and-white in our living room–and he served in almost all the major encounters-at-sea with the Japanese.
Now, about that speech that was looming over my sixth grade head…
Dad enlisted in the Marine Corps right after Pearl Harbor and would be assigned to BB44 as soon as she was put back together and declared ready to return to sea. She’d been hauled up out of the mud, re-fitted, re-manned and sent back into the Pacific with a crew of Navy and Marine personnel. Dad had talked his way into Gunnery School and ended up manning a 20-millimeter Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun with another young Marine corporal named Kenny McMillan.
It was about Kenny McMillan that my Dad would have me speak. Here I was, a little girl of 10 or so, and Dad encouraged me to stand in front of my teacher and my classmates to tell them of this young kid who went to war and stood right next to my Dad (another young kid, truth-be-told) in the anti-aircraft gun turret. I don’t remember where home was for Kenny McMillan but wherever it was–and whomever he claimed as Family–made an indelible impression on my impressionable young Dad. Dad made it very clear that before anything else was said I needed to know that Kenny was his good friend.
Dad and Kenny were manning that Oerlikon–taking turns firing that huge gun and loading the ammo from the top into the magazine. A big, noisy, risky job that invited the deadly attention of the Japanese fighter pilots and kamikaze pilots who were trained to take out those guns as soon as possible in any encounter. Two very young men standing smack dab in Harm’s Way. Time after time. Battle after battle. Only one of them destined to return to their home and waiting loved ones. A kamikaze pilot finally made it through the gauntlet of anti-aircraft gun fire, took out the con tower and blew apart the turret in which Dad and Kenny stood. Kenny was killed instantly (blown apart right next to Dad). Dad was knocked out when flying red-hot shrapnel tore through his helmet and ripped open one side of his head. Dad and The California were taken out of commission and eventually escorted back to Bremerton, Washington and Mare Island for recuperation and repair. Once again, BB44 was dry-docked. Dad was never able to connect with Kenny’s family.
As I recollect that day in my classroom, I do remember wondering why everyone–including the teacher–was so very quiet and still. Of course now I understand how very unusual it was for a little, shy, curly-haired Catholic school girl to lay out such a story in a speech assignment. I was so intent on making that speech and earning an A that the significance of Kenny McMillan’s story escaped me completely for most of my life.
You see, I owe Kenny McMillan an immense debt of gratitude–and not only for the utter and complete and obvious Ultimate Sacrifice for his Country that he made in that gun turret. That is one issue, for sure. The larger, more significant one for me is what the loss of his life meant for me and my Dad. Dad and I rarely enjoyed any one-on-one time that would have helped me get to know who he was besides being my bigger-than-life, uber-strict, rarely-tender, immensely stoic Father. Somehow I could read between the lines of Kenny McMillan’s story–I could look through a window of my Dad’s soul that was usually closed and shuttered, and realize that he was still processing how Kenny’s death (the loss of his comrade-in-arms, literally) affected him deeply and forever. In his own way, in his own inimitable style, Dad was giving Kenny the eulogy he never got to give by making the story simple and eloquent–and making it possible for me, a small, less-than-eloquent girl-child to finally deliver that eulogy.
My Dad and I shared a love of words. Written, spoken, engraved, you-name-it. We didn’t share emotional words, though. Or very many tender words. But we both loved story. A good yarn. A helluva read. Like Kenny McMillan’s short story. And for that I wish to publicly thank Corporal Kenny McMillan, USMC. Thank you for your Sacrifice, Kenny–thank you for being my Dad’s comrade-in-arms, his friend. Thank you for your Service. May you be resting in Peace, and may you and my Dad have re-connected in that Marvelous and Wonderful Beyond.