The One Veteran I Want To Thank, Memorial Day, 2009
When I cross over to the other side of eternity, there is one young man I want to thank: The submariner who took my dad’s place.
This piece was originally published by The Virginian Pilot and the Courier Post.
My father, then only a teen-ager from Jersey, left high school, went to war and was assigned to the submarine, USS Bonefish. Just before the final mission of the Bonefish, my father walked off the gangplank – transferred to another assignment. Another man took his place.
Returning from her 4th patrol.
Sailors, rest your oars.
On its eighth mission, on June 18, 1945, the Bonefish was lost fighting the enemy in the Sea of Japan, with the loss of all 53 officers and men. It was the last U.S. submarine sunk in World War II. Dad eventually went back to high school and married my mother.
The other man is “on eternal patrol,” as the veterans say.
A half-century later, after fighting in and surviving two wars, my father was buried in Arlington Cemetery. He had the chance to raise a family and devote 30 years to the armed services, and pin second lieutenant bars on my shoulders.
He didn’t talk much about the Bonefish or the man who replaced him.
Still, I imagine in some Navy Valhalla my dad and this other sailor linked up together and asked the Creator, “Why?”
“Why him? Why me?”
John Sr. with John Jr.
War forces these questions on us, and they echo for generations. My father had me, and I now have a 4-year-old son, John, who carries his grandfather’s name and his love of battle and discipline.
John III with
John Jr. (Jack)
John, like all children, often asks, “Why?” Like all fathers, I struggle to answer. But there are questions mere human reason cannot fathom.
Why was my father not on that submarine that fateful day?
And the answer does not come. Only that John now lives. With a purpose and a destiny still unknown.
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, someone asked her, “What is your greatest fear?” She answered that it was losing her husband; she feared the possibility of facing the awesome responsibility of motherhood alone.
But now, several children later, as I reflect on that same question, my fear is not of losing her, or even one of our daughters. I fear losing my son. In my masculine pride, I believe I can protect my wife and girls, but in my heart lurks the dread possibility that I must one day send my son to war.
My boy loves my cavalry saber and my dad’s medals. Wearing a military uniform and military service runs in our family. My son’s bloodline is traced through the Civil War and the Revolutionary War to William Penn to Charlemagne of ninth century France. His great-grandfather helped build Virginia Military Institute.
I pray the time never comes, but if it does, I expect that he will fight for God and country like his fathers before him.
Buried at sea, there are no headstones. I cannot mark the grave of the man who took my father’s place, so I mark the date. I pay silent homage in remembrance of June 18, 1945, when the sea smashed through the bulkheads and turned a warship into a coffin.
There have been many such coffins, and if history is any teacher there are many yet to come.
When I think of future wars, I pray that a doomed high-tech Bonefish will not carry my John. The fear of this nearly unendurable loss humbles me. That young man who walked on the Bonefish to take my father’s place was another man’s son. Another man’s dreams lost at sea.
War turns civilization on its head. In peace, sons bury fathers. In war, fathers bury sons.
It is a weighty debt. A debt of honor due. I expect to instill in my son a sense of history, of purpose, of his mission. That his body is not entirely his own, that he has a high calling.
I hope that I can teach him the lessons of his forefathers, those men now called the Greatest Generation.
It is my prayer that instilling this sense of mission will drive out the distractions, temptations and destructions of his growing generation. That drugs will not cloud his ambition. That he will see the hand of divine providence moving in his life.
That he will know he has so much to be thankful for. Like his fathers before him.
I pray he will be grateful, like his grandfather. It is my charge to tell my son that another man took his grandfather’s place. My son has the duty, and like me, the obligation to his family and to that other man, to live with a sense of purpose and awe.
To live with a sense of respect to the tomb of that other young submariner.
This June 18, I want to salute the man who died for me and the men who died for us all. I want my son to know his debt of honor. And, God willing, my son will bury me.
John Wesley Yoest, Jr., of Richmond, is [the former] assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Thank you (foot)notes:
Charmaine blogged on Bonefish .
Since this was first published a few years ago, we’ve been honored to hear from other veterans who served on Bonefish and naval historians. There were actually 85 men lost aboard Bonefish and another boat holds the distinction of last sub lost in the war.
And, since this piece was written, we’ve added John’s brother James to the family — here he is in the same sailor suit that dad sewed by hand while at sea decades and decades ago.
James and Jack
See here for our visit to Arlington Cemetery.
Alert reader Greg Gray reminds us that,
“In peace, sons bury fathers. In war, fathers bury sons.”
That comes from Herodotus 1:87. But it’s still a wonderful point. Also relevant to today is Pericles’ oration in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars.
Published: June 18, 1999
Section: LOCAL, page B11
Type of story: OPINION
Source: JOHN WESLEY YOEST
© 1999- Landmark Communications Inc.
Description of illustration(s):
Art by Margaret Scott