This day was observed, almost as a holiday, in our family. My dad would point out the day that he was torpedoed in World War II. His ship, the SS Deer Lodge, was sunk by the German U-516 on this day in 1943. The lone merchant vessel’s skipper had signaled “Abandon Ship” as soon as the submarine’s periscope was sighted. Deer Lodge, plodding along at three knots, never had a chance.
It was almost seventy years later that a member of the crew, and a close friend of my father, would tell me of “Pop’s” role that night. My father never did. Leslie Morrison ran around the deck of the sinking ship and unlatched the pelican hooks so that the rubber lifeboats would float free as the ship went under. Without that courageous effort, his surviving friend, Manuel Dias told me, all the men might have died in the cold waters off South Africa. I was proud of my dad before Manny told me that story. Afterward, I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
Pop never boasted of his exploits in World War II. Few of those in that Great Generation did. But he did like to talk about having been in Shanghai in August, 1941. He was an avid photographer and wanted to get a picture of the Chinese city from the middle of the bridge that separated the Japanese-occupied sector from the International Zone.
There was a Japanese Marine with a rifle and bayonet standing on the white line that marked the border. Pop went right up to the line. Chinese civilians were forced to kowtow to their Japanese overlords, but Pop didn’t bow and didn’t back off. He went right up to that line and started taking pictures. The Japanese Marine put his bayonet point at my father’s belly.
Hearing this story thirty years later, we blanched. What was he thinking? He might have been run through. (Realizing this was before our parents met, we his children were rather personally involved in this telling.) How could you take that risk, we asked?
“Oh, he wouldn’t bother me: I am an American Citizen,” our father said with an easy assurance.
Fast forward to 1985. I was serving in the administration of Ronald Reagan. President Reagan was just two months younger than my dad. He, too, spoke of the time when any American Citizen could put a little U.S. flag in his lapel and go anywhere in the world and still be safe.
I drafted a letter this day in 1985 for President Reagan to send to Congress. In it, I wrote:
“Unless the rising generation is taught to read using phonics, I fear they will not achieve literacy, the basic tool of citizenship.” I was proud of that draft letter and happy to see it cleared by the Under Secretary and the Secretary and on its way to the White House.
Returning to my office after lunch, however, I was surprised to see my draft letter back on my desk with a large RED circle around those words: “I FEAR.” In the margin, in a hand writing not President Reagan’s, was a note in red:
THIS PRESIDENT HAS CONCERNS. HE HAS NO FEARS.
That rebuke startled me. It inspired me all the while I worked for President Reagan. And it continues to thrill me. Of all the virtues that Ronald Reagan possessed and shared with us, his courage stands out as the greatest.
This is a day for me to remember my father’s quiet courage and to recall how Ronald Reagan’s courage inspired so many of us. He was, in many ways, like a tough Irish cop talking a troubled young man down from the ledge. In this case, that troubled person was Western Civilization itself. As George Will memorably put it: “He calmed the passengers…and the seas.”
This is what we need more than anything else today. We face a monstrous tyranny, but we should not fear them. With courage and determination, they too will be overcome.