Walter John Chilsen, my dad, survived a plane crash in the fight for Iwo Jima during WWII. His plane took flak over Iwo Jima, and together with his crew, he navigated their ailing B-24 bomber back, where they crash-landed it in the ocean just off Saipan. Two people on the flight didn’t make it back. Dad survived, with an injury to his back.
The thing is, I didn’t even know about it until I was grown – nearly the same age he was at the time it happened. And, I was completely unaware of the effect that crash had on him throughout his life.
That’s how WWII vets face things – head on and stoic. “Why dwell on the negative?”
He’s 90 years old now (as of this Monday), and still faces things, against all odds, with aplomb.
I admire his good cheer. I used to see it as a kind of denial. Now, it seems centered and enviable.
Once, when I was a kid, Mom and I dropped off Dad’s new suit at the tailor. She told me they would modify it with padding on one side so his shoulders looked level. I thought, “they’re not level?” I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t know why. He never talked about the injury; it affected his back so his shoulders didn’t square.
Fortunately, for me now, I can get Dad to talk about the experience. It’s vivid. He describes what it was like inside the plane; the clever manipulations of engineering and hydraulics they did to keep the plane level and flying all that way back, nearly to base. He can tell you what it felt like to sink that far down into the ocean – so deep you didn’t know how deep it was, and just swim and swim with all your might to make it to the surface.
He still glosses over the injury he’d live with; “I hurt my back a little”, and the two men who didn’t survive.
I’ve never been tested like that; and I don’t know what I’d do – really – if I were.
These days when a challenge comes my way, I hope to look at it with some modicum of grace. Sometimes, managing to recall Dad’s experience helps put things in perspective.
Happy Birthday Dad. And thank you.
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