TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. For this Memorial Day, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has decided to put the spotlight on a letter instead of a book.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In the fall of 1945, my father was honorably discharged from the Navy. He was one of the lucky ones. He'd served on a destroyer escort during the war, first in convoys dodging U-boats in the Atlantic; and then in the Pacific, where his ship, the USS Schmitt, shot down two kamikaze planes. My dad always kept a framed picture of the Schmitt above his dresser but like most men of his generation, he didn't talk a lot about his war years.
One story he did tell me, because it haunted him, was about a shipmate who was lost on duty one night. That sailor had told the other guys on watch that he was going to the galley to get some cherry pie and coffee; while he was crossing the deck, a wave smashed into the ship and washed him overboard. The captain, against regulations, ordered the ship's lights turned on to search for the sailor in the black waters.
That poor guy was never found. Like I said, my dad was one of the lucky ones. And how special he must have felt in late December of 1945, when a letter from Washington, D.C., came for him at his sister's house in Llanerch Hills, Pa. My father was living with his sister and her family because by then, both of his parents had died.
The letter, signed in fountain pen, was from the secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal. It began: My dear Mr. Corrigan, I have addressed this letter to reach you after all the formalities of your separation from active service are completed. I have done so because, without formality but as clearly as I know how to say it, I want the Navy's pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civil life and to remain with you always.
I found this letter about a year ago in one of the many boxes of stuff that people leave behind when they die. My dad died in 1997 and I'm still finding stuff. The beauty of the letter's opening paragraph literally took my breath away. This may have been a quote-unquote form letter, but there was a compassionate presence behind those words.
Someone, either James Forrestal or an anonymous aide serving under him, had the humanity to think about the hundreds of thousands of sailors who were going to have to adjust to civilian life. Many of them, like my father, had been in the Navy since right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In that pre-computer age, clerical staff would have had to hunt up all those former sailors' forwarding addresses and mail this letter out to them.
The letter goes on to list some of the achievements of the greatest Navy in the world. And it concludes with these words: For your part in these achievements you deserve to be proud as long as you live. The nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude. The best wishes of the Navy go with you into civilian life. Good luck.
I've tried to find out what I can about this letter. It seems that it was sent, as it should have been, to all discharged sailors. The fountain pen signature on my dad's letter is probably a facsimile of Forrestal's handwriting, made with an autopen. If you go on eBay, you'll see this same vintage letter for sale, for as low as 14.99.
Also sad is James Forrestal's own post-World War II history. He became the first-ever secretary of defense under President Truman, but Truman later dismissed him in March of 1949. Suffering from depression, Forrestal committed suicide two months later by jumping from a window on the 16th floor of Bethesda Naval Hospital. Many conspiracy theorists still allege that Forrestal was murdered.
Here's what I know for certain: I know that when my 25-year-old father received this letter, it meant the world to him. I'll bet that in 1945 most other discharged sailors around the country felt the same way. I've asked a couple of friends who served in Vietnam whether they ever received a letter of gratitude, and they say no.
One vet I showed my dad's letter to printed a copy to tape over his desk, so that other vets in his office could read it. Almost seven decades later, that letter conveys something special to ex-service people. I know Memorial Day is about honoring those who've died in service to this country, but the tender grace in that gesture from an earlier age reminds us that gratitude to those who've served and continue to serve doesn't need to be rationed.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can see the letter Maureen's father got from the secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, on our Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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