My mama’s daddy died when I was 7 years old, but I learned a lot about him during the 2,815 days we shared.
He wore glasses, and he had a bald spot in the middle of his head.
He was short, but he was a giant to me.
He played cards, and he was a woodwork wizard.
He taught me how to drive a nail.
I wanted to be fireman when I was a kid, so he built me a firetruck bed.
He once helped me craft a small block of wood into a racecar, complete with a lead-weight driver and passenger. It beat a lot of other cars in the church association down a wooden track.
He was the kind of man who took me fishing, helped reel in the biggest bass I’ve ever caught and gave me a memory I hope will live on for a lifetime.
We wore out an Oak Ridge Boys tape on trips in his truck. Sometimes, I still sing along when their songs play on the radio.
He smelled like Old Spice.
He ate Werther’s Original Caramel Hard Candies. I still think about him when I eat them.
He drank Dr. Pepper. Dr. Pepper is my favorite drink.
I call him Pappaw. When I was a boy, Pappaw was the only name I knew he had.
Pancreatic cancer killed him 24 years ago, but I’ve since learned some other things about Evan John Pierce.
It turns out Pappaw saw a piece of history up close and personal.
Aboard the U.S.S. Archerfish attack submarine during World War II, as a United States Navy Seaman 1st Class, he was part of the vessel’s fifth war patrol in the Pacific waters of the Japanese Empire.
The submarine’s crew sighted a Japanese ship on Nov. 28, 1944, and sank it with six torpedoes the next day. It was later identified as the Shinano, which was allegedly the largest aircraft carrier in the war.
The patrol lasted from From Oct. 30, 1944 to Dec. 15, 1944, and the crew arrived in Guam in time for Christmas.
Pappaw rose to the rank of Torpedoman’s Mate 3rd Class, but I don’t remember him ever talking to me about his time in the Navy.
A little boy who ate Werther’s, drank Dr. Pepper and slept in a firetruck bed was probably too young for war stories.
I heard plenty of them later, though, when I worked for a newspaper.
The paper publishes a Veterans Day section every year. It was always my favorite thing to write, because I got to hear history from people who lived it.
I interviewed a prisoner of war, and I watched a tear roll down his cheek when he mentioned his buddies who didn’t come home.
I talked to man who fought hand to hand in Vietnam. I couldn’t print some of what he said.
My favorite professional interview was a talk with a man who parachuted onto Utah Beach in the darkness ahead of the D-Day invasion to carry out ship-to-shore fire control.
He volunteered before he knew a single detail.
The most personal war stories I’ve ever heard were shared at least three years ago.
I sat down at a table across from Pawpaw, my daddy’s daddy, a little while before he died.
I promised him I wouldn’t publish the details of his combat in the Korean War, and I will keep my promise.
I will say I watched him choke up a few times during our conversation, and he cried a little when he talked about the mail.
Pawpaw told me he didn’t get much mail while he was overseas, until he got a letter from a girl back home. She included her picture, and he sent a reply.
They continued to write.
He visited her when he came home.
They got married, and stayed together for 63 years.
The girl who’d written letters to the soldier decades before played dominoes between me and Pawpaw while he told me war stories.
There was fighting and fear. There were close calls and casualties.
I learned things I never knew about a man who taught me a lot about the world and how to live in it.
War changes people.
It visibly changes some people, and it changes others in ways unseen.
I was struck by how much Pawpaw said war changed him.
It forced him to grow up. It made him focus on what mattered. It led him to get right with God.
Pawpaw was part of something bigger than himself in the military, as all veterans are, and he knew it.
The war stories both of my grandpas lived never left them.
I guess such things never do, which is one reason I am thankful for every veteran who has served and those who still serve to keep us free.
Their service and sacrifices will never go unnoticed.
Every American owes an endless debt of gratitude, today and every day, to those who have put themselves in harm’s way to make sure the rest of us stay out of it.
It is a debt owed to every man and woman who has ever worn the uniform of the United States, at home or abroad.
We live free because they put service before self.
May we never forget the impact of their stories and their lives.