My Father: Captain Robert Demarest USAAF
When I was born, my father was six years out of the service, having flown C-47s, the work horse of World War II. The black and white photographs from his war-time scrapbook were difficult for me to relate to since my father was no longer a man in uniform piloting a military cargo plane. The father I knew dressed in a suit and tie weekdays driving off daily selling televisions and radios to small ma and pa appliance stores in southern New England. On weekends he donned blue jeans, old penny loafers and t-shirt to work in the yard. And yet as a young boy, I played out the heroics of people who were like my father, all playing a part to win the war. Television and movies reminded us how great America was and what it did to help save the world from all that was evil. “Truth, justice and the American way” rang the chant from the television series Superman. The greatest generation had come together to free the world of tyranny and America was now on its way to prosperity and progress. I was witness to and beneficiary of so many of these changes. Ours was a nation of heroes, celebrating their achievement on a weekly basis.
My friend’s fathers were all veterans. None of them, to my recollection, talked about their war experiences. Only later did I learn of a friend’s father who spent two years as a prisoner of war in Japan. Dickie’s dad, in spite of what he went through, was the funniest of all our dads. As a young boy I asked my father basic questions about his war experiences. I got few answers other than his love of flying. I only recently learned from my sister that in high school, he pocketed bus fare and walked to school, saving the money for flying lessons -such was his passion to learn to fly.
Over the years I’ve learned that most WW II veterans rarely open up. Even the women dismiss discussion of their roles though it had less to do with trauma and more about drawing any attention to themselves be it even remotely seen as self-centered or egotistical. “We were only doing our job.” They did their jobs and then moved on with their lives. We didn’t know that in some cases, for both men and women, it was a way to push away the pain.
“Army” was the game my friends and I often played. We emulated the heroes we saw on television, the troops who bravely conquered the Germans and the Japanese week after week. We were boys in suburbia living in our fantasy world made safe by the sacrifices of our parents. Toy manufacturers of the day provided an assortment of WW II era toy guns and accoutrement (not to mention a few relics our fathers brought back from the war like my father’s canvas satchel). With our realistic bolt-action rifles, battery operated machine guns and toy grenades, we fought the imaginary bad guys for that small piece of ground, usually the dirt pile in the empty lot next to my house.
We boys all wanted to be the hero. Sometimes it meant pretend dying. We took turns getting shot and rolling to a lifeless stop at the bottom of the mound. A hero, dead or alive, was still a hero. But the safer world we were growing up in was a far cry from the bloody fields of war our parents had fought. Television and movies depicting those actions sanitized it for all of us. I now understand why my father couldn’t watch them. It came nowhere near some of the situations he encountered I later found out. For us, as kids, “dying” was simply a ten second count and we were right back in the mix. And at the end of the day, we kids had hot baths, home-cooked meals and warm, clean beds awaiting us.
When the movie Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998, audiences were shocked by the realism and horrors of war. Many World War II veterans refused to see it for fear of reliving a past they’d long buried. Had my father been alive, he’d have been one of those. As one WW II veteran said to me after seeing the movie: “The only thing wrong with it was that the guy you shared a fox hole was not someone you knew. We dove into any hole to escape death,” he said.”And if that guy next to you got killed, as horrible as it was, I couldn’t be sad for him. I was just thankful it wasn’t me.”
My father, like all pilots going off to war, wanted to fly fighter planes. That’s where the imagined glory lay. Instead he qualified to fly C-47s, the cargo version of the then popular DC-3 airline. He was stationed in India where his squadron flew the dangerous missions over the Himalayan mountains into China referred to as “The Hump”. It was also referred to as the “aluminum trail” for the scattered wreckage of crashed airplanes. The ceiling for those planes was 17,000 feet. The mountain peaks averaged over 20,000 feet.
Their job was ferrying supplies to the struggling Chinese Army and civilians. He talked little of his missions except to tell me when I was then in high school, he’d returned to the base and upon exiting the plane, noticed the tail section had been shot up. He never saw the Japanese fighter plane. How many times did he escape death? I will never know. It was war after all. People stopped counting.
When the idea to paint this tribute to World War II’s “greatest generation”, in my head, my father was instantly part of it. I recalled a small framed black and white photo of him sitting on his desk in our den and knew of all war time photos of him, this was the one to paint. In the tiny photo, my father sits in the cockpit, left hand seat, the pilot’s seat, sunglasses on, turning back to face the camera, smiling. It wasn’t a “look at me” expression, but a “let’s get this over with, we have a job to do” pose. For a boy who snuck in flying lessons, my father was living his dream. He talked lovingly of the C-47, the “Gooney Bird” the “Dakota”. A small,hand-painted plastic model of a C-47 sat on his desk next to this photograph until the day he died.
As I got older, my father talked a little more about his war experiences, but mostly they were anecdotal and funny. He would laugh about the crazy things that happened like the fellow pilot who built a fire in his cockpit for warmth or the sniper living in his hut in India who spent most of his time drunk. This man’s skill never abandoned him when one day in a drunken haze, he killed a cobra that had entered their hut, a single shot between its eyes.
And then one evening when I was a senior in high school, my father told us a story that had spooked and haunted him for years. A fellow pilot and friend who had completed his mission quota and was awaiting orders to go home, filled in for a fellow pilot who’d become ill. The flight was routine and without incident. Upon landing, he parked the C-47 at the far end of the field but on the short ride to the hanger, a Japanese fighter plane strafed the runway, killing him and wounding several of his crew. My father never spoke of the dark side of war after that.
In 2009- 2010, I visited Arlington National Cemetery on several occasions researching a book about its rich history. I witnessed the daily procession of caissons rolling through the 600-plus acres of the mostly forested hills and valleys of the cemetery. Laid to rest were the old veterans and the newly fallen. Arlington National Cemetery, by it’s very existence, is all about remembering heroes, remembering the fallen. They say it is always hardest for those left behind, so we find ways to honor those we’ve lost. It is for those no longer with us we grieve. But it is for ourselves, not the soldiers, sailors, marines or air force, we create the moniker: “heroes”. The Tomb of the Unknowns honors all those who are ‘known but to god” -the heroes not to be forgotten for their ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.
My father was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 1989 with full military honors. Though he’d left the service right after the war, it was his wish to be remembered for it by having his final resting place be in those hallowed grounds. He would never had called himself a hero. He did what was asked of him, just like everybody else who’d participated in that war.