Daddy Goes To War | William Thomas Online | William Thomas

Daddy Goes To War

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De Soto Sky-View cab


By William Thomas


Mother tried to be strong. But when the taxicab pulled away with Dad inside wearing his best dress uniform, tears spilled down her face. We weren't supposed to see. But no one could look away from such a troubling sight.

"When is daddy coming home?” baby Carla asked after the yellow cab turned the corner.

"Not for a long time I’m afraid," our mommy – mother – said through sniffles, revealing too much. She tried to clear her throat of whatever was sticking in it. And could not. In a husky voice she explained, "Daddy's going to the other side of the ocean."

"To the beautiful islands with palm trees and hula girls?" my big brother wanted to know. "With bare bosoms and grass skirts?" 

My brother and me exchanged smirks, trying to imagine bare-bosomed island girls – they were called vahines under the pictures – swinging hips dressed in grass. I started to ask if Dad was bringing our lawn mower, but kept my lips zipped. Sometimes people laugh at smart alecks. And I was guessing this was not one of those times.

"The other way, honey. To Germany. And you leave my National Geographics alone, you hear me?"

"Are there germs in Germany?" My big brother could change any subject lickety-split.

Mother almost smiled. "Yes, David. I'm afraid there are some germs in Germany."

"That makes peoples sick?" Carla was fascinated by this unexpected information.

"That make people dead." Mom covered her mouth. But it was too late.

"Is Dad coming home?" I jumped in, stunned by the notion. Like at the pool when you spring off the diving board and do a cannon ball in the deep end. When you hit the water, it explodes. Which is neato. Then you go down and down and down with chlorine burning your eyes. Which isn't. My eyes were stinging.

My mom turned away so I wouldn't see her own peepers. But when she looked at us again, they were still wet.

"Maybe," she said, wiping her cheek with the back of her hand. For just a second  so fleeting quick I almost missed it  she looked really old. That shook me up. Mothers are never supposed to be that old. 

"Why just 'maybe'?" I demanded when she was back.

"Because lots of people don't want him to come home."

Our mom, who Dad said was like God's mother on Earth, seemed calmer now. Almost resigned. “They..."

"German peoples?” little Carla interjected.


"Why do they?” 

"Because they don't like when he drops bombs on them."

"Daddy does? Why does he drop bombs on peoples?"

"It's 'people', dear. And he hasn't yet."

"Why does he want to? Are they bad peoples?"

"No they are not. Most of them are like us. Families living in cities and countryside who just want their children to grow up safely and happily. And free.” She paused. "Or maybe not so free. Not when so many of those sieg heil-ing parents and swastika-waving Hitler Youth attended Hitler's huge rallies. Before the war they started."

"And the German childrens want to grow up and get married and go to the hopspital and get their own babies,” Carla extrapolated from ’safe’ and ‘happy’, mangling diction and ignoring what she sensed to be a dangerous detour. She didn't know Hitler from Schmitler. But she did know what little girls were supposed to do when they got big. And where babies came from. 

Which was fine by me. I agreed with Carla that this conversation was veering into territory where monsters lived.

Mother knelt and looked at her only daughter eye-to-eye. "Yes, Carla. Many of those little German girls want to grow up and find good husbands and have children of their own. Just like you someday."

I was trying not to ask how bad army men in Germany could be good husbands and fathers, or whether God’s German mothers were as sacred as God’s American mothers, when my little sis scrunched up her face.

"I don't understand!" she wailed. "Why is daddy going away so far to drop bombs on the childrens and blow up the nice houses with their mommies inside?"

Mother stood up and walked over to the window and looked out. "To win the war," she told the old oak tree in the front yard. The one without any leaves. "To stop the war."

"To end the killing," I said.

"Yes. That's right, John," mother said, thanking me with her eyes and using my grown-up name.

"Dad's going to kill little kids to stop the killing," my brother's voice said from far away.

"Now David, it's not quite like that."

Dresden bombing

"What is it like?" I said, maybe too loud. I was scared for my dad. In all kinds of ways. "Didn't God say, 'Thou shalt not kill?'"


"John! Just because your father is away doesn't mean you can talk back to your mother. And leave God out of it. I’m sure He's disgusted with the whole thing. I mean, with Herr Hitler and his Nazis." (She pronounced it, Notsies.)


"So, why?" Dave insisted.

"War is a bad thing." Mother looked at each one of us in turn. "People get hurt in wars started by arrogant, quarrelsome leaders unrestrained by a Constitution like ours.”

"Try Prescott Bush and the Harriman Bank," I thought I heard Dave mutter. He emphasized, try

“Then we have to defend our way of life,” our mom continued, as if she hadn’t heard.

"What's 'our way of life'?" little Carla wanted to know.

"Stop interrupting,” Dave interrupted again.

Carla started to cry. But when she looked at our expressions, she stopped.

"Our way of life means being able to buy whatever we want – whatever we need. And drive our cars and go wherever we want, and see whoever we want to. It also means we can question our own government. Though not right now, of course."

Mother was still addressing each one of us all together. Don’t ask how she did that. How moms do that. They just do.

"Some folks like Mr. Hitler don't like that we have these freedoms and prosperities. And then otherwise good peoples – people – get bombed because they support his war. Or work for the war. Or they didn't get their children and grandparents out of the cities when they had the chance."

"So it's their fault they're getting bombed?"

"Why, yes, David. In a way. You could say that." Mother looked away, searching for more words. Grown-ups always need more words when they’re trying to believe what they're saying.

"The childrens fault?” tiny Carla was quick as Boxer. Except Boxer can't talk. He's our dog. He was outside. Probably peeing on that tree.

"The parents' fault," her mommy corrected. "For wanting the war. For allowing the war. For not stopping it."

"Are we going to get bombed?" Dave looked earnest and worried.

"No, darling. We are definitely not going to be bombed. That's why daddy – your dad – is going over there. To make sure we don't get bombed."


"The German planes can't fly this far, stupid," I told my brother. "And if they did, we would shoot them down. I will shoot them down. After I join the U.S. Army Air Corps and fly P-51s."

"I don't know about any P-41s. But don't call your brother stupid," mother admonished. Another word I learned later. When I started to write all this down.

"Okay, he's not stupid," I allowed, watching my big brother relax a pair of big fists. "But he doesn't know fuck-all about airplanes. And for your information, mother, it's P-..."

"JOHN CHARLES SMITH! DON'T YOU EVER SAY THAT WORD AGAIN!" Lightning shot from my mother's eyes. Which made sense because her whole face was stormy in ways I had never seen before. "I don't know where you learned that word and I do not want to know. But you can unlearn it right now. Just because your father's..."

"Yes, ma’am," I said real fast before she could tell me to surrender my war books. "Sorry I won't use that word anymore I promise.”

Then, with all the insolent self-righteousness a 16-year-old could muster, I threw in to save face: "I know saying bad words is much more worse than blowing up little kids."

The living room got so quiet the walls started to complain.

"That is quite enough, young man.” Mother had entered her no-nonsense, you are cruisin' for a bruisin' stage. To my surprise – maybe all of us – she sighed. "Someday you will understand."

"About the war?"

"About all wars."

Now it was my turn to turn away. The big clock over the kitchen arch said 10 o'clock. Or almost.

"I doubt that," I said over my shoulder as I left the room. 

71st anniversary of Dresden fire bombing

Author’s Note

Dreams don't make sense and yet they do. This one has so many layers and resonances, says so many things that are never voiced, I’m still catching delusions and allusions every time I read through it.

    For the record, I wasn't born until a couple years after my dad came home from a war that had punished him with overtime, flying toilet paper and scotch to shitty thirsty brass on tropical airstrips that would have been paradise without all the wreckage and a fiancée back in Coronado. 

    But I do remember him coming by my grandmother’s house on Briarwood Street (she was taking care of me after my mother died), before going away again. He was in uniform under his brown leather navy flying jacket and seemed preoccupied. When he kissed me goodbye on the cheek, his whiskers scratched.

    I knew about the Second World War. But nothing about this place called “Korea". How long my war dad might be absent was beyond the reckoning of a small boy who missed his mother. It never occurred to me that he might not come home. That flying patrol planes might make people so mad they would shoot at him.

    Fortunately for both of us, they didn’t. But angry Japanese machine gunners did shoot at my father's flying boat in the Pacific, when he landed his lumbering PBY in an enemy-held lagoon to pick up the pilot from a ditched Corsair. 

    Naval aviators are better than pilots. And my dad was the best. (I’d flown with him in Cessna taildraggers before I could see over the panel, and would again after he bought the 310.) I never understood why the navy didn’t let him fly fighters until years later when my kid sister told me that the growing stridency of my instructor-dad's pleas and protests had pissed off too many admirals. 

    Still, I thought that was pretty cool. How he went through that savage, bloody business without killing anyone and instead, saved the life of that young bare-chested Marine grinning back at his rescuers in a glossy black-and-white photo.


A4 Skyhawk about to trap

I’m not sure what triggered this latest dreamstate that came this morning just before the veil into wakefulness parted. Though it's true I had watched "The Right Stuff" last night, clicking the remote to replay each violent trap of an A-4D on a postage-stamp flight deck, over and over... 

    When the navy selected me for flight training, they were quick to bend the minimum height requirement once they saw I would fit into the cockpit of a Skyhawk. 

    Nicknamed, “Scooter,” though not for that airplane, I'd soloed a Cessna when I was 16. And my superiors were especially thrilled when I passed the stiff written exams and rigorous flight physical. Combat losses of navy aviators to hit-and-run MiGs, SAMs and unprecedented walls of ground fire were devastating carrier air wings, where peacetime fatality rates were already high. Of course, no one mentioned these things.

    Deeply conflicted over mounting civilian casualties, I was on the brink of realizing my childhood dream when I went home for a visit and ”saw" my entire family immolated by napalm dropped from a navy jet. Finally acknowledging that I would soon be dropping jellied gasoline on families not unlike my own, I resigned my commission. 

*     *     *

    These thoughts and feelings inform this morning's dreamstate, whose theme has been repeated in outlandishly vivid variations since the day I threw my coveted orders to Pensecola in the trash. (Who was I kidding? I had long sensed something inviolate was being desecrated when bombs were hung under wings.)

    Carla, David and their imaginary mom had waltzed into my head before I came fully awake and told me to take notes. Which I did. They knew that I really had walked out of my Michigan home after clashing with my dad over the senseless slaughter in Southeast Asia. 

    “We would rather you came home in a box than not go to Vietnam,” he told me.

    “My country right or wrong,” he said. 

    “You’re a fool,” I blurted, shocking us both. It was the first time I had ever spoken back to my father. 

    Like him, after Pearl Harbor I would have gladly flown cranky gullwing Corsairs against the tinderbox Japanese Zeroes, just as I’d signed up for NROTC to avenge those communist PT boat attack on USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. 

“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression”, headlines screamed on Aug. 5, 1964.) That really raised my American ire!

    Only later did the Pentagon Papers reveal the incident used by the United States to start a long and costly shooting war with North Vietnam never took place. Just as Robert B. Stinnett, winner of 10 U.S. Navy battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation, had earlier documented how the secretly tracked attack on Pearl Harbor had been provoked and facilitated to rally a nation to war. Just like 9/11.

    My letter to the Navy Department was the end of my knights-of-the-air dogfighting fantasies. Today, I almost regret failing to explain what I had come to understand in 1970 and has held true ever since: that a willingness to defend one’s family, neighborhood and home soil should never be mistaken for the willingness to grant unquestioning loyalty to media-manufactured imposters whose PNAC and AIPAC-run administrations of belligerent conquest they so briefly front. 

    Respect, I still believe, must be earned. 


    Handing over your conscience to an unassailable authority with a lethal agenda is always risky and often disastrous, as the destruction of biblical lands and populations, and the ongoing epidemic of DU babies and American veteran suicides attests. 

    But my father would not have agreed with any of this. He would never have accepted that Prescott Bush and Standard Oil should have been tried for treason (Roosevelt tried), or that Nixon and both Bushes urgently merited prosecution for their egregious war crimes under the Nuremberg Principles and the Geneva Convention. He’d been born into a time of outrage, fear and vengeance that accepted atomic attacks on civilian populations and the firebombing of hundreds of other cities. Including every house, hut, town and urban center in North Korea

    Sound familiar? Just look how so-called civilized Christian nations today are okay with drones and death squads and “rubblized” neighborhoods. And very much opposed to the millions of survivors displaced throughout the Americas, Central Asia and the Middle East. Partly because they aren’t white like us, and therefore more expendable. But mostly because every generation seems to have to learn from scratch. And not enough young men and women on all sides are saying no to the posturing politicians and generals who stay home.

William Thomas 

USNR (Resigned)

Dec. 8, 2018  

Doolittle’s Eighth Air Force Bombed Berlin


Writer’s Notebook

Having spent more than six-decades practicing my craft, I found it somewhat disconcerting to violate the rules of “good writing” in this piece – repeating words, inventing words, switching tenses, mangling grammar – in order for Carla, Dave, Mother and John to express themselves in their own voice. In “real” day-to-day encounters, few of us converse with a copy of the AP Style Book open in our hands. 

Thank goodness. 


Happily, in Steering The Craft, consummate wordmaster, Ursula K. LeGuinn says it's all right to break the writing rules – as long as we've learned them through diligent practice. She also said to never use the “f” word. But, dear departed Ursula, what if one of my characters does?


“RESIST MUCH, OBEY LITTLE”   发件人     William Thomas 2023