December 7th, 1941, a day which would live in infamy.
Thus began the biggest challenge of the lives of the people of that generation termed the “Greatest Generation,” and one of the largest challenges the United States ever faced.
Like most men of his generation, my (paternal) grandfather signed up to serve, joining the United States Navy after the attack. I don’t know a whole lot about my grandfather. I never met him in person, only talked to him over the phone when I was still a boy. He died in 1997 when I was 9. In many ways he was not an example of a man that I want to emulate. I am told that he was obese in his later life. He was a diabetic that still refused to eat properly and take care of himself – no doubt this hastened his death. He divorced my grandmother (when it was uncommon, in the 50’s) and was not a very active part of my father and uncle’s lives.
In his younger days however, he was the epitome of what a man should be – resolved, a pillar of strength supporting his country (at the right time) and people, and a dogged survivor. I would venture that scarce few men of my generation have a quarter of his strength at that time.
My grandfather provides me with two examples – a man at his best that I should strive to be, and a man at his worst that I should eschew.
A veteran of the Battle of Leyte Gulf in late 1944, my grandfather was stationed on the miniature aircraft carrier, USS St. Lo. Originally called Midway, it was considered bad luck in naval tradition to rename a vessel, and its fate in the battle seemed to prove it, as St. Lo was the first major vessel to be sunk by a Japanese Kamikaze attack.
My grandfather, aboard the ship at the time, went down with it. He was stuck at sea for several days days in shark-infested waters before he was finally rescued, losing a lot of weight in the process. You can find him on the roll call of survivors under the name Ralph C. Carpenter. I’m told that he was less than 100 pounds when he was found. Still, he was a lucky one, as 143 of his comrades on board died or went missing.
I seriously wonder how many men of my generation could live up to this example – to fight and survive the way that he did? How many of us would perish? When I originally wrote this, I thought I wouldn’t have a shot in hell, but I now realize that those thoughts were dangerous fatalism carried over from my old life, and that it is up to each and every one of us to build ourselves up, in body and mind, so that we would be able to survive. Men like my grandfather seem to be dinosaurs in this age, but there are plenty of valorous men still left, who would still serve with the same vigor and survivors’ grit. It is incumbent on us as men to try to follow that example.
It is this knowledge that I have his blood in my veins that is a personal inspiration to make myself better as a man. We of Generations X and Y are the grandchildren of men like this, and it is a true embarrassment that we’ve become so soft over the years, driven by an abundance of wealth and lack of self-discipline.
However these are learned traits, and it is also in our power to become like our grandfathers – bold and brave warriors in our everyday lives that fight for what we want, and survive the onslaught of our enemies, personal (including your biggest personal enemy – yourself), and national.
What I can learn from my grandfather is to not avoid service for the right cause, no matter what the cost of that may be. I believe this kind of fortitude among men that has been so lacking will be increasingly important in the future, as Year Zero radicals, not altogether dissimilar from the ones my grandfather and his generation heroically defeated, tighten their grip on our present civilization. We are the descendants of these great warriors. In my own case, I have my grandfather to look to, who in his best days, answered the call to action, and was one part in a great whole to destroy tyranny and radicalism.
The victory won by that generation now looks to be fleeting as we descend into a different kind of tyranny and a different kind of radicalism, but the challenges we face hearken back to the past, and call us to action, making their might more relevant than ever. If I don’t answer that call, I will have betrayed him, my own progress as a man, and my people.
It is in an uncertain present that we must draw from the strength of the past, and I thank my grandfather for providing me with such an excellent example.
Just to note so as not to slight him, my maternal grandfather also served, joining the Army Air Corps that would later become the USAF after the war, but he was stationed in the Aleutians and never saw action, hence why my paternal grandfather’s story is recalled with greater reverence on my part. He faced the greater hardship.
Read Lives of the Luminaries for more on building a hardened, resilient character like my grandfather’s.
Note: this article originally appeared in the archive on December 7th, 2013.