This column appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Salem Statement, the alumni magazine of Salem State University.
People see similarities between my father and me. I see them, too. But there’s a big difference. My father is a veteran. I am not. One day in 1943, when he was 17, he enlisted in the Navy. One day in 1972, when I was 17, I enrolled at Salem State College.
My father dropped out of Malden High to enlist during World War II, leaving behind a loving family and his life in Maplewood Square, Malden. Subsequent destinations would be Boston, Philadelphia, Nova Scotia, London, Normandy, and Cherbourg.
He returned in 1946, landing in Philadelphia aboard the USS Donnell, a destroyer escort that had been towed across the Atlantic from France after suffering catastrophic damage at sea. At noon on May 3, 1944, about 450 miles southwest of Cape Clear, Ireland, a U-boat spied the Donnell leading a convoy during the early stages of a military buildup that would culminate as D-Day. A torpedo was launched and the Donnell was hit at the stern, bursting her depth charges into flames and taking the lives of a third of her crew. She was twisted and contorted from the explosion, but she did not sink, staying afloat because her hull had been assembled in sealed-off sections. The wounded ship was towed to Cherbourg, France, where she used her generators to deliver electricity to war-ravaged Cherbourg. A headline in the local paper announced, “American Ingenuity Rises to New Heights.”
My father was assigned to the Donnell when it was docked in Cherbourg. Like the ship, he too had survived an ordeal — the invasion of Normandy. At the age of 18 he was one of the Allied invaders landing at Utah Beach despite mine-riddled ocean waves and relentless gunfire. He described the approach as a helpless feeling because mines had been placed across the bay and the Allies had no idea when or if they would strike one. He said the landing craft next to his did strike a mine and that he saw the craft split in half. “You could see the guys falling into the water,” he described. “After that I heard a clang. All I could think was that we hit a mine but it didn’t go off.”