Merritt: Grateful, humbled by sacrifices made by those like my dad, from the Greatest Generation

Merritt: Grateful, humbled by sacrifices made by those like my dad, from the Greatest Generation
Edward Ciesielski, father of Prime columnist Dolly Merritt, served three tours of duty in the Army. (Courtesy photo)

They were called “The Greatest Generation,” the soldiers who fought in World War II.

Every Memorial Day, my thoughts turn increasingly to one of the “greats” — my father, who fought in that war.


Since I know nothing about his experiences, this past holiday — honoring our veterans — has instilled in me a need to know more about my dad, who died of a heart attack at the age of 42. (He is buried at The Baltimore National Cemetery, as are many veterans who died after the war at a young age.)

My father was a quiet man. During the short time we had together — a nine-year period from the time he finished his military service when I was 3 till he passed away when I was 12 — little was said about his time “overseas.” (He had served three stints in the Army, having been drafted back into the service shortly after I was born, stationed in Honolulu when he was 32 years old.)

Occasionally, when he drank a few extra beers, he might mention his Army buddies and every soldier’s fears while in a fox hole, but little else was ever said.

My father’s patriotism was evidenced on his bicep by a tattooed purple-blue and pinkish-red American flag and eagle, a symbolism most often exhibited by young soldiers who had later regrets — as he did — when tattoos fell out of favor for a time.

More patriotism was shown every “Decoration Day,” as we called it. My family would walk to a nearby park, joining our neighbors who had gathered there to commemorate the special day set aside for veterans. Many wore bright red poppy flowers—often made of paper-- to honor the fallen. In contrast to the lively color which I was excited to wear, I became conscious of the solemnity of the service Though I was young, I felt the soberness that surrounded me.

As a child living in Baltimore city, between two major thoroughfares, it wasn’t uncommon for tractor trailers and other large trucks to backfire, causing a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to react. I witnessed with alarm that disorder once referred to as “shell shock.”

Sadly, as the years passed, the memorial events seemed to ebb, but as the wars in Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan prevailed — bringing their toll on human life — we, ultimately, became increasingly cognizant of the sacrifices of so many men and women.

Recently, at the end of the televised Memorial Day recognition in D.C., I was reminded — once again — of my father’s service and decided to do a little searching around my home.

I found a metal box that contained his three Honorable Discharge papers and other military information. I discovered that he had received a Good Conduct Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with a Bronze Star, and a World War II Victory Medal.

Whenever I think about the young men and women who are separated from their families, I’m also reminded of a stack of letters — tied neatly together by a ribbon — that was stored in a special place by my mother.

The airmail envelopes with their red and blue stripes around the periphery included letters, written by my father, that had blocked out words — a precaution by the military — to erase information that may have indicated my father’s military location.

I read the first letter in which my dad expressed his thoughts about missing my mother and their new baby. For some reason, I never read the rest of them and thought they were stashed away in a safety deposit box. Several years later, when I looked for them, they weren’t there or anywhere after having searched closets and drawers to no avail.

Several moves later, I still haven’t found the letters and I’m deeply regretful that I never read all them. Perhaps I would have learned more about my father’s feelings, his desperate desire to come home, or how my mother managed living alone and caring for an infant.

Occasionally, she would talk about her fears during wartime “blackouts” that required darkened streets, pulled down shades, and huddling alone with a baby in her arms.


She also described the joy in the streets when the war ended, with people cheering and hugging one another up and down the city blocks.

I’ll never know the true sacrifices of my father and all the men and women who have enabled us to enjoy so many freedoms, but I am grateful and humbled by their strength.

From now on, I’ll remember to stop a veteran to thank him or her for their service.

And I thank you, Dad, and all the veterans who share heaven with you.