My dad—Jim Wallis Sr.—came to visit a few weeks ago. He’s 82 now but still does pretty well, traveling on his own to see his two grandsons in Washington, D.C. It was the typical yet wonderful grandpa week—going to see Luke’s second-grade class and Jack’s new preschool, watching Little League practice and the big Saturday game, checking out the new Sojourners office (he’s been to them all), and eating some special Mexican meals.
Having my father watch from the stands as I coached Luke’s baseball team felt nostalgic and warm when I recalled how he used to be my Little League baseball coach. I realized Luke wasn’t the only one who was glad to hear that he had done very well.
On Luke’s personal sharing day at school (all the kids have one), he brought his grandpa to “share.” When Luke told his classmates that his grandpa had been in the Navy during World War II, one kid asked who won the war. When they heard that we did, the class started cheering. (And what was the score?) Of course, at this age, they have almost no idea of what war really is.
Later in the week, I took the day off and we went to the World War II Memorial, now about two years old. It is the only major national memorial or monument in Washington, D.C, that my father hadn’t seen. And since I hadn’t yet visited it, we were both curious as to what the enormous project on the Mall would be like.
We thought the memorial was nice but not overly impressive. He liked seeing the names of all the Pacific islands he remembered as the junior engineering officer on a destroyer-minesweeper. His ship had been scheduled for the invasion of Japan, and high casualty rates were expected. Like many others, my father believed that the atomic bomb saved his life and made our family possible. His new bride, waiting at home, might otherwise have become a young widow.
THE MEMORIAL INCLUDES a comfortable stone bench in the shade, where we talked for a long time about those war years, his school days, and my parent’s first months and years of marriage, which were dramatically impacted by the war. Amazingly, he was commissioned in the Navy, graduated from the University of Michigan, and married all on the same day! The Navy was in a hurry to get fresh officers into the last days of the Pacific conflict, which ended only months after he was deployed. He became part of the mop-up operation after the Japanese surrender.
My father recalled the visit he made to Hiroshima, just weeks after the world’s first nuclear explosion in warfare had been detonated there. He was part of a two-man team, surveying the impact of the bomb on major structures such as factories. The devastation, he told me, was like nothing he had ever seen or imagined. He described how the nuclear explosion had sucked out all the air in the area, and when it rushed back in everything was flattened, even huge factories.
He admitted that he had not been sympathetic to the Japanese after they had attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and especially after they and their German allies had killed so many of his friends. Along with many of his fellow soldiers, he felt they deserved the atomic bomb—though at the time, he said, few of them fully understood what it was.
But then he saw Hiroshima. As the two young Americans walked through the flattened rubble, they passed by a small pile of bricks that had been fashioned into a makeshift shelter. Suddenly, a little girl appeared from behind a wall. My father remembered her as about 5 years old, with dirty tattered clothes falling off her body. As far as they could tell, she was all alone with no one to take care of her.
As he talked about the child, he seemed to remember her vividly, as if it were yesterday. And he recalled the feelings that welled up inside him: She was just a little child, none of this was her fault, and she had nothing to do with it. They knew she would die soon, if only from the exposure to all that radiation. My dad, an 82-year-old war veteran, began to cry as he remembered a day more than 60 years ago.
“That’s war,” he said, “and that’s why I hate it.” He still believes that we had to defend ourselves from a direct attack in World War II. But why did they drop that bomb on civilian targets, he asked, cities with no military significance? They could have dropped them on a deserted island to make the point.
My dad has opposed every war since then and is especially upset about the war in Iraq. They just lie about it, and it was totally unnecessary, he said, as his tears turned to anger.
My dad is part of what former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw named the “greatest generation,” and I know two little boys who, after a week’s visit, think he is the greatest grandpa. We all missed him after he left for home and wish that we lived closer. Luke gave thanks for him in his prayers before bed, and so did I.
But my dad doesn’t like the direction his country has gone since his generation has retired. Now he often shakes his head while he watches CNN. “How do they get away with it?” he asks me on the phone.
Sitting with him at the memorial, it was moving to see how this war veteran has so turned against war and still feels the emotions that senseless suffering brings. Most of those who run our wars now are not veterans of any war and have little to say about the deaths that occur every day.
I wonder what would happen to them if a 5-year-old girl came out from behind the rubble of war to stop them in their tracks. But most of them never get close enough to the rubble to see her.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.