In Honor of My Father

Larry’s American Legion post and the Jewish War Veterans held a dinner Saturday to honor World War II veterans from our area. The event, attended by about 200 people, made me realize that no one had ever paid tribute my dad who was a veteran of the war. Today, in advance of Veterans Day on Wednesday, I’d like to recognize my father.

George David Petry was born in New Iberia, Louisiana, on October 31, 1907, the youngest son of Walter Elijah Petry and Adelaide David, who died of tuberculosis when my dad was three. The state of Louisiana didn’t require birth certificates at that point, and the Certificate of Baptism issued four and one-half months after his birth gives the date as October 30, but we always celebrated it on Halloween.

Quick sidebar: Raina Kelley wrote in the October 26 Newsweek complaining that the NYTimes was being insensitive to Michelle Obama for the coverage of her slave heritage. I agree and disagree with Ms. Kelley, which is the subject of another entry. Among other things she mentions that South Carolina lost her father’s birth certificate. She attributes this omission to its indifference or downright hostility to African Americans. At least her father had a birth certificate at some point. The state of Louisiana didn’t institute such irrelevant pieces of paper as birth and death certificates until seven years after my father was born. Anyone who arrived in the world before July 1914 had to rely on church records, or family Bibles, or affidavits from neighbors and family members to prove date and place of birth for purposes of Social Security or military service and so forth.

Even though Grandfather Walter was born a slave, he was educated and insisted on education for his children. The family didn’t have money, but Daddy went to a Catholic elementary school, one of the many established all over the South by then Mother, now Saint, Katherine Drexel for African American and Native American children.

Daddy said that there were only three high schools for blacks in the entire state of Louisiana when he was a boy, so my grandfather sent him to New York. Daddy attended DeWitt Clinton High School where he played football. After graduation, he enrolled at Columbia University. The Depression intervened and Daddy dropped out. He worked at various jobs throughout the 1930s. He and my mom married in 1938 – actually they were married earlier, but that’s another story. (See At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry.)

Things probably would have gone along much as they were if Hitler hadn’t been marching through Europe, with Hirohito making similar moves in the Pacific. Anyway Daddy received his notice from the Armed Forces Induction Station ordering him to report to the reception center at Camp Upton, New York, on July 24, 1943. He was 35 years old. I don’t have many details about his military service. Like most of “the greatest generation,” he didn’t talk about much about that period of his life. When I sent for his records, I received a Certificate of Military Service accompanied by a letter saying that a fire at the records center in 1973 destroyed the major portion of records for Army personnel for 1912 through 1959.

Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together from documents that he left and the few comments he did make. He never saw combat because the Army decided he had “uncorrectable vision” (his words). I’ve often thought that he was the source of my disabling eyesight, but I don’t know for certain. He spent the bulk of his service behind a desk in Washington D.C. and environs, while most of the rest of his platoon died in the Philippines.

He was serving at Camp Lee, Virginia, when he was promoted to sergeant on May 27, 1944. He was recommended for a letter of commendation in February 1945 for his participation in a training film project because of his “attitude, deportment and energetic co-operation.” He was discharged from Camp Pickett, Virginia, on October 4, 1945.

Daddy made it clear that his time in the military was not happy. When he served, it was, of course, still a segregated army. Being stationed south of the Mason-Dixon line probably made him relive much of his childhood in heavily segregated South. It must have grated just being stationed in places named after Confederate officers.

Daddy saw that German POWs received better treatment than the black American soldiers who were fighting and dying for their country. He reviled the Germans, though I think he may have had other reasons for his antipathy. I remember thinking that he never said negative things about the Japanese, but my guess is that he was not exposed to any Japanese POWs. Plus, the Japanese received far worse treatment than the Germans did, not as bad as the black American citizens, but second-class treatment nonetheless.

As time went on, Daddy became more and more disillusioned about the need for combat. He and my mother never spoke out against Vietnam, but they both opposed Johnson’s policies. Toward the end of his life, Daddy turned to me more than once, with the most painful expression on his face and asked, “Why do people still fight wars?” He knew full well I couldn’t answer, but it was a question that he had to ask. He asked it again just a few days before he died.

He drew his last breath on December 7, 2000, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I was not surprised.

So even though it wasn’t the best chapter in your life, thank you, Daddy, for your service.

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