Ever come across an old family photo you’d never seen, even though you’d thought you’d seen them all? Maybe you overlooked it while paging through an album, or a relative you have little contact with handed it to you. You’re surprised and delighted by the find.
I have three on this page I’d like to share.
The first shows my dad the Coast Guard radioman at a ship’s gun in World War II. It was in an album of his service photos I’d looked through a few times over the years – and missed until recently.
Someone had written on the back of the small black-and-white print: “Battle stations!” But it’s surely staged. Dad and his unidentified shipmate look amused under their helmets, as if they’re just posing for the camera. There’s nothing to indicate they’re at sea. Nazi Germany had surrendered by the time Dad, at eighteen, sailed into the North Atlantic, so there was no enemy threat. The patrol frigates he served aboard collected weather data and could be called on to rescue fliers whose planes ditched or crashed.
It cracks me up to see Dad kidding around like that.
Which ship was the photo taken on? It could have been either the USS Abilene or the USS Sheboygan, both of which were based at Argentia, Newfoundland, while Dad was on them in 1945-46. The two Tacoma-class frigates had the same armament. It appears the gun he’s standing at is an Oerlikon 20 mm cannon, of which each ship had nine.
Why didn’t I just ask Dad? To my regret, I never asked him about his Coast Guard service. By the time I was interested, it was too late. Alzheimer’s had eaten away his memory for years, until he died in 2004.
The second photo shows my Aunt Sally with her newborn son, Nicky. Twenty years after it was snapped, on the Fourth of July 1969, Nicky arrived in Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot. He never got a chance to fly in combat. Just eleven days later, he died from a training accident involving a grenade.
Sally was the first wife of my dad’s older brother Louie, an Army Air Forces ground crewman in England during World War II. He and Sally had another son and were divorced while Nicky was in grade school. Both remarried, and Sally had a daughter by her second husband.
I wrote a book about what happened to my cousin in Vietnam, Tragedy at Chu Lai, published five years ago. The daughter, Nicky’s half-sister, gave me the photo while I was promoting the book in Malvern, Pennsylvania, where Nicky grew up. I’d never seen it before. I wish I’d had it for the book. It’s something to see Nicky, a fun-loving practical joker, as a baby.
His father died in 1997, his mother in 2001.
The last photo shows another one of Dad’s older brothers, Frank. It was probably taken soon after he was drafted into the Army in April 1941, eight months before the Pearl Harbor attack brought America into the war. I have other pictures of him in uniform, but none where he looks this young – and wistful. He was twenty-one at the time.
Frank went to Panama as a medic, then to the War Department psychiatric hospital on Long Island, Mason General, where he met the Women’s Army Corps technician who became his wife. He visited Dad at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center in Chester County just about every week, and died two years ahead of his only surviving brother. (There had been six brothers in all.)
The picture of Frank was in an album of Aunt Sally’s that her daughter gave me.
So, old photos newly discovered can conjure a fresh appreciation. I’m lucky to have found a few that did that.