Thursday, November 10, 2011

When Football Stars Become Real American Heroes

My father, Dan Hill, Jr., was also known as 'Tiger'. For his fiery play on the football field back in 1936-1938 when he played center and middle linebacker (they played 60 minutes back then) for the undefeated, untied and unscored-upon Duke University 'Iron Duke' Blue Devils.

Imagine that.  Back then, Duke University was associated more with prominence in college football than in basketball, by a long shot.  The young school, started only 12 years earlier in 1924 in Durham, North Carolina, was coached by the legendary Wallace Wade and was regularly in the top 10 along with other prominent names such as Pittsburgh, Alabama, Southern Cal and Notre Dame under Knute Rockne.

He was an All-American and is now enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in recognition of being the real football star that he was.

His generation, our fathers and grandfathers, did not lead the life of leisure that many, or even most of us, have.  Even this desultory recession that just seems to want to linger on doesn't even come remotely close in orbit to the Great Economic Depression those guys and our moms and grandmoms suffered through for 10 long years before they were plunged into the largest and most terrible and horrific world war the world has ever known.

With this year's Veterans Day upon us, we thought we would try to fathom the sacrifice men like my father and millions of others made to insure our freedoms in this great democratic republic called America. We many times take America for granted that it will 'always be here' doing what it always has done:  allow a prosperous free people to pursue their hopes and dreams in life as they choose.

Dad served on the USS Lexington, the massive aircraft carrier as a lieutenant commander in the artillery division. Just to show you how little Dad ever talked about his war experience, which was never, consider this:

It took a meeting with John Hanford of Charlotte in 2002 for me to have ever known the circumstances and even the place where dad was burned over 70% of his body when the Lexington was hit by a Japanese plane.

In 2002, I was helping then-US Senate Candidate Elizabeth Dole on her election campaign against Erskine Bowles, specifically on policy papers and debate preparation.

One day, we met in Charlotte at the home of her older brother, John Hanford and his wife, Bunny.  John had been at Duke when Dad was playing on the football team and knew him socially as well from the on-campus and fraternity scene.

As we were speaking, Mr. Hanford said:  ‘You know, I was on the Lexington when your dad was evacuated after we were hit.’

‘I did not know that’, I said, mainly because no one ever told us the details of what happened, when and why especially since Dad had never done so.

All we had ever seen in our den closet was a small case where Dad had his 2 Purple Hearts stored. They are quite the sight to see and very striking when you first open the case. But as a kid, you just can never grasp the context or the enormity of what you might be holding in your hands unless someone stops and tells you point-blank.

John went into some room of his house and brought out a scrapbook of sorts and pulled out a map of the Philippines where The Battle of Leyte Gulf was fought in 1944.

‘Right there, where that X is, you see it?  That is where we were when your dad was hit by flaming oil from a Japanese plane that hit the tower in which he was directing artillery fire.’

Inside of my head I was thinking to myself: ‘Mr. Hanford, are you telling me that my father who had been a college football star and an assistant AD and chief football recruiter at Duke University was trained; shipped out; placed in command of the artillery unit on the largest carrier the United States had left at the time and was in active combat fighting for our freedom in the largest and greatest world war mankind has ever known?

We just can’t hardly grasp the magnitude of the challenges our parents faced in the immediate moments, days, months and years following Pearl Harbor.  How did they do it?

‘Yes, Frank, right there where the X is.  We were attacked by many Japanese fighters and bombers and one struck the tower where your dad was and he was severely burned over most of his body from the flaming oil from the Japanese plane that we had hit but that steered his plane right into the tower before it exploded.’

Now Dad had told us a few times that he had seen a Japanese plane that his artillery team had shot and hit almost go down near the Lexington only to turn up at the last moment and come close to the edge of the Lexington…and he had seen the edge of the wing cut off the heads of perhaps 100’s of sailors who were leaning over the side of the ship to see what was going on.

That was about as far as he would go with that story.  Ever.

But apparently, it must have been the same one that hit his tower and burned him over 70% of his body.

John Hanford went on to say: ‘Yes, I remember it like it was yesterday.  I knew your dad at Duke and we were good friends. He, of course, was the big football star and everyone knew him.

But I remember the day after the Battle of Leyte Gulf was over and seeing them pulley your dad over the open seas on a gurney from the Lexington to the medical rescue ship that had come alongside to take the most critically wounded off the ship first.

He was wrapped in white gauze from head to toe and the big thick wire cable between the much larger carrier and the tiny medical ship looked thin as a hair from where I was standing.  The big ship went up and the little ship went down as the waves filled and lowered beneath us.  All I can remember is thinking how small Dan looked wrapped white in that gurney and how all of us hoped he would make it across to the hospital ship without the cable breaking somehow and him being dumped into shark-infested waters out there.

When he made it across safely, me and most of the men on the ship cheered, just as we cheered every other wounded sailor who made it across that day.’

The USS Lexington was damaged beyond repair this time, far worse than it had been at Pearl Harbor so it was scuttled and sunk to the bottom of the Pacific soon thereafter.

Odd name for an ocean that saw so much terror and bloodshed over the ages and especially during the Second World War.

But that day in the home of John and Bunny Hanford in 2002 was the first time I knew for sure what had happened to my Dad in World War II, how and why.

He spent the next year or so in Navy hospitals on the west coast recovering from his wounds.  He had suffered 3rd degree burns over much of the 70% of his skin that had been burned and he had very translucent light Irish skin to begin with.  You can almost see the blue veins through the skin of many Irish guys, especially as they age.

Dad would cover up in a white sheet and cover his head with a hard African safari hat and spread zinc oxide over his gnarled nose and much of his face when we went to the beach and stay under a pitched tent of some sort.  It looked like he was enjoying it about as much as being in an outdoor torture chamber, truth be told.

After learning the extent of the pain and suffering he went through on the USS Lexington in 1944, I wish we had never bugged him about going to the beach or laughed at him when he came out of the cottage looking like a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia.

He was a real American Hero.  And not because of his football exploits this time around.

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