My father was a proud career member of the United States Navy. He served 30 years and would have served 30 more, the Navy and the Good Lord willing. But that was not to be. At the remarkably young age of 48, Don “Mickey” McGuire had to retire from his beloved Navy. But he showed them. He went back to work for the Navy as a civilian and worked another 18 years.
His story is no more remarkable than that of hundreds, indeed thousands of other military veterans. But I often reflect on his service to the country and the Navy, and the sacrifices he and my Navy wife mother made throughout their married lives. They have been my inspiration and my heroes throughout my life. They spawned another generation of public servants in their three daughters.
He lied about his age to get into the Navy. It was not out of some longing for the sea, but more the necessity of taking one mouth away from his parents’ table in the middle of the Great Depression. His parents had 11 children to feed and my grandfather, who worked for the railroad and farmed part time, was having difficulty doing it. My dad decided he needed to be self-supporting so he visited the Naval recruiting office in his small hometown in Pennsylvania’s railroad country.
But once he got the salt air into his lungs and the feel of a ship under his feet, he was hooked. With no college education and only the specialty training the Navy offered him, he rose in rank over that 30-year career from a Seaman Apprentice to a Lieutenant Commander. His last duty assignment was as Commanding Officer of a small research station on the coast of Washington. I later came to understand that this post was usually held by someone with the rank of Commander, and was a reward for his key role in launching a super-secret anti-submarine warfare project.
My Alabama-bred mother and my Pennsylvania-bred father met and married in Philadelphia on December 7, 1940. Betty and Mickey were home celebrating their first wedding anniversary when they heard on the radio the news about Pearl Harbor. The war they had known would come—the war the US Navy was already petty much in the middle of—was here and would change their lives. When Mickey was assigned to a “Q Boat” out of Boston, Betty went up there to be with him when he came back after weeks at sea.
The duty was dangerous. A small Navy contingent hid below decks on a vessel disguised as a civilian fishing boat in order to monitor enemy shipping in the Atlantic. He told me that had they been caught, they would not have been protected by international law and could have been summarily executed. He also told of one time when they were the first on the scene of a US vessel sunk by a German U Boat. He and his crewmates worked hours to pull frozen bodies from the ocean, for once not worrying about getting caught out in the open. He said he lived with that awful image his entire life.
During the war my dad served in the Atlantic and the Pacific, racking up decorations for service and being commissioned as an officer in 1943 shortly after his 10-year service anniversary. Meanwhile, my parents brought my two older sisters into the world, one in 1942 while stationed in Boston, and the other in 1944. My dad was at sea for long periods of time while my mother lived with her brother and his family and had two babies to care for while working a full time job at one of the factories supporting the war effort. I have often marveled at the sheer grit and relentless optimism that led these two people to start a family under these circumstances. The challenges my husband and I faced as parents pale in comparison. We never had to put our baby in a dresser drawer instead of a crib, go without milk for our child, take him screaming to the bomb shelters, or worry about whether our spouse was going to make it back from the war alive.
Life after the war was good.
They both relished the Navy life and shore duty that followed the war. By the time I came along, he was mostly stationed at bases and not on ships.
But the Korean War came along and once again Mickey set sail to serve in that war zone. Again, my mother was on her own for a few years—this time with three young children. My folks never once considered giving up the Navy. It was a calling for both of them. Corny as it sounds, he was serving the country he loved in a uniform he cherished. They assured me often that the rewards made the sacrifices seem small. It was a really rough challenge when he had to retire from the Navy and they both had to adjust to civilian life.
Mickey found his niche and Betty eventually came to terms with it, but the transition was difficult for them. It was made even more difficult by their now empty nest. They dealt with it just like they had dealt with so many challenges before.
With Veterans Day approaching, I recently visited their gravesite in Arlington Cemetery. This is a time to honor and remember them, and so many others just like them. Join me in saying “thanks” to all of our parents’ generation for their amazing sacrifices and service.