Friday, December 7, 2012

They earned it

Leonard Fahlgren went through hell so he could write poems about his beloved Washburn, North Dakota.

"Washburn is a little city, located in central N. Dee," he wrote for the city's centennial in 1982. "And for years it has been noted for both its friendship and beauty."

I'm pretending my great-Uncle Leonard is reading his poem to his brothers, who are all gone now. They are seated around a big corner booth in a sunny restaurant, awaiting breakfast and recounting their lives over cups of coffee. They're laughing quietly at their good fortune, talking of their towns, the North Dakota and Montana towns of their youth, and the cities scattered across the Pacific Northwest where they settled after World War II.

I'm in a booth across the aisle, listening. Thanks to a sheaf of photocopies my Aunt Patti recently sent me, a collection of news clips over the decades, I can imagine the conversation among the brothers, the way conversations go, tacked full of unfinished sentences and random segues and snags of memory.

I wonder how much of their conversation would turn to the war. A year ago, I wrote about four of the brothers (I incorrectly said five) who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, 71 years ago today.

They'd get around to the topic, I pretend. Tatters and snags of war talk.

Poetry was Leonard's reward, I gather, for serving 550 days on the front lines in World War II, with Army tank destroyers grinding through North Africa, then Italy, southern France and into Germany.

He went to war to come home and farm, and be the poet laureate of the town near where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent winter with the Mandan people on their way west. The town where my mom was born.

In the lore my mom brought to our family, Uncle Leonard's story is not as well known, overshadowed by Glen, Gordon, Vern and Warner having served together on the repair ship U.S.S. Vestal at Pearl Harbor. The Vestal was tied to the doomed battleship U.S.S. Arizona. Two bombs plowed through the Vestal, which would have sunk too except one bomb hit the stacks of metal repair plates the Vestal had just laid in, blunting the damage. Torpedoes that helped sink the Arizona ran just three feet too deep to hit the much smaller Vestal. Instead the Vestal was cut loose and run aground to keep it from sinking.

The Vestal and the Fahlgren boys lived to fight again.

Leonard's best friend died in battle in Italy. He married his friend's widow when he returned, and raised their son.

Younger brother Ervin joined the four aboard the Vestal, the repair ship U.S.S. Vestal, about a month after the attack; he was training in San Diego during the attack, not aboard ship. Ervin passed away in March, the last of the brothers. My grandmother Irene Gibson, their only sister, died more than 20 years ago.

The youngest brother, Carl, tried to join the Navy at 17 but couldn't pass the physical exam then or when he was drafted at 20.

I've often wondered how Carl and Ervin and Leonard felt about their siblings' notoriety, their names sometimes spoken in the same breath as the five Sullivan brothers who died aboard the same cruiser, prompting the military to stop assigning so many siblings together. Over the decades, some newspaper or other has told the Fahlgren boys' Pearl Harbor story, and when they could they attended the reunions.

Chances are the other three are proud and didn't care whether Pearl Harbor took the family spotlight. Carl once wrote with admiration of his big brothers' service. I'm leaning across the aisle, just the same, hoping to hear them tell it.

Chances are I'd hear instead the quirky miscellany of war:

• How all the brothers agreed the United States would eventually join the war and those of age would enlist in 1940 rather than being drafted later.

• How the captain of the Vestal got knocked off the ship in a blast, climbed back aboard and berated some mess attendants hiding in his cabin for not being at their battle stations. New arrivals, they hadn't been assigned any.

"So he (the captain) said, 'If you can't do anything else, throw spuds at them,'" Gordon told a reporter 35 years ago. "They told the story, and it got around the ship. We had a pattern maker who was kind of a self-styled cartoonist, and it wasn't long before he had a cartoon of these boys, throwing spuds at Japanese planes, but using oranges for tracers."

• How Gordon left out the part about breaking his neck as a kid when the Navy medical examiner asked if he'd broken any bones.

• How the brothers scraped together enough money so Vern could get a tooth filled — his only failing during his Navy medical exam. Once stationed in San Diego, the Navy took out all their fillings anyway and replaced them with military-issue fillings.

• How a Japanese reconnaissance plane flew along the Vestal so close, Glen could see the pilot's face.

• How Glen immediately wrote their mother that he and his brothers were fine — even though he couldn't find Vern and Warner for a couple of days after the attack.

• How three of the brothers — Glen was hospitalized in New Zealand — spent nearly three years at the equator, with only coral reefs to break the horizon, while ships sailed to them for repair. They sometimes built the parts needed, and slept on deck in the tropical heat and nearly went mad. 

• "The best reward, however," Gordon told a reporter, "was that we all went through the war without receiving a scratch."

In the collection of news clips, the brothers praise their mother, Theresa Lindstrom, who raised seven children through the Depression by herself because their dad died young of cancer. She later married William Lindstrom and moved to Montana from North Dakota.

The Navy honored my great grandmother, for sending six sons to war, by having her christen a gasoline tanker, the U.S.S. Susquehanna, in 1942.

The brothers came back from war and lived lives they earned, attending to business, contributing to their communities.

I benefit from their service, and so do you. Every day.