My father was a veteran. That’s a simple statement, but I freely admit it took me a long time, and a lot of growing up, to fully appreciate what that meant. What it meant to our country, what it meant to our family, what it meant to my father, and in the end, what it meant to me.
Frank Peter Santarpia, born in 1925, son of Italian immigrants, believed in the greatness of America. So did every man who fought beside him on that rock; so does every man who proudly calls himself a veteran today. It is the job of those who did not serve in the armed forces -- and I did not -- to make sure that those who did are recognized, celebrated, and most importantly, thanked.
And that is the importance of Veteran’s Day, it sharpens our focus, and that is why I want to tell my father’s story. Not because it was remarkable, but because for the American military, it was so very typical.
Easter Sunday came early in 1945, and many of the tens of thousands of Marines waiting nervously in troop transports a few thousand yards off the beaches of the Ryukyu Islands must have feared that this day's celebration of the Resurrection would be their last. Others would note with irony that it was the first of April: April Fool's Day. All of them, however, were blanketed by that one inescapable, overarching reality -- their lives might end before the sun dipped below the far western fringes of the Pacific Ocean.
Shortly before dawn, the first wave of United State Marines would slip over the sides of their troop transports, climbing down rope netting into the rocking landing craft below known as Higgins Boats. The codename for the operation was Iceberg. The invasion of Okinawa had begun.
My father enlisted in the Marine Corp on the day he turned 18 in 1943, and after a year of stateside training, he was shipped overseas. On Guam and Iwo Jima, he trained for amphibious landings. By that time, the United States Navy and Marine Corp had island-hopped almost all the way across the Pacific -- almost. There was but a single island to capture, an island that would serve as an important forward base in what everyone believed was inevitable: the invasion of the Japanese homeland. That one island was Okinawa.
PFC Frank Santarpia, 3rd Platoon, I Company, 3rd Battalion, 29th Regiment, 6th Marine Division, twenty years old, went ashore with the first wave in the gray dawn of that April morning.
There's not the time or space to recount here the gruesome details of the ensuing battle, but let it be noted that Okinawa was the most heavily defended island of the war. By the time it was secure, 12,513 young American men were dead. So, too, were the commanding generals of both the American and Japanese forces. The wounded numbered 38,916, and my father was one of them; he was shot on May 16, during the battle for a cursed mound of earth the Marines nicknamed Sugar Loaf Hill.
He received a Purple Heart, spent three weeks in a makeshift island hospital, and was sent back to his platoon before the operation was completed. His regiment, the 29th, had been thrown into a meat grinder: their casualty rate was over 90%. Within the 22nd and 29th, the two regiments that finally secured the hill on the 18th of May, two of every three men fell.
As I said earlier, despite his remarkable courage my father's compelling story was far from unique – when I asked him, he would tell me that he was simply doing his job alongside tens of thousands of other Marines and soldiers. In the same way as any other American fighting for freedom, past and present, his actions represented the norm, not the exception -- and to the day he died, any and every detail about that battle had to be coaxed from him. He never talked about it voluntarily, and he never thought he did anything special.
He was just a scared kid from Brooklyn.
Veteran’s Day is upon us, America, and it is time to start remembering. It is time for us to perform a service for our country. Maybe that service is simply telling our children or grandchildren about things that perhaps their schoolbooks never will. Maybe we should tell them about war and tyranny and the great men and women who stood ready, stand ready to this day, to keep us safe.
And I know that until I draw my last breath I will never forget, and when my grandchildren are old enough I will tell the story of those who fought and died for our flag and our freedom, and one in particular who took a bullet on a Godforsaken piece of volcanic rock that was six thousand miles closer to Tokyo than it was to Ebbets Field.
We must tell them what it means to be a veteran, and why we owe them so very much. Because if we don't tell them, nobody will.