FRESH IDEAS: A Veterans Day lesson from my dad
For the Nevada Appeal
Every Veterans Day we honor the sacrifices of our military. We tend to focus on their bravery and sacrifice, but they demonstrated other admirable qualities as well.
My dad, Oliver Smith, was a WWII veteran known for his good nature, his curiosity and his ability to solve problems with what was at hand. He called it “improvising.” Dad learned those skills in the Army. They shaped his life for the next 60 years.
As a teenager, Dad had sailed off the Southern California coast, so he was already an experienced boatman in 1942 at the age of 21. He enlisted in the Amphibian 543rd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, a unit that would run landing craft and other small boats supporting the Army in the South Pacific.
Just before shipping out, though, they practiced firing water-cooled 30 and 50 caliber ack-ack machine guns in the Mojave Desert. The men were limited to just one canteen of water per day, but still were required to shave every day. They improvised by shaving with an extra cup of hot morning coffee.
After a week in the desert, the men heard they would be leaving the next day. They were pretty dirty and wanted to clean up. Still, they had no water except their canteens.
Again, they improvised. They knew that each water-cooled machine gun had about five gallons of water in its cooling tank. The water was warm from firing the guns, although it was oily. The soldiers reasoned that no ordnance man would let the guns be fired without replacing the water, so that night they went back to the firing range and used the warm, oily water for a “good wash.”
When the 543rd finally arrived in the South Pacific, boat crews continued to improvise, modifying their boats to make them safer and more efficient. Dad scavenged and installed a set of large batteries, as well as a charging system. Some crews burned holes in the decks so machine guns, fuel drums and other equipment could be stored below. Others salvaged portholes from wrecks and installed them in engine rooms for better ventilation and light. Some set trolling lines to supplement their C-rations with fresh fish. Improvising turned out to be a survival skill.
Dad also remarked that men from diverse backgrounds, when faced with a common goal, found ways to work together and get the job done. This year, as we honor our veterans, let us remember that it was their intelligence, resourcefulness and cooperation – as much as their courage and patriotism – that allowed them to survive and win. We could do worse than to emulate those heroic qualities ourselves.
• Lorie Smith Schaefer’s father’s war journal, complete with his improvised spelling, is at http://www.justinmuseum