To the editor:
Recently I was speaking to my dad, Robert S. Wilbur, a lifelong Amesbury resident and 88-year-old World War II submarine veteran. For some reason, the conversation became centered on his final wishes. He wanted to ensure we mentioned his U.S. Navy service in his obituary. In his own words, “Other than you kids, that is what I am most proud of.” It occurred to me that no one should have to wait until their obituary to be recognized for their service to this country. So, Dad, this is for you…
Although his stories sometimes now run together, there is no doubt that his recollections are clear and bring him back almost 70 years ago. He was eager to join the Navy and enlisted upon graduation from Amesbury High in 1942. He completed rigorous submarine training in Newport, R.I., and was assigned to duty. My dad served on the USS Flounder, USS Blackfin and USS Perch. Crew members bonded quickly and often relied on their strong camaraderie to help them deal with the peril they faced. Friendships endure and he still receives an occasional call from a former crew member. An oft-repeated quote — “You don’t know scared until you’re under the ocean and being depth-charged by the enemy.” Particularly haunting for Dad at the time was learning a fellow sailor who subsequently manned Dad’s gunnery station (while Dad was injured) suffered fatal injuries from enemy fire.
Duty required that he could not divulge to his family the location of his patrols, but as a young man, he traveled to Australia, New Guinea and Hawaii.
The inherent danger of submarine service guaranteed he and his buddies were afforded special privileges when they went ashore for liberty. He stayed at The Royal Hawaiian when the U.S. Navy took control to use the hotel as a rest and recreation center for those serving in the Pacific Fleet. It was at Pearl Harbor that he got his infamous 8-inch hula girl tattoo on his upper arm ... she hasn’t aged as well as him, but it’s always a conversation-starter during those frequent blood pressure checks now that he is a senior!
There are also funny stories. As Baker 1st class, my dad was responsible for helping feed the entire submarine. The skipper always enjoyed his mince pie. So, my dad convinced him that it would be even better with rum if he could provide a couple of nips (which were under lock and key). Of course, the rum never made it into the pie. Yet, the skipper was so complimentary — “You were right, the rum makes the difference!”
In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to forget the challenges our servicemen and women face. A sound-bite or news story captures but a moment of the danger and sacrifice these families endure on a daily basis. I hope everyone will recognize a veteran or reach out to one in a meaningful way on this upcoming Veterans Day. It’s so easy to view the holiday as just a day off from work or a reason for a parade, but I am grateful and proud every day of the year for the brave contribution my dad and others like him have made to keep the rest of us safe.