Uncle John was the toughest kid on his tough, Depression-era NYC block. My dad told me that his father would dispatch John to settle the score whenever a bully was tormenting the local kids. After several spectacular dustups, he earned everyone’s respect as the neighborhood keeper of the peace.
John dreamed of becoming a professional boxer. At 20, he started training and registered for the Golden Gloves. His 17-year-old brother, my dad, was his cornerman. Based on his street fighting dominance, they were both convinced that John was a lock to win the tournament.
John breezed through his first several fights. Dad’s job was limited to shouting encouragement, placing John’s stool in the ring between rounds, and celebrating his victories.
But the problem with Golden Gloves— and life in general— is that the closer you get to the tip of the pyramid, the stiffer the competition. Early in the first round of the final bout of his career, John stepped into a sweeping right hook that caught him square on the point of his chin.
He was unconscious before he hit the canvas and landed hard, face down right in front of my father. Dad, who had never seen John in trouble in a fight before let alone knocked out cold, froze solid. Fortunately, the ring doctor rushed through the ropes, rolled John over, and revived him with smelling salts.
Stunned by the sudden death of his boxing career from a punch he never saw, John drifted for a while, until in March 1941, at 22, he enlisted in the Navy. In May 1941, he came aboard the newly commissioned USS Pollux, a 459-foot supply ship, as a Storekeeper Third Class.
John spent his free time carefully studying the professional fight game. He wrote his family long, insightful letters analyzing the matchups in major upcoming bouts. Dad was convinced that after the war, John was planning a return to the ring, this time as a pro.
On the stormy, frigid night of February 18, 1942, the Pollux and her two destroyer escorts were off the coast of Newfoundland running a zigzag course to avoid Nazi U-boats known to be in the area. The ships were battered by 40-foot gale-tossed seas and blinding sleet blown by hundred mile an hour winds.
Despite his navigator’s increasingly frantic warnings, the captain of the Pollux relied entirely on the destroyers’ newfangled radar system for navigation. Through an unimaginable combination of bad luck, inadequate training, faulty equipment, and poor decision making, all three ships were thirty miles off course when they ran aground at 4:17 in the morning.
Gray dawn revealed the Pollux was impaled on a rock 200 yards offshore from a small beach backed by 70-foot ice covered cliffs. The gigantic waves hammered and twisted the ship all morning, until just before noon her bow was torn off.
After several unsuccessful attempts to launch lifeboats, and as the Pollux continued to be ripped apart by the pitiless waves, her stricken captain gave permission to the crew to abandon ship. As his men went over the side, he shouted, “May God go with you!”
Uncle John jumped in the churning, icy water and disappeared forever, taking his bright future, his dreams of boxing glory, and his mother’s happiness with him.
John was one of the first American, World War II casualties. Shortly after his mother had, as Abe Lincoln wrote poor Mrs. Bixby, laid her costly sacrifice upon the altar of freedom, she proudly hung a Gold Star Service Flag in the front window of her home. But she soon took it down because it hurt too much to explain the meaning of the Gold Star to curious passersby.
While researching John’s too short life, I realized Americans speak too easily of the numbers of our war dead: 7,057 military deaths in the War on Terror; 58,209 in the Vietnam War; 36,516 in the Korean War; 405,399 in World War II, 93 of them on the Pollux; 116,516 in World War I; 620,000 in the Civil War; 25,000 in the Revolutionary War. As heart-wrenching as those numbers are, on Memorial Day, we should reflect on the fact that because each individual life lost was of infinite value, the true cost of our wars is beyond human calculation.
Americans should also take immense pride in the fact that, despite the constant, competitive criticism of our great nation and its tragically imperfect history, if the moral arc of this fallen world has bent toward justice since 1776, it is because it’s hung with the solemn weight of the supreme sacrifices made by courageous American soldiers and sailors, like my Uncle John.