The only thing more difficult than ordering men into harm’s way is sending one’s own son into battle. It has happened throughout history and continues with men and women today, but rarely have there been more sweeping and poignant father-son experiences than during World War II.
Men in command repeatedly found themselves making decisions that affected a younger generation that included their own offspring. These sons were grown men of fighting age, but at some point each of their steely fathers couldn’t help but mutter a silent prayer: “Take care, my boy.”
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, expressed those worries in a 1942 message and acknowledged the “long periods of silence when your boys will be active at their stations in far places from which no word can come.” Regrettably, Nimitz continued, “there will be losses along the road to victory.”
Nimitz’s own son was in submarines. At the outbreak of the war, Chester W. Nimitz, Jr., was an officer on the Sturgeon operating out of the Philippines. “Boy oh boy!” “Chet” Nimitz later wrote his father after he got his own command, “I get the delicious trembles when I think of my first patrol as C.O.” But Chet’s first sortie with Haddo in March 1944 proved a frustrating experience when torpedoes either exploded prematurely or not at all. Haddo endured terrible depth charge attacks and while the letters Chet posted home were enough to make any father proud, Nimitz shed a private tear or two on those nights when the father knew so well what the son was facing hundreds of feet below the surface.
Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall’s youngest stepson, Allen Brown, was married with a young son of his own, when he enlisted and asked no special treatment. Brown deployed first to Africa and then Italy.
On May 29, 1944, as Brown led his tank unit in the drive from the Anzio beachhead, he stood up in the turret of his tank to reconnoiter the advance. A German sniper killed him instantly. Marshall learned the news in his office at the Pentagon and immediately went to his quarters at nearby Fort Myer to tell his wife. Inspecting the Italian front some weeks later, Marshall visited Brown’s grave in the cemetery near Anzio and insisted upon viewing the site of his last battle.
William Frederick Halsey III wanted to follow his admiral father’s footsteps to Annapolis, but with poor eyesight young Bill ended up in the naval reserve as an aviation supply officer aboard the aircraft carrier Saratoga. On August 7, 1943, Saratoga put into a South Pacific port and Lieutenant Halsey flew to New Caledonia for spare parts and a quick visit to his father’s headquarters. He spent the night with his father and then started back to the Saratoga as a passenger in a torpedo plane.
The evening of his son’s departure, Admiral Halsey came down with a severe attack of flu that took him out of any coherent action for several days. When Halsey was finally able to focus, his operations officer came to his cabin and reported, “Admiral, we have had three torpedo planes missing for two days.”
Halsey knew at once. “My boy?” he asked.
Halsey told him, “My son is the same as every other son in the combat zone. Look for him just as you’d look for anybody else.”
But that brave statement hardly assuaged the worry. Another day passed and then two, making four days since the planes had been reported missing. Halsey, who had often asked others to hold out hope for missing men, now faced his own moment of truth: “Only a miracle can bring him home.” And it came. Searchers spotted rafts beached on an island and all ten men aboard, including Lieutenant Halsey, were safe.
There was another particularly poignant father-son relationship that extended to a third generation. While Vice Admiral John Sidney “Slew” McCain led fast-strike aircraft carriers against Japan, his son, John Sidney McCain, Jr., captained the submarine Gunnel. Four days after the Japanese surrender, Admiral McCain, worn out by the stress of war, dropped dead of a heart attack. He was posthumously promoted to admiral and twenty-some years later, when his son was also promoted to admiral, they became the first father-son pair to hold the four-star rank. When the junior McCain was appointed commander in chief, Pacific Fleet, his own son, John Sidney McCain, III, a naval aviator who had been shot down over North Vietnam, was a prisoner of war enduring five and one-half years of captivity.
World War II and its inherent dangers and uncertainties took its toll across generations. Some of the sons who were rushed into men did not return home. Many daughters did their part in America’s industries and support roles around the world. There were, as Chester Nimitz intoned, “losses along the road to victory.”
Walter R. Borneman is the author of "The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King—The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea," just published by Little, Brown.
Walter R. Borneman is the author of "The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King—The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea" (Little, Brown 2012).