My dad, my hero: Battle of Midway pilot's daughter remembers 'Poppers'

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Last year, my father passed away at age 100, one of the last surviving U.S. Navy dive-bombers to have fought at the Battle of Midway, the so-called turning point in the Pacific War 75 years ago this month.

This year, my father’s memoir of his service in the Second World War, Never Call Me a Hero, which he worked on tirelessly for the last years of his life, has been published posthumously and become an unlikely bestseller.

And so as Father’s Day approaches on Sunday, I am especially reflective of the relationship I had with the man I knew as “Poppers”—and who so many others are now reading about and recognizing, despite the book’s title, as an American hero.

The moment I truly realized Dad was a hero happened relatively recently, when I received what I initially thought was a prank call.  Dad was 98 when I retrieved his phone message from someone claiming to be a CNN reporter.  He wanted to interview Dad.  Yeah, right. 

In retrospect, I had moments when I did accept Dad’s heroism.  I knew Dad was the only pilot to hit three Japanese ships with his bombs during Midway (two carriers—Kaga and Hiryu—on June 4, 1942; and a cruiser, Mikuma, on June 6, 1942).  That reality, however, floated in and out of my short term memory. 

That non-prank call turned the tide for me, and the hero that Dad always was finally floated into my long term memory.  In looking back, I recognized the hints of the man, the career, and his mark on history.  These hints came in the form of an object, a few songs, and a remembered picture.

The object.  Growing up, one spoon stood out from the rest of the cutlery.  It was a U.S. Navy spoon.  As kids, we fought over it at mealtime, and that night’s owner would proudly gloat “I got the USN spoon.”  Two years ago, I realized the significance of that spoon—I went to a Dining Out Battle of Midway Remembrance.  Applause was forbidden; instead, we were instructed to clink our spoon against the glass to honor someone or something.  I had forgotten the spoon until then.

The songs.  Two songs I now realize are significant to Dad’s story and my appreciation of him.  One was a Navy drinking song he taught me.  He made me laugh when he sang in his baritone voice.  He thought he was a good singer.  Like I said, he made me laugh.  I learned all the lyrics.  The other was the song that I now know defined the humility emblazoned in the book "Never Call Me a Hero."  Whenever Dad considered one of us “too big for our britches,” that baritone voice of his would sing, “I love me, I love me, I’m wild about myself.  I love me, I love me, my picture’s on my shelf.”  That hushed us up quickly.  Dad never tooted his own horn, nor did we ours.

The picture.  In 1962, Dad retired from the Navy.  As a little girl I would visit him in his home office and there, untrue to his song, he had his picture on his shelf.  In the picture he was dressed in his Navy blues, wearing his white hat.  This image of the military picture went straight to long-term memory.  I can still remember stealing his black spit-shined shoes and tromping around the house, a little girl visually displaying pride for her Dad.

We went to Annapolis once.  I stood with Dad in front of the crypt of John Paul Jones, a naval hero.  Dad didn’t say much at the time, but his silence said volumes.  It was just a blip then but it comes back now.

A conversation with someone named Walter Lord (author of "Incredible Victory," the bestselling history of the Battle of Midway) barely registered.  And though he was quoted in Lord’s book, Dad didn’t talk about it much and I didn’t know what to ask.  Sorting through Dad’s memorabilia, I came across an excerpt of the book in "Look" magazine from August 8, 1967.  The cover headlines the preview saying: “MIDWAY: Walter Lord’s powerful story of World War II’s greatest naval victory.”

When Dad was 83, I interviewed him.  I knew then that someday I would want to see and hear him tell, in his words, what he did in the Battle of Midway and the part he played.  At that time, Dad rarely looked back.  Years later, as I watch Dad’s story with new eyes, the hero emerges.

For the longest time, I could never land on what to call him.  Father, Daddy, Dad, just didn’t fit.  Somehow later in life, and not knowing exactly why—his history? –the fact he taught me how to shoot? I don’t know exactly, but I found the name I called him to the day he died:  Poppers. 

Poppers died April 22, 2016.  Holding him in his hospital bed during those final hours I imitated a bugle and, blowing my pretend horn, I saluted him.  With all the breath he had left, Dad “tooted” me back.  He knew I was there and I knew that he knew.

A few months after Dad’s death, I again attended the local Battle of Midway Dining Out.  In one part of the ceremony, anyone (military or not) is allowed to offer a toast, provided he follows the rules.   Standing alongside 280 other guests I raised my glass of port and, in a quivering voice, said, "Mr. President, I propose a toast to Captain Dusty Kleiss, a hero in the Battle of Midway.  He was my hero, too."

The president of the Dining Out announced, “To Dusty Kleiss: here, here,” followed by the crowd echoing, “To Dusty Kleiss: here, here.”  And we clinked our Navy spoon against the glass.