It was just the first fact of my life and I never dwelt on it, never shed a single tear over it. But around the time I turned 28, as old as he ever got, I told my story to a French couple who had lived through the war and they started weeping. They couldn’t believe that my mother and stepfather changed both my names—from Peter Simmons to Craig Vetter. Somehow that kicked my father’s ghost loose and I decided to read the hundreds of letters he and my mother had exchanged over his four brutal years at sea in the Pacific war.
What was that like?
Shattering. He wanted to be a writer, was a fine writer, and I was by that time writing for a living, everything he wanted, and my life was a mess. A dope smoking divorcee with a bronze star hero for a father . I was busy hating the Viet Nam War and America’s empty sense of honor which made his death and all the other war deaths seem hollow and absurd. When I finished reading the letters I started writing a book. I got one chapter in then got up and wandered off to Colorado where I stayed stoned and drunk for a couple of years.
How did you get back to it?
An editor friend of mine who knew my story was working at Esquire and asked me if I try to do it as a magazine article which I did Called it “My Father Probably Wasn’t A Hero.”
Why that title?
I was trying to get him out of uniform, out of the heroic photographs for myself. And in one of his letters he told my mother not to call him a hero. He said most of what he was doing was cruel drudgery mixed sometimes with high terror.
Your mother figures prominently in the book. His death seems to have colored the rest of her life with a deep sadness.
He was the love of her life which comes clear in the letters and she never got over losing him. She had a bad second marriage, and after that no other romantic relationships.
She converted to Catholicism for your dad didn’t she?
Yes. He’d gone to Seattle College, a Jesuit school, and had come out devout. He loved their tortured intellectual theological approach. I went to Jesuit high school and college without knowing that he had been with the Jevies. That was just part of the great blank spaces that were his life to me. But the Jesuits had a very different effect on him than on me. They lit him up. They pretty much burned me out with their bullying arrogance. I think it was Voltaire who said the Jesuits trained the best atheists and I count myself proudly among them . My mother tried, but never fully embraced Catholicism especially the mean spirited tenet that only Catholics could go to heaven.
You joined the survivors of the Longshaw crew at one of their reunions. What was that like?
It was touching to be with these guys as they remembered the worst day of their lives together. None of them knew my father very well. He was the executive officer and as one of them told me they tried not to see him too often because when they did it usually meant they were in trouble. They were very warm with me, but you could feel the mixed emotions that were loose among them. All of them had lost friends and some of them talked openly about their guilt at having survived. Only the dead are finished with war. One of the crew actually told me the only bad thing I’ve ever heard about my father.
Your visit to Okinawa seems to have connected you and your father in profound ways.
When I found his name carved into the marble walls the Okinawans erected in Peace Prayer Park that memorialize every man woman and child, soldier and civilian, Japanese and American who died in that bloody battle it reached into the place my tears had been waiting all those years. I just sat there in that exquisitely beautiful place crying, talking to him, feeling his presence like never before. I told him everything: about his brave wife, his daughter, about my life which was in so many ways the life he longed for.
Do you wonder, if he’d lived, how the two of you would have gotten along?
I wonder all the time. I would have loved the chance to find out. Would have loved to argue about God with him.