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Ode to a War Hero
[Author's Note: This story was originally published in 2007.]
I just received a most remarkable document in the mail. It was sent to me by my niece's husband, Nick Campbell, from their home in Bend, Ore. Nick, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and former Naval officer, searched through various Navy organizations and found a copy of my late father's Navy Cross citation awarded to him following World War II. The citation for Boatswain's Mate, Second Class Richard Graham Shelley reads:
"For extraordinary heroism as member of a demolition party attached to the U.S.S. Brant during the assault on and occupation of French Morocco from November 8 to 11, 1942. Assigned the extremely dangerous task of cutting through an enemy obstruction in order that the U.S.S. Dallas could navigate up the Sebou River, Shelley and his shipmates, on the night of 9 November, proceeded with grim determination toward their objective. Despite the treacherous surf, he and his comrades skillfully and courageously accomplished their hazardous mission of cutting the cables at the mouth of the river, just as guns from the French fort opened fire. Countering the enemy's attack until out of range, Shelley and the other members of his party, in spite of enormous breakers which battered their boat and washed one of the machine guns overboard, finally brought her back to safety."
Nick also sent what must be a rare copy of "Naked Warriors," a 1956 book with the subtitle, "The Elite Fighting Force that Became the Navy Seals." Cdr. Francis Douglas Fane, USNR and Don Moore are the authors. Nick pointed out Chapter 2, entitled "The First Demolitioneers," that further described Dad's harrowing mission - actually two missions after the first was aborted due to heavy gunfire from the Kasbah fortress above the river.
In sum, my Dad's group was undermanned from the get-go, their 17-man Higgins boat armed with explosives, wire cutters, two inflatable rubber rafts, two machine guns and a jury-rigged incendiary device. The team managed to cut through the inch-and-a-half-thick steel cable and a smaller cable boom made taut by anchored boats on each end. Once the cables were cut the supporting boats that kept the cabling taut began sagging downstream. But the smaller wire served as an alarm, and the Kasbah troops opened fire from their machine guns as soon as it was cut.
The Higgins boat turned downriver and fired back with their meager weaponry. Machine gun bullets from the Kasbah pierced through their zigzagging wooden boat, chasing them to the jetties. There, an even worse fate awaited - 30-foot-high surf roaring between the jetties. The boat, now lightened by the casting overboard of everything but the crew, somehow made it back to the transport with 13 holes shot through it. No one was injured by enemy fire, although several were banged up and suffering from shock.
The demolition men had successfully accomplished their mission - the river highway was now open for American forces. Before dawn the Dallas steamed up the Sebou, crashed through the broken boom and sagging net, and despite the Kasbah's relentless fire, landed a contingent of U.S. Rangers on the Vichy-held Port Lyautey Airfield. "Operation Torch," the first great amphibious assault landing on the North African coast during World War II, was underway.
I vaguely recall my Mom's mentioning that my Dad was a war hero, and that he received the Navy Cross for his valor (just a few months ago I searched online to confirm this, but without luck). But he was a modest sort and didn't talk much about his military experiences, particularly this one. My 50-year-old memories as a kid include poking my finger in a gaping hole by his knee, caused by shrapnel from another battle on the open ocean. I also recall how he cherished an imposing encyclopedic set of Life books, whose graphic black-and-white images of grotesque and dead enemy and American solders I found both entrancing and repulsive.
After the war he and my Mom began having children, not unlike many other Baby Boomer families of the late 1940s and early '50s. They ended up with five kids, while Dad went to work as a salesman for Nalley Fine Foods, peddling potato chips and other items throughout the Pacific Northwest. As a youngster I was allowed to accompany him on his truck route to restaurants and grocery stores. I sat in one of those stool-like seats in the cabs of old-style vans, while from his rotating seat he went about his business, jumping out of the vehicle, grabbing his hand truck and piling up cases, bantering with the store managers and chefs, and taking orders for the following week. My Dad was popular at work and he soon rose through the ranks to management.
At home things weren't always so copasetic. The stress and strain of providing for a family of seven was tough, but my Mom shielded most of Dad's angry outbursts from us kids, probably because she knew what he encountered during the war and, now, a six-days-a-week work schedule. This was all before Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Imagine how many other thousands of post-war American households were just like ours.
Yet, in general, I enjoyed my youth and the time with my father during our years in Vancouver, Wash., across the Columbia River from Portland. He'd take me to boxing matches in the Rose City for both big title bouts and junior fights involving kids from the local Knotts Street Boxing Club. From the front row, where we'd often sit, I watched in awe as heavyweight Eddie Machen and future middleweight champ Bobo Olson wreaked havoc on their opponents. Because of our ringside seats, I'd come home - as a tiny eight-year-old, mind you - with my shirt and face covered in blood and spit, which appalled my mother. I loved it, mainly because I got to spend time with my father.
We also went to football games. I recall one Rooks & Frosh game (that pitted the freshman teams from the University of Oregon and Oregon State) played in a downpour at Portland's old Multnomah Stadium. I counted 20 other fans, but there we were. I also remember footraces in our backyard, with Dad usually beating my sister Kay. He also linked me up with Bernie Tretter and his son Frank. Bernie was a rep for Wilson Sporting Goods and the coach for Alcoa's Little League team, and Frank was a class- and teammate. I enjoyed the sleepovers at the Tretters, mainly because their house smelled like a brand-new leather catcher's mitt.
After many of Dad's hard weeks of work, I often watched Friday Night Fights on our black-and-white Raytheon with him in the living room eating dinner off TV trays - while my three sisters and mother were on the other side of the wall at the dining room table. This was a big deal to me, but my sisters and infant brother could care less since they didn't like fisticuffs. He was a boxer in the Navy, and a pretty good one at that I later learned, so watching him during a boxing match was almost as fun as the fight itself. Whether the bout was live or on television he'd bob and weave, purse his lips and sputter as if preparing to take a punch, providing live entertainment for those of us who sat around him.
After my youth, a time when Dad included me in many of the sporting opportunities he'd missed during the war, I matured and things changed. As he aged and the pressures of work increased, his young family flourished and Mom took over most of the parenting duties. Peacetime at our house and in America brought a newfound sense of stability (despite the threat of The Bomb), while the nation's work ethic and the role of the father in its households was gradually changing too.
We moved to Yakima in central Washington in 1961 when I was 10. Dad's long work hours and our new hometown, which didn't offer nearly as many sporting events as big-city Portland, made him scarcer and scarcer in my life. I did well in sports, particularly baseball, basketball and football, but he rarely attended my games.
As did many of my generation, Dad and I had our differences after high school. In the turbulent '60s, I was a hippie and he was an unabashed supporter of Nixon - the guy who signed my draft notice during the Vietnam War. If my Dad was alive today - he died in the early '90s, I'm sure we'd be arguing over President Bush's inane policy in Iraq, though as a veteran myself, we'd support the troops themselves and respect their daunting tasks.
My Dad introduced me to golf when I was about 9 or 10. After playing a few rounds with him and my brother-in-law Ray, he invited me to play in the annual Nalley tournament at Broadmoor Golf Course in Portland. After 18 holes the adults were done and headed to the bar, while I kept on going. While my Dad and his co-workers drank and ate and had a jolly old time in the clubhouse I kept going around and around Broadmoor. When I finally tired later in the afternoon, I found my Dad in the bar yukking it up with his buddies. He asked how I was doing and I told him I finished 54 holes. During the raucous awards ceremonies I was given a trophy for being the youngest entrant and the guy who played the most holes that day.
Like most fathers and sons my Dad's and my paths crossed many times over the years. The best times, when our paths ran parallel, were spent watching or attending sporting events, or out on the golf course, where he was known for a quick fuse and loud expletives that could be heard several fairways away.
Other than my youthful years in the decade following his return to civilian life, he gradually found it more difficult to relate to me and the changes I represented in America. He loved me, as evidenced by how hard he worked to provide for all of us Shelley kids, but he really didn't know how to express it. I believe this was a generational thing, but I was also aware that his father was an even bigger hard-ass who treated his children much worse.
On Dad's deathbed we had a few moments alone together. I knew he wasn't long for this world, so I whispered in his ear, "I love you Dad." I wanted him to know that, despite our off-and-on 40 years on this Earth together he was still an important part of my life. After all, he introduced me to sports as a kid, scrounging up the funds for a subscription to Sports Illustrated - which I've renewed for nearly 50 years - and lending me his well-worn Ring magazines. Those reading "lessons" are the reason I'm a sportswriter today.
He died a few minutes later, never returning my voiced sentiment. But, to this day, I know he heard me.
Now, over 15 years after his passing, and now 57 years old myself, I can savor a bit more closure to the life of Richard G. Shelley. Thanks Nick, for confirming my father's role in the annals of American history. And thanks Dad, for being who you were.