To honor and thank our veterans who have served our great country and kept us safe and free, I’d like to share something most of us have never seen — and, I pray, never will. It’s a nearly 73-year-old letter of thanks sent by the Secretary of the Navy to my father-in-law, Joe Curtis, after he fought for and protected our country in World War II. The words may be specific to Joe — a former Warwick resident who at 93 is still so sharp he does the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle every week — but just a few days before Veterans Day, they serve as a reminder of the thanks we owe all of our veterans.
Before I share the letter, here’s a little bit about the young man who went into the Navy as a teen just out of high school and left after enduring things he, and I, hope none of us have to endure.
Joe Curtis was a 17-year-old kid in Brooklyn on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and killed more than 2,000 Americans. Joe wanted to defend our country, so he asked his mother if he could enlist. Even though she begged him to wait, Joe couldn’t.
On board the USS Minneapolis heavy cruiser, Joe looked up in the sky and saw a plane drop a bomb aiming for — and just missing — his ship. When he looked up again, he saw flashes of fire.
Another plane was aiming machine gun fire at him and his fellow sailors. After they dived away, bullet holes pockmarked the spot where they had stood.
Too many sailors weren’t as lucky. Traveling to the Philippines in Admiral Halsey’s fleet, the ships were battered by a typhoon. The storm heaved the roiling gray sea over the ships’ smokestacks with such ferocity the waves, wind and water sank three destroyers and killed 800 sailors.
Somehow, 10 decimated sailors survived in the water.
The next morning, when Joe asked how they were, he learned they had died.
As a bugle played taps, Joe Curtis stood at attention as they were buried at sea.
“One of those guys could have been me,” Joe thought. “And (if) my mother and father got a telegram…”
Instead, 21-year-old Joe Curtis was living in Queens when he received this letter from James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy.
“You have served in the greatest Navy in the world. It crushed two enemy fleets at once, receiving their surrenders only four months apart. It brought our land-based airpower within bombing range of the enemy and set our ground armies on the beachheads of final victory … No other Navy at any time has done so much. For your part in these achievements you deserve to be proud as long as you live. The Nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude.”
Joe Curtis, who turns 94 this month, is one of about 496,000 of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II who are still alive.
That letter of gratitude could have been written to any of them, or to any American who has served this great country and preserved our freedom.
In these divided times, that letter is a reminder that the service and sacrifice of veterans shines as a uniting beacon for all us.
On Veterans Day, and every day, we thank you.