Letters from War – A Memorial to My Father

His name…Frederick Madison Denning. He was my father and I never knew him. I was thirteen months old when he died.

My mother had a very sad childhood. When she was five years old, she witnessed her mother burn to death when she poured kerosene into a cooking stove and it exploded. Less than a year later her father died. An orphan, she was adopted by her maternal uncle and his wife. They were childless, having lost three babies in childbirth. I can picture my mother, a sad lonely little girl, with memories to scar her for life. Shortly after adopting her, another little boy became theirs. He was a couple years younger than my mother and he was very sick. He had been mistreated and required a lot of care since he could barely stand up or walk. He required a lot of attention and I imagine my mother was feeling as if she wasn’t really loved. Her new brother was later diagnosed with leukemia and died when he was 11 years old. Another scar, another person she cared for…gone.

When mom was 17, she met my father. They were in a Sunday School class together at Union Mission Church in Pekin, Illinois. He was 16 at the time. He only completed two years of high school. I’m not sure if he was in school when they met or not. I like to think it was love at first sight. Years after his death, when my mother was married to the man who became my father, I caught her crying in the attic one day. She was holding a picture. She showed me the man (a boy really) who was my father. When I asked why she was crying, she told me he had been the love of her life. But she never went into details with me. Not until my step-father passed away. Then she gave me a very old box, one I remembered that held the picture she was crying over all those years ago. It had three letters written to her by my father, and it also held the medals he received.

I secured my father’s military papers from the government after reading his letters. And today I’ve been sitting here trying to put together a picture of my mother and my father’s life, my birth, and his tragic death. Fitting since this is Memorial Day, the day for remembering those who died in service to our country.

My parents dated for a year and married when she was 18 and he was 17. They were too young and I believe they married for the wrong reason. They had dreams of being married and having babies together. A happy life. A life they believed would be much better than the ones they were living at home. Their mothers accompanied them across the state line and signed to allow them to get married. They were married in November of 1942.

Before my mother passed away, I again asked her about their relationship. She had very little to say except that she loved him very much.  She said he was a momma’s boy who ran home whenever they had a disagreement. She alluded that there were many, and even went so far as to say he hit her once. She also said he liked to go out with his friends, who were all single, and she was sure he cheated on her. He worked for Corn Products Refining Company as a machine repair floorman for 1-1/2 years. They continued their rocky marriage until mom was six months pregnant with me. That would have been in July of 1943. They separated and mom didn’t see him again until she gave birth to me the end of October. He showed up at the hospital and asked her to come home with him. She said if he could stay away from other women for six weeks she might consider it. He didn’t. She didn’t. They divorced in December 1943.

He enlisted in the Navy on March 10, 1944. My father was 5 ft 4-1/2 inches tall and weighed 145 pounds. He was nineteen years old, and to my eyes, just a baby when he enlisted. His military papers say his qualification class was “limited potential school assignee” and his 1st recommendation was “basic engineer” and 2nd recommendation was “hospital corps.” The papers also say he played guitar. I like to picture him as a young man sitting in a bunk on a ship playing guitar to entertain his buddies.

On March 10, 1944, he voluntarily enlisted as Apprentice Seaman, Class V-6, U.S. Naval Reserve, for a period of two years. He completed his recruit training on April 18, 1944 and was promoted to Seaman 2nd Class. He was transferred on April 30, 1944 to the U.S.S. Shubrick for duty.

I guess my dad still liked to hang out with the guys, because his leave expired on May 3, 1944 at 0100, but he didn’t return to naval jurisdiction until 1700. Then on May 5, 1944, he departed without leave at 1200 and didn’t return until 1410. Consequently he was punished through Deck Court and tried on May 10, 1944. He was sentenced to solitary confinement for a period of 20 days and lost half his pay for a period of two months. He was released from arrest and restored to duty on June 6, 1944.

The first letter I have was postmarked June 23, 1944, written in pencil on lined paper.

How are you and the baby. I hope ok. I am ok. I guess you may think I have my nerve and may laugh at me for writing but, I guess you have a right too. I’m stationed here in New York on an Island doing some guard duty until my ship comes to port. It’s pretty nice here. We have a swimming beach and many other things for our leisure time. I often think of the good times I had at your house. Are you still working? Mother wrote and told me you gave her a picture of Carol Ann and said it was sweet and you were nice to her. I bet Carol Ann is getting bigger and cuter. I sure wish my ship would hurry up and come in the sooner the better. It’s supposed to be a Destroyer. I hope you aren’t still mad at me but I guess you can’t forgive as you once told me you wouldn’t. Mother said you were going with Harvey’s wife. How is Harvey? I guess Harvey’s wife thinks it’s my fault because they were having trouble. Well I’ll close for now, as you may wish I hadn’t written. Love, Freddy.

I hear a plea from a young boy who wants desperately for forgiveness and is also playing on sympathy. This makes my heart very sad. Our country was at war, and I believe my father was also at war within himself.

He remained at R/S New York until July 24, 1944, when he was transferred to the U.S.S. Liddle. On August 26, 1944 he attended a two-day course in Navy fire fighters school, Navy Yard, Brooklyn.

The next letter was postmarked August 29, 1944:

I’m sorry about the way I was but if I had done your way there would have been trouble in some way or other. It’s not that I don’t want you but if you could only understand. I think your swell and Carol Ann too. I don’t like to see any trouble caused for you. Maybe your Mother was right by telling you to get some one else. Some day everything will turn out for the best. I know where I’m headed and don’t know whether I will be coming back or not and I couldn’t break your heart any more. Every thing will work out ok honey, if you think I’m wrong I guess I can’t say anything only God bless you and Carol Ann and please don’t be mad. You and Carol look cute together. I never will forget you and please take good care of Carol Ann. I’ll only be here about 2 more weeks, wished I could have seen you and Carol but it would have been harder. Don’t worry and God bless you 2 honey. Yours very lovingly, Fred

I have no idea what they really went through or what their problems were. No matter how I tried, my mother never told me. We moved away and I never had a chance to know my father’s family. That makes me very sad as I feel I’ve lost a part of my life.

The last letter I have was postmarked September 29, 1944.

I just received your letter and was glad to receive it. I don’t know why I thought you wouldn’t write. Just a feeling I had I guess. I wasn’t kidding when I said Carol Ann took her sweetness after you. I’d like to see her crawling around the floor. I guess soon she will be able to walk although I don’t know much about babies. Why do you say your an old sour puss. I don’t think you are and you have plenty to look sweet for, you surely have. It sounds like your kind of disgusted in the letter. I hope you aren’t. Just smile like you used to when I thought you were happy. Try to be happy. Carol does look like you and it just like I want her to, just like I told you when I was home on leave. Now I just look at your picture I have which you tore up one time and I pasted it together on a card. It reminds me of Carol Ann. I hope you don’t mind me having it. I wouldn’t make your mother mad. She knows best. I haven’t no business telling you what to do, so don’t pay any attention to me, I just like to know you are happy and then I feel better and knowing Carol Ann is allright too. Thank you for good luck maybe I’ll need it and not for my rate only. Rita lied when she said that to you, she was just jealous and she’s left, I’m glad. My ship ought to be here soon. The sooner the better and then I’ll be shoving off for some where. Mother likes to see you. go and see her when you have time, will you. She really likes you a lot. Well I guess I close for now say so long for a while. Does your mother care because I’m writing to you, if it does i’ll not write because I don’t like to cause you trouble. Lovingly, Fred

This letter is troubling to me. I’m not sure when his leave was when he saw her. Perhaps during the time he was AWOL? So very sad. He knew he was going someplace that he might  not return from. He knew my mother was moving on with her life, as indeed she did when she married her second husband in October of 1944.

Then the U.S.S. Liddle came to port. My father would have been on board when, on October 9, 1944, the ship crossed the Equator enroute from Balboa, C.Z. to Galapagos Islands, as a trusty shellback.

On October 12, 1944, my father fell asleep on his watch and received 20 hours of extra duty. It’s hard for me to imagine a 19 year old boy on a ship bound for war falling asleep (probably because he wasn’t getting much sleep) and then being punished with extra hours of duty. It’s my mother’s heart speaking here, of course.

On October 27, 1944, the U.S.S. Liddle crossed the 180th Meridian enroute Bora Bora, Society Islands to Finschhafen, New Guinea. Duly initiated into the Realm of the Golden Dragon.

There is another record of my father completing more training courses on November 20, 1944, although it doesn’t say what they were. However, on December 1, 1944, he was promoted from Seaman 2nd Class to Seaman 1st Class. The papers say he was qualified in all respects as required and was advanced to fill a vacancy. That sounds a bit scary to me. I wonder if the person whose spot he filled had died in action.

His premonition of doom came true. Just six days later, on December 7, 1944, my father was killed in action in Ormoc Bay, Leyte Island, PI. He was just a little over two weeks away from celebrating his 20th birthday, which would have been on Christmas Day. Because of war conditions, for the duration of the war, my father was buried  in a U.S. Army Field Cemetery in Leyte, Phillipine Islands.

On December 10, 1944 a letter was sent from the Acting Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. Liddle to my grandmother confirming he was killed in action on board the ship on December 7, 1944. The commander stated: “Frederick’s record of performance of duty while under this command was worthy of the highest traditions of the naval service. At the hour of his death he was at his battle station while this vessel was retiring from a particularly hazardous operation under attack by enemy aircraft. Death came instantaneously when the enemy struck a fatal blow, which crippled our ship and took toll of the lives of many fine officers and men. A Military Funeral was held with religious services at the burial.”

His death certificate states the cause of death as multiple extreme injuries. I shudder to think of what happened to him.

In researching the U.S.S. Liddle and the Battle of Ormoc, I learned this:  The ship departed New York on September 22, 1944 and arrived in Hollandia, New Guinea on November 4 for duty with the 7th fleet. From there the ship screened a supply convoy bound for Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands, arriving off the beaches on November 24. That same day the ship escorted an LST formation to the Palaus, and returned to Leyte on the 29th of November. The ship embarked 141 troops on December 3rd for a flanking operation in the Leyte Gulf area. The troops landed at Ormoc without casualty on December 7. Then the ship came under attack from Japanese aircraft. She was hit on the bridge by a kamikaze and seriously damaged. There were 38 officers and men killed.

Since I was my father’s only living heir, I was sent a letter dated October 24, 1945 saying my late father, Frederick Madison Denning, Seaman First Class, United States Naval Reserve was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart. Then on February 21, 1947, another letter was addressed to me which said my father was being posthumously awarded the World War II Victory Medal.

I have the medals, but I never got to meet the man who wrote about me in his letters. There are so many women and men of all ages who have died in various wars through our country’s history. Today I wish to honor all of them and hope to inspire others who read this to remember the sacrifices made so that we can live in this wonderful country and celebrate the freedoms we often take for granted.

Thank you all. Thank you, Dad.


Comments

Letters from War – A Memorial to My Father — 16 Comments

  1. What a heartbreaking story, Carol Ann. I’m sure there were far too many young men who met (and continue to meet) an early death. I’m glad you have a written record of his short life.

    Hugs, Becky

  2. I feel comfortable calling you Mom, so I do. I want to thank you for sharing this story. It made me think a lot while reading, of how it has probably happened to so so many, and could have happened to me. When you first told me a few years ago about your father, I tried to do a little researching on it myself, it’s the inquisitive history buff in me. I wan’t able to find out so much as you did of course. You have provided a wonderfully written story, and I thank your father for his service. Next time I am over to your house, I would be honored to see the medals.
    Much Love,
    Paul

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Carol Ann. My husband’s brother, Wesley, was a navy pilot who also lost his life in the war, Another brother served in the Army, and my three uncles each joined a separate service, Army, Navy, and Marines. They returned, but they were changed forever by their experience. We all have someone to remember, but to have never met your father makes it harder for you, I’m sure. I commend you for putting this history together, and I will think of your father as I celebrate this day.

    Best always, Linda

  4. Linda, Many of my family members also served their country. I’m honored to be in such a great family. Sounds as if you, too, have much to be proud of and much to be thankful for. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  5. Thank you for sharing this beautifully written account of your father and his too-short life, and your parents’ youthful missteps.
    It’s important for all of us to remember that this Memorial Day is about honoring those who tragically continue to die in service to our country.
    My late father was also at Leyte – I’m going to check the dates he was there, if possible. My mother has photos taken from his ship that my father (probably illegally) acquired that show the ship next to them being severely damaged by a kamakaze. A vivid and horrifying visual of war.
    -Robin

  6. Thank you so much for sharing such a touching story with us, Carol Ann.

    I find it sweet how your father referred to you as “Carol Ann,” and not as “Carol” or “our daughter.” I think it shows his love for you, as the name “Carol Ann” sounds sweet, I would think, coming from the lips of a father.

    You did a fantastic job at piecing together his life from letters, military records, and whatever memories your mother was willing to share. But we never know what happens behind closed doors, and although their relationship seemed somewhat volatile at moments, people can be funny like that. Their emotions are more powerful than logic, and families often times break apart due to miscommunication or incompatibility. Nevertheless, you are truly the best thing that came out of their short marriage.

    I believe that sometimes people are meant to be in our lives for a short period of time to serve a purpose, and then are destined to become a distant memory. Perhaps your father fulfilled his duty, and his love for both you and your mother, for what ever amount of time he had left, was enough to allow you to remember him as a man you would have loved to know. And that, I’m sure, is a legacy your father would be honored to have.

  7. Robin, there were many ships damaged in the Battle of Ormoc Bay. I’ve seen pictures of some of the other ships and ready the account of the entire battle on history sites. Many lost their lives during this skirmish and many lived to tell the stories which are carried down by children and grandchildren. If you find the picture your father has, perhaps one day you could show it to me. I’m so happy your father made it through the war. Today I honor him and all other veterans as well. Hugs.

  8. Carol – thanks for sharing your family’s story of love, heartbreak, and sacrifice. Even though you didn’t get to know your father, I’m sure he is proud of the amazing woman you became. God bless you and God bless all who serve to keep us safe and free.

    {Hugs}

  9. Thank you for sharing your father and mother’s (my grandmother) amazing story with us. We all know that sacrifices have been made, but we don’t usually get to hear the history of the sacrifices. For all the men and women who have died, who have served, are currently serving, or will be serving, THANK YOU!!

  10. Oh, Carol Ann, what a tragic and compelling post. I have to think that both of your parents (who had such tragic lives) must look down on you with such pride and joy – I think your easy smile and warm heart are, at least a little, God’s gift to your parents for the pain they both endured. *big hugs*

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