Like many men of the Greatest Generation, Robert Cannon didn’t talk much about his service in World War II, even when asked.
When I asked the “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” question, his answer was always, “I fought the war of the English pubs and the German frauleins.” And that was pretty much it. That was all in the past and he preferred living in the now. There was a living to earn, a mortgage to pay, a family to raise. And in his spare time, a garden to grow, fish to be caught and deer to be hunted.
This is what I think of when I think of Memorial Day. Literally millions of American men — and women — have done what he did over our history. Left the familiar and comfortable to do a job that’s often either too glamorized or too denigrated in the defense of our country. They did what they had to do to the best of their ability so they could come home.
But I always thought my Dad didn’t give himself enough credit. It’s hard for me to put myself in the place of a kid from a mill village in South Carolina getting on a train in June 1943, just a couple of weeks after his high school graduation and a couple of months after his 18th birthday, headed for Vancouver, Wash., to learn how to be a soldier.
Here he is, in uniform. No date on the picture but my guess is 1944 or 1945.
And like I said, he didn’t talk about what happened to him very much, but I really got the impression that he didn’t have a terribly bad war. Some time in England and Wales, mop-up duty in Germany as Hitler’s thousand-year Reich crumbled. And experience as a mess sergeant that made him a whiz in the kitchen for the rest of his life.
Something about the military life must have appealed to him. When he returned to the States, he remained a citizen soldier until his last years. He excelled in ROTC at Presbyterian College, earning honors as the top military student. And he served with distinction for more than 35 years as an artillery officer in the S.C. National Guard. (One of the most vivid memories of my early teenage years was going with him to Fort Jackson and watching a demonstration of those big howitzers being fired.)
He retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel, leading to a family joke that relates to his favorite dish to cook — especially for my wife Jayne — “Colonel Cannon’s Fried Chicken.”
So on this Memorial Day, thanks to the millions like him who have served or now serve to defend our country — not for glory but because it’s what they believe they should do. I’m grateful for that sacrifice and I hope you are too.