Memorial Day stirs an array of emotions in many of us. There is no shortage of articles, essays, and interviews with pious voices imploring civilians to recognize that the holiday isn’t just about their barbeques and steep retail discounts. There are families who’ve suffered the unimaginable and find this day just as difficult as every other day since their worlds were first shattered. And there are those of us who just wish we had our friends back. The truth is, there is no right or wrong way, per se, to spend the holiday. The best any of us can strive for is to understand that the liberties and simple pleasures we enjoy today, even amid these extremely trying times, were paid for with someone else’s life. And as with most things, the earlier we’re exposed to these ideas, and the earlier we’re imbued with this sense of gratitude and reverence, the more likely we are to be able to process and develop our own thoughts and opinions on this often painful subject. The earlier we have hard talks with our children, the sooner they can begin to process and navigate their own paths toward mature and responsible citizenship. I consider myself incredibly fortunate that one of my personal heroes had these hard talks with me as a young boy.
Jack Salem Polis was my grandfather. His family’s name was anglicized to Polis from Polaz when they processed through Ellis Island after arriving from Turkey. He was born and raised by a blue-collar family in Buffalo, and shortly after the devastating attacks on Pearl Harbor he did what young American men of the day did. He married his sweetheart Diane (and how American is that — Jack and Diane!), and joined the service — specifically, he joined the Navy. His aptitude for electronics and tinkering drew him an assignment as an electrician on diesel powered submarines. After completing training in Florida he shipped off to join the crew of the USS TINOSA (SS 283) where he completed multiple wartime Pacific patrols that saw TINOSA sink tens of thousands of tons of Japanese shipping. TINOSA was awarded numerous awards and citations, but more importantly she stayed intact, afloat, and alive. That was no small miracle. The casualty record for American submarines in the Pacific was long. In total 52 submarines and more than 3,000 crew-members were lost during the war. And to say “lost” almost seems trite, disrespectful even, to the actual fate that befell those subs. The manner in which those men died is equal parts unimaginable and horrifying. But, TINOSA came home, and with her, Jack.
In the years that followed, Jack and Diane had three children — my mother being the youngest. He established himself as a well-known and respected electrician in southern California. He bought a house, loved driving Cadillacs — the bigger the better — and was adored by five grandchildren. And though he was exceedingly proud of the life his job as an electrician afforded his family, his passion always remained tied to his time as a submariner during the war. He served in key leadership positions with the local chapter of the Submarine Veterans of World War II, and never missed an opportunity to share a story or use his experience during the war to refine a learning point he had for us kids. One project he dedicated years of his life toward was the creation of the US Submarine Veterans WWII Memorial West — or simply “the memorial” when we’d ask Gramma where Grandpa was off to again.
To suggest that he was singularly responsible for the design and eventual construction of the memorial would unintentionally omit the significant amount of work donated by countless others. Unfortunately those other selfless contributor’s names have been lost to my poor memory. That said, Jack was undeniably the engine that kept progress moving toward what you will find today if you’re near Long Beach, California with some time to kill. During summer breaks from school, my parents would drive me up from the San Diego area to Garden Grove where Jack and Diane lived. Some of the fondest memories I have as a young boy are of summers spent at my grandparent’s home. They lived at the end of an idyllic cul-de-sac with orange and lemon trees in the backyard, and a clear view of the nightly firework displays from Disney Land. Chocolate chip pancakes, garage tinkering, Angles baseball on the AM radio, and fresh squeezed orange juice are all memories that remain as vivid as if they’d occurred last week, but there was something else I spent time doing with my grandfather during those summers, and it’s what this meandering essay is all about. I spent a lot of time with him at the memorial.
He was in the process of overhauling the site and building it into what is, more or less, there today. I learned how to use a lawn mower, how to start a gas powered weed-whacker, how to install a sprinkler system, and most importantly, I learned how much that place meant to my grandfather. For him, the memorial was more than just well-kept grass, a flag pole, a polished torpedo, and 52 plaques with lists of names. For him, I came to learn, it was a place where he could be with his shipmates again — the ones who didn’t come home. Considering his service was limited to one submarine I was, even at a young age, amazed at how he knew the stories of so many of the other subs and even individual crew members and their stories. I learned of men he’d left Buffalo with who never came home. I learned of the poorly designed and faulty torpedoes that were as unpredictable as they were ineffective. I learned how strong the animus was toward the enemy, and why he tried his best to still only buy “American Made” products. I learned about the USS Growler*, and its skipper Commander Gilmore who was grievously wounded and stranded on the deck after a Japanese strafing attack, and in order to save the boat and the crew ordered his executive officer to close the hatch and “take her down.” I learned about the idea of “ship, shipmate, self” long before I would ever meet a Naval Academy graduate. But perhaps most importantly, I learned from my namesake the importance of remembering those who’ve paid the steepest price, and that living well is indeed the highest form of tribute. My grandfather, until his last days, was immensely proud of his service and mindful of the friends and shipmates he lost, but he set a sterling example of how to honor them by coming home from his war and building a life for himself and his family. He worked hard honest jobs, taught his children and grandchildren strong values and work ethics, and instilled in each of us a sense of gratitude for what all those names at the memorial meant.
My mere existence is due to the fact that my grandfather did not die in service to his country. But, I’m confident that the lessons he taught me at the memorial helped shape how I reflect on the extreme price paid by the relative few for the benefit of so many others. Death, tragedy, and sacrifice are admittedly difficult topics to discuss with children, but I am eternally grateful that my grandfather cared enough to do just that. And though I’m not home to spend this Memorial Day with my son, I will continue in the years to come to try and impart upon him those same values and lessons. I’ve told my son about James, Kelly, Patrick, Alan, Valerie, Will, and many others — not to frighten him, but because I’m trying to raise my boy into a young man and a grateful citizen. I think his great-grandfather would approve.
*I was unable to attend my grandfather’s funeral after his passing. I was finishing my initial flight training and preparing to go out and try my hand at the whole fly-jets-from-ships thing. Part of me regrets not taking a knee and going, but another part of me believes I was doing exactly what he’d have wanted me doing. Today, almost twenty years later, I had the privilege to fly another jet, an EA-18G Growler, from a Navy ship deployed overseas - a Growler. I think my grandfather would have found some real satisfaction in that bit of coincidence.