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John M. House: Reflections on Augusts past

When August rolls around each year a number of historical events always pop in my head. Since Vietnam was a major factor of my junior high to college years, so the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution comes to mind, with the deployment of American troops to Southeast Asia. Desert Shield began in August 1990. In 1914, Germany invaded Belgium and France in August. Nonetheless, the atomic bomb supersedes all of this for me.

I’ve written before that I’m convinced that a major factor in my being alive is that the United States did not have to invade Japan to end World War II. My Dad was in the Marine Corps 5th Division and would have landed on the southern island of Kyushu. Historians now argue over the casualty count predictions. All any of us really know is that we dropped the bombs and Japan surrendered. My dad came home, and I arrived. Of course, not many people at the time would have predicted some of the other effects this would have.

One story I like to tell when working the Cold War Gallery at the National Infantry Museum is civilian preparations for nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s. I practiced “duck and cover” in Johnson Elementary School here in Columbus. America feared that the Soviet Union would attack us. The possibility of missiles in Cuba was no laughing matter, for President Kennedy or me.

I remember arguing with Dad about him building a fallout shelter in the backyard. I told him over and over that Fort Benning might be nuked and we needed a place to hide out. Even if Benning was not nuked I would have had a great playroom. Our backyard had this really good terrace that he could have dug into. We could have had a hatch instead of a trap door. I would have helped. I was good at supervising.

He kept telling me that nobody was going to nuke Fort Benning and that if they did, the fallout shelter wasn’t going to help anyway. We were too close. Just because he had walked around Nagasaki a few weeks after we dropped the bomb did not make him an expert. I didn’t buy it but finally had to relent. Nobody nuked Fort Benning, and I had to settle for tormenting my mother by taking over the house as a multi-front war zone. I could just about stage the Normandy invasion down the hall and into the living room and dining room, using tomato containers as landing craft while simultaneously fighting dinosaurs on Mars (in the den).

So in August I always remember that my dad credited President Truman with saving his life and me coming along. Of course, I then had to grow up worrying about all the things in Hollywood movies of the 1950s and 1960s including giant ants eating the world. My mother lost control of the house while I prepped for the invasion. When I was older I even had to count nuclear artillery rounds when stationed in Germany. Those nukes just wouldn’t go away. Life would have been simpler without them, but then I might not be here.

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