I’m the son of a son of a Sailor.  My grandfather served in the Pacific during the Second World War aboard the USS Florence Nightingale (AP-70).  Like many of his generation, he rarely talked about his service.  He told me about a failed attempt to smuggle aboard a bottle of gin under his pea coat after a port call  (it fell and broke as he saluted the watch officer on the quarterdeck).  Once, he mentioned a kamikaze attack during the invasion of Okinawa, and how years later he read a passage in a James Michener novel that was uncanny in its similarity.

He never mentioned the letter he received a few months after his discharge from the navy.  It was only after he passed away that my father found it tucked away in a box of papers.

November 9, 1945
My dear Mr. Volpe,

I have addressed this letter to reach you after all the formalities of your separation from active service are completed.  I have done so because, without formality but as clearly as I know how to say it, I want the Navy’s pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civil life and remain with your always.

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.

It performed the multitude of tasks necessary to support these military operations.

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.

The best wishes of the Navy go with you into civilian life.  Good luck!

Sincerely yours,

James Forrestal

I never tire of reading the letter, a copy of which I have framed and sitting on my book shelf next to Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Two Ocean War. (You can see an image of the original letter here)

Secretary Forrestal managed to convey a sense of avuncular warmth and pride rarely seen in a form letter.  Given the nearly infinite tasks the Department of Navy had to conduct in the immediate postwar period, it is remarkable that he made this gesture of appreciation a high priority despite the enormity of the undertaking (over four million Sailors served during the war).

I feel equal parts pride and humility every time I read it:  pride in knowing that I serve in the same Navy and help carry on such a lofty tradition, humility in realizing that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Please take a cue from Secretary Forrestal and go out of your way to thank a veteran this weekend.

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