First Day of the Rest of His Life
Every November 11th, our nation pauses to honor the courage and commitment of all American veterans. This day traces back to November 11, 1918, marking the end of WWI.
Originally called Armistice Day, President Eisenhower signed a proclamation on November 11, 1954 calling citizens to observe November 11 as “Veterans Day.”
All of us have a cherished veteran. My Dad, Leroy J Hook Jr., is mine.
I don’t share his story to glorify war because there really are no winners in war. I share his story to honor his unyielding spirit like so many others of his generation who wore the uniform.
When I talked with Dad about his wartime experiences, he would reminisce with a guarded affection. In those moments, he would share the tales of his camaraderie with a smile while at the same time the hardships that shaped his life from a boy to a man were evident.
For Dad, it all began Sunday afternoon Dec.1, 1941. He was headed out to church with his parents, he reached for the dial to turn the radio off, and the stunning news of the Pearl Harbor attack was announced. This was the first day of the rest of his life.
Goodbyes and Bootcamp
On July 3, 1942, without the blessings of his parent’s or sweetheart’s approval he hopped on a streetcar to the Baltimore City Post Office and took a leap into the unknown and enlisted in the Navy. He was sworn in and ordered to return the next morning to catch a train to Rhode Island for boot camp. Not a lot of time for long goodbyes… the country was at war and he was in the Navy.
Interestingly, his memories of boot camp revolved more around the hammock he had to sleep on and not the rigorous training. He would chuckle as he recalled the loud thuds as guys fell to the floor followed by colorful expletives.
After boot camp Leroy was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. Here he was trained in welding and metal smithing. Before joining the Navy, Leroy had worked as a Metalsmith for the B&O Railroad. Fortunately, his experience in this field earned him the opportunity to repair ships instead of defending them.
War in the South Pacific Islands
In February 1943, Leroy set sail on one of 14 LCI’s (Landing Craft Infantry Ship) and headed to the Pacific theatre. Despite the gravity of his circumstances, his “ride” through the Panama Canal was an unforgettable highlight of his Navy career. Even at 100 years of age, his eyes would light up as he described in vivid details this awesome experience.
In the end, Leroy was assigned to the repair ship USS Reigel. He traveled the vast expanse of the South Pacific with stops in Australia, Fiji, Samoa, Bora Bora, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, New Guinea, Bismarck, and more. While it sounds like an exotic vacation the looming explosions of war cast a shadow over his island experience.
In addition to repairing US warships, Leroy would pilot landing crafts full of sons, fathers, and brothers to shore for impending battles. He shared how gut-wrenching this would be… “dropping off those guys, knowing many of them weren’t coming back was very difficult.”
Heartwarming Love Story
The sweetheart he left behind 2 years earlier was home waiting for him. He told me he would “write to that girl every day.” One of those letters had an engagement ring. And that sweetheart is my Mom.
The story of their engagement is heartwarming but at the same time highlights the sacrifices soldiers and families made in WWII. Not only did he have his mother give Mary the ring with his proposal but he had to wait for a letter in return for the answer! No video or pictures for this one!
After a long journey home, thinking of his girl along the way, Leroy arrived back in Baltimore in April 1945. Happy to be home and after a jubilant reunion with his parents and sister, Leroy’s Dad told him he was getting married in one week. Totally surprised with the news he asked his Dad how he knew? To which his father replied with a grin, “It says so right here in the newspaper!”
I’d shake my head with a smile and somewhat disbelief every time my parents shared their love story.
Remarkable 101 years of honor
My cherished veteran lived to the remarkable age of 101, passing on April 17, 2023. I know I speak for his entire legacy of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren how proud we are of him. He served with honor and integrity leaving behind a timeless example for us all.
While we miss him very much, his life lessons centered on hard work and unwavering honor for our country continue to guide our lives today.
Hug Your Cherished Veterans
On this Veterans Day take a moment to embrace and remember your cherished veteran. Express your heartfelt gratitude for their dedication and service, and let them know how much you value and appreciate the sacrifices they made for all of us.
For more information on Leroy J Hook Jr.’s Military Navy service go to the Library of Congress and view a live interview.