He was one of the many young Americans who was part of the planned invasion force of Japan in 1945. Because of the fierce defenses shown by the Japanese on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the United States military leaders rightly anticipated a similar defense of the Japanese homeland. The young American soldiers assembled for the invading force stoically faced death. One of those young soldiers on the Liberty ships sailing across the Pacific Ocean, Mr. Graham, was all of 20 years old.
Mr. Graham and I met at a local restaurant shortly after my wife and I moved to Mooresville. We had gone exploring for a good restaurant and found one that we liked. We had a good meal, and as I passed his table at which he was sharing dinner with his daughter, he reached out and asked me had I served in the military. Had I been in Vietnam? When I told him no, he apologized for bothering me, but explained that my wheelchair had caused him to think that I was perhaps a veteran. My wife continued her walk to our car, but I was struck by his manners and grace, so I stayed in the isle chatting with the dignified gentleman as his patient daughter looked on. Before I left to join my wife, we discovered that he lived at the end of our road. With that “sign” our friendship was born.
Because of his age, Mr. Graham has moved into an assisted living complex. But each week his caregiver Marilyn drives him to his house at the end of our road to check on it, and he always stops to see me. If I am not outside in the yard or shop, he calls to inquire of my health and location. He never stays long, but his visits are packed with news, street chatter, and complaints of my religion and politics, all in good humor but loaded with a bit of salt. Over the four years during such visits, Mr. Graham and I have shared much. I know about his oil business here in Mooresville, how much he paid for his house in the early 1980’s, his religious beliefs, his four sons and one daughter, how he wishes he had been a better reader, and more. When he first told me about his wife of seventy years, Louise, a moist longing came to his eyes, and he grew silent after telling me her name. But my friendship with this 96-year-old man is also held close because he is one of the many, unnamed heroes of our country.
Mr. Graham, regretfully not a reader, probably has never heard of Wiglaf or the poem in which he demonstrates characteristics shared with Mr. Graham and his generation. In the epic poem Beowulf, the great king of that name grows old, and his kingdom is threatened by a fierce, fire-breathing dragon. He and his followers enter the lair of the dragon, but no longer the warrior he was, Beowulf suffers a mortal wound. All but one of his followers flee the lair, but Wiglaf remains to fight by his king’s side, and he slays the beast as Beowulf dies.
Because of President Truman, Mr. Graham and the other young men would not have to invade Japan. But all the other soldiers on Liberty ships along with him, willed themselves to do what was being asked. They were prepared to invade Japan, but as is written in Beowulf, “Fate goes as Fate must” and they were spared that peril.
At an age in 1945 that today causes parents to worry if a child drives on an interstate, Mr. Graham and his generation walked into the lair of the enemy, just as did Wiglaf. Not because they wanted to, but because duty to a cause larger than they demanded it.