Saturday, July 30, 2016

John Lee Dillingham, RIP

I never knew John Lee Dillingham, but I knew somebody a lot like him. Dillingham was a Navy veteran, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor at the outset of World War II, and just a guy. Actually, I've known a lot of guys like Dillingham, but I knew one who was almost his twin. Why do I mention this? John Lee Dillingham of Dallas, Texas, died Wednesday at 93.

I mention Mr. Dillingham not because he died, but because he lived, and because of the way he lived. I don't guess he was really special, except maybe to the people who loved him. But on the other hand, he was very special in the same way that a lot of guys from his generation were:
Born near Gatesville, Dillingham was 3 years old when his family moved to Dallas, where he graduated from Dal-Tech High School. Knowing that the world might soon be at war, he made plans to enlist in the Navy, hoping to become an electrician. He worked in Dallas while waiting for his high school friends to graduate in January 1941.
Dillingham was assigned to the USS Hull, a destroyer stationed at Pearl Harbor. He was on board the morning of the attack:
The evening before the attack, the Hull's crew was granted shore leave to celebrate the ship's birthday. The sailors were treated to dinner, ample drinks and a sight-seeing tour of the island.
The next morning, America was at war.
"I remember waking up and going on topside, and everybody was yelling something: 'We're being attacked! We're being attacked!,'" he said for the oral history.
Dillingham ran to his battle station, dressed only in his under shorts. The Japanese planes had struck battleship row and proceeded to rake the vessels at Ford Island, where the Hull was stationed for repairs. He and the sailors at his gun station returned fire.
The Hull took no direct hits, but a nearby bomb blast ruptured the ship's hydraulic rudder controls. After the attack, the crew operated the rudder manually, guiding it to sea in search of enemy submarines.
Dillingham served throughout the war aboard the Hull. Near the end of the conflict, he was transferred out to go to electrician's school. I guess that saved his life, because the Hull sank in the storm that became known as "Halsey's Typhoon," which inspired the book and movie, "The Caine Mutiny." In any event, Dillingham survived the war, went to work for the company that became AT&T, and married a woman he met there. They were married until her death in 2013, after nearly 60 years of wedlock.

Nothing special, really. But very special. These guys signed up because they thought their country was going to need them, they went out and did what they had to do because their country did, in fact, need them, and then they went back home, started families, kept those families together, and did the jobs that made America work. Probably most people my age knew people like John Lee Dillingham.

I knew somebody who could have been him, I think. When I was 6 and 7 years old, and my father was off in Vietnam, we lived in Virginia Beach and our next-door neighbor was a man named Elmer Schoenfelter. When I was 6, I was pretty sure it was spelled "Shornfelter," but years later, I realized it was a German name and I probably was spelling it wrong. But I digress.

Even at 6, I was a huge history buff. I read a lot of history books even then, and to me, Elmer Schoenfelter was the mother lode: he was aboard the USS Pennsylvania, a battleship that was in drydock at Pearl Harbor during the attack. I was sure he could tell me all about the day.

Mr. Schoenfelter was happy to tell me generalities about the ship, how long he served aboard, where they went, and things like that, but, like many veterans -- probably most, based on my experience -- he was loathe to get into details. He would say what a terrible day it was, and then move on to how nice Hawaii was, how he liked his shipmates, and things like that. Years later, I visited him at his home in the Washington, D.C., area after he had retired, and he had some official Navy photos of the attack, but demurred when it came to discussing details.

I think Elmer Schoenfelter was probably a lot like John Lee Dillingham. Sounds like they both did what they saw as their duty, then just went on and lived their lives, being the best kind of man they could be, as best they could. Nothing special.

But very special. The country is poorer for their passing. Rest in peace, John Lee Dillingham. Your tour of duty is over.

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