Every Memorial Day for the last 10 years, and on other summer days, I stop by two graves in a south Minneapolis cemetery — my father’s and Jimmy’s.
On the Thursday before Memorial Day I brought a pot of flowers to the grave of Carl W. Anderson, my father, good friend, and also the principal of Washburn High School when I attended. He died just short of his 97th birthday in 2010. His gravestone includes two engravings, a book to symbolize his career as educator and an anchor to symbolize his service in the Navy during World War II.
Ten paces away is an arresting gravestone with a portrait of a smiling young man engraved by some semi-photographic process I don’t understand. It is Jimmy’s gravestone. The text on the stone tells Jimmy’s story. And I often stop to compare the two of them, my dad and Jimmy.
Both grew up in Minneapolis: my father graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1930; Jimmy graduated from West High in 1940. Both went into the service early in the war: my father on the Wednesday after Pearl Harbor; Jimmy not far behind. Both saw action: Dad in the Navy; Jimmy with the Marines. But after that their stories diverge.
My father was on the bridge of his ship during three landings in the Pacific, driving his 325-foot LST 717 onto the beach to open the bow doors and land tanks and Marines while keeping one eye on the sky for the kamikazes that came diving out of the sun at targets like his. On Aug. 6, 1945, in Okinawa, he had just finished attending the daily briefing on the invasion plan for the Japanese mainland when a signalman brought him a cable that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
After the physics teacher who worked in the engine room convinced him that an invasion would no longer be necessary, my dad knew the kamikazes wouldn’t get one last shot at him. He was going to go home.
Jimmy, however, didn’t come home. Jimmy was awarded the Navy Cross for distinguished service at the battle of Guadalcanal, and died on Nov. 13, 1942, aboard the USS San Francisco. His stone contains a lengthy text from his commanding officer that reads, in part: “While seriously wounded, he constantly waived first aid so that it could be given to his comrades. We are proud to have known him … for men like him are rare.”
My father’s ashes are buried beneath the stone my sisters and I chose. Jimmy’s remains are not here; he was buried at sea. But Jimmy has a stone too. At the bottom of his beautiful gray marker, is the engraving: “This memorial erected by his boyhood friend Curtis.” (I am omitting both Jimmy’s and Curtis’ last names out of respect for their privacy.)
Every year, I put a large pot of flowers in a stand by my father’s grave. And every year there is small potted flower in front of Jimmy’s memorial. There wasn’t one there yet on Thursday, but I bet there will be. Curtis or his descendants usually come on the weekend, probably for the last 77 years.
It has become a tradition to decorate every grave on Memorial Day, but the day is really dedicated to those who fell in the service of their country. It is dedicated to the Jimmies.
As I do on every visit, I stood for a while by my father’s grave. I sang the Navy Hymn, then whispered, “Sleep well, Dad.”
And then, as I also do every time, I stopped and sang a second time, to Jimmy.
Paul Anton lives in Edina.