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The Things My Father Carried in World War II

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Cass Sunstein
Bloomberg View columnist Cass Sunstein. Photographer: Stephen Voss/Bloomberg

July 4 (Bloomberg) -- Columnists should discuss issues, not themselves, but on this Independence Day, I am going to make an exception.

My father, Cass Richard Sunstein, was part of the Greatest Generation. He was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving mostly in the Philippines while on active duty from 1944 to 1946. Although he didn’t talk a lot about the war, he did describe some narrow escapes. On one occasion, he saw the Japanese blow up a small naval ship in the Pacific, immediately killing everyone on board. The ship was essentially identical to the one that my father was commanding, just a few hundred feet away.

On another occasion, he had to find a way to drive his military vehicle for a considerable distance with his head below the steering wheel because a gun was trained directly on him. He expected to be part of the planned invasion of Japan in 1945 (made unnecessary because of President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb).

Soon after my father died, my mother gave me one of his most prized possessions: a small, elegant blue box. Her note says, “I am glad that you have these things -- with a tear -- Mother.”

The box has many objects that my father cherished. To my astonishment, it is filled with memorabilia from the war. There are detailed letters he wrote about the progress of the war, and letters he received while in the Pacific, and currency from the Philippines, and his honorable discharge, and his medals, and his dog tag. It’s living history.

One letter stands out, because it is written with real ebullience. It was composed on a historic day, April 25, 1945. The location: the Alexander Hamilton Hotel, San Francisco. The letter discusses the coming victory in Europe and the continuing struggle in the Pacific.

It begins as follows: “Dear Family -- Conference starts today and the town is going wild with excitement. It is a pleasure to be here for the opening few days. Russians came by the 100s as did French, and all the other countries. Let’s pray that they accomplish something.”

As it happens, my father was in San Francisco on the very day that the Allied nations first came together to discuss the creation of the United Nations.

Last month, an Irish immigrant, Samantha Power, was nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to the UN. She’s the daughter-in-law of that particular naval lieutenant, and she’s the mother of two of his grandchildren.

My father never bragged about his military service, and he wasn’t a sentimental person. But whenever he heard the national anthem, he stood up, and he placed his hand directly over his heart.

(Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of “Nudge” and author of “Simpler: The Future of Government.”)

To contact the writer of this article: Cass R. Sunstein at csunstei@law.harvard.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.

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