My dad Chester Pyzik saw combat action in nearly every major World War II battle in the Pacific, from Operation Galvanic in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign to Iwo Jima, all the way to the Japanese surrender at Toyko Bay. But he never fired a single shot.
Instead, as a Navy yeoman first assigned to the captain of the USS William C. Miller, a destroyer escort, he fought with his fingertips. My dad was the ship’s typist, the guy who recorded the daily events on board, kept track of personnel and served as a stenographer during court martials.
Like the other sailors, he was sometimes called on to “man the battle stations,” but that assignment was about communications, not weaponry. He would take up his post on the bridge and convey orders from the captain. He was on duty when the ship sank a Japanese submarine and came under heavy fire a number of times as it acted as a screen to protect convoys from attacks.
The ship returned home with seven battle stars after participating in the capture of Eniwetok, Saipan and Tinian – and escorting the USS Indianapolis, as it completed a top-secret trip to deliver parts of Little Boy, the first nuclear weapon used in combat.
Now 95, legally blind and suffering from end-stage congestive heart failure, he still likes to tell the stories of his service time, which started with his enlistment in 1943 at age 19. I sit with him in the living room of his house in Michigan, set up my tripod and iPhone camera, and record his tales.
One of the best is that his tiny ship ended up anchored next to the USS Missouri when the Japanese officially surrendered on September 2, 1945. The sailors on the USS Miller wore their dress white uniforms and lined the ship. My dad said he could see General Douglas MacArthur and the Japanese officials in the distance. Yet he scoffs at talk of being a member of the “Greatest Generation.”
When he talks about typing his way through the war, I am reminded of John Milton’s When I Consider How My Light is Spentand the famous last line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” In my dad’s case, I would say: “They also serve who only type.”
After his sister, my aunt Bernice, died last summer, I received a packet of old faded photos of my dad from World War II that nobody else wanted. Some are formal portraits in his navy uniform. Others are of him on shore leave, visiting his sister Vickie in Canada. There’s a picture of him on a farm with a goat and hanging around with some of his buddies from Detroit, guys with nicknames like Baby Face, Mooch and Fat Boy. The photos provide another window into that time in his life.
The Navy was something of a haven for him, despite the war. Coming from a poor family in Detroit, he says he was grateful for things like regular meals and a warm coat (he was issued a navy pea coat because his ship was en route to Alaska at one point, but was turned back for other duties). Today, when I bring him a slice of corn bread from a gourmet market, he tells me it’s “not as good as what they served on the ship.”
Things are about to come full circle for my dad, the guy from Detroit who helped to win the war in his own small way, and witnessed one of the greatest surrenders in the history of mankind. One of his five grandsons married a woman of Japanese-American descent. Their daughter – his great granddaughter – will be born in a few days, a fitting coda to his service time, he tells me, one that marks a moment of true reconciliation.