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Memories of my dad, Master Sgt. Richard Sneed, this Memorial Day

Master Sgt. Richard  E. Sneed middle five kneeling with rest his crew front their bomber.

Master Sgt. Richard E. Sneed, the middle of the five kneeling, with the rest of his crew in front of their bomber.

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Updated: July 3, 2012 10:37AM

Back in time

It’s funny how things grab you — claws of memory catching you in the throat — dragging you back in time.

Such was a serendipitous conversation last week with Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy about his tough U.S. Marine Corps father — and the Pacific arena of World War II his dad shared with mine.

One may have fought on land, the other in the air, but how similar these men seemed: young, scrappy, no-nonsense guys sporting their Clark Gable moustaches, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, and looking mighty lean and snappy in their soldier gear.

They married and stayed married and never thought twice about not working hard or paying their bills and raising a family to feel pride in their country.

But war can take its toll; both Garry, his father’s youngest, and I, my father’s oldest — lost our dads when they were barely past 60 years old.

I’d like to share with you a few things I’ve written before about my father, U.S. Army Air Corps Master Sgt. Richard E. Sneed, a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross — as well as the hearts of my mother, June, and their four daughters.

I am far from the cemetery where my father is buried under the “headstone” of his choice; a simple U.S. Army grave marker stating his name and his battleground: WWII.

“Keep it simple,” he told us. “I don’t want money spent on a fancy headstone. A military marker will do.”

And so it was.

Dad told my mother to be happy and marry again but requested she eventually be buried next to him.

So for years, the grave of my father, Richard E. Sneed, an Army Air Corps turret gunner who flew missions on “The Sad Sack” bomber in the Pacific, was buried alone in a quiet Georgia cemetery . . . waiting for a woman who had another life to live before she joined him.

“Dad never talked much about the war,” she said. “He lost so many friends. So many dark memories of finding their bodies bobbing next to him in the water.”

The water? Wasn’t Dad in the Air Corps? I was young when Dad died and asked so few questions.

Now I’m obsessed by that war and look for my father in the piles of war history books on my basement floor.

I have his Army bracelet and cigarette lighter and box of war medals, which includes the Distinguished Flying Cross.

But I loved him and lost him before I knew him.

So on Memorial Day, I will honor him by reopening the little cigar box he kept next to his bed; a picture of him playing baseball, a keepsake from Alaska, an old coin and a hand-typed, flimsy piece of paper containing a terse diary of every World War II mission he flew. Locations like Tarawa, Truk, Guajalein, the Marianas, the Caroline Islands, Guadalcanal are typed on it. But no sense of how he felt, other than lots of ack-ack. And on the day I was born, he was on a run.

He was a child of the Depression who didn’t believe the world owed him a living. He worked. And he worked hard. And he stayed married. And even though he was not raised a Catholic, he honored my mother’s faith by going to mass with us.

He was a soldier who went to college after the war on the GI Bill, legislation that changed the face of America.

Those who ran the country before the war came from the privileged few who could afford to send their kids to college.

The children of farmers and blue-collar workers were, for the most part, without a platform.

After the war, it was our fathers — our tough, country-bred, no-nonsense scrappers — who started turning this country around.

Somewhere between Georgia and Dad’s final interment alongside my mother in a Mandan, N.D., family plot in September 2006 — the little bronze vase jutting from Dad’s bronze Army grave marker disappeared.

But it’s of no real importance. Dad, who was an avid gardener, didn’t like cut flowers. They reminded him of a funeral home; he liked his flowers living as long as nature allowed.

So that’s what I’ll do Monday to honor my father. I’ll stroll through my garden — my monument to my dad that is a testament to a man who felt he had been “a flower born on a desert unseen.”

Dad may not have lived long, but it was long enough to help keep his country safe and become the tallest sunflower in the garden of his eldest daughter’s heart.

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