This year there will be a great deal of hoopla over the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the British liner Titanic on her first voyage (see story, p. 48). My father, Carl Stillwell, felt a kinship with that event for the rest of his life, because he was born on 30 March 1912, a little more than two weeks before the great ship sank. For years, his mother noted that he was the same age as whatever anniversary was being observed.
He grew up very much a product of the Depression—creating a habit of frugality that lasted a lifetime. After he graduated from high school in 1930, he worked in a bank in New York City for four years to save money for college. During the summer vacations from undergraduate school at Elmhurst College—and later Eden Seminary—he served as a Merchant Marine officer. I still have his blue blouse with four faded gold stripes on each sleeve. Drawing on his business background, he was purser for Great Lakes cruise ships. As my brother, Mark, and I grew up, we heard his tales of being under way, taking care of passengers, seeing the Northern Lights, and steering the ship for fun when he got the opportunity.
In 1941 Dad was ordained as a minister and began work at a church in Dayton, Ohio. With the coming of World War II, he volunteered to serve as an Army chaplain. His application was turned down because it would have meant closing his church. I remain grateful for that twist of fate; otherwise, I might not have been born. He did contribute to the war effort in a limited way. He was an air-raid warden, charged with making sure neighborhood lights were blacked out at night because the Army’s nearby Wright Field might have been a bombing target—as farfetched as that seems in hindsight. The Army sent up a plane to check the effectiveness of the blackout. The only lights showing were the glowing tips of cigarettes as the wardens walked their beats.
In 1945 the family moved to Springfield, Missouri, where Dad became business manager and eventually vice president of Drury College. He also served as pastor for two small country churches. Later, he became mayor of Springfield as well. In the early 1950s, as I was growing up, Dad helped me assemble a plastic model of the battleship Missouri (BB-63), named for our state. I recall gluing the 5-inch gun mounts into the superstructure and hanging tiny signal flags over the pieces of thread that linked bow and stern with the foremast. Later, when we were assembling a model of the passenger liner United States, he borrowed a Life magazine from the library so we could use its color photos of the ship to guide our paint scheme.
Fifty years ago this spring, shortly after I registered for the draft, Dad guided me into the Naval Reserve as an alternative. Brother Mark followed a year later. Dad wisely foresaw the advantages of our staying in the reserve until retirement, and both of us did. My first underway duty, in 1963, was as a seaman apprentice in the destroyer escort Daniel A. Joy (DE-585) on the Great Lakes. I stood helm watches and learned to steer as Dad had more than 20 years earlier. One of the ports his cruise ship hit was Lake Huron’s Mackinac Island, home of the fabulous Grand Hotel. It was a genuine pleasure to take my family to the island in 2006—two years after Dad died at the age of 92—and figuratively walk in his footsteps.
In time, both Mark and I left Springfield to go on active duty in ships of the Pacific Fleet Amphibious Force. Dad was completely supportive of our efforts, and I like to think there was a sense of pride involved. Circumstances had prevented his participation in World War II, but in the late 1960s, circumstances compelled us to take part in the conflict in Vietnam. He urged us to keep in frequent touch but was not demanding about it. His pledge was a simple one: “Every time I get a letter from you, I’ll write one back.” He did. The Fleet post-office system was remarkably efficient in those days when e-mails were nonexistent and telephone calls from overseas were quite expensive and thus brief. When the two of us got home from the war, he presented us with stacks of our letters he had received and saved for us.
In the meantime, he forwarded an interesting letter to my ship, the USS Washoe County (LST-1165), which was homeported in Japan and made frequent deployments to Vietnam. The letter had come from the Selective Service System and been delivered to the home address. It informed me that my college deferment had expired and I was therefore eligible to be drafted. I was directed to report to Fort Riley, Kansas, for a preinduction physical. I wrote to the Selective Service folks, told them where I was and what I was doing, and never heard from them again.
One memory from that time remains particularly poignant. The airport in Springfield had no jet ways, no Transportation Security Administration. Friends and relatives essentially could go planeside on the tarmac to see people off. As I was preparing to fly away, first to California and then the Far East, I looked out the window of the airplane and saw Dad wordlessly saying good-bye. He was saluting.