By Andy Weddington
Friday, 22 January 2010
I was not sure what to write for today. A number of topics were on my mind but none among the handful was jumping to the top of the heap—except the GOP victory in Massachusetts for the critical Senate seat. Now that is news, but not surprising America is finally coming to her senses. Perhaps I’ll offer a comment another day. Though I don’t think one is necessary—the folk’s vote is “comment” enough. And it was loud and clear. “Congratulations, Senator Scott Brown.”
But back to today. Every once in a while you come across something that simply stuns you. And you think. And think some more.
Early Monday evening I opened an email—subject line: “Dad”—from a great friend of nearly fourteen years who I’d not heard from in a few weeks. All other topics instantaneously went from bubbling to nothing—not important. Honestly, I don’t recall what some of them were. No matter, my dilemma was solved. The only hurdle was to get permission from my friend, Colonel Ken Plato, U. S. Marine Corps (Retired), to tackle the subject. My query to him was answered post haste. The additional information I asked he kindly offer was his way of telling me he was amenable.
Thank you, Ken, for sending along your initial note. And following it up with my request for some specifics—clarifications, the military history, your touching eulogy, and the photos were perfect. I learned we have similar roots—a father who was enlisted in the military; a devout Catholic mother; parents who taught right from wrong and actually engaged to raise their children; one of five siblings--one girl and three of four boys who served in uniform; and the list goes on. Our shared title “Marine” aside, that we are such good friends makes even more sense now.
My challenge was to take an almost overwhelming amount of material and in a couple of days craft a worthy Commentary dedicated to a man who was clearly, and admittedly, the dominant male influence in his son’s life. I believe I pulled it off, Ken. And, trust you and the Plato family will agree. If I missed the mark or something is in error, as author and editor I take full responsibility.
So, folks what follows is a tribute to an American hero—Ken’s Dad. His life—a true blue American one —was remarkable and successful by any standard; from selfless service to country as a young man to a lifetime of hard work to his devotion to his wife and family. Today’s Navy Core Values—Honor, Courage, Commitment—come to mind. But what caught my attention was his death. And, how his sons gathered and closed ranks, with Dad on his deathbed, for a farewell that will probably stay with you for the rest of your life. I know I will not ever forget Ken’s story (Warning!—some of you may want to pause to fetch a handkerchief or box of Kleenex).
First, my brief synopsis of Ken’s Dad’s Navy service followed by Ken’s note to me and a mutual buddy, Kim (also a retired Marine colonel), earlier this week. Initially, I planned to exercise editorial license to weave and retell Ken’s story. Then I thought better of it—best you, too, read his words. As I don’t believe I could improve on the emotional impact of one who was there. Considering all he sent me since Tuesday evening, I am certain Ken is not going to object to my approach. The only “edits” are my non-italicized clarifications in brackets.
Petty Officer First Class Frank A. Plato, U. S. Navy (Retired)
(28 Feb 1926 - 07 Jan 2010)
Petty Officer Frank A. Plato served more than two decades in the Navy. The second son of Harold and Fannie Buck Plato, and from the small town of Bay Minette, Alabama — 35 miles northeast of Mobile, he enlisted in January 1944 knowing combat was in his future. Shortly after recruit training he found himself in the Pacific theatre—for the next two and a half years—fighting the Imperial Japanese forces. Petty Officer Plato was a Shipfitter (Navy rating “SF”) and a Higgins boat driver and maintainer who saw action during the Battle of Leyte Gulf—generally considered the largest naval battle of World War II and one of the largest in naval warfare history—and the strategically important land battle—the Battle of Luzon.
Worthy of mention is following Japan’s surrender, and as part of the occupation force, Petty Officer Plato walked the grounds of Nagasaki where the second atomic bomb, “Fat Man,” was dropped to break Japan’s will. As I write, I am wondering what he would say about that experience. My bet is the word “sobering” doesn’t come close to describing the devastation. I’ve no doubt the sights, sounds, and smells were unlike anything he’d ever experienced to that point in life—and probably after. And, in case you are wondering, yes, he was exposed to radiation.
Ken told me his father rarely spoke of what he witnessed during the war and even sixty years after his service he’d become overwhelmed with emotion thinking about it; that, a common reaction with those who survived nearly incomprehensible hardships and horrors. Perhaps that emotional pain alone is statement enough as to one’s sanity.
Petty Officer Plato’s extensive and prolonged exposure to asbestos, sundry toxic chemicals, lead-based paints, and radiation during his career would be suspected of causing several serious health problems in his later years. A statement of service he prepared to substantiate his claim for disability spoke of handling asbestos powder—without the aid of a respirator, gloves, or any other personal protective gear—while preparing it as a paste and applying it, bare-handed, to the piping in ships. Those were the days before the hazards of asbestos where known (or at least made known by our government). Like the secretive veil kept over the known hazards of smoking cigarettes by the big tobacco company(ies) executives—one can’t help but wonder. As an aside, like my Dad, Ken’s Dad quit smoking cold turkey when a doctor warned serious problems were inevitable if he didn’t stop.
Anyway, after the war Petty Officer Plato and his wife, Betty Jean, a career Navy family, raised five children—as noted earlier, the oldest a girl and four sons—the youngest born twenty years after the oldest. Three of the “boys” grew up to become Marines and served their country during wartime. Steve, the “baby” in the family, earned a Bronze Star in Iraq.
Ken offered that his Dad was not a only a fierce patriot of our country he risked his life for but an avid Crimson Tide fan. And that he (Ken) and his siblings grew up hearing stories of legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Bama football (I, too, remember the “Bear” and the powerhouse teams he fielded year in and year out). That explains where Ken’s passion for the Tide comes from. I always wondered about that and it’s a little tidbit that will take on more meaning momentarily.
Now for Ken’s note…
I’ve been off the net for a few weeks. My dad passed away while I was home on R and R [Rest and Recreation] for the holidays. Thought you might be interested in his story and the circumstances surrounding his passing. His kidney’s had been getting weaker for a year. His docs had been telling him for the last 6 months his kidney numbers are so bad he should have been bedridden then, but he was strong and had a good appetite. He told us when his kidneys go, he goes – no dialysis. He was an 83-year-old retired Navy WWII veteran who had seen the world several times over during his service. He enlisted in January 1944 and spent the next 2 ½ years away from home fighting in the Pacific theatre and as part of the initial occupation forces. He walked the ground at Nagasaki and viewed the results of the atomic blast there. Ever since mom died in 2005 (to whom he had been married for 58 years), all he had wanted was to be with her.
I got home a couple days after Christmas on R and R. A few days after I got home, he started “seeing things.” He would see a baby lying on the floor in his kitchen and dogs in his house. He was as conscious and sane as you or I - he could converse with me as normal, but he was hallucinating images. I took him to the doc and he said his kidney numbers were alarming so we put him in the hospital. His condition deteriorated rapidly and two days later we had him in hospice. He went on morphine soon due to breathing problems and was unconscious his last two days.
On Thursday, January 7th, my three brothers and I brought a case of beer into his room and started watching the BCS [Bowl Championship Series] game [Texas vs Alabama] with all of us around him telling him what was happening (the doc at the hospice told us he could still hear us). He took his final breath in the middle of the 1st quarter. We turned off the TV, grieved over him and prayed over him. Then we called in the hospice staff so they could pronounce him dead. After they did that, the nurse said she would call the funeral home to pick him up. I said, “Oh, no. He’s not leaving until the game is over.” The nurse allowed as to how that might be the most unusual request she had ever heard, but she left us alone after that.
My brothers and I watched the rest of the game, standing around dad and holding on to him. When it was over, we helped the funeral home load him in the hearse.
On the day of the funeral, dad was buried with full military honors provided by the Navy. After the graveside service the family waited while they lowered dad’s coffin into the ground. We used a couple of dad’s shovels to throw the first dirt on his grave. Then I asked Steve (my brother who is an active duty [Marine] LtCol) to stand with me and provide our final salute to dad. The attached pictures are of us providing that salute and us walking away after the salute. The man standing to the side of us saluting is my oldest brother, Bill [A Marine –active duty 1968-1972; tank and amphibious tractor mechanic]. The little boy holding on to Steve as we walked away is his son, Adam.
Losing both your parents leaves a hole in your life that I’m not sure can be filled. But we take comfort in knowing dad is with mom again.
Hope you guys enjoyed blessed holidays with your families.
s/f (and ROLL TIDE!)
I never had the privilege of meeting Petty Officer Plato—another among the long alpha roster of “Greatest Generation” warriors steadily departing this earth. And for that I feel like I missed out on something. As I feel the same about some of the other distinguished veterans I have written about. But, I know Ken and that tells me all I need to know about what kind of man his Dad was. And I suspect I can tell you what kind of person Ken’s mother was and the kind of folks his sister and three brothers are as well. It’s pretty simple—children are a reflection.
An interesting side note for me while perusing the service history of Ken’s Dad was, among the handful of ships on which Petty Officer Plato served, he had a tour aboard the USS Midway. For me (and my wife), this is ironic and particularly meaningful. My brother-in-law, Boiler Technician Chief Robert A. Sommer, U. S. Navy (Retired) (1955-2000), served aboard the Midway some thirty years after Petty Officer Plato. After retiring, Bobby succumbed to complications of Parkinson’s disease caused by two decades of exposure to toxic chemicals and other hazards not unlike those Petty Officer Plato handled. I bet Bobby and Frank (they would have been on a first name basis but I will give two salty Sailors the courtesy of their ranks) would have enjoyed each other’s company and swapped a sea story or two about snipe life. For like Ken’s Dad, Bobby spent the bulk of his career aboard ship—in the bowels; dirty, grimy and greasy—and underway. Both men were Sailors--the roll your sleeves up kind.
Ken told me his Dad was schooled through the 8th grade but was “self-educated” and sometimes opinionated with little, if any, regard for “political correctness.” I know the type well and they are my kind of guys. Same for Bobby—except he made it part way through the 12th grade before dropping out and enlisting. Yes, I’ve no doubt the two would have gotten along famously.
My wife and I have been aboard the Midway—the old carrier is now a museum “home ported” in San Diego—and she plans to retire aboard her as a final salute to her brother. When that day comes I’ve no doubt Petty Officer Plato and the Plato family will come to mind. I’ve heard tale the ghosts of Midway Sailors still work the ship. Maybe we will see Petty Officer Plato and Chief Sommer; but maybe not.
To Ken and his siblings—Sherleen, Bill, Jim, and Steve—and the entire Plato family, my wife and I extend our heartfelt condolences. And, Ken, I bet the readership of this Commentary does, too. Your Dad's, and Mom's, service to country appreciated.
Well, henceforward and forever for Petty Officer Plato it is, “Fair Winds and Following Seas” alongside his beloved Betty Jean. Rest in peace, Sailor, we have the watch. Taps.
Ken closed his note to his buddies, Kim and me, with the abbreviated form of the greeting shared between Marines—“s/f”. It seemed inappropriate to bracket clarification to that part of his letter. So, I will close with the formal rendition.
Colonel, U. S. Marines (Retired)
Only a die-hard Crimson Tide football fan would know that Alabama’s 37 to 21 victory over Texas was the school’s 13th National Championship. I believe Ken mentioned it at least three times in his notes to me. I noticed, Ken. And now the readership knows. As does your Dad.