A Certain Kind of Soldier

(This post was first published more than three years ago. I think Memorial Day weekend is an excellent time to revisit these two remarkable men, my dad and my father-in-law.)

Two Veterans of WWII

My dad was a gentle man, quiet, kind, and hard working. He didn’t get into fights, beat his wife or abuse his children. So it’s hard to imagine him taking part in the violence of World War II.

My father-in-law was a classical Confucian gentleman. Like my dad, his physical strength was masked by his slender build. And like my dad, he fought in that great worldwide war. (The Japanese invasion of China, which is generally considered to be part of the Second World War, is also known as the Second Sino Japanese War.)

fathersNeither man talked much about their wartime experiences. My dad almost never discussed the landing at Salerno and the bloody battle for Monte Cassino in my presence. And though my father-in-law spent seven years fighting the Japanese, I never heard him mention it.

So I have no way of knowing how it felt for them to shoot a rifle at an enemy soldier or how the war changed them. All I have to go on is the way they behaved later.

My dad’s quiet heroism:

It was a warm day in summer. I was eight years old, my sister four. I’d just finished my swimming lesson and was paddling around inside the dock at Bonney Lake when suddenly I heard a commotion on the other side of the dock. I followed other curious swimmers to the ladder, and as I waited my turn to climb out of the water, I could hear people shouting from the dock above me.

“Hey! Hey! What’s going on?”

“Over there,” some kid yelled. “Can’t you see? That girl can’t swim.”

“Looks to me like two people.”

“Damn right! That woman tried to rescue the girl, and now she’s drowning too. The girl panicked; climbed on top of her.”

“No. It’s three people. Oh, my god! I can’t believe it. They’re grabbing the new person and pushing her under.”

“Doesn’t this place have a lifeguard?”

No one seemed to notice my dad diving from the far end of the dock, but I caught a glimpse of his tanned arms and shockingly white back and legs as his body sliced through the water. Fortunately the drowning women didn’t see him coming. He approached them from behind and below. Then he picked them off one at a time and deposited them on the dock.

When they were all safe, my dad simply walked up the grassy hill to the blanket my mom had spread under a large willow tree. He dried his shoulders and legs, sat down beside her and asked for a cold beer.

My father-in-law saves an old man.

My father-in-law was a gentle man with a presence that’s hard to describe. So let me tell you this story that my late husband, Eugene, told me.

One evening when Eugene was about sixteen years old, he and his father and his eight-year-old brother were walking back to their house in Yokohama when they came upon a noisy crowd of more than twenty Japanese men standing around an old man, who was also Japanese. The men were shouting and waving their fists, threatening the old man who lay curled up and cowering on the ground, shielding his face from their kicks.

My father-in-law instructed his younger son to run home. Eugene, who had a black belt in judo by then, was told he could remain. “But stay back unless I call for you,” my father-in-law told him. Then, without a word, he strode into the center of the crowd and held his hand out to the old man.

“Come with me, Old Grandfather,” he said. “I’ll take you home.”

Stunned, the mob opened a pathway for them, and my father-in-law and the old man simply walked away.


I don’t doubt that these two men did what they had to do during World War II. But if I had to guess, I’d say that their natural inclination was more suited to saving lives than taking them.



About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen
Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She’s working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early ’90s.

China, family, holidays, Second Sino-Japanese War casualties, war, WWII in China , , , , , , ,


  1. What a lovely account of your father and father-in-law. It sounds like they want the best for the people around them, and the best for the world. Bonney Lake could have had a strong current that day, but how your father reacted – sounded like something natural to him to do, and out of the kindness of his own heart. Same with your father-in-law. It didn’t seem like they thought they would be in danger going forward but rather simply try their best to make the world a better place.

    I’ve never experienced war and my relatives who lived in that decade never really told me much about those times. I suppose those times are very much personal, down to each decision they make.

    • My dad never talked about the war either. He always seemed to be a calm person. But, according to my mom, in the first few years after the war he woke up screaming from terrible nightmares. I was used to seeing irregularly shaped bumps on his back when he took his shirt off. They were the aftereffects of an exploding land mine. The doctor took out the biggest pieces and left the small bits alone.

  2. Loved these stories, Nicki! What wonderful men!

  3. Beautiful stories, Nicki. Thanks for sharing.

    • I’m just glad I remembered that day at the lake. My sister, who is four years younger, doesn’t remember it. And I’m glad Eugene told me the story about his father.

  4. Maureen Rogers

    These men were true heroes. Thanks for sharing Nicki.

  5. What a beautiful story, Nicki. They both are true heroes in my book. My dad was a quiet man, but I know he saw and participated in war’s ugliest, because that was his duty. He never spoke much about the war. I’m sure there are many unsung heroes from all wars and it is so nice to see your father and father-in-law paid tribute here.

    • We know war affects the people who fight in it. It’s not surprising to me that returning soldiers would suffer from PTSD. What is surprising is that our fathers would return from that terrible war and be able to go on with their lives in their quiet, unassuming, generous ways.

  6. Beautiful stories, and excellent post, Nicki

  7. These men are what our troubled world needs now when quiet strength is in short supply,

    • So right, Judith. The uncontrolled aggression and bullying we see so much of lately are not signs of strength but indications of lack of self-control and an absence of concern for others.

  8. Wonderful stories, Nicki. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Perfect stories especially for this weekend.

    • I forgot about having something for Memorial Day until yesterday. I’m glad I found this.

      I hope you have a very nice weekend. We’ve finally shed our cool, rainy weather and are enjoying a perfectly warm and sunny weekend.

  10. Charleen Relyea

    Thanks for those beautiful snapshots of your father and father-in-law. A picture is worth a thousand words…this was a beautiful word picture you have gave us. Thank you..

  11. Maybe these two brave and gentle men thought that they were saving lives, by stopping those who wanted to take the lives of those in their beloved countries. It’s an ugly, horrific thing to have to do, but they did it for all the right reasons. Thank you for honoring them on this important weekend. Nice to meet you at Jill’s blog.

    • I’m sure you’re right, Lori. My dad was fighting in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany to save the lives that Hitler put at risk. My father-in-law was fighting for his country against a brutal Japanese invasion that by the end of the war resulted in the deaths of 20 million Chinese civilians. Those circumstances call for brave men to fight.

      I’m also happy to have met you on Jill’s blog.

  12. Beautiful stories of two wonderful men.

  13. Wonderful tribute to both, Nicki.

  14. As eloquent as when you wrote them first. Perfect for Memorial Day. Hope all is well for you, Nicki.

    • Thank you, Evelyne. Yes, all is well with me. This week I’m preparing for a trip to New Jersey for my granddaughter’s college graduation. It should be fun. I’ll be staying with the other grandparents who live nearby. We’re even going to see a Broadway play, a first for me.

  15. Amazing stories, Nicki. I loved the picture of the two of them together.

  16. What a great tribute to two wonderful men! Thanks for sharing!

  17. I understand the silence of these two quiet warriors.

    Combat veterans seldom talk about what they experienced in war. I know. I’m one of them. The only place I open up is in the privacy of a closed room with other combat vets, because they know what it was like. By sharing the horrors we experienced with others who have the same demons, we gain support and learn how to manage the memories that we can’t hide from.

    Most people, and especially most Americans, have never been in a combat zone and they don’t understand. If we shared with them what we experienced and how that changed us, they might think we were crazy because many non-combatants have a fictional/fantasy view of the world.

    Of course, I have written about (forced myself to share) some of my combat experiences on one of my four blogs, but I haven’t shared everything and probably never will. It was actually easier to share actual combat experience in a fictional novel where the characters didn’t have my name or look like me. If you want to get an idea, read by novel “Running with the Enemy”.

    One way to look at this is to consider Civil War General Sherman’s famous quote.

    “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

    The reason most if not all combat vets don’t open up is because we know that war is hell and there is no glory in it. We’ve been to hell and back and only if we could forget what a blessing it would be.

    • Thank you, Lloyd, for your explanation. Today in my writing group a couple of ladies were talking about their husbands who never talked about their war experiences (Vietnam). Then when a rare experience triggered memories, the men found it very upsetting, In the future, they tried their best to avoid similar situations.

      I think it’s a danger for the United States that most people have no experience of war. I’m sorry that Vietnam vets were treated badly when they returned. But I’m also worried about the glorification of our current troops and veterans. Can’t we thank them for risking their lives without calling them heroes? Sometimes I wonder if this glorification isn’t a cynical way for old men to encourage young men to fight in wars that may or may not be worth fighting while they stay safely at home and enjoy the vicarious thrills of war.

      • The combat vets I know do not encourage anyone to join and fight. If I talk to a youngster thinking about joining, I tell them to join the Navy or Air Force and stay away from the Army or Marines. That way, their risk of going into combat, messing up their head, losing limbs or their life is much less.

        I started a writing group at the vet center near where I live. Everyone in that group is a combat vet. Several are from Vietnam, one served in Somalia, another two tours in Iraq. Others drift in and out of the group. By sharing through our writing and sharing we heal for one more day or maybe a few more.

        Most Americans that crave war never served in the military or were in the military but did not serve in combat. I’ve read that for every combat vet there are several non-combat vets in support positions. Just because someone joins the military doesn’t automatically mean they will go fight. Most combat vets are against more wars. I’ve known one non-combat vets and he is obsessed with the idea that he missed out because he didn’t fight. All the combat vets tell him he is nuts.

        • It’s often easier to write about things than to talk about them. For the vets who have joined your writing group, the acts of writing and sharing must be useful in helping them heal. It’s good work that you’ve been doing.

          • There is one vet in the group, without revealing any details he shares with the rest of the group, who was drafted and ended up becoming a combat photographer and artist in the army. He wasn’t assigned to any unit when he was in Vietnam but he was sent all over the place to one dangerous spot after another to spend time with the combat troops in the field.

            From what I’ve heard and learned from him, he was exposed to more combat than most of the troops who did fight and his weapon was a camera and a sketch pad and sometimes to see what was going on when he should have been in a foxhole out of sight of snipers, he was out in the open and an easy target being shouted at by the other troops who probably thought he was crazy.

          • Wow! That’s quite a story. Reporters and cameramen are some of the bravest of all.


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