A daughter’s journey into her father’s secret past

 
Our generation has one name: Baby Boomers. Our parents’ generation has a couple: the Greatest Generation, and The Silent Generation. It is that latter characteristic, silence, that bothered Karen Fisher-Alaniz, because when she tried to learn about her own father’s background, that’s all she got: silence. She tells the story in her book, Breaking the Code – a Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything. She now calls her dad, My Secret Hero.

What if one of your parents was a hero? What if they had a life that played like a movie— filled with intrigue and danger? What if you never knew? Since the parents of baby boomers were the combatants of World War II, there might be a lot of us.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz with her father.

I thought I knew my father. I guess we all think that. But then on his 81st birthday he put two weathered notebooks on my lap. Inside were more than 400 pages of letters he’d written to his own parents during WWII. He had little to say about them. No matter how many questions I asked, my father, a man known for his incredible memory — couldn’t remember. But I had to know.

Each night I read a handful of those letters. I wrote down my questions and saved them for our weekly breakfast together. Sometimes my father would finally answer my queries; often he would not. Weeks turned into months, and months into years. When the truth finally came to the surface, I was shocked.
My father was a top secret code breaker!

Working in naval intelligence, he was at two major battles of the war; Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Aboard ships and submarines, he copied the complicated code based on the Japanese writing system, Katakana. My father, now elderly and walking with a cane, had once scaled the side of a ship with communications equipment strapped to his back as bullets cut through the air. It was impossible to imagine.

He was sworn to secrecy. He’d kept his secrets for more than fifty years. Talking about it now had its costs. Memories of the things he saw, the experiences he had, stabbed their way to the surface. Nightmares and flashbacks were the norm.

I was riddled with guilt. I pondered whether I should have just stayed quiet. Should I have simply read the letters and put them back on the shelf? I pleaded with my father to see a counselor. He refused.
Exasperated one day, and filled with guilt, I said, “Dad, you need to talk to someone – someone who can help you.”

“I am talking to someone,” he replied. “You.”

It’s been a few years since that day. In the process of telling his story, pain came to the surface. But healing followed. By doing something so very simple, I was able to help the man who guided me through life. I simply listened. Through that simple act of listening, I was introduced to someone I thought I knew – my father, my hero.

Follow Karen online … click here.


 

6 Comments

  1. Hi Karen,I suspect this is a common phenomenon. WW11 vets often do not talk about their service. My Dad won’t tell me much of anything about what he did in the war. I know he was in Italy and had something to do with supporting the logisitics of aircraft, but that’s about all he’s shared. Good for you in getting your dad to open up!

    1. lorieeber Lori – I think you’re right about WWII vets. It’s important to keep asking questions and keep looking for opportunities. What I’ve learned from others is that often the veteran shut the door long ago, and the family assumes it’s still shut, and it may be…but often later in life, it’s a little easier to shove your foot in the door and keep it open long enough for a chat. I would also suggest that looking at something tangible like a photo album or scrapbook, can be a noninvasive way to get the stories started. I wish you the best of everything with your dad and please stop by my website and let me know how things work out for you. ~Karen

  2. Hi Karen,Thanks for your suggestion, but my dad does not respond to pictures. He’s no longer able to figure out what they’re all about. So, I guess it was remain a secret. His choice I guess…

    1. lorieeber It’s hard to know what is best. There are indeed some secrets that are best kept that way. A veteran I met at one of my book events helped me realize that. Dad and I started talking about the war when he turned 81. We met once a week for eggs Benedict at a local diner. It literally took years before he shared anything other than the basic facts. It just takes time. I’m thankful that Dad stayed around long enough to finally get the whole story out. I wish you the best with your dad. ~Karen

  3. My Dad was in WWII. He also did not talk about it. Then one day I was talking about a book I read about the brave men of the Army Air Force who had flown over the Himalayans from India to China to bring supplies to the Chinese who were being blockaded by the Japanese. It was a dangerous mission because of the severe updrafts and the dense jungles on the other side. If your plane went down you would never be found. I asked if he had heard of it and very nonchalantly he said, ” yes, I did it. seven times.” He talked a little about it then. He liked China because it was the only place in the War he was able to get real eggs for breakfast. About six months later I was visiting him and he sat me down and told me everything. He opened the floodgates. I think he was glad to upload it into my mind. To share what he had kept for decades. He now suffers from dementia. I’m glad he told me when he had the chance.

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