On the eve of Veterans Day and as promised earlier this year, I am writing this story about my Dad, Senior Chief Gunners Mate (GMCS) Robert A. Dickerson. If he were alive today, he would have been 80 years old. We have been without Dad now for over 22 years, which was also the same number of years he served our country faithfully in the US Navy from 1956 to 1977.
I have shared about my dad in several of my prior stories, probably the most poignant of which is ‘A Kairos moment‘ which if you haven’t read already, I would encourage you to read before/after this one, as it will give you context of how much his life and death changed the course of my own. However, on account that this is Veterans Day Weekend, my main goal is to share more his story: From the early years of his Naval career to when he retired and the civilian years that followed. I will try to do this both in words and in pictures according to what either he or my mom has shared with me over the course of his life and beyond.
My dad was born on July 26, 1938 in Gordonsville, Tennessee. This is a small town located in Smith County, right off I-40 about 50 miles east of Nashville. Just 7 miles north of Gordonsville you will run into the Cumberland River and cross a picturesque bridge into Carthage, home of Al Gore, the former Vice President of the United States. Carthage is where my dad would grow up and call his home for the next 17 years. Most all my dad’s family lived in or around this area of Tennessee, and I’ve had the blessing to visit many of them over the years especially during the early years of my own Navy career.
My dad quit school in 8th grade and started to work full time as a youth in rural Tennessee, something pretty common back in that time. I imagine he must have felt trapped in such a small sheltered community back then, and wanted to get out and see the world. So when he was still 17 years old, he lied about his age so he cold join the US Navy early. I’m guessing that it was the summer of 1956 when he got on a bus and arrived at the San Diego Naval Training Center as a new recruit just as he turned 18 years old.
I don’t have much to tell you about these early years as I have no pictures of him during this time. He didn’t share much about how these years went for him, nor did I ever ask. I could only guess that with tattoos on both forearms and upper arms, two of them images of women, one dressed in sailor outfit and the other in bikini, that there was probably some good reason for that. Having almost gotten a tattoo myself during my own time in the Navy, I can assure you that it was considered a ‘right of passage’ to get one, and probably no surprise to you that alcohol is often involved in manufacturing courage to go through with it. Who knows… I still think I might go through with it someday… :o)
What I do know is that by the late 1950’s, he had been assigned and deployed to Westpac (Western Pacific operating theater) on his first ship, the USS Agerholm, DD-826. This ship’s name would be the subject of one of his four tattoos; clearly it was an object of his affection as is typical for every sailor’s FIRST ship. Sailors all call ships ‘her’ for a reason, and his choosing to permanently afix ‘her’ name to his arm is no surprise to me. While I don’t know exactly the the duration of his service on Agerholm, a review the command history shows that, after her return to the States in the early 1960’s, she was modernized, being the the first to trial a nuclear tipped ASROC (Anti-Submarine Rocket). I believe all of that, however, occurred after Dad served on the command. Nonetheless, Agerholm had an illustrious record of serving from post World War II through Viet Nam, receiving 12 Battle Stars for wartime service before finally being decommissioned in late 1978.
While on deployment on Agerholm in the South China Sea, my Dad operated in and out of Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo, Japan several times. It was during these years that my dad met my mom, Mieko Masayama. Mom lived near the base, working there as a waitress. I believe they met for the first time when he was on liberty somewhere, likely outside in the local town where all the sailors routinely went. I don’t know much of the details about this meeting, as my mom is very modest and won’t share much more than I already have here. I will take the time here to explain that Japan, and particularly Yokosuka, a major Naval port for the Japanese Navy during the war with America, was at this time, a very friendly place at that time to US servicemen. We were considered not only the country that had conquered them in World War II, but currently their primary protector from Communist China and the USSR. The Cold War began right after WWII, and had those countries been able to occupy them after the war (as they did other Southeastern asian nations like North Korea, and later North Vietnam), things certainly would have not gone well for the Japanese.
I don’t mean this to be a political statement, but more a statement grounded in the reality that war always creates victims and the saddest ones are the innocent civilians caught in the path of the warriors who fight ruthlessly with one another. Japan was no different than any aggressor nation that lost a major war. Truth be told, they suffered their own share of innocent civilian casualties, numbering in the hundreds of thousands killed with millions more made homeless from the firebombing that American planes rained down on them for the last several months of the war. My mom’s home city of Toyama was one of many target cities of that bombing, and she herself narrowly escaped being a victim. This tragic war finally ended with the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forcing successfully for the Emperor of Japan to surrender. Fortunately, it was General Douglas MacArthur who was assigned the responsibility to lead the US Armed Forces that occupied Japan. General MacArthur expertly and graciously helped Japan restructure themselves back from a warrior nation to the peaceful nation it is to this day, with a nominal self-defense force as allowed by their own constitution. This constitution prohibits Japan from ever becoming the major military power they once were, the one that was ultimately responsible for inflicting devastating carnage on civilians in other nations as well as being the justification for our own military inflicting their own civilian losses.
It was in this environment – the U.S. military serving as proxy steward of Japan’s national defense – that my dad found himself regularly able to visit my mother in Yokosuka, Japan. Eventually, my dad chose to marry my mom on September 26, 1961. On October 24, 1962, my mom gave birth to twin boys, Don and Ron, at the Yokosuka Naval Hospital. As my dad had to continue to go to sea during these years, he wasn’t around much. Fortunately, my mom had two very close friends, Ayako and Masako, who, along with a maid, helped my mom raise my brothers through infancy and as early toddlers. While on leave from his ship, my dad did get the opportunity to visit her family in Toyama. Toyama is located due east of Tokyo, on the Sea of Japan side of the island of Honshu, and I’m guessing was a several hour train ride. While many in her family greeted her American husband and children warmly, at least one of her older brothers, my uncle, refused to meet dad because of his memories of fighting the Americans in World War II. I would later visit Toyama too and get to meet this same uncle during my time in the Navy. My uncle was reconciled by this time with his feelings towards Americans, and had remorse for never meeting dad when he visited. He made up for that during my visit. This remains a fond memory of my dad that I carry with me to this day.
Dad continued to operate on Agerholm and other naval ships operating out of Yokosuka in the South China Sea until early 1964 when he was reassigned to a Naval Station in Portsmouth, Virginia for his first shore tour. I do not know the exact nature of his duty there, but I do know that, during this time, my mom and her twin sons, being new to the United States, got to meet her new American family for the first time. It was during this two year assignment in Portsmouth that my mom experienced the full extent of American prejudice toward the Japanese being only a beginning speaker of English in the American South during the escalating Viet Nam war.
On March 26, 1966, I was born at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. At this point, my mom had quite enough of living in this part of the country, and demanded my father get a home port on the West Coast, else she would go back to Japan. My dad dutifully complied and got stationed in Long Beach Naval Station, where he was assigned to ships that were home ported there. This would include what would be his last naval command he would serve on: the newly commissioned USS Denver (LPD-9). Dad would deploy with the Denver in late 1969 to Westpac to deliver marines and supplies to Da Nang, in South Viet Nam, in support of the ongoing war with North Viet Nam. During this tour of duty, my dad was promoted to E-7, Chief Petty Officer (CPO).
In 1971, my dad rotated off of USS Denver to his next shore duty in Hunters Point Naval Station, San Francisco. We lived there for just one year, where I attended kindergarten and my brothers attended grade school, before my dad chose to take an assignment as Navy Recruiter in Fresno, CA in the summer of 1972. This is when my mom and dad bought their first and only house, where my brothers and I would live and go to elementary, junior high, and senior high school, and where my mother continues to live to this day. My dad was very successful in his recruiting role, winning awards for achieving or exceeding quote on new naval recruits over the next 3 years, and was promoted to E-8 Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO) during this assignment. As the apex of his success as a Navy Recruiter, my dad got the opportunity to speak at an event where the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was in attendance. I share the picture of that experience here. My mom said dad was so very nervous to be next to the top officer in the Navy.
When it came time for him to get reassigned to another ship and go back to sea in 1975, my dad had witnessed the benefits of his family being able to be in one location for several years, particularly that my brothers’ and my being able to stay in the same school district was very agreeable to our sense of stability. So, he basically told the Navy that, rather than send him to a seagoing command once again, he might retire instead as he was approaching his 20 year point anyways.
My dad was a very productive recruiter here in the California Central Valley, an area rich in military service, during a time in which the military draft had been eliminated by act of Congress. Because of the controversial war in Viet Nam, it had become difficult to get volunteers to join. Not wanting to lose his skilled capacity in this role, the US Navy offered my dad the unique opportunity to remain a recruiter for an extended assignment in Fresno instead, and this seemed to work to both the Navy and our family’s interests. My dad was later selected to become Master Chief Petty Officer in 1977 but to be able to take the position, he would have require him to take an assignment on a seagoing vessel as the senior enlisted representative (aka the Command Master Chief). He didn’t have to make that decision, however. Due to his longtime habit of smoking and other lifestyle choices, he had a heart attack at the age of 38, and was forcibly retired for medical reasons later that year. My dad would later have other mild heart attacks and eventually undergo open heart surgery in the summer of 1983 to receive a triple-bypass.
Despite these medical setbacks, my dad would eventually recover and have a successful career as a civilian, becoming ultimately a district manager of a retail auto company operating here in the Central Valley. It was during these civilian years when he strongly encouraged me to attend the US Naval Academy. And as he had hoped, I did indeed apply and get appointed to attend Annapolis in the Summer of 1984. You can read more about this in the story, “My First Year at Annapolis” , but to share the quick synopsis, my dad and mom came to visit me after those first 6 weeks of ‘Plebe Summer’ that year. Clearly seeing I was struggling there from all the hazing I had been through, they knew I was pondering whether I should quit. Dad told me during that visit that there would be ‘no shame’ if I was to come home. That turned out to embolden me to stick it out, not wanting to disappoint him, as well as wanting to know I could be like him: a survivor who carried on in the worst of circumstances. Nearly four years later, he would stand proudly by my mother on May 25, 1988, when I graduated and began my own successful Naval Career to include serving on USS Princeton (CG59) home ported in Long Beach Naval Station, the same port as my dad’s last command, USS Denver! I served on Princeton during the Gulf War/Operation Desert Storm when it was struck by a mine in February 1991, something you can read about in “Princeton Mine Strike“.
After Desert Storm ended, and our ship had fully repaired from the mine damage, we were enroute back to Long Beach. My dad flew out to meet our ship in Pearl Harbor and he came onboard with us to take advantage of what is known as a ‘Tiger Cruise’, where dads/sons got to ‘ride along’ with their family members for the last leg of a ship’s return home. My dad got to spend some priceless moments recounting his own days in the Navy with the crew. The other chiefs took a liking to him, understandably, and he spent much of the trip in their dining area known as the “Chief’s Mess”. While he did seem to want to spend more time with them than anyone else, including me, I was nonetheless proud to be a witness to how special this time was for him almost as if he was back in the Navy himself. He also got to witness Leah, mom and our friend Jennifer meet us on the pier in Long Beach, along with the group of people welcoming us back to the United States as war heroes, to include the LA Laker cheerleaders! It was a very special homecoming, and I can’t think of anyone I would rather have shared that with than my Dad!
After my tour on Princeton, Leah and I got married in 1991 and I was reassigned to my second ship, USS Abraham Lincoln, homeported in Alameda Naval Air Station in the San Francisco Bay Area. While I was on the last 6 months of that assignment, having memories of what my own early life was like relocating to three different duty stations, I decided I didn’t want to raise my own future family while I was still in the Navy. So, I decided I would separate in the Spring of 1993, after my five year post Academy service obligation was fulfilled. In March of that year, my dad suffered a mild stroke, and I was flown off the Lincoln while it was operating off the coast of San Diego at the time, so I could quickly visit him at the hospital. It was frankly heartbreaking for him to see me in my Navy uniform as I walked into his hospital room in Fresno that day. I’ve never seen him cry in front of me in this way, something that has left an indelible memory for me about how fragile life is. You see, my dad gained an addiction to smoking cigarettes and had continued to do so throughout his life, ultimately causing his heart problems, and now, this stroke. Fortunately, this stroke finally convinced him to quit a nearly 40 years smoking habit.
A few months after his stroke, I separated from the Navy and took on my first civilian job/career at Stryker Endoscopy in San Jose, CA. I was able to drive down regularly to Fresno to visit, and I ended up helping my Dad re-learn to drive again in his post-stroke recovery which went amazingly well. My dad enjoyed these years of full retirement, and we went golfing together regularly. These were some of the best memories I have of our time together, as we would talk in the golf cart about life’s challenges and how to navigate them. Sharing the same proud naval heritage made these very sage moments of Dad’s life. I hold these times sacred now, for I saw him increasingly trying to help me avoid the mistakes he had made, especially living and working without regard to proper work-life balance. If you have not read as yet ‘A Kairos moment‘, I suggest you do as it will help explain this near end stage of my dad’s life and what it meant to me. In late July, my dad had a final massive heart attack. The EMT was able to restart his heart but that resulted only in him spending a day in ICU completely unconscious and likely brain dead, a shell of the man he once was, with a machine helping him stay alive. On July 25, 1996, a day before his 58th birthday, he finally and gratefully passed away. I got to spend this last night of his life sleeping in his ICU room after driving like a mad man from San Jose to see him. That moment in time, seeing him this way, began a change in my life that still carries on with me to this day.
Despite some of the bad life choices (like smoking) that my dad made that eventually killed him, I feel very blessed to be his son. I say this not just because of our common naval heritage, but because he was a great role model in terms of what it meant to work hard and persevere through many difficult times. This included his return to health after his heart attack and later his stroke. Though many recognize my own veteran status and I am grateful for that, it is my own Dad I think of when it comes to being a veteran worth recognizing in my family. I hope after reading this story you would share with me that dad’s is a Story TRULY Worth Telling!
Happy Veterans Day to all have served our country faithfully. I count myself blessed to share that privilege with you all, but most of all with my Dad, GMCS Robert A. Dickerson!