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Riddles of Life

The following is a guest blog post co-authored by Rachel Nave McCubbin and her sisters, Lynne Cosby and Patience Fort, who recently traveled from Kentucky and Pennsylvania to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP) to ceremoniously donate their father’s World War II collection. The veteran’s online record will be made accessible on VHP’s website, www.loc.gov/vets, in the coming months.

What is so grand that it can bring tears to your eyes, but, at the same time, is absolutely common? Ordinary, yet extraordinary? Precious, but taken for granted? These are some of the questions I pondered while preparing a donation to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress in memory of my father, Wallace King Nave.

Wallace King Nave in uniform, WWII. Photo courtesy of the Nave family.

He was an extraordinary father of three girls, and you’ll hear from all three of us here. He was gifted with more patience than anyone I have ever known, and he even joked about this, because both his wife and third daughter were named Patience! He came into this world in Bristol, Virginia –the first baby boy born at King Memorial Hospital – which explains his middle name! He grew up in extremely modest circumstances in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina, and when World War II broke out, he entered the Navy. He was 18 years old. Four weeks of basic training, and one week of leave later, he was on the crew of the USS Wasatch, headed toward the Pacific.

About all I knew of his service were a few funny stories, like the hijinks when uninitiated sailors crossed the equator for the first time, and how he tattooed an anchor on his ankle to meet the expectations of the rest of the crew. The joke was that he had such hairy legs, the anchor was incredibly hard to spot! I also remember the haunting account of a burial at sea on the Wasatch. As a young girl, I could not imagine anything quite as dramatic as that. On just a couple of occasions, he made mention of kamikaze air strikes. But mostly, my mother helped us understand a little of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, when she explained that in their early courtship days (they had met after the War), Daddy would always pour out about a fourth of a cup of coffee before he drank it because his hands still shook so badly that he would otherwise have spilled it!

After returning to civilian life, he used the GI Bill to attend North Carolina State University (NC State), married Patience Clement and fathered three daughters. Later, he earned his Masters and Doctorate degrees from NC State. His professional life included serving as an agriculture consultant in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); a high school vocational teacher; a county extension agent; a college professor and administrator; and guest professor in Colombia, South America and two different universities in the People’s Republic of China.

I wish you could have known him. He was beautifully handsome. Artistic. Quiet. Gentle. A wonderful father of daughters.

Wallace King Nave’s original, personal correspondence and photographs donated to VHP, May 19, 2017.

When I was introduced to the Veterans History Project, I was instantly motivated to do something to honor my father, but I didn’t really have anything original that I could donate; and he had passed away in 2007. Happily, over the course of two years, my sisters and I were able to piece together a wonderful collection to donate.

Lynne Cosby writes:

When our oldest son, Allen, was in elementary school in the mid-90’s, he came home with an assignment to interview someone about something important. He immediately called Grandfather (as all seven of Daddy’s grandchildren called him,) and asked so many war questions that Daddy suggested it would be simpler if he just mailed Allen some information. Several days later, Allen received a carefully typed account of Daddy’s life, with special emphasis on his experience in the Navy during World War II. I saved the document as a special treasure.

Years later, Rachel was helping Mother downsize and sort through papers, when they came across Daddy’s original, handwritten account, complete with his red editing marks. Mother gave it to Rachel for her own keepsake.

How many personal treasures we amass in our lifetimes! I can’t even imagine how many special keepsakes I have saved over the years, yet many of them are tucked away in odd places, and I probably will never have occasion to see them again. Someday, my sons or grandchildren may discover them, but likely will not know or appreciate their meaning. I am so grateful that Rachel saved Daddy’s original memoir – and knew just where to send it so that it could be permanently archived.

This was a wonderful document, and we even had it in Daddy’s highly-recognizable handwriting. What a treasure! But it was a bit shy of the 20-page limit for a VHP manuscript donation, so once again, we went back to the drawing board. Our mother passed away from leukemia about a year ago. When my younger sister, Patience, looked through Mother’s papers, she found some treasures of her own.

The veteran’s original notebook, donated to VHP, May 19, 2017. Of the photograph on the left, Rachel McCubbin said, “Nobody will ever know the story of ‘Chuck & Leo.’ This predates our mother. The photograph on the right is of Daddy’s older sister, Gladys.”

Patience Fort writes:

One of the treasures I found when going through Mother’s papers was a little 4″ x 6″ government-issued notebook in which Daddy had written during the War. Its pages, now yellow with time, hold many pieces of history from the war.

  • Daddy often told us of how he had to learn all of the flags used for signaling other ships. One night while keeping watch, he studied the flags he had drawn in his little book. The only problem was that in the light of day, all of the flags were different colors than they had been by moonlight, so he had to learn them all over again. I held the illustration of that story in my hands.
  • Besides the colored flags, he had pages of other codes he had to learn: Morse code, special collective and commander call signs, class symbols, the names of the heavy cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers.
  • Daddy recorded the names of the ports where the Wasatch docked, and the battles in which they fought.
  • He included a running ledger of the money he was paid, how much he sent home and how much he loaned to different people.
  • There were addresses for his family and other friends, and someone named “Ann,” along with some thumbnail pictures of actresses from back home.

Probably the most precious aspect of this little book was my father’s characteristic handwriting—his calligraphy—and the special symbol he used for our last name. I could almost see him in his uniform perched on a railing somewhere, “Dixie Cup” hat cocked ever so slightly to the side, dipping his pen in the ink to capture these moments. And I held him in my hands.

Original birthday greeting sent during WWII from the veteran to his, then, 10-year-old sister, donated to VHP, May 19, 2017.

The final item I wanted to include was not in any of our hands. I had seen a photocopy – years ago – of a two-page birthday “card” that Daddy had drawn aboard ship, hand-colored with pencils, and mailed to his baby sister, Virginia, for her 10th birthday. It had lots of iconic cartoon characters from that era, plus a cartoon sailor-boy version of Daddy. I call it a “card” because of its intended purpose, but it was drawn on the tissue-like onion skin paper used for airmail letters. I wondered if my aunt still had the drawing. So, I reached out to her, explained that the special birthday greeting would be preserved by the Library of Congress and waited to hear back. She still had it! After she talked with her sons, they all agreed that this would be the perfect way to honor her brother, Wallace. I will never forget how excited I was to open that envelope and see my father’s funny, sweet drawings in their original form, 70 years after they were created!

Preparing for our donation to the Veterans History Project, I read everything I could get my hands on about Daddy’s ship, the Wasatch, and was stunned to learn how closely it was involved in the efforts in the Philippines and Japan. It was a communication command ship, and he was a signalman. He undeniably saw lots of action in the Pacific theater. I studied maps of those engagements with such interest and curiosity, kicking myself for not having approached my high school history studies with the same fervor. What things he could have shared with me if I had only asked! But I’m so thankful to the Veterans History Project for kindling that spark now, so that I can share his story with others.

(L-R) Patience Fort’s husband, Rev. Bill Fort, Patience Fort, Rachel McCubbin and Lynne Cosby at the Library of Congress, May 19, 2017.

Yes, my father, raised in modest circumstances in the Appalachian Mountains, was ordinary, but the arc of his life was extraordinary, including his service to our country. The idea of bravery under attack is very grand, yet it is the common, collective narrative of our wartime veterans. Considering these riddles has been an enriching part of my journey to make this contribution to the Veterans History Project. I’m so thankful for this experience, and for the professional, caring team at the Veteran History Project, who recognize the “extraordinary” in every one of the veterans’ stories that come through their doors.

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