Untold War Stories: My Family's Secret Agent

John Phillip Sousa on 33 1/3 blasts from the Hi-Fi — yes, you heard right, “Hi-Fi” —  conducted by my flag-waving Grandfather, proudly standing at attention at 8 o’clock in the morning in the doorway of his open garage, wondering why it took us so long to get there. We may have been at the shore, but Memorial Day was not about a barbecue on the beach.

My grandparents lived down the street from my Great Uncle and Aunt. My Grandfather idolized my Great Uncle (his brother), naming his only son after his brother who had spent World War II as a gunner on a Navy ship in the Pacific. Having broken his back before the war, my Grandfather wasn’t able to get into the military during the conflict. Instead, he busied himself crafting knives to send to his buddies overseas (yes, they censored letters, but allowed knives to be carried through V-Mail) with the instructions “leave them in the enemy’s guts and I’ll make you a new one when you get home.”

My grandfather also played a key role in the war effort, one that goes overlooked when we take the time to honor the troops on Memorial Day. Recruited by the FBI in 1940, my grandfather and his father played a key role in the creation of the Iowa Ordinance Plant, the largest shell and bomb loading facility in operation during the war.

In the autumn of 1940, when a fairly isolationist population still dismissed the idea of entering into Europe’s conflict, my grandfather was pulled out of his job as a tool and die maker by two fairly typical FBI mugs. They strapped secret plans for a military facility, designed by Day & Zimmermann, Co., to his body and handed him a train ticket and a gun with the instructions, “Don’t be afraid to use it.” At the age of 23, my grandfather was the perfect cover: “If anyone asks, you’re on your way out west to go to college.” His job was simple: Escort his father, recruited by the government for his skills as a tool and die maker, to San Francisco to convene with a number of highly skilled Americans engaged to prepare America for war.


We all knew that Grandpa worked at the Iowa Ordinance Plant during the war.  It wasn’t until over 50 years later that we heard the full story. “Things like that were never talked about when I was a kid,” my mother would say. It wasn’t until the entrance of the term “Greatest Generation” into our cultural vocabulary that my Grandfather felt comfortable telling us about his own undercover war experience. His wasn’t the glamorous stuff of spy movies; it was darn scary and, at times, emotionally devastating. I remember his pause as he recalled the time a female worker got her hair stuck in the machinery and lost her life in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable. Rosie the Riveter may have been glamorous, but in reality she did a lot of hard, dangerous work.

My grandfather, and those like him who served in a different way during war wouldn’t want an ounce of recognition to go to them on Memorial Day. His respect for our military out-shined any pride he may have had in his own humble service to our country. But as I think of him as an old man, waving his flag proudly and blasting John Philip Sousa at the crack of dawn for all his neighborhood to hear, I take a moment to embody his patriotism, the patriotism of someone caught totally off guard, handed a weapon, and willing to walk into the unknown for the sake of something greater than himself.

That courage, expressed by our military men and women, their families, and the thousands of non-military workers who put their lives in harm’s way for our freedom is not to be taken lightly. It is to be honored and celebrated. Theirs is the stuff of humanity’s greatest aspirations, and for that, they should be blessed.